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.