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.

10,000 Hours Revisited

Anyone who has been alive since Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller Outliers was released in 2008 has probably heard of the 10,000 hour rule. If you haven't, here it is...

The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.
— Malcolm Gladwell - Exerpt from Outliers

After reading So Good They Can't Ignore You (By Cal Newport), a 2005 study referenced in the book led by Neil Charness about chess grand masters caught my attention and seemed relevant to compare with soccer players, specifically younger athletes. The study paid close attention to not only how many hours these chess players spent practicing throughout their development, but also to what they practiced during this time. The study found that...

Chess players at the highest skill level (i.e. grandmasters) expended about 5000 hours on serious study alone during their first decade of serious chess play—nearly five times the average amount reported by intermediate-level players.
— Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology

What I found interesting about the results of the study was twofold. First, the idea that spending 10,000 hours performing a task doesn't guarantee you becoming an expert, but that it should be looked at more as a threshold in which you could become an expert. Second, the study focused on what type of training and playing was done during these hours of practice and what proved most effective. An idea that doesn't get a lot of attention is that serious study in sports may be nearly as important as physical training and game play itself, as was seen within chess players.

*For the purposes of this piece I compare serious study in chess to on-field and off-field training in soccer*

It is more or less a guarantee that any player playing competitive youth soccer will play plenty of games in a calendar year, anywhere from 30-50 depending on various teams and leagues. But how much of their time will they spend studying the game? By this I mean watching players in their position, focusing on the technique a player uses doing something that they would like to implement in their game, or watching their own performances, etc.

Another piece of information from the Charness study that was profiled in the book compared serious study to game play as follows...

Materials can be deliberately chosen or adapted such that the problems to be solved are at a level that is appropriately challenging. (whereas tournament play) skill improvement is likely to be minimized due to the opponent likely being demonstrably better or demonstrably worse than yourself
— Neil Charness ( from So Good They Can't Ignore You)

It's interesting to think about development in this context and although I believe playing in games is still probably the best way to grow as a player, the need to add "serious study" and "deliberate practice" is vitally important and often overlooked. I've long been a proponent of young players watching video of professionals and studying parts of their game they wish to improve themselves. Although the viewership among young players is definitely up, who they are watching and what they are looking for often are lacking in depth. To watch the likes of Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar is enjoyable should be done. But to improve their own game they need to watch players who do the little things right and pieces of play that are able to be replicated. Spending time watching Mascherano defend, the technique in which Xabi Alonso passes a ball, or the movement off the ball that Thomas Müeller provides. These are basic examples and the possibilities are really endless.

My message to young soccer players out there who really want to reach the pinnacle of the sport need to understand that they will approximately spend the same amount of time training as the guy or girl next to them. It is about how they spend that time that ultimately matters and what separates the special ones. So don't think of training only in the context of going to the field 3-4 days a week and a game on the weekend. Think about studying the next game you watch on television. Find the player who plays your position. See what they do, or don't do well and how you can use that to improve.

Why Athletes Should Try Meditating


I don't exactly know why or how I started meditating for the first time. I remember that I was kind of embarrassed and would do it away from people, in hindsight it was something that by no means anyone should be embarrassed by.

I'm going on about a year or so consistently meditating every morning. I don't necessarily do it for a long time and with the help of iPhone apps it is easy to have a choice in regard to time and if it's a guided meditation or not. Personally I have found that guided meditation (where someone talks you through it) is an easier way to get started and you won't feel like you don't know what your doing. Even though there is no "wrong" way to meditate. 

For me it has provided me some mental clarity before I start my day. I recently heard it referred to as a "warm bath for the mind" and I couldn't explain it any better. It's relaxing and stress relieving if even only done for a few minutes. These reasons are why I think athletes should utilize this undervalued tool in their daily training.

As athletes move from competitive youth and high school sports environments into ultra competitive situations in college and maybe even professionally, stress becomes a real issue. Stress of performing well or living up to expectations. Stress of balancing an academic life, a personal life and life on the field/court. I wish I would have had the insight into this practice while I was experiencing this during my time at UIC. I know it would have helped because I know how it helps me currently. Meditation as a term can turn people off because they think it's "spiritual" or something of the like. Meditation is spending time in quiet thought or relaxing, it is what you make it.

