Leadership and Pro Soccer, Part 2: You Need an Ally

If you watch replays of professional soccer matches in the 60s and 70s, when Pelé was playing at his peak, and then compare those with today’s games, you’ll notice that the players of yesteryear often had more time and space to figure out what to do with the ball. Everything moved at a somewhat slower and less intense pace. By contrast, today’s offensive players, upon receiving the ball, immediately have two or three defenders attacking them. There is little time to think.

“If you look at the games in the 1970 World Cup, the one Brazil won in Mexico, you’ll see there are various circumstances in which a player stops, looks around, and thinks about what he’s going to do,” said Moraci Sant’Anna, the physical trainer for four Brazilian World Cup teams. “You’ll see that the nearest opposing player is about three or five meters away. Then after he thinks for a while, he makes his play with the ball. Today there is no time for that. Today the game is a lot more dynamic. The space of play has been reduced greatly. This is the result of the physical conditioning of the players today.”

If you think it was the soccer coaches who first decided to increase the speed of the game and then sought faster players to do the job, you would be wrong. It was the physical trainers who initiated this revolution in soccer. By implementing advances in technology and sports medicine, they were able to take the relatively thin-legged players of the past (some were chain smokers!) and turn them into powerhouse athletes. As the physical condition of the players improved, the coaches realized they could make strategic changes on the field.

By all accounts, Sant’Anna is responsible for some of the most innovative changes to physical conditioning within the international soccer world. In the early 1990s, when Sant’Anna was the trainer for the Brazilian team São Paulo Futebol Clube, he and a physiologist set up a conditioning laboratory. They brought in new technology and used it to run systematic evaluations of each player’s physical capacity and progress. With detailed information about each player, they could adapt the training program to fit individual needs. This individualized approach became a model for other teams around the world.

Sant’Anna brought other innovations to the world soccer stage. Due to the simultaneous scheduling of multiple tournaments and championships, players often had to play a game every 48 hours. So, Sant’Anna developed methods to help the players recover faster after each game. He started using hydro-gymnastics (not to be confused with hydrotherapy), a post-game exercise session in a warm pool with upbeat music, and cryotherapy, which involves a less pleasant experience of sitting in a tub of ice water for about 15 minutes. Both recovery techniques are now used by soccer teams worldwide.

Sant’Anna’s individualized approach enables him to not only help the player increase his strength, speed and resilience, he can also help the player rest and recover. He can arrive at a perfect balance between work and recuperation that enables the player to perform at optimal levels over a long period of time. That’s economically beneficial for both the player, who can extend his career, and for team owners, who want to get the most out of the millions of dollars they invest in today’s top players.

“The players treat us with great respect,” Sant’Anna told me about his work with players like Ronaldo, Kaká, Dunga and many other great names in the sport. “Those players who are considered to be the best in the world are the easiest to train. It’s not by chance that they have reached this level. The relationship has a personal side, but there is also a lot of mutual professional respect. There are no conflicts. They try to stick with our training decisions because they know that we are always thinking about what is best for them.”

The connections between what’s happened to the game of soccer (faster, more intense, more competitive) and the business world (ditto) are easy to see. But are today’s professionals better prepared emotionally and spiritually to handle the speed of the game?

As I listened to Sant’Anna talk about how he personally trains world-class soccer players, I wondered how many business professionals in this fast-paced economy receive some kind of personal care. Not many, I guess.

We at the Global Commerce Network believe in the scriptural principles of balancing work and rest, and going through life with a small group of close friends and allies. Perhaps more than ever, professionals in every field need someone to come alongside them, study their needs, build them up, help them run the race, help them rest and recover, encourage them daily, give them opportunities to grow. This is what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Why not become to your colleagues what Sant’Anna has been to his athletes? We all need a behind-the-scenes ally.