As the soccer world prepares to celebrate the blossoming of early talent and the flamboyance of accomplished stars at the end of the year, it’s time to celebrate effort, resilience and progress.

Sometimes a talent gets stuck in its flight. We see him, game after game, skating, making the same mistakes, missing the same dribbles, making the same blunders. Yet, he was expected to have a better destiny. But the lightning of his talent seems to hit indefinitely against a glass ceiling — a limit for him seemingly insurmountable and for us difficult to perceive.

So, overcome with fatalism, we start to think that all bets are off: the talent has reached its limits. Nothing can be done. His potential is at an end, his chance, gone. Now it’s too late! We will just have to get used to his natural deficits, to his chronic clumsiness and to his human weaknesses. That’s how it is and we have to get used to it. A bit like a person who, having reached a certain age, seems unable to give up his bad habits. Or like a shrub that, having already reached its maximum size too soon, can no longer promise us more shade.

However, one morning, everything changes. The talent we thought was wasted takes on another dimension. Suddenly, it surprises us in a game. Then in another. And again in another. We tell ourselves he’s in good shape. No, we admit it, he’s in great shape. Magazines feature his photos on the cover. On the field, he’s getting more playing time. With his teammates, he takes on more responsibility. For his team, he quickly becomes an important element. He is now indispensable. His raw talent has turned into a more finished product, a more reliable value. The shrub has taken on new proportions and is beginning to make a splash again.

Still in disbelief, one wonders what could have changed in the player to explain such a transformation. “But, what happened?” At the beginning of this season, it is this question that intrigues me in view of the form of some footballers, who, after a period of boundedness, have curiously become real prometheus liberated.

Vinicius Junior

That confidence makes me think that I can fail, and if I do, I will try again …”
Vinicius Junior

It is perhaps the player whose progress is most recognized at the moment. The Real Madrid winger is recording excellent performances as if to assure us that he is not, as we are beginning to call him, an unworthy heir of Garrincha and Ronaldinho. Looking at his number of goals and assists will give you proof of this. But watching him play is even more convincing. In place of his sterile rushes of the previous seasons, the 22-year-old Brazilian has come to substitute a frightening assurance with the ball at his feet at the beginning of the season. His game remains very animated but has become more thoughtful and unpredictable. His ability to change pace has expanded his range of detonators. Because now he can set the tone: accelerate, elaborate, impact, delay, … While now his composure near the goal makes it for the opposing team simply dangerous.

Vinicius scoring one of his 9 goals for this season

The change of coach at Real Madrid last summer — the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti in place of Zinedine Zidane — would have something to do with it. “This is the product of a lot of work, many hours training in Valdebebas and fighting to improve the definition,” says Vinicius on this subject. (…)I have the confidence that the coach and all the technical staff give me. That confidence makes me think that I can fail, and if I do, I will try again …”.

Leroy Sané

If, as in the NBA, there was a title in soccer to honor the player who has made the most progress, it is certain that Vinicius would have a better chance of winning it than Leroy Sané, but the latter is also undergoing a certain metamorphosis. At the heart of this change, there was a turning point: the match of Bayern Munich against FC Cologne, last August, when the fans of his own club did not hide their frustration in the stadium by whistling at the player, author that night of an excessive and flagrant series of technical blunders. Until this incident, the 25-year-old player had only given 10 goals and 10 assists in 47 games (139 minutes played) for the Munich team. But since the cold shower in Cologne, his numbers have gone up: he has already scored 8 goals and 8 assists in only 14 games (61 minutes played)*.

Sané during a match between Bayern Munich and Lazio of Rome this year

To understand the reasons for this gain in form, it is also necessary to emphasize the change of position of the player. The new coach of the Bavarian club, Julian Nagelsmann transferred the left-hander from the right side to the left side. The player is encouraged to now move more in the axis of the field. “This is also a position that suits him very well. As a coach, of course, you always have to make sure that the player plays in the position where he feels comfortable and thus brings his potential on the field. “, explains the coach. Thus he has become a much more reliable ally than before, alongside Robert Lewandowski, and Thomas Mueller in both offensive and defensive tasks.

