Millions of young boys and girls grow up dreaming of becoming a footballer, but only a small percentage go on to forge a career in the game. So what’s the difference between those who make it and those who don’t? Manchester United trio Marcus Rashford, Chris Smalling and Ander Herrera reveal the secrets to their success and how you can become the best version of yourself on the pitch.
STAY POSITIVE WHEN FACED WITH REJECTION
CS: I went through the different trials for my county’s under-14s side, got down to the last 30 and then had to ring up this automated phone service that read out the names of the 16 people in the squad. I didn’t hear my name.
I rang it a few times to double-check. I started crying, my mum was there…. It was emotionally tough for me as a kid, but the following year I was determined to make sure my name would be read and it was.
When I was about 15 and I got released by Millwall. I knew it was coming, but when it actually happens it knocks you because you’re young and you really want to be a footballer. It spurred me on to work even harder. Never forgot those disappointments, they kick you on.
Get your work life balance right
CS: It’s hard when you’re a kid because you’re used to playing with your mates, but there are days when you miss out because of training or a game. I tried to balance it out. If my friends were doing something on the night I was playing, I’d try to plan the next thing as quickly as possible so I had something to look forward to. You don’t want to shut yourself off from everything – you’ll go crazy.
MR: When you’re a kid you don’t really understand why you have to miss out, but looking back now, I understand why. I listened to the people around me and it’s a credit to them for making sure I did the right thing. Pick and choose times you’re out with mates and the times you’re in bed getting the rest you need for training or a game.
BE A 24-HOUR ATHLETE
CS: You need to be one of the players who’s out there when everyone else has gone in. Most people think you train for an hour and a half a day and go home, but we’re in a couple of hours before training starts to do extra in the gym and analyse our performance from the previous game. I like to get in early for a stretch.
It doesn’t stop when you go home. You need to be aware of recovery, whether that’s rest or an ice bath. Even though you’re not physically at the training ground, you’re still working. There’s a lot that goes on that people don’t think about.
There are always temptations. You can treat yourself the odd time, like after a game or on a cheat day, but other than that you have to be disciplined. To help me do that I plan a lot of my meals on a Sunday with my wife. It makes the week a lot easier.
My wife’s the main cook, but I’ve got a lot better these last few years. I like to make a good pie or a Thai green curry – I make that If I’ve got someone coming round and I want to make out I’m a pro.
MR: Depending on how long we’ve got between the two match days, I do extras. If you get the repetitions in, it becomes natural in a game. For example, getting your footwork right when you’re attacking a space or when you’re one-on-one with the goalkeeper and setting yourself for a shot. It becomes subconscious the more you do it.
LEARN FROM THE BEST
MR: I only started playing as a striker when I was 17 or 18 so I had to learn everything at once. The striker coach we had at the time, Colin Little, used to play for Crewe and working with him every day really helped me. When you play on the wing it’s more individual, you just play what you see. Whereas for strikers there’s a script to it and you have to stick to it in certain situations.
For example, Thierry Henry always used to say to ‘freeze the goalkeeper’. Jermaine Defoe does the same thing. You freeze the goalkeeper with your body movement. If I’m facing one way and my eyes and head are facing another way – towards the part of the goal I want to put the ball – it’s obvious for the goalkeeper. But if I look directly at him and he’s looking at the ball, that’s when I’m in control – I’ve frozen him. Then you can do whatever you want.
AH: Even now that I’m 29 and some people can think I’ve learned all I can, I listen to the manager and try to improve every day. You can keep learning until you finish your career. Believe in what you do, trust in the work, respect your teammates and opponent. If you have quality and work hard, sooner or later you’re going to get the success.
LEARN TO THRIVE UNDER PRESSURE
AH: When you play for Manchester United, you’re at the centre of everything. There’s a lot of pressure and expectation that comes with that responsibility – but that’s something I wanted since I was a kid.
We have fantastic support around the world, but when things are not going well you need to be able to handle the media and the criticism.
My Dad helped me a lot with this because he played more than 200 games in La Liga. I knew in advance what I was going to face if I am a football player, even more, if I play for a club like Manchester United.
CS: You can’t go onto a pitch saying, “I’m never going to make a mistake”, because it will be on your mind. But you will make mistakes – it’s part of football – and making a mistake can make or break you. Your reaction in the next game and how you train shows your character and it’s big characters that last at the big clubs – because they deal with the ups and downs.
I’ve seen a psychologist for a few years and they helped me pick three things I try to achieve when I’m on the pitch and that’s what I mark my performance against. Regardless of whether I’ve scored two goals, conceded a goal or the team has won or lost – it doesn’t matter – these are my own targets.
Everyone likes to look on social media, but I never scroll through all my comments, whether I’ve won Man of the Match or had a bad game. Being on your phone can drive you crazy. Focus on the things you can control.
LISTEN TO YOUR INNER CHILD
CS: It’s easy to say ‘enjoy it’, but it’s really important. As you get older football gets more serious and you become so focused on winning and you can get so angry and frustrated. At the end of the day, you need to remember why you started playing football – because you enjoyed playing with your friends. Never forget that enjoyment.
MR: I was always one of those kids who wanted everything to happen all at once. When I was about 14 or 15 and I had a lot of growing pains and things were stalling I couldn’t do things that I wanted to do so I had to change.
It was around the time when England trials were starting, but I had to miss out so my body could recover. It affected my movement and I lost a bit of pace.
To help cope with this, I started to learn a new position – I was playing on the wing, then I started playing as a number 10.
A lot of the things you do on the wing is individual, it’s a lot of 1 v 1, whereas, in the middle, you’re working more with the team. Once I understood to be patient, I was more relaxed. You must have faith that it will all come together.
As you get older you understand that your body can’t do certain things. For instance, you can’t play 100 per cent for 90 minutes, it’s impossible. You have to pick your times for when to go and when not to go. It’s not until you get to the very top that you understand that you have to be smart.