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Practice, Instruction, and Skill Acquisition in Soccer: Challenging Tradition

Mark Williams and Nicola J. Hodges

The Big Idea

These authors celebrate growth of sport science over the years.  But their concern is that especially in the sport of soccer “sport science” is construed to mean the physiology of it all and little else.  In this research review light is thrown on the behavioural and social sciences as an example of the contribution to the larger world of the “sciences of sport.”

The subject of this study is the incredibly important scientific study of the what and how of learning soccer.  These scientists are focused on the conceptual and perceptual world of learning.  The trouble comes, they admit, when the question of evidence arises.  Measuring such functions as aerobic and anaerobic capacity and other fitness parameters or interventions is far more popular.  But simply because such measures exist and are plentiful does not mean they exhaust what we can learn and know.  As the saying goes, absence of evidence does not mean there is evidence of absence.


  • A bottom, the problem these researchers are dealing with is coaching practice inertia.
  • They argue that coaches who ignore the rich empirical research in the social and behavioural sciences miss opportunities to move off the beaten paths of what is commonly thought to be “best practices” in coaching soccer practices.
  • Based on their review of classic and contemporary motor learning research, these scientists demonstrate their thesis by debunking potential practice and instruction myths that prevent rather than facilitate success in elite player development.
  • Myth 1: That demonstrations are always effective in conveying instructions to the learner.
  • Myth 2: That specific, blocked practice of a single skill is essential for skill learning.
  • Myth 3: That augmented feedback from a coach should be frequent, detailed, and provided as soon as possible after the skill has been performed.
  • Myth 4: That prescriptive coaching is always better for skill acquisition than instructional approaches based on learning guided by discovery.
  • Myth 5: That game intelligence skills are not amenable to practice and instruction.
  • Overall, the motivation to succeed and the commitment to practice are the difference makers in combating the deleterious effects of inertia that can infect players and teams. 

The Research

In soccer, coaches and players deal with the larger human frustrations and elations of such experiences as anxiety, self-confidence, decision-making, and motivation.  Given the difficulty of verifying the effectiveness of behavioural interventions, it is equally difficult to convince coaches and players alike of the value of such studies.

Compounding the situation, in the absence of objective evidence soccer coaches are more inclined to adopt their coaching practices from more subjective influences such as historical precedent, or governing body traditions, or emulation, or intuition.  Given the tilting of “proper” evidence to the harder sciences, there should be no surprise that elite players who achieve a debut in the Premier League, for example, and who will have exceeded over 10,000 hours of accumulated practice over the years, will have devoted a disproportionate amount of time to biology.  This imbalance indirectly sustains the belief that intelligent and serendipitous players inherit such talents.   Much less time is traditionally then given to teaching technical skills.

But there is a growing catalog of empirical studies in motor learning, for example, that challenge what are commonly thought to be best practices in practicing/teaching soccer.  In other words, there are many potential myths that may in fact be undermining the development of elite soccer players.  Soccer skills are highly adaptable and modifiable to training.  It stands to reason and research that developing and refining such skills is time well spent in the practice history of all soccer players, whether gifted or not.

Myth 1: Demonstrations are always effective in conveying information to the leaner

Demonstrations are called observational learning in the motor learning literature and are frequently chosen as the preferred method of replication of a technique or movement form.  What does the research say about using demonstrations?

  • When the goal is to assist a player to achieve an outcome not directly dependent on the replication of a specific technique (passing a ball toward a target), a demonstration may be no more effective than a verbal instruction. Demonstrations are time consuming and assume a “one size fits all” technique.
  • If a demonstration is used, it should be coupled with its outcome effects. This allows the player to problem solve and take greater responsibility for novel solutions.
  • Demonstration should almost exclusively guide the learner toward the goal of the movement pattern so as not to constrain the learner to learn what may be an inappropriate movement.
  • A more inclusive demonstration is to challenge the player to solve the goal-focused problem by way of different actions. Focus them on the end-point and ask them to figure out how to get there.
  • Sometimes practicing a skill before a demonstration will give the learner insights on how to individualise the skill in relation to the end-point. Maybe a player will come up with a solution not anticipated; and a better-thinking player is energised.

