Season 1. Episode 5 with Hugo Perez. Listen to the podcast. Don't forget to subscribe!         

PMA For Football Greatness 

Announcer: Welcome to the Rethinking Football podcast, where we discuss player development with players, world renowned scouts, professional football academy directors, coaches and others. We will use Spain’s model and compare it to other national governing bodies in other countries. At the end of each podcast we will update our theory of change to improve player development worldwide using indicators, best practices, and our own research, along with the opinions and expertise of our guests.

Soccer Hall of Fame inductee, Hugo Perez, is a legend and a true agent of change. Perez was part of the generation that influenced tens of thousands of football lovers in the U.S. Perez was born in El Salvador, and grew up in Southern California. During his 14-year-career as a professional footballer, Perez earned 73 national caps including the Olympic squad. He was a member of the 1994 U.S. World Cup team, and was starter in the unforgettable Round-of-16 match against Brazil. 

As a coach, Perez has been credited as the architect of the most talented U.S. Youth National team in history. The graduates from his U.S. U-15 boys national squads (between 2012-2014) represent some of the players that can potentially shape the future of the USMNT including Christian Pulisic, Andrew Carleton, Josh Perez, Tyler Adams, Lucas Del Rosario, and Jose Carranza. He also brought Jonathan Gonzalez to the U.S. National Team program. Perez talks about solutions that can improve talent scouting, player development, and coaching education.

Host:  This is part 2 of a 3-part series with Hugo Perez. Positive mental attitude (PMA) is the philosophy that having an optimistic disposition in every situation in one’s life attracts positive changes and increases achievement. Adherence employs a state of mind that continues to seek, find and execute ways to win, or find a desirable outcome, regardless of the circumstances. It opposes negativity, defeatism and hopelessness. Optimism and hope are vital to the development of PMA.

A study of major-league baseball players indicated that a key component that separates major-league players from the minor leagues and all other levels is their ability to develop mental characteristics and mental skills. Among them are mental toughness, confidence, maintaining a positive attitude, dealing with failure, expectations, and positive self talk.

It’s reasonable to conclude that PMA plays a crucial role in the success of an athlete. And that it is as important as physical attributes, understanding of the game, and sports intelligence.

In this episode we will discuss the importance of positive mental attitude for American players hoping to succeed in European leagues, and how PMA is instrumental in developing higher-level players.

We are back with Hugo Perez. Hugo, you were fortunate to train with one of the masters of the game in the history of the sport, Johan Cruyff, who of course is one of the people who helped define modern football as we know it today. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience training under his tutelage and what you learned from that experience?

Guest: Obviously I find playing with Ajax and in Holland, I still remember the World Cup in 1974. He was already a coach playing the game. That’s how ahead he was as a coach. Even though at that time he was still playing, but then I signed here in the NASL when he came here to America. Now you look at him, obviously technique was amazing, his vision amazing, creativity amazing, and if we talk about as a fan to come and see him play, he entertained you. Then I had the opportunity to go to Ajax and do preseason with Ajax. He was a coach there at that time. The way he taught football, it wasn’t only about coaching, it was about teaching.

I was 24 years old when I went there, and I always tell this story. I was in a training session and we were doing some possession, and I got the ball from one side, to the middle and when I switched the ball to the outside. He stopped the play, and he told me that’s not a good pass. Now my pass was perfect, To the player that I played the ball to. He stopped me and said, “That’s not a good pass” and I said, “Coach, why?” And he said, “Look, if you play in Europe, and you make that pass, you were giving the ball to your teammate in a disadvantage situation.” And nobody ever said that to me. And then he went on to say, “The reason is because the pass you made, it took too long to come down to the player, even though it was a good pass. By the time he got it, he had somebody in front of you. Now if you make that same pass but with a different speed on the ball, then the advantage is for the one who receives the ball. And you know what it’s true. It’s true. Because in Europe players are faster sometimes, the intensity is faster, now we are talking about the 80s right now, not the 2000s right now. Now when I look at that, for me that’s called teaching. For me that’s fixing something on a player that was already a professional to make it better, that’s teaching. Because it’s a very simple thing that he can say that makes a difference when you give the ball to somebody to move forward.

