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The sad reality: Most players don’t live up to their potential

Is that player who just needs to ‘find some consistency’ ever going to make it? Maybe. But don’t bet on it.

Any time a player makes a move, there’s an understandable desire to see it in the most positive light. We think about the player’s potential and consider whether a change might help them unlock it. Maybe they will feel more settled. Maybe the new coach will better understand how to use them, or will help them train in new ways. Maybe they will be a better fit in the new squad. Maybe they’ll shake off that injury.

And that’s fine. Sports is to some extent all about optimism. You need to see the potential and hope that it will come good. That’s what makes it exciting to turn up each new year.

But there’s also the reality that many players are filled with potential, and very few of them ever actually live up to it. The game is absolutely full of players who can look like world-beaters on their best day, but those best days don’t come very often. This is often called a ‘lack of consistency,’ with the assumption that if they could just even out their performances, they’d be more successful. But actually, the more plausible hope is that they become a little less consistent. The vast majority of players are never going to play at their peak all the time. Better to hope that they just find that next level a bit more often.

This topic came to mind as I looked over a bunch of the recent NWSL transfers.

Caitlin Foord is off to Arsenal, where she hopes to re-find her form. Kealia Ohai has moved to Chicago, where she might just be able to turn a page on her lackluster performances over the last couple years. She’ll be joined by Rachel Hill, who never seemed to find her top gear at Orlando. Then there’s Christen Westphal, a former first round pick who showed flashes of excellence with Boston but has seen very little time since moving to the Reign. She’s now joining Portland and hoping to find that consistency.

Going back a little further, there’s perhaps the preeminent example of this type: Chioma Ubogagu. In her time with Arsenal, Houston, and Orlando, Ubogagu displayed the potential to be one of the best players in the world. On her day, she’s close to unplayable. Lightning fast, able to beat you on the dribble or with a lethal throughball, deadly in front of goal. The problem is: those days come only once or twice a year. The rest of the time, she’s a deeply frustrating player who mimics many of the forms of a top performer, but plays the worst pass instead of the best.

With all these players, the basic question lingers: should we judge them by their potential, or by their actual material production? It’s so tempting to go with the former. Hope springs eternal after all, and we certainly have seen high-variance players trim away their less successful results and rocket into stardom. But, sadly, this is generally the exception rather than the rule. Most players don’t stay at their peaks for long, and rarely find their way back once the moment is gone. Brief flashes of brilliance, yes. But sustained success, generally no.

Of course, the hope that an average player might find a few extra moments of brilliance is a lot less inspiring than the hope that a great player will finally ‘find their consistency.’ And so the story continues.

Just to be clear, I would love to see great things from every player I’ve listed here. They really do all have enormous potential. And chances are good that at least one of them will hit a sustained purple patch, and we’ll all talk about the value of finding a new environment, a new coach, a new approach to the game.

That will all be perfectly reasonable. Players are human beings and those things really can make a big difference. But the problem is figuring out beforehand which players will turn the corner and which won’t. I have my suspicions, and I’m sure many other analysts do as well. But there’s very little to support those guesses. So it’s probably wise to assume that the next year for a player will look much the same as the previous one. That may be the boring answer, but sadly, it’s probably the one that will most often be right.


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