Belief is a tricky thing. In an everyday sense, we like to think we believe in things when there is sufficient evidence, but that relatively straightforward explanation is a little threadbare when it comes to believing in things that are a little more complicated like one’s job, one’s team or especially oneself. When it comes to a team’s belief in itself, you’re talking about threading together a couple dozen people and their individual beliefs in themselves into one thing — a collective will with which you can move mountains.
When Minnesota United came back to beat Atlanta on the road 3-2 last season after going down 1-2, I asked Head Coach Adrian Heath what it took to overcome a deficit in a match like that.
“Well, belief more than anything else,” he said at the time. “The belief that you can turn it around.”
It wasn’t the first or only time he talked about how the team had to believe in itself, and the way he spoke about it, it was an almost organic, living thing. It had to be nurtured or fostered. It was about building confidence, but it had to be earned. Focusing on the results was counterproductive, but players also had to see positive results to carry forward the work.
How players perceive the results and build on them is something that coaches can play a big part in during the preseason. Standards and expectations are set and the parameters for success can be established early on.
“From a coach’s point of view, you have to believe in what you’re doing and put across that message,” said Heath. “There’s nothing worse than playing for a coach that actually tells you stuff that you don’t believe in. And I think it’s really important that we believe in what we’re trying to give them.”
A major component of this kind of collective belief is the sense that the people you share this belief with are on the same page as you. So long as you feel you’re working toward a common goal from a common understanding, you can dig into each other and demand more of each other.
“Once you’ve been with people long enough, they can start holding each other accountable,” said Heath. “Not only Monday to Friday, but playing on Saturday. And that’s where the belief comes: over a period of time where you understand ‘This is what the manager expects and we are capable of doing that.’”
There were moments on the pitch last season when that kind of belief seized the team. You saw it when they played with a bit of an edge, when they felt dangerous. You saw it when they handled Sporting KC 2-0 at home, when they edged the mighty Portland Timbers 3-2 and, of course, the aforementioned road victory against Atlanta. But you saw it even in the Loons’ 3-0 loss to New York Red Bulls in late July. Soccer is a cruel game, and in that match, Heath saw opportunities barely missed that could have drawn them level. The same goes for a tough 2-1 loss in stoppage time to eventual Western Conference champs Seattle Sounders FC at CenturyLink Field a month later.
“If you can take really good teams to their limit to beat you, you’re on the right road,” said Heath. “And that’s when you have to keep believing in what we’re trying to do. But ultimately, it’s results. Results are the ones, because it’s hard for me as the coach to keep convincing them we’re doing the right things if at the end of the day, you don’t get the result that you need. Because that’s the only thing that gives people confidence: results.”
Respectfully, I disagree with Heath on this point because I think there’s a chicken-and-egg thing going on here: confidence breeds results, and results feed back into confidence. Where this cycle begins is hard to pinpoint, and it’s probably different for everyone involved in perpetuating that cycle for an entire team. You need irrational confidence guys, you need early adopters, you need the stoic vets to buy in, even if they all buy in at a different point. Results matter, but how the team talks about them matters, too. It’s not about framing every loss positively or undercutting every win — it’s about creating an environment that perpetuates growth through accountability, teamwork, rigor and feedback.
There’s no overnight path to this, though. The team is not going to magically come upon this belief, but they’re putting the pieces in place. And as Lester Freamon said, when you’re building something, all the pieces matter.