The Ambition Fallacy: Ruining Scottish Football

In football, momentum is critical. Strikers in the goalscoring habit make it look easy, and every chance is a goal waiting to happen. This is generally because on the pitch, those playing ‘in the moment’ are not thinking about the mechanics of what they are doing; they are too busy banging the ball into the net to care.

Making it look so care-free and natural actually requires a perfect storm of contributing factors. Firstly, a trustworthy support network is a must. The coaches who have brought the player through the ranks are usually first on the list. Family and childhood friends are vital too, for no youngster should be defined entirely by their occupation. This is why so many footballers marry and start families at such a young age.

Moving around the country (or the world) in such a stressful occupation can be too much to handle for most young, single, men. Having a reliable support network has two main benefits: it reduces the effects of stress, and, crucially, it results in potentially stressful situations being perceived as less-stressful. With a high stress threshold, a youngster can play without fear.

Promising Young Scott Allan

Promising Young Scott Allan

A promising player who bursts into the first-team, playing as if he doesn’t have a care in the world, has this impact facilitated by the love and support of those around him (keeping the pressure off his shoulders) far more than the clichéd and misleading ‘natural talent’ myth.

In short, this is why making a big move at a young age can stymie a career. A youngster’s agent and the media will perpetuate the lie that it is the player’s talent that is responsible for his career, as if talent is this one, distinct and free-standing attribute that certain people are blessed with.

The reality is far more prosaic, will sell fewer papers, and results in fewer signing-on commissions for the agent. Talent is a construct, propped up support and hard work. Think of talent like it’s the peak of a pyramid, with support and hard work as the bottom corners. Without these two crucial components providing the frame, ‘talent’ is unable to stay at the top.

The agent is focused on his commission, the media are focused on their headlines. Nobody stops to think about what is best for the youngster’s development, the fact that ‘talent’ unsupported is not truly talent: it’s potential. And it will go unfulfilled if the youngster is removed from a comforting, nurturing environment, and deposited into a bigger pond with plenty of bigger fish with better support networks already in place.

A promising teenager is not an adult; no matter their physical dimensions or performances on the park, they are still immature. They require a strong support system and will produce their best performances when they feel loved and pressure-free.

Forget what the press will say; rejecting bigger transfers at a young age is actually the most ambitious decision that a footballer can make. It requires self-awareness and self-assuredness that are traits synonymous with maturity, which is why the youngster is susceptible to making impetuous, career-harming, decisions.

The ability to say ‘the best thing for me right now is not money – after all, I already have more than I need – it is regular first-team football in a place where I am happy and well-supported by those around me. In a couple of years I will be more experienced and more mature, and ready to make a big move that befits my ability’ requires huge ambition. It shows a belief in their own career trajectory, and a respect for the importance of hard work and a reliable support system.

Making a big move at too young an age, away from their familiar surroundings, friends and family, will likely create an imbalance in the pyramid and result in ‘talent’ giving way to ‘potential’. A truly ambitious player sees where their talent can take them, and respects that the factors required to take them there cannot often be artificially manufactured somewhere else.

Of course, the irony is that a player mature enough to make the decision to reject the transfer may well be mature enough to handle the move. But that’s Scottish football; a sport filled with bad advice and short-termist outlooks. If we are not careful, we are going to have an entire generation of burnt-out, disillusioned youngsters too busy following bad advice to remember that this game is supposed to be fun. And where’s the ambition in that?

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