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Arjen Robben: 5 Lessons From My Career

Mental Health

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  • The recently-retired Dutch winger shares some tips from his 20-year career as a footballer in a new book, The Secret Balance of Champions


  • The former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid star tells how he learnt to overlook criticism from fans and live with the nickname, 'The Man of Glass'


  • Being a footballer was like being "inside a tunnel", Robben says, and he realized that it's important not to be consumed by the sport


How do you build a successful career in professional football?

”You’ll need some luck,” says Arjen Robben.

But it’s not by chance you spend 20 years at the top of the game, or develop a signature skill that everyone sees coming but nobody - not even the world’s best defenders - can stop.

Arjen Robben has been a master of his craft. Recently, for the second and (probably) final time, the right winger with the legendary left foot has retired from professional football.

For two decades he mesmerised fans of FC Groningen, PSV Eindhoven, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and the Netherlands national team.

Just before retiring, Arjen shared some of his tips to a successful career in the just-published book The Secret Balance of Champions.

Live in the Moment  

Although I had the dream (of being a professional footballer), I wasn’t particularly focused on it. I just tried to keep focusing on myself and getting the best out of every match.

I was always focused on the here and now. I didn’t plan ahead or think about what I wanted; I was just playing football and I wanted to become better, but I also wanted to be the best.

When you grow up, you realise at a certain moment that this isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight, and a career in football isn’t for everyone. You’ll need some luck and only a few manage to get far.

I just tried to do my best, which I feel is my strength. I think that’s been the common thread throughout my whole career and I also think it’s crucial.”

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Believe in Yourself

I got the nickname The Man of Glass as I was - “always” - injured. I still remember a period of being a little stuck and unable to figure things out physically. When I notice this happening, I reset everything and think, ‘Alright, is there anything that I can still improve?’”

I double check everything: my nutrition, my blood values, body scans, and I ask myself: ‘In what area can I make things better?’”

Your mind also starts to play a role too. How do you deal with being injured? Does it bother you? Do you experience body anxiety? I’ve had to deal with all of these aspects throughout my career, so I guess you could say – almost unfortunately – that I’m somewhat of an expert in this.

(To be called The Man of Glass) was really annoying but eventually [my] perspective also changed, because I then realised that the people who gave me that nickname just didn’t understand.

I would almost get angry and think, The Man of Glass?! If you only knew! I’m in shape, I’m strong, but everything needs to be just right.

I knew that if everything was right then I would be, in a manner of speaking The King of the World. I felt that as long as I was in perfect shape, I was among the best worldwide in my area and my position, which was reassuring.”

Look After Your Body

Ultimately, my injuries have taught me different things. It’s a knowledge that you develop over the years and you have to search within yourself and find the people who can help you.

[You have to] try to do everything that is in your control to look after your body. In addition to that, you have to deal with the body you have.

Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you have bad luck. Throughout my career I’ve had injuries and problems, but the one thing I can say is that I feel I did everything to enable it to perform well, and this is why I [could still play in the Dutch Eredivisie at 37 years old].”

Arjen Robben On Coming Out of His First Retirement to Represent FC Groningen Again

Learn to Enjoy Yourself

Robben retired from playing in 2019, before returning to represent his hometown FC Groningen. During the time away, he learned to enjoy more freedom.

I enjoyed doing different things and spending more time with my wife and family. I’d train for a marathon four times a week. I also did some other sports alongside it, but I’d do these in the morning. So, I’d take the kids to school, train for an hour or two and then I’d be done.

As an elite athlete, you have a different kind of focus. Sometimes my wife and family would jokingly say, ‘he’s inside his tunnel again,’ and I must unfortunately admit that it’s true.

My wife said, and I think she’s right, ‘It would be nice if you could continue like you were… in that relaxed mode’. She said this because I’d become a different person in that year off.

The most important thing I always think is you’re not only a football player, you’re also a human being. I hope the people I’ve worked with see me as a good player who showed his talent, but even more a good colleague who they enjoyed working with.”

Stay True to Yourself

As you get older, I think you can look back and be more grateful for everything, especially now, as I was out for a year. I thought I’d finished my career once, but I returned. I think I can appreciate even more now that football is really just a great game.

Moreover, you can’t control the expectations of other people, whether it’s the press or fans. I always try to make the best of situations and give everything I have, and then wait to see the outcome. As long as you can do that and stay close to yourself, I don’t think you can do more.”

(This is an edited version of Arjen Robben's interview in 'The Secret Balance of Champions'. This version was edited by Laurie Bell.)