What Youth Soccer Today Could Learn from Mia Hamm’s Legendary Career

Although most youth players know the name Mia Hamm, it’s in the way most adults know the name Pele… a great soccer player from the past.  It’s now been more than two decades since Mia scored an international goal.  This being the case, it is a good time to revisit exactly what Mia accomplished and why her name is legendary.  I also believe that as we delve further into what made Mia Hamm great, we might find some solutions to issues we’re dealing with in youth soccer today.  So first, let’s review her amazing list of accomplishments.

Mia’s Hamm’s Accomplishments:

  • She joined the US Women’s National Soccer team at 15 years old. That’s right, as a Sophomore in high school she was selected to play in the 1991 World Cup.
  • She has two Olympic Gold Medals and is a two-time FIFA World Cup Champion.
  • Named FIFA player of the year in 2001 and 2002 and the first woman inducted into the World Football Hall of Fame.
  • She won four NCAA championships in the four years she played with the North Carolina Tarheels and finished her career as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all time leader in goals and assists.
  • Mia is considered a soccer icon and is credited with not only making women’s soccer relevant in the United States, but credited with being the reason soccer is as popular as it is in America today.  Soccer was not embraced in the US.  Typical Americans found it boring and since our teams were unsuccessful, soccer received very little attention.
  • She was so popular that she did an “Anything you can do I can do better” Nike commercial with all-time basketball great Michael Jordan.
  • Nike built its largest building on its 22 acre campus and named it after her.
  • When she retired, she held the record for most goals and most assists ever in international play by any male or female.

Here is the Mia/Jordan Nike Commercial:

Let’s stop and think about that last statistic:  When she retired she was the top scorer EVER in international play and is still ranked #1 in assists and #2 in scoring behind Abby Wambach who recently broke her scoring record.  That’s means she’s ahead of players like Pele, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Zico, Bobby Charlton and David Beckham.

Competitiveness:

When people talk about Mia the first thing they mention is her legendary competitiveness.  Even as a child she was ultra competitive.  It was so bad that her family avoided playing board games with her because they usually ended up with younger Mia crying and quitting the game.  As she matured, she learned how to harness that competitiveness on and off the field.  “She is like a shark in the bloody waters, if she sees a player that is not confident or uncomfortable she’d go right at that player.- Jim Gabarra, Washington Freedom Coach 2001-2003.  Her former USA coach Anson Dorrance added, “All the truly great ones are driven by something that doesn’t let them feel comfortable until one is buried into the back of the net.  He added another story, “I was driving to work one day and I saw this figure just sprinting 5 (yards) and back, 10 and back, 15 and back, 20 and back, 25 and back and caught her out of the corner of my eye and it was Mia, and she would be hunched over with hot air shooting from her lungs and I was just so impressed with her.  A famous description of her came from that moment: “ A vision of a champion is someone bent over drenched in sweat when no one else is watching.”

The Spotlight:

Although she didn’t enjoy the spotlight, her attitude and the way she conducted herself was noticed by teammates young and old and they would feed off that competitiveness.  Abby Wambach who eventually broke Mia’s scoring record once credited Mia with setting an example of how to act on the field, “She has this presence on the field that exudes success and exudes respect.”
We’ve seen glimpes of Mia Hamm in other players, maybe the ability to dribble at other players, the ability to shoot, or the ability to accelerate, but with Mia Hamm you see it all in the same player.  – USA Head Coach Tony DiCicco 94-99.
So Mia accomplished great things and had amazing competitiveness.  You can say that about a lot of professional athletes today.  I believe that only tells part of the story of her success.  When you dig deeper you find out Mia was much more complex than met the eye and had some aspects of her nobody but her closest friends and teammates knew.  In these complexities, I think we can not only find some additional clues as to why she worked so hard and accomplished so much, but we also find characteristics of Mia that today’s youth players and parents should consider and perhaps may help that player fulfill their potential.

First off, not many people knew that Mia was very uncomfortable being in the spotlight.  She preferred the attention be on the team’s success and not hers. Gary Smith who was a prominent writer for Sports Illustrated at the time once said of Mia, “She feels really responsible for the (soccer) community. To take care of that community she has to make sure they win, to make sure they win she needs to play incredible soccer.  But, that draws her out from the crowd and draws all the attention to her and that makes her skin crawl.  This sediment is echoed repeatedly by all that knew her well.  “Mia never wanted the tag as the best player in the world, and I think she didn’t want that tag because it was an insult to her teammates.” -Coach tony DiCicco, USA head coach 94-99.  US teammate Brandi Chastain was quoted as saying, “She wants to make sure everyone else on the team is taken care of.  It’s never about what she’s doing, what she needs or what she wants.”

In an interview Mia once said, “To single me out is uncomfortable, I’m constantly like, what are you hearing from the team because if for one instance it makes someone feel this team isn’t first for me, I’ll stop.  She also joked, “If any defender in the world wants to shut me down they just have to ask me questions like tell us how great you are.”