Marcos Alonso

With less noise and influence, FC Chelsea fullback Marcos Alonso is enjoying a similarly strong comeback. After good performances under Antonio Conte and then Maurizio Sarri, the 20-year-old Spaniard had a hard time adapting. It was the beginning of a misfortune prolonged by physical problems. The crisis reached its climax after the player dared to challenge a substitution decision of his manager Frank Lampard. Since this altercation, the coach ostracizes him from the squad. For 4 months, Alonso did not play a minute. But instead of packing up, as his father and grandfather (both former footballers) advised him to do, the youngster preferred to persevere. The dismissal of Frank Lampard last January and the arrival of Thomas Tuchel have finally given reason to this decision.

Alonso after his goal on the first day of the 2021–2022 Premier League

Under the direction of the German coach, the player has found more playing time and his form. Taking advantage of the absences of his rival in the left-back position, Ben Chilwell, Alonso became a regular player in the team, Champions League champion and current leader of the Premier League. Despite the established presence of Jordi Alba, the player could prove to be a useful piece in the national team of Luis Enrique. However, the Spanish coach is still slow to recall him and has good reasons. But Alonso is not giving up, because he knows from experience the power of patience: “At the end of the day, I play for my club and I try to do my best. If I’m lucky enough to make it to the national team, I’ll take it as a reward for that work,” said the London player on his non-selection for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

Players who progress like Vinicius, Sané and Alonso are those who, despite blocks and detours, have not given up along the way.

This is not a list of the Top 3 players who have progressed the most this season. There are undoubtedly other talents who continue to improve their game, at least as well as these 3. But rather, these are 3 examples, 3 case studies, that I invite you to gladly extend but more importantly to delve into for common denominators and models of redemption.

Of course, as we have just seen, many factors can explain a player’s (re-)gain in performance: age, a more efficient coaching, a more adapted game system, a more favorable change of position, an athletic development, a better atmosphere in the locker room, a greater harmony between private and professional life, the feeling of having hit rock bottom, an awareness… But in all these experiences, one element seems to be recurrent: the mental disposition.

Encouraging Growth

According to the American psychologist Carol S. Dweck, there are two types of mindsets, two systems of beliefs that determine the evolution of our performance and the development of our personality: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. According to this recent theory, which is very popular in sports psychology, a player with a closed mindset about his performance feels powerless in relation to his performance and circumstances: he considers his abilities to be fixed, imperfections. A player with an open mindset is motivated by challenges, learns from criticism and failure, and is convinced that through effort and appropriate corrections he can improve. In this sense, players who progress like Vinicius, Sané and Alonso are those who, despite blockages and detours, have not given up along the way.

So, we, too, must not lose hope in them any time soon. We must also adopt an open-minded attitude towards their talents. Give them another chance or at least the benefit of the doubt. If not, remain willing to change our minds in the face of evidence of progress. Don’t, as we say back home, close the window on them. Not banish them to hell when they are still in the purgatory of their twenties.

More than for us, this open-mindedness is even a duty for club coaches and national selectors. The NBA has awarded the title of “Most Improved Player” every season since 1986. Players like Tracy Mc Grady, Jimmy Butler and Paul Georges had to receive this individual award to establish themselves, if not as franchise players, at least as valuable players in the league. In fact, the NBA’s best player of the last three years, Giannis Antetokounmpo, also won this title before winning the other most prestigious awards. But until FIFA and other legitimizing institutions in soccer create a similar annual award to salute models of determination, perseverance, and growth (who knows, maybe it will be a golden plot), a national team (re)call remains one of the traditional ways of recognition and promotion to reward individual effort and progress made by players.

That said, a little more promotion and glory is always welcome. Even if the effort and the results on the field are already for the player, for us and for soccer, excellent bonuses in themselves.

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