(I went to play in Europe) because I wanted to test myself. I wasn’t afraid to fail. I always thought that if I was good enough, I’ve got to test myself.
— Hugo Perez, former US National Team Coach, and Professional Footballer

And of all the time I was there, he was a teacher. I mean his philosophy of playing the players he played, the position where they should play, the advantages of playing that way were huge. I’ve never had anybody in a short period of time that I learned a lot from like him. He was amazing. And I know I say this because I lived it for so many years, now I read it from players who play for him in Barcelona, on the national team. He was a genius. Those are the type of players and type of coaches that you don’t see too often.

And I think again, I don’t put anybody down in this country. But sometimes we have to be real, we need to be honest with ourselves, we need teachers like that and there’s nothing wrong with thinking that we should bring somebody like that. There're sometimes I feel here that we're very insecure and we want to bring somebody, and we’re afraid one of the first things that are going to happen is they’ll fire us. So, we don’t want that person, or we don’t want that type of coach or...yeah we don’t want that type of person to come here and teach as that. We’re very insecure and I think we should not be that way.

You know I left USA when I was playing because I wanted to test myself in Europe to see if I could play. That’s why I left America and went to play in Europe for a couple of years. Because I wanted to test myself. I wasn’t afraid to fail. I always thought that if I am good enough, I’ve got to test myself. And as a coach now, I do the same thing. I learn a lot from other coaches but there’s certain coaches I really pay attention to and they will teach you a lot. I’m still learning. I’m still open, I’m not afraid to bring somebody else who’s better than I am. I think it’s an advantage. I can learn more and I think we should all be open to do that, but I think in our country we are afraid of that. We are afraid of that change and that’s why it’s difficult. But Johann was for me, somebody I met that I felt taught me so much and that’s why I have this passion for him.


I was the type of player, at the time when I left, this was during the time when you used to go to Europe as an American, and people didn’t believe that America has good players. But when I got there, you look at me and realize, and I know how it is in Europe. You send somebody there and in the first three days if he doesn’t do well, and he’s not good, they’ll tell you to go home. They won’t play around. I was there during preseason. By the second day he said to stay. I was there almost 3 weeks. I couldn’t get a work permit, that’s why I didn’t sign with Ajax at that time. But he wanted to sign me. But my point is with him now that I’ve coached a little bit, I realized his football, his mentality, his preparation, the way he sees football, is the way I love football. And the things that I saw from him at that time, I’ve learned so much through the years. And I still have it. I still think that for me he’s the best coach I’ve had in such a short time.


Host: That’s wonderful, what a great story. I think you’ve touched on something that’s really important and it’s the difference in culture around the game in Spain and in other countries versus here in the US. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Guest: Speaking of the culture, we have a 17-year-old that goes to Europe, mom and dad are not there, you live in a place that is not as comfortable as home, or something, the language is an issue. The things you have here at home you don’t have over there. There’s so many things that are difficult but the ones that do make it, the ones that do succeed, are the ones that mentally have put those things aside and they are just thinking about making it to the first team and being a professional player. Because at the end it all comes down to the mental part. They have the ability, they have the talent to play overseas, but the mental part of doing those the things that are not comfortable are the ones that either make you come back, or mentally you overpass that and you fight and you get used to it and to a different type of life over there in Europe. And then you make it. But it comes down to the mental part and how much hungrier our players are to succeed.

Not only is he (Jonathan Gonzalez) good technically, he is good physically...but at the end it’s the mental factor that really takes in...(when players) leave their comfort zone and go to a country where they’re going to have to fight for a spot everyday.
— Hugo Perez, former US National Team Coach and Former Footballer
Hugo Perez brought Jonathan Gonzalez to the US national team. Later he became a professional players in Mexico and has been regarded as one of the best defenders in LigaMX. 