Isn’t that ironic to hear the girl who gets the most attention wants it least, and yet maybe that’s why we want to give her attention.” – Anson Dorrance

Gary Smith added, “Are athletes are coddled as young people and made to believe they are something very special, and Mia’s grown up to believe you are nothing special you are part of a group.”  How did this come about?  It came from her parents teaching about service to the community.  Mia Hamm said of her parents, “They always showed you there was always someone else that needed help and everyone could be great because they serve someone.”  Mia’s mom Stephanie added,”I never expect to be a wealthy person but I do have a wealth of concern and dedication to people that we just aren’t focusing on.”   This need to serve was a huge part of Mia who once said, “I do want to be like my mother, I do want to be like my father I want to treat people the way they treat people.”  “You’re not better than anyone else in this world, that was the message that was put into them as children, meanwhile she has this talent that has taken her off to be this meteor” – Gary Smith

Youth Soccer Today:

I think this is is the first of the big lessons we can learn from Mia that applies to today’s youth soccer more than ever.  Today’s players are told they are great from day one.  Parents will move them from team to team, look for ever opportunity to have them guest play for older teams, participate in the Development Academy and Olympic Development Program (ODP), get them private soccer lessons, send them to elite college summer and ID camps, and finally skip the opportunity to play high school soccer with their friends all to live up to their “potential”.  Every club and coach talks about player development. Why?  Because that’s what parents want to hear.  They want to hear their child is special, has special gifts and therefore needs special treatment.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a big believer in getting training that brings out a player’s full potential.  That being said, all the things I list above focus on one person…. the player.  The team is completely secondary.  I see parents treating clubs like rungs on a ladder and on the way home from every game they talk negatively about other player’s mistakes and how he/she doesn’t belong.  Parents… it’s a team game.  We need to make sure our young gifted players understand about how leadership is earned and the positive impact they can have on their teammates.  A coach I know was recalling a story that went like this: When I joined the team I was full of potential but didn’t have the discipline or heart to go 100% in practice or games.  One day our team captain,and best player, came over to me and told me how much happier he is when I was on the field as he thought I was the team’s best defender.  I kind of cocked my head and said, “really?”  The captain added, “Yes, when you’re out there I know we have the best chance to win”.  You know what… from that point forward I worked my butt off in practice, games and even off days to make sure I lived up to his expectation.  I went on to become a great player and two years later became the team captain.  At that point, I sought out the young version of me and walked up to him and told him how much happier I was when he was on the field….

Great players can have a huge impact on their teammates.  Talk to your son or daughter about the impact they can have in a fellow player’s life.  I promise it will define their soccer career well beyond any goal they score.

Lack of Confidence:

The other characteristic of Mia Hamm nobody outside her circle knew about is she lacked confidence in herself.  It sounds crazy, but Mia Hamm, perhaps the greatest female soccer player ever lacked confidence on the field.  In fact, before big games it was not uncommon for Mia to throw up.

Her US coach Tony DiCicco said, “She held herself to such high standards that if she she didn’t play up to those standards it played on her confidence, and where someone might say to her great game Mia that was almost an insult to her.”  He also added, “I think a lot of players struggle with confidence, but I think it surprises people when a great player struggles with confidence.   Her teammate Michelle Akers noted, “Our coaches and teammates spent a lot of time praising her and helping her gain the confidence to be a leader on the field.”

So the great Mia Hamm suffered from lack of confidence.  I have seen many youth players deal with this, and I have seen a lot of coaches and parents handle it poorly.  Parents, please understand that lacking confidence is not uncommon and being positive with a player until they are able to work through it on their own is absolutely okay.  Yes, someday they’ll have a college coach that might not be so patient.  But, in my experience nothing will wreck a player’s love for the game faster than being yelled at on the field to the point of embarrassment and then get the same treatment on the way home.  Some people will call it coddling or babying… I call it focusing on the positive.  Have your child watch Lionel Messi play and count how many mistakes he makes.  Believe me he makes plenty!  The amazing thing about soccer is nobody focuses on your mistakes when you make great plays.  I’m not saying good plays…. I’m saying great plays.  Great players make great plays, and you can’t make a great play without taking risks.  Risks and mistakes are part of a player’s development.  If you have a player afraid to make mistakes, you have a very conservative player that is likely to never live up to their potential.  Parents… allow mistakes!!  With mistakes comes a higher soccer IQ and creativity… Two things every coach covets.

Mia Hamm’s greatest test of confidence came in the 1999 World Cup final against China.  The game featured 120 minutes of scoreless play and went to penalty kicks to determine the champion.  Hamm’s coach, Tony DiCicco chose her to take one of the penalty kicks and Mia immediately questioned her coach on giving her one of the five kicks, Mia said, “Haven’t’ you seen me in practice this week?!… I’ve been terrible.”  After the fact Mia realized,”her whole point was you have to have confidence we believe in you… and she was saying do you believe in yourself and in that split second I was like absolutely! I do, and thank you for helping me see that.   After making the shot she said, I was excited and a little upset with myself for having that doubt”

“I don’t have a lot of confidence and I’m not embarrassed to say that and sometimes it matters what people I really shouldn’t  care about say, write or think, but that wouldn’t be me.”-Mia

If you have an interest in reliving that amazing moment it’s here (I recommend you do. I got chills rewatching it):

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By | 2017-09-22T08:34:32+00:00 July 30th, 2017|Categories: Soccer|Comments Off on What Youth Soccer Today Could Learn from Mia Hamm’s Legendary Career

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