Deliberate practice: What is it? How is it defined and how can you ensure your coaching incorporates this key element in player development? Ray Power discusses this and the topic of talent…Is it born, or is it made?

 

Over the last decade, the world of talent development literature has blossomed. The ‘industry’ is booming with theories about how talented people came to be. There is a tremendous appetite to find out what makes successful people, successful. Everybody wants know how to become a top businessman, musician or sports star. And, we as football coaches, want to know how produce better players.

The Talent Debate

There are those who believe that talented people are born – that expert ability is ‘in their genes’ (think about all those references to Lionel Messi). David Epstein‘s The Sports Gene looks at the impact of things like geography, genes and opportunity – and how that has led certain athletes to greatness. Equally, he speaks about these things being the downfall of others. It is unlikely for example that an African teenager will ever become a sumo-wrestler, regardless of him natural aptitude for the sport. I could be the most naturally gifted batsman on Earth; however, I have never even held a cricket bat. Ungenerous opportunity, culture, exposure and role models all contribute to the fact that I am not an elite cricketer, and our African boy is not a sumo-wrestler.

There are those on the other hand that will claim that talent is and can be developed through practice – that talent can be manufactured. They argue that with commitment and significant practice hours, almost anyone can become expert at almost anything. Bill Beswick tells a wonderful story about watching David Beckham from his office, while he practiced dozens of free kicks before and after training at Manchester United.

Beckham well and truly became what he practiced.

Most of us are now familiar with Anders Ericsson’s ‘10,000 Hour Rule’, a theory that gained some real support in Outliers by Malcom Gladwell and Bounce by Matthew Syed. Syed recounted his own journey from local boy with a Ping-Pong bat, to multiple-time English Champion and Olympian table tennis player. The basic premise is that if people practice hard, they can become talented.

The truth then about talent development is probably somewhere in the middle. Somewhere in between a naturally gifted Messi and a practice-manufactured David Beckham (that is a slight on neither of them – young players could learn a tremendous amount from both).

 Deliberate Practice on the Training Pitch              

Since reading these books, I began to think and apply the theories to football coaching. I began a journey of investigation – some of the journey admittedly had already been studied and dissected already – but I felt there was something missing. I knew that the Brazilian favelas were breeding grounds for flair players, and I also knew that West Africa would produce more big league players than East Africa, but what could I do as a coach? The theory is fine – but what happens on the training pitch? Or better still – what should happen on the training pitch to maximise player development?

Developing and improving young players is about getting the best out of each one. For some that may well be a professional career, for others it may be non-league, or just being a competent amateur player.

For all of them however, deliberate practice will accelerate their development. It is about setting up training sessions where the coach is not the be-all-and-end-all, but facilitates the solving of problems. Deliberate practice takes the crutch of the coach away from players. It is a dad secretly letting go of the kid’s bike when learning to cycle – he doesn’t go away, he is merely letting you get on with riding for yourself.

 

Deliberate practice makes the coach redundant on game days. It means you can behave more like Vicente del Bosque than Mike Bassett; safe in the knowledge that the problems faced by the players on game day, are the same problems they have answered during your training sessions. If a new problem arises, then, by all means, grab the saddle again. If you think you are a good coach because you shout instructions, narrate moves, and direct every passage of play, you are getting it wrong. This behaviour is because you either haven’t prepared them for the variability of football, or you simply want everyone within earshot to think that you are the next Mourinho.

The Brain

While I studied talent development my focus became clear. No one method of football coaching will turn all 16 of your players into international-level professional players (In fact, international youth teams themselves do not do this). As a result, I began focusing on maximizing player development and accelerating player learning – all with the realistic confines of what a typical coach will have to deal with – coaching alone, limited time, equipment etc.

Every once in a while a book comes along that provides you with a lightbulb moment. That one, for me, was Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code. Coyle spoke of a young female musician playing horribly for 6 minutes trying to get a tune right. It was strained, it was stressful, but it was purposeful. It was deliberate. Any kid who has been to any lessons to learn music will recall the endless scales, finger exercises and basic tunes we ‘learned’. Here however, our young musician was going for it, straining, rectifying mistakes, honing in on problems, getting a feel and a sound for the piece – maximizing a very short period of practice time. She could have spent 6 minutes playing a scale while thinking about her lunch, or her homework. Here however, she was wholly cognitively and physically engaged. This 6-minute practice was worth more than 6 hours going through the motions.

Coyle also introduced me to the term ‘myelin’. Myelin is a substance that forms in the brain when we learn. The more we learn, the more myelin is produced to insulate this new learning. The more we practice, the more we strengthen this insulation. The more we practice deliberately, the stronger our learning becomes.