My advice to athletes of all ages and levels is to try meditating for a few weeks and see what you think. Don't stop because you think "you're not good at it" or "you can't do it right". You will feel this but you can do it, it just takes practice. Like anything good in life this too takes effort but in the case of meditation the effort becomes relaxation.

For more information on meditation and athletes check out this article on high performance psychologist Michael Gervais and the Seattle Seahawks.

Here is the app I use for my daily meditation, it's free. Insight Timer. Other good ones include Calm and Stop, Breathe, & Think.

Why I'm Proud of Andy Rose

Back in 2012 while I was an agent at Wasserman Media Group I had the opportunity to work with Andy Rose. Andy had been a friend of mine for a few years already but he trusted me and decided to allow me to represent him as he entered the world of professional soccer.

I knew Andy very well as a person and as a player by the time his college career concluded. He had just finished a stellar four years at UCLA and was desperate to find out what the future held. After the MLS combine came and went, teams were not set on what position he would play at the next level and his future was slightly uncertain at this point. I remember him being quite nervous and slightly anxious. I also remember him having this unwavering feeling that he could succeed at the MLS level, a feeling I agreed with. He knew he had to prove himself regardless of the situation he was ultimately thrust into.

I vividly remember being at the MLS SuperDraft in 2012 and how Andy's name wasn't called. Having to call him to discuss what the options may be was not easy. There was a supplemental draft two days later but he was pissed that he was overlooked. I couldn't blame him. We discussed European options but those weren't concrete at that point so the focus stayed on Major League Soccer. On January 17, Real Salt Lake took Andy with the 6th pick in that supplemental draft. He was thrilled they saw something in him. Come to find out a few hours later that Seattle had called and inquired about him as well. Not long after he was traded to Seattle in exchange for another player (Leone Cruz). The feeling of being wanted is one every player wants.

Andy signed his first professional contract that March but the road to the field still seemed far away given the quality on the Sounders roster. I remember many phone calls with Andy, some with frustration and others with hope. Regardless of the situation at any given time his confidence in himself never wavered. He made his debut in May of the 2012 season. As amazing as that is, what's more amazing is that first, everyone thought he was too slow to be a central midfielder in MLS, guess where Seattle used him? Second, he appeared in 32 matches in all competitions and finished the season with four goals and five assists. Pretty damn impressive for a rookie.

Seattle's success as a club since that 2012 season is pretty well known to anyone paying attention. Big stars have come and gone and fans have filled the seats in the Pacific Northwest. But through that time Andy Rose has continued to blossom as a pro. He amassed over 80 appearances for the club and became pivotal to their success. Out of contract this year Andy and I discussed his options (only as a friend, not an agent). He was offered a contract by Seattle who clearly valued his services but in typical Andy fashion he wanted to challenge himself again, and push the boundaries. So when I saw yesterday that after a trial with Coventry City (League One) they had signed him to a deal until June of 2017 I wasn't surprised and couldn't have been prouder. Again, proving people wrong.

Andy is the example of what hard work and why it's so crucial to believe in your abilities regardless of opinion. He's worked very hard toward this and I can't wait to see what is next for him. 

Follow Andy as he heads to Coventry City @andyrose_5


Why I'm Doing This

Photo from  Wisconsin athletics

Having been fortunate enough to spend all of my life up to this point around some of the best soccer minds in the history of U.S. Soccer, other high-level athletes, and experiencing the highs and lows throughout my own playing career, I felt this would be the best platform for me to share my perspective on various topics and pieces of advice that have been shared with me along my own continuing journey. 

I never have, or will take for granted the nuggets of wisdom I picked up in locker rooms, on the field and in general conversation. They helped me greatly in my own journey as an athlete and continue to provide a foundation in my personal and professional life today. This is a chance for me to reflect on moments throughout my career as a soccer player and life after playing, as well as current topics that I find interesting or of potential value. 

Much of the information on the internet tends to be open-ended or purely for the benefit of clicks and web traffic. I'm doing this because I find certain things interesting and want to share them. I hope that the words on the following pages can help you gain knowledge or better yourself in some way. Please feel free to share your comments and feedback. I hope you enjoy!