”I felt that I had a good chance to improve at anything that I enjoyed”
For me one of the constants in Costa Rica’s successful 2014 World Cup campaign in Brazil was Celso Borges. He just always seemed to be there when things were about to happen. He was there on the periphery taking up a position to support a teammate, creating a passing option, distracting defenders with his movement. He was also there to make sure that nothing would happen just in case the ball was lost. It is said that the opposite of constant is a variable. For Celso Borges to become this “constant” on the World stage it required great variability.
I first met Celso Borges in October 2013. His then teammate Henok Goitom brought him to the Stockholm RCD Espanyol player’s camp I was involved in. Henok is a friend and even though he is still playing professionally he is one of the best coaches I know. His work on and off the pitch with Kista Galaxy is proving to be a huge inspiration for many. Celso wanted to come as he also has a big interest in coaching. We spoke about Costa Rica’s chances in the World Cup- “We will surprise many- although I will not be surprised. We will qualify from our group” I recall him saying. He took a keen interest in how the young players at the training camp were responding to the game centred sessions that the Spanish coaches had set up. We met again at another Stockholm RCD Espanyol player coaching camp in August 2014. Celso had just returned from a very successful World Cup campaign with Costa Rica. Yes, they surprised a lot of people. Still, the same appetite to learn was there. He stayed for two hours watching the young kids learning the game and later discussed coaching ideas and methods with the Spanish coaches often reflecting on his own childhood and how he learned the game. It was these childhood reflections that made me decide that I needed to interview him. We eventually managed to sit down and talk before his move from Swedish club AIK to La Liga club Deportivo La Coruna.
We played wherever and whenever we could
Even as a child the game was all about the experience and connecting the dots. These dots were different game situations, different skills, different social experiences and different sports. His early learning in sport was not through a staggered text book process of coach instruction led sessions but by simply discovering and doing. “I always felt that I had a good chance to improve at anything that I enjoyed”.
We can divide Celso’s early sporting experiences into two categories.
- Inclusive sporting experience in an unstructured sporting environment. (Street games)
- Inclusive sporting experience in a more structured sporting environment. Moderate volumes of organised soccer training plus participation in other sports
Soccer was in his family. His father Alexandre Guimaraes was a professional footballer representing Costa Rica in the 1990 World Cup and was head coach in the 2002 World Cup. Celso’s early development was based around the simplicity of playing street games. Its instant gratification, the trial and error of it all captured his imagination. His first contact environment with soccer was all about autonomy and fun. These defining themes along with social interaction, problem solving and intuition frequently surfaced during my conversation with him. They lay the foundations for what was to come.
“My earliest memory of playing soccer was on the streets of Tibas in Costa Rica. It would begin with maybe two of us playing goal to goal just taking shots at each other and trying to stop each other from scoring. Then others would join in and a game would develop. Different ages, different abilities all there for the same purpose, to have fun. Basketball was also a big street game. I grew up in the Michael Jordan era. He was a real hero to us”. All it took was for a Chicago Bulls game to be on TV and afterwards they were out on the street re-enacting the best moves of their hero. Celso and his friends just played, individual ability was never considered important. These games were competitive, challenging and a lot of fun. He and his friends structured “unstructured” games –inventing their own rules and games within games creating their own learning environment.
I would do it all over again
The environment -the streets, the school yards and back yards with their varying surfaces and sizes, manipulated time and space and encouraged the development of more flexible and adaptable skills. ”We played wherever and whenever we could”: Games were invented and skills were developed. Different surfaces demanded different solutions that Celso himself to this day believes helped develop his skills. “We played on cracked concrete. The ball could suddenly come at you at any angle. I got to practice a variety of techniques in lots of different situations. I learned to find quick solutions and you know what? I WOULD DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN”.
His early experiences of soccer seemed to be fresh fun and novel. The various environments and surfaces with their unpredictability were welcomed challenges. “So many kids today get to play on these perfect artificial pitches”. Celso does have reservations with regard to how many children today experience the game, drilled from cone to cone through repetitive technique and passing exercises. He feels that coaching kids in the early years this way does not necessarily prepare them for the sheer dynamic unpredictability of the game.