So, in the context of our musician, the more deliberate practice she gets, the more myelin is produced that strengthens her ability to quickly jump from one chord to another. Her brain says, “hey, we have been here before, this is what we do”.

In a football-context, life is even more variable. We are not exactly sure which chord will come next. We can be informed, but we still never quite know what is going to happen. We see similar events, but very rarely do we have the exact same events that reoccur. Football training therefore has to reflect the random, variable nature of the game. How else did Hal Robson-Kanu know that such a simple turn would clear a whole Belgium defense? His brain was saying: “We have been in a situation like this before, let’s try this…”

 Deliberate Soccer Practice

So, with my own brain firing and eager to find out how to allow all this to my football sessions, I did exactly what anyone would – I ‘Googled’ it…and was left very disappointed.

I genuinely do love the web as a resource for coaches – websites such as Player Development Project, blogs, Twitter and YouTube all feed what seems to be an insatiable thirst for football knowledge. A huge amount of the coaching fraternity simply want to get better. The best coaches and learners then find something that lifts them, lights a bulb in their mind – and investigate more to satisfy the curiosity.

However, what I detest about the web is 90% of the practice sessions that are posted. There are literally millions of them, which at first seems like a good thing – but beware of the untested! Conceived during one of these moments of internet frustration was the Deliberate Soccer Practice book series – books that contain 50 deliberate sessions – one on passing and possession, one on defending, one on attacking and finally a small-sided games edition. At the time of writing this article, the attacking edition is ready to be sent to the press!

While researching for the attacking edition, I did another search. I searched for images of “soccer shooting practices”. Of the results, it took until image 12 for a practice that did not contain a queue of players or fixed player positions next to cones. I then did not find a second practice without these elements until image 28. Considering just how important and difficult scoring a goal is, it borders on crazy that the vast majority of shooting, and attacking practices in general, involve little or no moments that reflect its true complexity. Football is one of very few sports where thousands of people will routinely attend games knowing that there is a real likelihood that the game will be goalless. I am not sure how well attended an NBA game would be if there was a real possibility that no baskets would be sunk! The value of scoring and creating goals then is huge – and possibly the most difficult element of the game. Our practices need to reflect and prepare players for these complexities.

When designing sessions, I made some simple rules, which revolved around ‘returns’. I relate the practices to the game whilst compromising as little as possible. Instead of players queuing, waiting their turn, standing on cones, passing to a pre-defined player, following that pass and starting a new queue – players were involved all the time. The returns I want from all practices are:

 RP Graphic

 

Think of that shooting line that we all took part in as kids, and we have all organized as adults – a long queue, outside the box… you play a one-two with the coach, pray that you hit the target from 20 yard, fetch your ball, and find the back of the queue again. Of that process, a mere couple of seconds is spent with the ball or making a football-related. The returns from 20 minutes of this session are practically negligible:

  • I have limited contact with the ball.
  • Other than choosing where to shoot, I make no decision
  • I do not move as a result of the movement of the ball except to try shoot first time from wherever the ball lands. Sometimes I need more than one touch but this is not allowed.
  • I do not move as a result of the movement of other players, as no other players are involved. When others are shooting, I am in a queue, rather than reacting to them.
  • The tempo is unrealistic. I am 1v1 with the goalkeeper and for some reason I am being made shoot first-time from 20 yards.

 When we are really shooting for goal, things are much more complicated. Contrast the shooting line with the session below:

 

RP Session

 

There are defenders to stop me – but I can also use them as a reference point. Maybe I can curl it around a defender, or drive it between defenders which sharpens my accuracy. Even if my teammate has the ball, I am still assessing whether he will shoot or pass, I am trying desperately to be an option for him if he needs it; I am looking at the goalkeeper – will he drop the shot and give me a tap-in? I am working out what defenders are close, what space can I go into, do I need to get out of the way? All in the space of a few seconds.

This is your 6-minute musical instrument practice. The queue is your routine scale. If you ask any expert musician, they are simply not concerned with scales, only the music. As a coach concern yourself with the randomness of the game, and practice deliberately.

About the Author

Ray Power is a UEFA ‘A’ License football coach currently working as a Technical Director in Tanzania. This involves working closely with Sunderland AFC and the Tanzania Football Federation. He is a coach educator and author of the Deliberate Soccer Practice series, as well as the best-selling youth coach booking, Making the Ball Roll and Soccer Tactics 2014. All Ray’s titles are available on amazon here:

You can follow Ray on Twitter: @power_ray

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