The challenges of becoming a professional footballer are hard to overstate. The levels of dedication that young players must maintain, for the merest chance of ‘making it’, are huge — and sometimes the expectations of players and parents do not align with the reality. But, as coaches, we have a responsibility to educate them around the difficulty of this journey. Below, A-League winner Stefan Mauk provides some assistance, as he discusses the demands of the professional game, and the obstacles he overcame to get there.

In This Article

Valuing Behaviour

When discussing the pathway to professional football, Mauk first emphasises the importance of intentions and behaviours. “You need a relentless approach to getting better,” he says. “If you want to be a professional player, you have to act like a professional in all aspects of your life. Everything from sleep and eating to hydration and how you spend your extra time all impact your chances of making it.”

Importantly, Mauk adds, this level of dedication is merely a foundation upon which all aspiring footballers must build. “It’s the bare minimum,” he says. “Things like eating well or doing extra sessions won’t make you a professional. But if you’re not doing them, you can forget it.

“These behaviours are the base-level of what it takes to be a professional footballer.”

Developing Resilience

As he expands upon the ‘performance behaviours’ that he believes all professional footballers must possess, Mauk also asserts the importance of mentality. “You’ll experience setbacks — that’s just part of the game,” he says. “But then you must be resilient.

“You need determination, too. If you’re not in the team one week, remember that you could be the match-winner the next. But that’s only possible if you keep working and being the best version of yourself when you’re not in the squad.”

So how can we assist young players in developing these essential mental attributes? “Help players to understand that their behaviours matter,” says Mauk. “Put kids in situations where they’ll experience adversity and see if they can be resilient. And, if they can’t, give them some advice on how they can overcome that setback.

“If you want to be a professional player, these attributes are crucial. Nobody’s journey is ever easy.”

Transitioning from Development to Performance Environments

Arguably the biggest challenge for aspiring players is transitioning from ‘high-performance’ development environments to senior football. While ability alone might be sufficient for some individuals to succeed in youth football, attributes related to mentality and performance behaviours become much more important as they attempt to reach the first team.

“The most determined and resilient players are definitely the ones who make it through,” says Mauk. “But we need to give young players more opportunities. They have to earn those opportunities — but, when they do, we need to reward them. If a player earns their chance, I think we should give them several weeks to really show what they do, rather than playing them for one game and then removing them from the team.

“Of course, that doesn’t always happen. That’s why it’s crucial to always give your all — so that you’re ready to take your opportunities when they come.”

Coping with Adversity

Finally, Mauk reminds young players that, even if they do make it to the professional game, they will still experience adversity. During these moments in particular, he says, it’s imperative to continue working hard and maintain self-belief: “When you experience setbacks or get dropped, you still have to perform — whether that’s coming off the bench, in top-up drills, or in training the following week; you have to go out there and give 100%.

“You also have to know your worth. If you’re training hard, doing everything right, and still not getting opportunities, I believe you have every right to ask the coach why — and potentially look elsewhere for opportunities if the coach doesn’t believe in you.

“But you must look at yourself in the mirror first; that accountability and ownership of your journey is critical. I believe that we should be our own harshest critics. And if you can’t be truthful with yourself and possess that desire to improve, you might not make it too far.

“That attitude has underpinned my entire career: first and foremost, I’m going to worry about myself; I’m going to train hard and play well.”

The Key Points

  • Performance behaviours — such as eating, hydrating, sleeping, and living correctly — are prerequisites to making it in the professional game.
  • Aspiring footballers must possess resilience and determination, especially in moments of adversity.
  • We should endeavour to give players more opportunities as they transition from youth to senior football.
  • An ability to honestly self-reflect and a desire to constantly improve are essential to succeeding in professional football.

Image Source: genphoto_art from Getty Images

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