Deliberate Practice and The Modern Soccer Player

photo courtesy of  Hana Asano

photo courtesy of Hana Asano

Recently I was turned on to an author named Cal Newport. Cal Newport is wicked smart, has his PhD from MIT and is currently an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. His blog, Study Hacks is what set him on the road to becoming well known but it is a book he wrote in 2012 that recently caught my attention. Cal writes a lot about why telling people to "follow their passion" is bad advice (see here), but that is not what I want to talk about. In his book So Good They Can't Ignore You, he discusses the idea of deliberate practice. This is not a new idea nor is it ground breaking. However, I am concerned about how today's youth soccer player approaches or even recognizes this idea.

Deliberate practice, a term conceived in 1990 by psychologist Anders Ericsson, is defined as "an activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual's performance". When anyone in sports hears this today it is essentially what they consider a training session. However I don't believe that nearly enough time is spent on "deliberate practice" by youth soccer players during or away from these team sessions. (This topic also brings up thoughts of the 10,000 hour rule made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. See my previous post.) 

So what does this mean for youth soccer players and how is what I am saying relevant. I have spent a lot of time around soccer coaches in my life but specifically in the last five years while part of various coaching staffs. Why are some of the most talked about attributes that we don't see in players the ones that could be practiced and improved? For example, how many young soccer players are considered an excellent crosser of the ball? Or what about lock down defenders? Don't even get me started on set pieces. This is truly just the tip of the iceberg. In his book, Newport discusses how a guitarist he got to know shows how deliberately practicing with strain and past the point where he is comfortable gives him instant feedback. This is why there are some who just play while the really good ones really practice.

For all the young soccer players out there, if you want to gain the attention that you probably already think you deserve why not spend some of that time on the field (that is now mandated by many clubs) on deliberate practice. Push yourself, strain yourself and get comfortable being uncomfortable. And don't always rely on coaches to tell you how to do this, take the initiative and the results will be that much more rewarding. These moments will help you perform at a much higher level and put you on the path to becoming so good they can't ignore you.