Ganas. It means desire, in Spanish. Ganar. To win. Ganas de ganar. The desire to win. No one wants this quality in their players more than Spanish coaches. That's what they want to see. A relentless hungering for victory fueled by an indomitable spirit that carries desire to a victorious result. It doesn't matter if we are talking about professionals, amateurs or youth players. In Spain, it's all about whether the player has ganas de ganar.
And if victory slips through their fingers, a Spanish coach often blames it on a lack of desire. Earlier this season, in his post-match press conference, Luis Miguel Ramis (above), manager of Spanish second division club UD Almeria, pointed to a lack of ganas after his side lost 1-0 to CD Numancia:
"Nos han faltado ganas de ganar este partido."
Translation: "We lacked the desire to win this match." Of course, the manager also pointed to specific tactical lapses and other failures on the part of his players. Numancia was able to counterattack better after winning the ball and Almeria was not able to finish their chances. Ramis also pointed to a low level of intensity when it came to individual defending. But for the manager, everything came down to a lack of desire. The lack of ganas becomes the shorthand explanation for everything that went wrong in the game.
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about ganas de ganar. What is it that animates the kind of hungry desire that leads and individual or a team to great achievements and victories. Is it a "what" or a "why" that we should search for and try to understand? Is it worth our time thinking about this? I think it is. In fact, I think it is such a fundamental inquiry that every youth soccer coach worth their salt should be pondering it. After all, its really a quest to better understand the motivations of the kids who train and play with us so that we can help them be better players.
Winning is not guaranteed.
Here's the thing. Simply having the desire to win is not a guarantee that you will win. As Pep Guardiola puts it:
"In football, nobody wins all the time. Not even Maradona won every game. Not even Pele."
So let's be as honest as Guardiola is about all this. Every team will lose. Every player will lose. It's that simple. All we can do is work hard and line up those things that put us in the best position to win. The desire to win is an obvious requirement, but its not everything. So is being a competitor, and its also not enough. Being a competitor may get you onto the team, onto the starting 11 and onto the field, but that alone does not assure victory. More is needed, much more.
Before a player takes the field they must spend countless hours in training developing critical skills. Such a commitment of time and energy will only be made by a player who really wants to train. In my view, there is a massive difference between ganas de ganar - a desire to win - and ganas de entrenar - the desire to train. Both are needed and both are critical.
As youth soccer coaches, we know the work ethic we want in our players. We want players who show up to training on time, work hard, put in maximum effort, avoid horseplay and care enough to train on their own with the ball and to improve their strength and fitness. We already know its the players who truly love the game that are the most interested in training and learning. But developing ganas de entrenar is vastly harder than developing ganas de ganar. And the reality is that the player who honestly enjoys training is most likely the one who will be truly be successful in the sport.
Developing Ganas de Entrenar
When Cristiano Ronaldo was only 11 years old, he famously joined the youth academy at Sporting Lisbon. He was already an emerging technical prodigy, but still a skinny kid. To avoid being embarrassed by Cristiano's wickedly sharp technique, players would simply knock him off the ball.
"I remember the first time I heard one of the kids say to another kid, 'Did you see what he did? This guy is a beast.' I started hearing it all the time. Even from the coaches. Then somebody would always say, 'Yeah but it’s a shame he’s so small.'
So, Cristiano set out to address what he thought were his physical weaknesses. Although it was against the rules, while other players slept he would sneak out of the dormitory at night and head to the weight room to lift weights. On his time off, he would engage in a bit of unique training. Near the academy there was a stop sign with an inclined road just on the other side. Wearing ankle weights, he would wait for a car to stop at the sign, and then race it up the hill. Later, when Cristiano arrived at Manchester United, he would continue these personal training habits. After team training session, he would continue to work on his technical skills while other players had already hit the showers. His teammates were amazed to see Cristiano wearing his ankle weights and working on his stepovers and scissors. According to former Manchester United midfielder Quinton Fortune,
"He wanted to do everything better than ever other player, to learn do tricks all the time. He was always the best at step overs, but he started doing them with weights strapped to his ankles so that it would be easier in a real game. He would practice a trick slowly by himself. Then he’d try it in training games. Finally, he’d do it in a real game. If he saw someone do a new trick he would ask them how they did it. Then he’d teach himself until he was the best."
Cristiano's hard work paid off. At Manchester United he would often finish team training and then continue to work on his own or with former Coerver instructor, Rene Meulensteen to keep improving his technical skill. His appetite for training and learning was ferocious.
And his love of training did not stop after he made his famous move to Real Madrid. His deep commitment to training and personal development as a player continued. Consider for a moment the success that Ronaldo has had until now. He is 32 years old and has been, for the most part durable and injury free. And he shows no signs of slowing down. Many attribute that to his dedication to a consistent training schedule.