Myth 2Specific, blocked practice of a single skill is essential for skill learning

  • Practices can be designed in many ways, of course. For example, some skills can be practiced in a blocked or random way.  Typically coaches use a blocked, constant practice of a single skill before practicing by way of grid and drill practices toward variable practice conditions in small-sided games.
  • But this sequence has been shown to move too slowly along the learning continuum. Coaches often prefer the security of seeing and scoring the skill by observing the blocked practice of it.
  • Incorporating an experience of a practice blocking is unlike experiencing the skill in the context of play itself. Instead, the practice time is better used with a system approach where variability is integrated into the practice of skills to be learned in the process of achieving the end-point of the skill.  This provides a lager “workplace” for the player to learn relevant skill modifications and anticipations.  The player discovers then the laws that organize information and action.
  • Even though it appears that random practice can have detrimental effects on practice performance, it facilitates player learning to undertake more elaborate and distinctive processing from one trial to the next.
  • While random (high contextual game-like play) might be detrimental to short-term performance, it is better for long-tern retention and learning than blocked practice.
  • If we want to develop a good practice player, blocked practice may win the day. But if we want to develop a better soccer player, random and variable practicing may win the games.

Myth 3Augmented feedback from a coach should be frequent, detailed, and provided as soon as possible after the skill has been performed

  • Feedback to the players is good. But . . . consider the many ways to achieve it.
  • Intrinsic feedback is ever-present in sports. A move or action works or it doesn’t.
  • The when and how of coach’s extrinsic augmented feedback needs re-consideration.
  • In practice, while frequency of feedback on every practice attempt may be corrective, it often leads to overload and over-reliance on listening for the feedback instead of moving on.
  • The only way for players to become learners is to augment their intrinsic and active problem-solving abilities.
  • The early learning stages will require more augmented learning. But as the player develops confidence in self-correcting, augmented coaching feedback should fade.
  • Yet, as augmented frequency declines, when it is given it is more precise and thereby more useful.

Myth 4: Prescriptive coaching is always better for skill acquisition than instructional approaches based on learning by guided discovery

  • Prescriptive coaching is generally considered to be defined as authoritarian coaching. By way of it the coach is the central knowledge-giver, setting the standards, sequence, and timing of skill acquisition.
  • Overly prescriptive coaching may be detrimental to running a successful elite soccer club. The athletes have less ownership of their development, are less resistant to the effects of psychological stress, and are more prone to forgetting the skills “learned” over time.
  • Guided discovery appears to be far more successful over time because through it the players take more development responsibility, finding creative solutions to situational problems. Hands-off approaches like this one breed smarter players.
  • In less prescriptive practices and training sessions the players are challenged to adapt to constraints of the game as they develop. These on-going immediate developments assist in long-term player development.
  • Constraint variability includes individual player constraints (e.g. biological and chronological age, fitness levels, perceptual and cognitive development), task constraints (e.g. rules and laws of the game, training techniques imposed by the coach), and environmental constraints (playing surface, weather).
  • A less prescriptive approach does not minimize the coaching role. On the contrary, the practices themselves become developmental constraints for the coach.  Maybe less comfortable to the “hands-on” control, but—as with the players themselves—being uncomfortable is the trigger for growing excellence and success.

Myth 5Game intelligence skills are not amenable to practice and instruction

  • Game intelligence is usually defined as the ability to anticipate and make good decisions. The myth is that these perceptual-cognitive skills are innate and not amenable to practice and instruction.
  • Coaches often believe that playing IQ, if it comes at all, comes only from playing and only in players who are fated to have it.
  • But recent research demonstrates that game IQ can be taught, primarily with mediation through appropriate interventions.
  • There is nothing special about the visual acuity, depth perception, or peripheral awareness of elite soccer players when compared to other elite ball-playing athletes.
  • But film studies have proven to be of special significance in preparing players for “seeing” what had heretofore been unseen: opposing player or team tendencies, patterns of play, postural cues, and so on.
  • Even more interesting are recent experiments with virtual reality sessions that create realistic simulations for performance enhancement.
  • In American football, ever-increasing practice time is devoted to using game-films both for studying one’s own play and team tendencies and studying that of one’s opponents.
  • It is therefore important to recognize the many old and new ways game IQ for players can be exercised.
  • And for coaches, it is imperative that they take the lead in designing, implementing, and evaluating any-and-all practice improvements necessary to combat the all-too-comfortable inertia that can mire a team and its players in a morass that thoroughly prevents aspiration, inspiration, and celebration.