Hugo Perez brought Jonathan Gonzalez to the US national team. Later he became a professional players in Mexico and has been regarded as one of the best defenders in LigaMX. 

Host: Right. You brought Jonathan Gonzalez to the US team. What did you see in him?

Guest: I saw in him the technical part, I saw in him the IQ, his IQ of football, I saw in him the hunger he has to become a professional player. I saw in him how hard working he was, very young but very mature, very respectful, always with the idea of learning. But I also felt that his technical qualities and the way he saw football were a big part of why we selected him for our youth national team.

Host: So, it sounds like what he had was the tools, but also the attitude and the mental acuity to manage his own development. Is that true?

Guest: Yes. That and obviously he had also, I think I mentioned it before, he went to Mexico at a young age. He left his family, he left everything here. We knew when we saw him he had the potential to become a professional player, but at the end, when kids go at an early age to another country, the biggest obstacle is always going to be can they adjust to the type of life outside the US to make it. And that’s always going to be the question. Not only is he good technically, is he good physically, all those things, but at the end is the mental factor that really takes in when they leave their comfort zone and go to a country where they’re going to have to fight for a spot every day. He had that. He had the hunger to do that.

That’s why I’m not surprised that he’s in Mexico right now. Because he had all those tools, and he was lucky I’ll be honest with you, he was lucky enough to go into a club, and to play for a coach that believes in that type of player. That’s the other key. He found a coach there who’s an Argentinian guy, he likes those types of players, and obviously he saw Jonathan for a couple of tournaments for two years or a year and a half I think, and he was following him so that even though he was young, he had the tools to play on that team. That team is a difficult team to break into because they have a lot of foreigners there.

Host: We will continue our conversation with Hugo Perez after this.

Any player who’s technical and talented can play any gives you more weapons when you bring someone like that to a team, and you surround them with the right personnel and players. So, if I bring players who are physical and athletic, and less talented and not creative, I am going to play a style that is more physical.
— Hugo Perez, Former US National Coach and Former Footballer


Host: Let’s talk a bit about kids in the US who have dual citizenship, both here and in Mexico. And how a lot of those players are being recruited to come to Mexico. Why are they getting the attention of the coaches in Mexico and not getting the same attention here in the US?

Guest: I think a lot has to do with whoever is in charge of our national teams here. I’ve always said this. When you’re coaching a national team, every coach has an idea of what type of players he wants to pick, what type of style he wants to play and what time of system he thinks he can play. But it all comes down to the pace of the players. It comes down to what type players you like.

It’s always been an issue here obviously because we don’t have too many Latino coaches in this country at the youth level. We’re talking about the national team youth level. We have English people, we have Dutch, we have Europeans and we have Americans. But at the end I always feel that the Latino players have a disadvantage because we don’t have too many Latino coaches that believe in a certain style of soccer. And that obviously affects who you’re going to pick. Now not every Latino player can play on a national team. We know that. Sometimes people get confused with that. But what I’m talking about are Latino players that are talented and are technical, and that culture wise are in a soccer family, I think those are the ones that I feel we need to pay more attention to. But it’s going to require the people who work at US Soccer to be able to have that vision.

Because the players that have dual citizenship, but they were born here, whether we like it or not, their roots are here, Mexican or Central American. Their parents are always going to dream about their kids playing for the country where the parents are from. At the end they have to make a choice, but we need to make it hard, for example, Mexico, to take our players away. And the only way we can do that is having more connections with the Hispanic community, with the culture, and obviously having coaches that like those types of players. Because at the end that’s what it comes down to. If I like and Hispanic player who is technical and can help me on a program that I have or the idea that I have that I want to build for the national teams and a style of football, then I have to pay a lot of attention to that.

And it not only has to be on the on the soccer side, it has to be in regional and making sure that we can work with those people and understand who they are, where they’re coming from and that will give us at least the advantage to be able to say we want this player, we want you to be with us, we feel that you should come with us, we have this this this and we can help get this. You know sometimes it does come down to do that. Because Mexico has a good program. But the disadvantage in Mexico is that our players are here in this country.

