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mini Messi & the weight of expectation

You may have seen the news yesterday that the 18-year-old Dundee United Football Club midfield sensation, Ryan Gauld, who has been dubbed ‘mini Messi’ by teammates, has clinched a £3 million move to Sporting Lisbon. Many of you have probably not even heard of Gauld. Take it from me, he’s good, very good - I saw him put in some classy performances for United last season. United manager Jackie McNamara has proclaimed him as, potentially, “one of the greats of our game”.

I have mixed feelings about the transfer. On one hand, it’s great to see Scottish talent attracting interest on a bigger stage. We’ve been due a superstar for a while. However, although I wish Gauld well and would love to see him get to the very top of the professional ladder, I have a niggling worry that he’s moved abroad too young, and that he won’t fulfil his potential. Nothing annoys me more in sport than when talent goes to waste.

Although he’s clearly moved to a much bigger club and higher profile league, and will have made a few quid in so doing, Gauld is not the first Scottish footballer to have headed off for the bright lights at a young age. And whilst there have certainly been a few Hansen’s, Law’s and Dalglish’s in the past years, there have also been many who have failed to make the grade (Ralph Milne anyone?). Talent can very easily sink without trace.

What makes the difference?

There is a question here about fulfilling potential. I was reminded of this over the past couple of days while watching Wimbledon, where on Tuesday Australian 19-year-old Nick Kygrios put in an astounding performance to destroy Rafa Nadal, but failed to get back to that level in the quarterfinal. What was most exhilarating about the Nadal match, was the manner of Kygrios’s performance - unshackled, fearless, with freedom of expression. Going on from Wimbledon more will be expected of him because of what we have seen. The challenge for him, as it will be for Gauld and others like them, is to deliver on these expectations, and their undoubted talent, consistently, and at the highest level.

Expectations can unsettle and undermine performance. In terms of what they actually are? – ultimately a mindset, or a script that someone might have in their head, for how they think they should or ought to behave or perform. Once this script is in place, an individual will start to feel pressure to deliver on it. Pressure will effect different people in different ways. Some rise to it. For others, muscles tighten, rhythm goes, focus, concentration and intensity can head south.

Back to Gauld. If he is to thrive and deliver on his potential, he needs to mature quickly and deal well with these kinds of expectations. Much of this will be about the support system that he has and maintains around him. Ideally, if he has the right people, they’ll keep him grounded and he’ll do well. There is also something about how he responds as an individual. He needs to learn to feel comfortable in his new environment quickly. Once he does, it will allow him to have the freedom to express his talent, free from the doubt, worry, or stress that expectation can bring.

All of this could be a challenge for a youngster of 18. Whilst guys like Gauld have natural abilities in abundance that will get them noticed in the first place, ultimately, it is what lies between their ears that will be the measure of how successful they become.

Yours in psychology,


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