Ronaldo is a fierce competitor in games. He always wants to win everything, league championships, friendlies, team awards, trophies, individual awards, everything. And when the regular training session is over, he continues to work, on his own or with coaches. He epitomizes ganas de ganar. But is that what drives his relentless drive to train? Or is it the other way around?
Some say the answer is grit. In her groundbreaking book entitled, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth claims that grit is the best predictor of success. Grit matters more than talent, she claims. Duckworth builds on the growth mindset philosophies espoused by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. In a fixed mindset, one believes their success on their current ability level, which is misunderstood as their talent level. In a growth mindset, one believes that abilities can be further developed through dedication and hard work. "Grit" is the perseverance to carry on and continue the hard work. Its another way to describe someone who never quits, gets up after they've been knocked down and continues the hard work. Resilience, tenacity, dogged, relentless, these are all synonyms for Duckworth's grit concept.
Watching a soccer game, t's easy to see whether a player or a team has grit, as we typically understand that concept. We can see how they deal with adversity. We watch their work rate. We can almost see the desire painted on their faces, or not at all. What I'm getting at is that fierce competition can expose grit or the lack of it.
But observing grit can only take us so far. It doesn't explain "what" an individual has that causes them to be gritty, nor does it explain "why" a person is gritty. And what we observe in a game can't tell us whether or not a youth soccer player has ganas de entrenar. Is Cristiano Ronaldo "gritty" or just driven? Or are these two different, but complimentary concepts? If grit can be expressed as a formula, many would describe it as Passion + Perseverance = Grit. Maybe that's the secret. A love for the sport coupled with a willingness to sacrifice and work in order to be the best.
Let's go back to ganas de ganar for a moment. In the youth game, parents and other observers might find it harsh for a coach to blame a loss on his players' lack of desire, as the head coach of UD Almeria blamed his team. After all, at the start of every game every kid wants to win. But if we are honest about it, failing to achieve is often really about a lack of desire that began at the training ground. Some players work harder than others. Some players care more than others. Some players are more invested than others. And it is not wrong for youth soccer coaches to remind their players, sternly if they must, to find their ganas. They should remind players that winning is important, that winning matters, and that it is a virtue to work hard in order to have the chance to win. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not talking about the debate over winning versus player development. That debate is all about how adults prioritize their need to win over the youth players' needs for their development as players and human beings. No, I'm talking about something altogether different. I'm talking about the importance of teaching players that being a champion and everything that achievement requires, such as suffering, discipline, hard work, sacrifice, is virtuous.
Now for the most important question. Can we develop ganas de entrenar? Can we develop in players a true joyful love for the training ground? Of course! At Eagleclaw, we believe coaches play an important role in instilling a competitive spirit in each of their players and their team as a whole. And the first step is to help each player develop ganas de entrenar. After all, there is no winning without training. We are convinced every player can develop a desire to train, but the reality is that very few players develop the personal habits and drive of a Cristiano Ronaldo. Still, we work at creating a positive yet demanding environment that honors and rewards the hard work of training, whether at club sessions or on their own. Eagleclaw is built for long-term player development, but therein lies the challenge. There are no instant results at Eagleclaw and no reason for players to expect them. Without the reward of instant results, coaches must constantly and consciously help players celebrate the little victories along the way. In a "growth mindset" environment, coaches must help players see each positive change and recognize and embrace it as evidence of personal growth. Then coaches must set out the next challenge and encourage players to purposefully go after that as well. In this way, we can develop in players a desire to train. More importantly, we develop players who can deal with the mistakes and failures that happen on the training ground and turn them into opportunities for growth.
There are many ways to develop in players a love of training. We've found that one of the easiest ways is encouraging players to juggle. Seriously! Juggling is chock full of life lessons. Learning to juggle is all about trial and error, and working to achieve the next personal record. When a coach shows great interest in a player's juggling record, the first thing the player realizes is that the coach cares. Caring is contagious. The player will start caring about their personal juggling record and will start practicing on their own. They will deal with the frustration of trial and error, begin to comprehend what it means to invest a great deal of time for something they want and understand that being able to juggle the ball expertly is not automatic. Its not something their coach or parents can give them or buy for them. They need to work hard for it. They need to earn it themselves And every time they reach a new milestone they'll experience new levels of confidence and pride in the results of hard work. And they won't be able to wait to share it with you.
We find that players who work on their juggling skills are more excited to come to training and work harder when they get there. Not all of them, but almost all of them. They will benefit from a trifecta of player development benefits. Juggling develops exquisite touch, balance and a desire for the satisfaction of achievement that comes from patient, persistent training. It can be a really effective way to instill hunger in players to acquire even more soccer skills.
What about the players that think juggling is too hard? This is where great youth coaches are separated from merely competent ones. A great coach makes it their personal challenge to persuade, coax and encourage the reluctant player to give it a go. Maybe set them on a road to achievement through achievable milestones. I've started a reluctant player with a simple goal, 3 juggles alternating with the left and right foot and asked them to work on it for a week at home and then before training demonstrate it to me. Sometimes it might take a couple of weeks for them to actually do the work. Then they get and the next milestone I give them is 5 juggles, then 7, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, etc. When they hit a significant milestone, we post it to the club Facebook page as a way to encourage them to be proud and work even harder to break down the next barrier.