Hugo Perez was inducted into the soccer hall of fame in 2008

Hugo Perez was inducted into the soccer hall of fame in 2008

So, we can have a better relationship with them then the one in Mexico, but Mexico has done a good job in having good relationships with them here even though the Mexican Federation doesn’t have anything to do here. But they had some people that have contact with them and they’ve been able to convince those players that have dual citizenship to be able to go to Mexico and play. So, I think it’s a matter of having the right people reaching out and also having the right people who are coaching, that they do like those types of players and they want to choose those types of players.

A big part of the Spanish National team is technique and have players who come from different clubs but they all have that...And, when you bring them to the (youth or senior) national teams, they (the team staff) all have the same vision and philosophy of the (profile) player they want
— Hugo Perez, Former National Team Coach and Professional Footballer

Host: Right. This happens in Spain and Germany and France with immigrant children. But the Latin style player is an asset worldwide, wouldn’t you say? And that good players can come from and play any style, correct?

Guest: I feel that any player who’s technical, and talented, he can play in any style. But the difference that it makes from somebody who’s not, is that it gives you more weapons when you bring somebody like that to a team and you surround them with the right personnel and players, then we can think about developing a style that fits. Everybody speaks about here in the US we don’t have a style. And the reason we don’t, people say, is because there are so many different cultures in this country. For example, I agree to a certain point, but I also disagree. If I bring players I feel can play a certain style then that’s going to be my style on the national team.

So, if I bring players who are physical and athletic and they are less talented and not creative then I’m going to play a style that is more direct football. Style that is probably more physical. But, if I’m the type a coach that I like technical players, then I’m going to bring technical players that will help me to play a style without more possession-oriented football, more creative. All my players from the back to the front getting involved more with a ball. That’s how I’m going to create a style. I do believe if I get German descendants, Asian descendants, Hispanic descendants, that all of them have what I’m looking for, which is the technical part. I can blend it. I can play good football with them. But it has to do with me as a coach and the way I think.

Host: Spain has many different approaches too. They have the Basque country, the players are different there than they are in Valencia and other regions, and they managed to make it work and to address these differences in play. Why is it different there versus here in the United States, where it seems that there is a single style, single approach to play?

Guest: Look in Spain, you mentioned that there’s different clubs in Spain. But when you look at the national team, all those players are being picked from different clubs, but they have something in common. They can play a certain way with their clubs, or a certain style but their foundation is, I would say the majority of their foundation as a player is the technical part. And when you bring them to the Spanish national team, and you look at how the Spanish national team staff works and who they are, youth national teams and senior national teams, they have the same vision and philosophy of the type of players they want to choose for the Spanish national teams. And the base of that is creativity, is the technical part, so all of them are in sync.

I think that’s part of a big piece for the Spanish National teams is the technical part and the creativity part. Now you have again players that come from different clubs, but they all possess that. And the coaches and the players who are being picked by the staff of the Spanish national team, they believe in that philosophy, and that’s why you see that when they come to the national team, they can all perform because they have something in common, which is creativity and the technical part. Some of them could be technical in one way, technical another way, but they all have that foundation which is required to play in a certain style which the Spanish national team does.

Host: So, skill really trumps style, because good players can’t play any style, and it trumps size? It really boils down to skill?

Guest: The most difficult style to play is the style that you have to possess the ball a lot, that you have to be involved with the ball a lot. That every play in every position has to have the ability to handle the ball. That is the hardest style to play. The easiest one is the one where players don’t get involved too much, or they just get the ball and they punt it, they don’t want to have anything to do with creativity, they don’t want to have anything to do with the responsibility of starting a play, or developing a play or creating a play. It’s easier just to get the ball and punt it and there’s no risk of losing it. But the other style is different. You need the style of players who have the capacity to be able to dominate and control the ball, and has the technical part. That’s the most difficult one.

Host: Thank you Hugo. Join us next time for part three of our conversation with Hugo Perez.


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A tribute to hugo perez's career as a footballer