Why the most talented players aren't always the best players

By Mike McCann | Posted 2/19/2018

A player showed up to spring practice, and it was like a celebrity had joined us.

Teammates gawked as he warmed up. Whispers about his skill ran rampant through the locker room.

When it came time for the spring game, he performed like an all-star: One interception and seven tackles at safety.

Then that was the last we saw of him.

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I have played with and coached dozens of talented players who never saw the field. Some became ineligible because of grades. Others got distracted and trouble found them. Still some just faded away and stopped caring.

This individual was one of the most physically talented players to step on a football field. But he never stuck with it. Instead, players who worked hard year-round and didn’t give up were the ones who got to play in games. He didn’t want to put in the work through the hot summers, so he quit.

Young players who haven’t honed their skills can be intimidated by more mature athletes. Some young players look at the larger ones and think, “I could never be that good. Why even try?” Of course, as coaches and parents, we know this isn’t a healthy mindset. We want every player to practice and compete like they are preparing for a starting role.

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Here is how we ingrain the belief that the most persistent players, not necessarily the most naturally gifted, are the ones who achieve success.

  • Approach new players with healthy skepticism. Everyone gets a fair shot, but don’t give new players more credit than they deserve until they have proven commitment to the team. Players can see when we play favorites, and it is demoralizing. Overhyping a player who makes one good play or anointing them a starter before they’ve made a full week of practice can damage the morale of the team.
  • Reward hard work. Not every player is going to be tall and fast. But everyone can learn to run hard and to be aggressive on the field. Reward players who make plays, but don’t forget about the second-stringer who beat everyone in sprints or the newbie who isn’t afraid to get in the weight room.
  • Don’t compromise team rules. I saw this first-hand in a large high school. Two players violated the same team rule. One was an all-state performer and the other a backup. Guess who was punished and who wasn’t? We, as coaches, cannot grant special privilege to our star players. This may be a controversial topic because cutting a superstar's playing time could cost you a win. If that’s the case, opt for some sort of physical punishment like duck walks, bear crawls, or some other punishment named after an animal. Don’t let the rest of the team see that one player is “better” than the rest, even if that player is more talented. This discourages the players who follow the rules and sets the precedent that all-stars can do what they want without consequence.
  • Encourage everyone. Ben was a skinny, but consistent cornerback. He showed up every day to work, he was the first one to win conditioning drills, and he was patient. But he didn’t start for a couple of years. When he finally got his chance, he broke his collarbone just a few games into his junior season. Finally, in his senior year, he flourished. All his hard work paid off. He had become well-respected by his teammates for his consistency. He was in such great shape from all his hard work that he only came off the field for the occasional special teams play. He knew the schemes so well from paying attention as a backup that he became a leader on both sides of the ball. He was elected team captain by his peers and was an all-region selection. Use stories like this to motivate the players who aren’t starters, but have the drive to improve.

Winning teams are not always the most talented. They are the ones who work together the best. Use these strategies to get the most out of your players who need to rely more on hard work than natural talent.

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Mike McCann played football at Charleston Southern University from 2004-08. He recently published a book about his time at CSU, the lessons he learned and the incredible true story of the 2005 team. Learn more about it at “Believe EG21: Play Like There Is No Tomorrow.” Mike is an author, entrepreneur, football coach and philanthropist residing in Charleston, S.C.