Playing the Waiting Game: Why Patience is a Vital Skill in Sport

Patience might be a virtue, but I believe it’s also a skill. In sport, all sorts of psychological skills can be key factors in performance, but over the longer term patience can be a key difference between success, failure and the bit in between. 

When Gary Lineker asked him about Arsene Wenger’s greatest quality as a coach recently, Cesc Fabregas replied very simply, “Patience.” He wasn’t referring to Wenger’s incredible capacity to cope with the weekly ‘Wenger Out’ banners, but his approach in recognising potential and giving it time to develop.

Of course, in modern day football most managers aren’t given the luxury of patience (by fans or club chairmen). If you don’t deliver results, trophies and excitement quickly enough it’s seen as bad for business and you’re unlikely to keep your job for long.

This lack of patience isn’t confined to professional football though. We have become used to living in a world of immediacy – it’s all about fast food, speed dating apps and “I want it now!”. In short, we’re starting to think like Veruca Salt.

In sport, this need for immediate gratification (and sometimes, the sense of entitlement that comes with it) can influence both our emphasis on end results and our attitude towards learning and development.

Going back to Monsieur Wenger, patience is undoubtedly important as a coach. However, our role is also about transmitting the importance of patience to our players and I always feel that one of my challenges as a coach is finding a balance in this. I must help my players to understand that developing technique or decision-making will take time and persistence, while also maintaining their interest and confidence through conveying a gradual sense of mastery.

Patience is also important – and I believe underrated – by many junior players (and their parents) on the elite pathway. Getting selected for an adult first team or a junior rep team doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve ’made it’. Not getting picked might just mean you’re not quite ready yet and there can be a whole array of reasons for this. If you play one game but don’t get selected for the next, that’s not the end of the world either… and it doesn’t mean you’ve been ‘dropped’. It’s called a ‘pathway’ for a reason – and there are different routes to the top.

There are other contexts where impatience is more understandable, but patience is vitally important. The injured athlete often requires as much mental toughness, resilience and tolerance for slow progress as they need physical endurance. Being injured can be the most frustrating and challenging thing a player faces, but a patient and persistent attitude to rehab is what usually makes the difference to coming back stronger (and often sooner!).

In the shorter term, patience can also be a key skill in dealing with difficult or frustrating situations. Whether reacting to a questionable umpiring decision or provocation from an opponent, a bit of patience can help you remain focused on the task and make good decisions under pressure. Having said that, the red mist can sometimes be difficult to control! As long as it doesn’t result in completely losing the plot or getting sent off, I’m very happy to concede that there’s room for some emotional reaction in sport too.

Sustainability and resilience are qualities I seem to refer to a lot when talking about sport. Patience can certainly help develop both, because it’s related to time, persistence and an acceptance that as sportspeople we often have to deal with situations that aren’t perfect. It can also help us to be empathetic and look at something from someone else’s point of view.

The reason I believe that patience is a skill is that it is something you can work on. It might be as simple as counting to ten or taking a few deep breaths. It might mean challenging yourself to consider a situation from a different perspective, or asking yourself a difficult question about why something might have happened.

The tricky thing is that while patience might be a valuable sporting skill, it still doesn’t guarantee long-term success. For every Cesc Fabregas that Arsene Wenger has worked with, there’s a Nicholas Bendtner.

Sport remains unpredictable – that’s part of both the attraction and the challenge as an athlete, coach or fan. Patience can just make all the unpredictability a little bit easier to handle.

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