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The Path to Mastery: Part 1

Published on: November 02, 2018

The Path to Mastery: Part 1

Posted by: Hollis Lyman | Denver University Sports Psychology


The key to mastering soccer is loving the least exhilarating parts.

George Leonard, author of Mastery, discusses four paths people often follow when pursuing a new endeavor. Each athlete’s chosen path can dictate the level of success and enjoyment they will find on the pitch. This blog is the first in a series of three that will explore each of these paths in depth, including their pros and cons, observable behaviors on the field, how to move toward a mastery path, and considerations throughout youth development, elite performance, and cultural experiences that impact a player’s path.

So, what are these paths?

Dabbler The athlete who plays multiple sports or positions and has trouble committing to just one.

Hacker The athlete who shows up to practice to enjoy playing with friends and will do just enough work to keep up. Oftentimes, this athlete is unconcerned with high performance.

Obsessive The athlete who cannot name their last off-day and often over-trains themselves into an injury.

Mastery The athlete committed to long-term and consistent growth.

As an important note, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these paths. All athletes come to their sport for unique reasons, and these paths serve those unique reasons. Recognizing the path an athlete is on is the first step to connecting with their reason for playing soccer. Connecting to that reason will help you guide them towards a sustainable career in soccer—however long it may be—and a path toward mastery.


Dabblers have many interests. They tend to lack focus and commitment in the traditional sense. Often these athletes play multiple sports or come to soccer from another sport. They love the challenge of a new sport and may engage at a high level on the field—originally finding quick improvements in performance. This is an apt time to try to help these athletes move towards a path of mastery and commitment to soccer. As these players are willing to invest heavily in soccer and performance improvement, they may be easily guided towards a mastery path in soccer. The obvious detriment to this path is that these athletes rarely specialize in any one sport and may come and go through seasons, which can create an unreliable, inconsistent, and injury-prone player. Simple signs of a dabbler are athletes starting soccer at an older age, athletes who continue to engage in multiple other sports, and athletes who seem to have trouble dropping other conflicting activities even during soccer season. The saying “a jack of all trades is a master of none,” is apt here as the original saying continues on to say, “but oftentimes better than a master of one.” There are obvious upsides to new and committed players each season, especially if retaining them is possible, and for individual growth there are upsides to dabbling in many endeavors.


The path of the hacker is especially prevalent in youth and recreation teams. A hacker does just enough to get invited to play or to feel engaged with the team. Most hackers are more concerned with finding joy on the soccer pitch, spending time with their friends, and, as many coaches can attest to, are primarily motivated by fun. Hackers can be incredibly athletic and highly talented, but they lack the desire to follow a training regimen or move beyond the level of their friends. This path’s downsides are more apparent at higher levels of play where most hackers never make an appearance. If a hacker’s skill level does not increase, they naturally get pushed towards clubs and recreation teams that welcome these types of players. The upsides to this path include exposure to sport, developing community builders, and creating a positive environment for all athletes. No matter what path an athlete starts on, they gain exposure to soccer, coaches, and the competitive environment that can inspire them to move towards mastery and love of the sport.


Moving towards more elite levels of play, athletes on the obsessive path may appear. Of course, there may be newer players on this path as well, but this path is likely to lead to high levels of play along with mastery. Obsessive players find immediate success due to their extreme determination to improve performance. However, they work their bodies beyond repair, may not listen to advice suggesting rest, and often find themselves injured. These athletes find success by overworking themselves and paying dire consequences. Once injured, they may continue to push their bodies to perform or test out their injury too soon, which can lead to them remaining injured far longer than necessary. One could argue that this path is a parallel path to mastery, where success is found in short and sharp bursts, however it is followed by equally sharp downward trends in performance, unlike mastery. These athletes often leave the sport they love when they are ultimately unable to recover from injuries. The upside to this path is dedication. Many athletes are talented, but as Leonard points out, talent is not often coupled by mental fortitude and effort. This rare combination can be found in many obsessive athletes who just need guidance to the path of mastery.


Mastery. It sounds elevated and untouchable in some ways. Thankfully Leonard broke the path down into tangible necessities. The path of mastery is a long-term pattern of growth where sharp spikes of performance gains are followed by long bouts of plateau. This plateau period is a time for muscle adaptation to take place, learning to become concrete knowledge, and patience to build. The secret to the path of mastery is learning not only accept the plateau, but to also fully enjoy the plateau as part of the process.


The first need for the path of mastery is instruction. An athlete will need guidance from a mentor, coach, or teacher—someone who can instigate the most important part of mastery: learning. Secondly, practice is needed. Deliberate practice, following a training plan, doing drills, and practicing imagery all create an environment that encourages applied learning. An athlete must also learn to surrender to the process, the unknown, and to guidance. As Leonard suggests, the athlete must become the fool and the student. A player must also present with intention: they must embrace their purpose on a profound level to be driven through periods of plateau. Lastly, an athlete must learn to ride the edge between failure and expertise. This edge encourages risk-taking, dedication, and hard work as the chance at failing dramatically is complemented by the chance to succeed wondrously.


In Part 2 we will discuss how to encourage a path change for yourself or your athletes, how sport psychology principles can help cultivate a mastery mindset, the energy mastery requires, and how to coach or parent along the path of mastery. Start to look for these paths in your own life. No path is inherently better than the others yet knowing your path can help you cultivate the strength of that path and avoid the downfalls. One cannot possibly walk the path of mastery in all aspects of life—that would be one large obsessive path—so we must learn to choose what matters most to us and what we are capable of mastering.

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