A focus on football work-rate and why hard work is a talent

GoPlay Sports met up with Celtic Under-16 coach and International Soccer Academy Manager Willie McNab to discuss work-rate in football. And he explained that the focus and determination needed to work hard, consistently, is a talent and should not be taken for granted or devalued.

“When you play against a guy like Ashley Barnes, it’s perpetual motion, he’s non-stop, always on the move.

“Thierry said something on commentary, it should be a pre-requisite of what you are looking for in a centre-forward. Run around, chase lost causes all game, and he did that and we’re congratulating him for that, but it should be the case for everyone.

“Why doesn’t every player do that? That’s want you’re asking for from a centre-forward.”

The above was an extract from Jamie Redknapp’s post-match comments after the recent Burnley v Everton fixture at Turf Moor. The subject was Clarets striker Ashley Barnes, who had, as they say, ‘put a shift in’ to help the hosts to a well-deserved 2-1 win.

Redknapp was referring to something Thierry Henry had said in commentary – essentially that the work-rate Barnes had shown should be a “pre-requisite” for every striker.

It’s worth noting that Redknapp and Henry are not the only two pundits to have taken on this subject down the years. It’s an emotive topic that is discussed by players and coaches from grassroots to elite level.

But should we really expect high work-rate from every player?

Would we expect every player to be able to dribble around three players and find the top corner of the net? No, because the ability to do that is a talent and McNab argues that hard work should be treated in the same manner.

It’s clear from watching any game, anywhere in the world, that not every player has the same drive and focus to be able to work hard in every game.

Why not congratulate Barnes for working at his optimum?

McNab told GoPlay Sports: “With young players we’re never really questioning the tactical and technical ability. They are always willing to take that on board and you can see them improving on that, but it always seems to boil down to hard work.

“Even when I was a young player, there were always players better than me, but you realize that if your’re willing to work a little bit harder than the man next to me then you have always going to get that opportunity.

“We’re always telling our players at Celtic that and we tell them to watch the best – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – but I like Marco Verratti and when Celtic played PSG recently I told some of our boys, who were ball boys, to watch him.

“His work-rate on and off the ball was phenomenal and our boys were blown away by him. His attutide was an eye-opener to our players.”

The discussion about hard work is not entirely new and it’s not only restricted to football.

McNab adds: “There’s a famous NFL video of Benjamin Watson coming from nowhere in the final game of the season to make a touchdown-saving tackle. It was astounding and afterwards he said his old college coach said to him: ‘Hard work like that does not take a whole load of talent.’

“That got me thinking. It’s not in every one to work hard. Not everyone has got that intrinsic motivation. Even out of football not everyone has got that desire to get up at 4am and go to work.

“I believe hard work is a talent. ”

McNab is passionate about the subject and not alone in his theory, n fact he stands in fine company. Sir Alex Fergsuon recently echoed similar thoughts in a motivation speech at Salford City FC.

“To achieve in life you need something extra inside – a dynamo. You need a work ethic in life. Working hard is definitely a talent,” said Sir Alex.

McNab admits talent and work-rate go hand-in-hand for players at the very top of the game, but he says in youth development at Celtic they are always looking for the players who have the drive to work hard and improve.

“You might give praise to a player who goes past four players, or a player who sticks it in the top corner, but what about the lad who runs 60 yards to get a block in? Not everyone has got that in them.

“I think it is a pre-requisite of being at the very top level. There are not many world-class players who make it without hard work. You may get the odd anomaly with a player who is just phenomenal on the ball, but you need to have talent and hard work to make it at the very top.

“We’re always speaking about our players working hard and taking responsibility for their own development,” said McNab.

McNab also believes that the coach can only take so much responsibility for motivating his or her players.

“When I put this idea out there I was asked: ‘Was it not the job of the coach to motivate players?’ And to an extent yes it is,” said McNab.  “But if you have got a player who is constantly needing motivating then you wonder if they are going to get to the next level. Players need to have that intrinsic motivation. They need to have that dedication and drive.”


Growth mindset v fixed mindset

McNab, who has 18 years coaching experience under his belt and is a respected clinician worldwide, also believes the notion that hard work comes easy to everyone can also be detrimental to the grafters in the squad.

“It can be a little bit disrespectful to hard-working players also. If you are always saying, ‘work doesn’t take a lot of talent’ to three or four players who know they are not as talented as some other boys, but they work tremendously hard then they are probably thinking to themselves ‘maybe the coach doesn’t think I’ve got something’,” said McNab.

“It’s the whole growth mindset vs fixed mindset.

“I try and put myself in the players’ shoes and if I’m a hard-working player and the coach is saying it doesn’t take a lot of talent to do that and everyday in training they are working hard are being the hardest working player, then it can have a negative effect.”


Sweeping the sheds

McNab uses the famous New Zealand rugby union side of recent times as a fine example of a committed, hard-working, but technically talented squad.

“If you look at a team like the old All Blacks they had a terrific work-rate ingrained in them. They would ‘sweep the sheds’ – leave the changing rooms spotless home and away and unload the kit off the bus, they were just so disciplined and hard-working and it showed on the field.

“It takes an unbelievable growth mindset to be able to do that.

“The players that come to the coach and ask how they can get better are the ones that are taking responsibility for their learning. You want players who are committed, that’s the player you want to work with because they have a chance of being a success not only in football but in life.

“If you have got a player who is talented and they are not applying themselves then you would give them a rocket to try and get them to work hard, but if you’re having to do that all the time then they’ve probably got a fixed mindset.

“The people who can develop furthest and quickest are the ones who have that growth mindset.

“It takes a special type of player to work hard every game and not every play is capable of doing that.”


David Beckham 

As far as role models go, McNab says he was hugely impressed when he saw David Beckham play live for Manchester United.

“David Beckham is probably the hardest working player I’ve watched live at Celtic Park. He was unbelievable for Manchester United that night. He dedicated himself to the craft,” added McNab.

“The goal he free-kick he scored for England doesn’t just happen that was hard work and dedication, that was staying behind for hours and hours after training practicing.

“Scott Brown at Celtic is a brilliant role model for our players. His focus and determination is fantastic, but he can play also and he is underrated. He is technically very good and his Champions League stats are good.”

Matthew Briggs

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