Often while just hanging out with his friends they would feel like playing soccer, but nobody had a ball with them. Maybe the ball they had yesterday disappeared in to a neighbor’s garden. If the “human pyramid” approach to scaling the wall didn’t work then they would have to wait until the neighbor returned before they uttered those immortal words so familiar to us of a certain age “Please can we have our ball back?” With necessity being the mother of invention Celso recalls how he and his friends would make a ball from masking tape. “It was our solution to our problem and it was fun, a lot of fun”. It didn’t roll like a ball it didn’t bounce like a ball, yet another variable for Celso to adjust to. “We often played where cars passed by. It certainly increased our awareness. I guess that many parents today would see this as a problem. To us it was just how it was”. Maybe in those days when street soccer was the norm, not only were Celso and his friends aware of oncoming cars, the driver was also aware of the possibility of a street game happening in the neighbourhood. There seemed to be an unwritten contract, an understanding between the driver of the car and the kids playing football on the street. Just like my own childhood in Cork, Ireland, we respected that they had to pass through our environment and they respected our right to the street.
Celso’s early sporting experience was a positive and diversified one. Between the ages of eight and eleven he engaged in a range of activities in different environments. In school Celso was involved in soccer, basketball, high jump, baseball and athletics. They used to have these sport festivals between schools.” I tried to compete in as many sports as possible. It was fun. I had a passion for sports in general. I was content with playing nearly any sport. I felt that I had a good chance to improve at anything that I enjoyed”. For the young Celso play was practice. This intuition indeed a child’s intuition to associate play, enjoyment and fun with learning seems to have become lost in many traditional grassroots coaching environments.
“My involvement in many sporting activities was very beneficial from a social point of view. I got to move in different social circles. The sports I played were not expensive to take part in therefore they were open to a broad social spectrum. Youth sport is a great chance to make and develop friendships”.
I really felt that I was going to be a footballer- I just didn’t know the route
Despite the fact that his parents didn’t push him in to one particular sport it was never really in doubt which sport Celso would eventually focus on. Celso’s first contact with organised soccer was when he was 8. The local club would get a bunch of kids together on Saturday just to play a game. “There was minimal coaching – It was all game based”. At the age of 12 he decided to push other sports aside and began to train twice a week with a team. “It felt good to be involved in organised training sessions, I embraced the seriousness, I was ready. Being involved in other sports and the many hours of street games gave me a solid foundation”.
Again Celso felt that he had a good chance at improving at something that he enjoyed. He recalls a real switch in his attitude on entering high school at 13. “I really felt that I was going to be a footballer, I just didn’t know the route”. Being involved in many sports had thought Celso about responsibility and compromise and this prepared him for the focus and sacrifice that was necessary in his teenage years. “An early positive sporting environment is so good for youth development. It teaches you values. You meet people from different backgrounds and circumstances. It is such a good tool for development, especially when you reach your teens when there are so many distractions. You find out what you really want. What are you capable of giving up? What sacrifices will you make? Those positive early experiences can help keep you on your path”.
Celso found many similarities in the dynamics between basketball and soccer especially in reference to how the team had to organise so quickly in response to losing or gaining possession. This required fast solutions, general team play such as defending and attacking as a team. Athletics helped him on a more personal level. “You need to rely on yourself, goal settings are the same but a bit more personal. The high jump helped me develop speed over short distances and my ability in the air”. However it was soccer and the nature of the team sport that that was his first love. “Even Rafael Nadal speaks about the bond, that brotherhood that you find in team sports that he misses and cannot experience in tennis”.
“My parents were always a great support to me. They never forced me to play or train football. They always said to me that I should focus on the things that make me happy. I remember when I was 15 my parents once saying to me that I was playing in my comfort zone and I didn’t seem to be showing much enthusiasm or passion for the game. They showed me videos of me playing football when I was a kid- look at the joy they said- you are too comfortable now -look at the joy”. His parents were right. That same year Celso got cut from the national youth team. It was a devastating blow for him and it hit him very hard. “They said I was not dynamic enough. I could easily have quit but I worked on it. I was determined to prove them wrong. I got great support from my family. They saw how sad I was”.
Somewhere within the environment of cracked concrete, school, a supportive family and childhood friendships a foundation was built for elite performance. Since he can remember he always felt that he had a winning mentality. When he played on the street of Tibas, Costa Rica with his friends he was always competitive. When he ran in the school athletics festivals he was always competitive. But it never became overwhelming. It was about the process..
In a sport where peak performance cannot be reached until after maturity Celso benefited from a more holistic development. His early sporting experiences were based on diversification and play. For him play was practice. He always wanted to improve and as long as he was enjoying it, he believed that he would. This built the intrinsic motivation that helped him take control of his development in later years. Celso the young boy became the protagonist of his own learning. “Loads of players that I played with and against had more talent than me but they didn’t want it enough. They didn’t have the drive”. Within that drive was an ability to deal with setbacks and failure.
“A winner is someone who, when he loses gets over it quickly. It is nothing to do with results it is a mentality”. This mind-set, a growth mind-set has its roots in his childhood.
For Celso Borges to become a constant on the World stage it required him to experience and embrace great variability, especially during childhood.