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Understanding Athletic Potential (Hint: Everyone has it.)

Written June 16th, 2012 by Mike Slatton


Everyone is conceived – not born, but conceived: when the sperm meets the egg – with the potential for greatness. Few people ever actually achieve their full potential though, so what you end up with in any field or profession is not the “best of the best”, but instead, the “best of what is left”.  From politics to healthcare, engineering to athletics, industry to industry we don’t see the best-of-the-best players or professionals that could have ever been developed.  Instead, we see the ones who stuck around the longest or just never gave up, until they were enlisted into service – “Success through attrition”.

Doug Flutie, Rudy Ruettiger, Kurt Warner, and Michael Oher (American football players) are great examples of what happens when focus and drive ignore potential.  In reality, their potential for athletic greatness were much less than other players of the game, but their focus and drive to be successful propelled them into an elite category.  On the other hand, players like Todd Marinovich had all of the potential and support necessary for greatness, and were given every opportunity to succeed – but fell just short.


Your child has more opportunity to become a professional soccer player than they do becoming an astronaut, a brain surgeon, a United States Congressman, or a lottery winner.

Purpose, focus and determination are more powerful than potential.


So what happened to all of that potential?

With athletics in particular, potential is lost through bad coaching, bad parenting, a failure to recognize the potential, injury or tragedy, to name just a few.  The biggest failure in achieving potential however, is in those parents that actually REALIZE their child’s potential, and fail to nurture it.  The overwhelming majority of today’s potential – in every area, not just athletics – is wasted due to parental laziness or “priority variance”.  Priority variance may manifest itself as poor dietary choices, a lack of opportunities provided to the child, or behavioral problems that are never addressed.

What we see today is a lot of good youth soccer players getting too fat to play the game by the time they hit high school or quitting before they ever reached the pinnacle of their abilities.  That, coupled with a society that puts money ahead of its health and dreams, means that local soccer clubs are making a killing on 1-on-1 training, “competitive” soccer, and selling the dream to those who can afford it.



Is success is available only to those who can afford it?

(*For more, read: “The Pay for Play Paradox)[/su_quote]

Blind Parents

In some cases, it’s the child’s potential that is their downfall.  Parents can be blinded by their child’s potential.  When Moms & Dads are assessing their child’s abilities and estimating future accomplishments, they subconsciously measure their child’s potential against the other children’s performance.  When you measure possibilities against actual production,  possibilities look AWESOME –  Dreams vs Reality.

So if my child’s already the best (in Mom or Dad’s eyes), why does he/she need to practice 12 hours a week, or eat lots of vegetables, or avoid Mountain Dew?

There are groups of parents who think their child is the best – based on their obvious potential – and should therefore get more game time, the #10 jersey and the “glory” of starting at center forward.  The interesting thing about potential is that EVERYONE has it, and if all of those mothers looked at every player on the field the way they looked at their own child, they’d either just give up all together or hire a personal trainer to supplement the other 9 hours of training they need each week to ACTUALLY be the best.  Regardless…


Potential without purpose, focus and determination is valueless.


“That’s Too Hard”

In America, a legitimate excuse for NOT doing something is “That’s too hard.”  I used to say it a lot when I was a kid, and no one seemed to argue the point.  On my 25th birthday however(1992), as I was driving  to my pizza delivery job, I had an epiphany.  I began reflecting on my childhood, and recalled being put in the California Public Schools “Mentally Gifted Minds” (MGM) program when I was in first grade (1973).  Then I remembered all of those middle school assessment tests that recorded how smart I was.  What happened to all of that “potential”.  I had plenty of it.  Everyone told my mother about it, so what happened?

My mother never nurtured it.

I can’t blame her.  After all, it was the 1970’s and 80’s, we were in a recession and my mother was single, trying to bring up 2 boys with no help from my father in an environment that wasn’t conducive to her success.  I was never forced to do my homework, or made to study for tests, or required to be responsible for anything for that matter.  I was given lots of “freedom”…  freedom to fail.  So it’s no wonder that after two years of straight F’s in high school, I was placed in a learning disabled program.  I epitomized wasted potential.

Failure is a great teacher though – even if my mother wasn’t.

As a parent, YOU are responsible for nurturing the potential your child possesses.


Nurturing Success

In 1999 I was coaching an under 12 boys recreational team and had one good player that would spend hours a day practicing dead ball kicks and juggling.  He had a great work ethic that manifested itself on the field.  He was good – VERY good – and it was nothing I did.  After a practice one evening, I told his parents that I was sure I’d see him on the US National Team one day, and they just scoffed, and said “Really?”, like I was just kidding with them.  At that moment, I truly felt sorry for that hard-working, gifted little soccer player, because those two had his future in their hands and they just didn’t believe that he could be a great soccer player.  Maybe they had other priorities, but since they didn’t believe he could be a great soccer player, I knew that they weren’t going to be nurturing and encouraging those talents.

Making Dreams Come True

For some reason, adults love to tell children with dreams of athletic heroism that “The competition is pretty tough“, and then ask them “What’s your backup plan?”  These people of course have never been professional athletes, and really have no idea what it takes to become one.  Those same people will also tell a child who wants to be a brain surgeon or an astronaut “That’s a lot of work.  Sure you’re up to the challenge?

It’s hard to give advice to a child about what it takes to achieve greatness when you’ve never believed that you could do it yourself.


We all create self-fulfilling prophecies – for ourselves and our children.


Take a look at some of the greatest professional athletes in any sport, and you’ll see some very smart, driven people who were going to be successful at SOMETHING.  Then, take a look at some of the greatest businessmen ever, and you’ll find that many of them were also pretty good athletes (see: Magic Johnson).  The drive it takes to be great in business, is the same drive it takes to be great in sports.


If you give your child every opportunity and encourage them with the EXPECTATION that they will be great, they will… and vice-versa.


So if EVERYONE has the potential for greatness, but few are harnessing it and achieving it, that means that competition for greatness is actually pretty light.

Your child may not have an athletic build, or be the fastest or strongest, but if you look at history, those things are almost UNNECESSARY to be a great athlete.  What is necessary is the will, desire and utter compulsiveness to let nothing stand in the way of success.  Success and excellence is achievable by anyone who wants it, regardless of “potential”.

YOU, the parent have to be the nurturer of the potential and establish a balance that keeps your child interested and improving, without burning them out on the activity all together.  For tips on that, read The Car Ride Home.

Mike Slatton is the father of 3 soccer players and Chief Editor of The Soccer Mom Manual.

About Author

Mike Slatton is a 2nd generation American youth soccer coach since 1984, and the son of one of the nation's first female licensed youth soccer coaches (Anita Slatton, 1979). He's also a professional soccer scout, a player since 1977, and the father of three adult and teenage children who all play or have played the game. "My job as a youth soccer coach is to develop detail oriented problem solvers who can react quickly under pressure. This relates to life - not just soccer."


  1. Don Surveas on

    I’m not sure I totally agree with your article. Some kids are just smarter,and there is no replacement for “heart”. I’ve witnessed little soccer players who were incredible when they were younger, but later on they lost their drive and all but dropped out of the game. Good training is only half of the equation. Drive, determination and focus have to be there as well.

    • Thank you, John. I grew up brainwashed for failure, as my mother was brainwashed for failure. Once I realized that (in my 20s), I decided to brainwash myself for success. Still working on my own success, but it’s easier to create a successful adult from scratch (my own children) than it is to take someone who’s broken (me) and try to fix them.

      – Mike Slatton

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