With ganas de entrenar, a player has the ideal foundation for developing ganas de ganar. And yes, in the best training environments player development, the love of training, the desire to win and winning can and should co-exist.
Now you are ready to build a culture of ganas! Here are some ideas:
1. Find your allies. If you are lucky, you may have one or two players on your team who are highly self-motivated in respect of training. They play because they love the game and train hard because they want to be the best. They are the ones who train harder and work harder when everything is on the line. They exude grit. If you have one or more of these players on your team, then you are fortunate. These players are your allies. They will help you build a culture of ganas. You can use them as an example for the other players. But use caution here. You must not place this player on a pedestal, as it will inflate the player's ego and build resentment among the others, exactly the opposite of what you want to do.
One technique is to isolate that player with a few others in a tactically relevant way. Perhaps your hardest working player is a midfielder. A session focused on the midfield triangle and a smart mix of praise, constructive criticism and encouragement might result in the other two players taking stock of where their game falls short and finding a motivation to improve. There are countless other ways to do this, but it requires a coach that is focused on developing a love of training and self-improvement in each of their players.
2. Set a team goal: Individuals and teams will work harder and be more focused when they feel they are part of quest larger than themselves. Maybe the goal is to win the league or a tournament. Or maybe the goal is to win a certain number of games or earn promotion to the next higher division. Whatever the goal is, it should be a challenge, not an impossibility. And you need to communicate it at the outset and track it. Remind the players at appropriate times how they are progressing toward the goal. In this way, you will be able to measure the commitment of the players as expressed in their training ethic and game performance.
3. Use training sessions to develop ganas de ganar. Competition arouses the desire to win. In typical training sessions, the level of competition is not at a fever pitch for a variety of reasons. We want to teach so we want the players focused on the teaching points or themes, not chasing goals. And we also don't want training ground injuries, so we often keep the urgency of competitive fire bottled up a bit, hoping it will be unleashed on the weekend.
However, there are many ways to develop ganas de ganar on the training ground. Constrain the parameters of space and time, manipulate the context of the exercise while keeping it game realistic, and you'll have the perfect opportunity to develop fighting spirit. These can be simple games, but should always be designed to require the players to adhere to the club's philosophy and game model.
Here's one idea:
THE FINAL COUNTDOWN: 4V4(+3)
OVERVIEW: This is a directional rondo played in 2 minute installments. The team that starts in possession begins down by two goals (0-2). The objective is to score and at least tie the game or hopefully score a winning goal before time runs out.
SETUP: Blues v. Reds. Yellows are neutrals and play with the team in possession. The playing area is 30x20 yards (minimum) up to 40x25 (maximum) with a defined midfield line. Mini goals are positioned at each end. Positioning is important for the game. Players may go anywhere on the field except for the 4 Centerbacks who must stay in their half. The Centerbacks may play up to the midfield line, but may not cross it.
Additional teams of 4 can play so that a tournament feel can be created. With each game lasting only 2 minutes, this exercise can fit into a 15-20 block in your session plan.
HOW TO PLAY. Play always begins from the back. The coach plays a ball to one of the Blue Centerbacks. Once the ball is played in, the coach starts the two minute clock. Blues must connect 5 passes in their own half before attacking into the opposing half. If Blues lose the ball to Reds, Reds must make a safe pass into their own half and work to connect 5 passes before they can attack into the Blue's half. If Blues play into the opposite half before making 5 passes in their own half, it is a foul and the other team can ican restart the ball only from the midfield line. When a team scores, the opposite side has 5 seconds to inbound the ball from their own end line and play continues until time runs out. If Blues tie the game, they earn 1 point. If they win it, they earn 3 points. If they lose, Reds earn 3 points.
COACHING POINTS. In possession, the setup is is 7v4. Since neutrals (7 & 11) provide the width,Teams should be coached to maintain their positioning relative to the neutrals. The Pivot (6) is arguably the most important player as their involvement is critical to making the 5 passes needed before the Team can move into the other half. Neutrals should be encouraged to maintain width, assist in maintaining possession to make the 5 passes and when possible position themselves in the opposite half as targets.
Blues must attack quickly. Time is running out. If Blues lose the ball, they must press quickly to try to win the ball back. Reds have the lead so they are in no such hurry. They should be encouraged to pass, keep the ball and make good decisions with the objective of running out the clock. If possible, Reds should keep the ball in their own half, since if Blues are able to win it they must still play back to their own half, taking more time off the clock.
Encourage switching the fields through the Pivot and Centerbacks. Proper techniques can also be taught in this game. Players should receive the ball across their body on the back foot. Since time is in short supply, communication is at a premium. Vocal help such as "man on", "turn" and even the pass count is really important.