Football Talent Development.

Ericsson’s 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert has been well publicised, and is regarded as a benchmark for footballers to achieve excellence.  However, this is qualified by assuming that these hours are spent in ‘deliberate practice,’ thus requiring considerable effort which may not always be enjoyable for the player.   It is proposed that these hours were spent focusing on one specific activity, in this case football, and would give a great advantage to the player.   However, there is another line of thought which suggests a more diverse approach to football excellence, whereby the youngster samples other sporting activities; thus building basic motor skills, prior to specializing in football at a later age.   It is suggested that three hours per day, all year round for ten years, in the ‘deliberate practice’ of football skills could become demotivating for some youngsters, and that it could be prudent to spend some time participating in other sports.   However, there are youngsters (my-self as a child included) who are so passionate about football that other sporting activities don’t really interest them.   Ellen Winner (1996) has studied such children describing their passion to succeed as a ‘rage to master,’ they have an intrinsic passion for their particular sport which overcomes any suppressive element which faces them. (See Passion for Football; and Existential Passion on this website).

As discussed above, excellence in football requires much input; therefore, time spent in practice should be of the highest quality possible.   The importance of working with a competent coach cannot be over-estimated.

Tony Readings
Andy Hedge. New Zealand Football U-20 Junior All Whites Head Shots, North Harbour Stadium Albany, Monday 11th April 2011. Photo: Shane Wenzlick

New Zealand FA’s, Andy Hedge and Tony Readings are knowledgeable and well organised Coaches (see below).

The coach must be knowledgeable and organized enough to ensure that the practice sessions are designed to squeeze the most quality training in the time available.   Novice coaches can waste much valuable learning time by allowing their players to be inactive; this can be corrected with good organisation and planning.   It is important to expose promising youngsters to the best coaches available; however, it could be argued that, at a young age the priority is to find a coach who is ‘good with kids’.   Providing an environment which promotes fun and enjoyment will help the child to develop the ‘intrinsic’ motivation that we spoke about above.

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Ex New Zealand Youth International, Altan Ramadan works with young players on a daily basis.

Some researchers have hypothesized that youngsters who are brought up in smaller centres have more of an advantage in gaining success than their counterparts from the big cities.   This is based on the result of a ‘big fish in a small pond’ syndrome, whereby, at a young age the player’s self-concept is enhanced by high achieving, albeit, in a less competitive environment.   It is acknowledged that at some stage in the player’s development that he/she has to compete against tougher opposition in order to reach elite levels.   However, by that time a high self-esteem for football can be ingrained into the psyche of the player and thereby standing the player in good stead for future competition.   Outstanding players from smaller centres are often noticed earlier and are given more support from parents, teachers, coaches and other influential people.   It can be the case that young players in the larger centres find it more difficult to stand out because of the high-ability of their peers, and the increased competition which comes with this.   It is conceivable that if your peers are also high achievers you are less likely to stand out, affecting, and possibly lowering your self-esteem in terms of your ability as a footballer.   It should be noted that a centre needs to have a reasonably sized population (not too small) in order to provide the resources necessary for the player’s development.

As a matter of interest, my own experience is of being brought up in a small town and gaining a high self-image as a footballer because of my ability to excel amongst my peers.   This gained me recognition and privileges from teachers and coaches, leading to recommendations to regional representative teams and professional clubs.

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As Captain of Football (here holding the ball) at a small town school, I gained self-esteem and confidence.

There has been much discussion and comparison surrounding the month of the year of a child’s birth.   If a child’s birthdate is early in the year, and assuming the playing season begins in January, they have a distinct advantage over a child born later in the year.   This is referred to as the ‘Relative Age Effect’ and it tends to favour youngsters born near the start of their yearly football season.   The football season in New Zealand begins in March, therefore, preadolescent players born in January or February would tend to be more physically advanced than children born later in the year; November or December.   Ten or eleven months can be a long time in the developing child and it is often the larger and stronger players who stand out for selection to club or representative teams.   Because of this the ‘older’ players are more likely to gain the advantage of better coaching and resources.   Coaches can be duped into thinking that they are selecting the most talented player when it could be that they are only selecting a player because he/she is older.   Statistics have shown that in numerous sports the numbers reaching ‘elite’ levels are biased in favour of players born closer to start of the seasonal playing cycle.

Much time has been spent investigating the methods involved in developing elite footballers and there are diverse ways of how this comes about.    In a longitudinal survey of Dutch footballers; Elferick-Gemser & Visscher (2010) identified (amongst other attributes) the development of dribbling skills as a major component in the development of elite young players.   This of course involves acceleration, changes of pace, change of direction, tight ball control and a menu of feints.   The authors make the point that in their longitudinal study, the elite players who sign professional contracts seemed to have acquired better dribbling skills (by the age of fourteen) than their peers with less ability.

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Dribbling skills are an important component of elite players of either gender.

The above authors also make a point which is often missed by some player educators and this is the occurrence of ‘self-regulation,’ (see ‘self-efficacy’; on this website).   The elite players often take responsibility for their own learning, can assess their own strengths and weaknesses; who gain what they can from each session, and adapt the learning’s on offer to aid their own improvement.

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The players who ‘push on’ regulate their own learning and take what they can out of each session.

For a comprehensive analysis on all aspects of Talent Identification the following publication gives a wide-ranging and recent account.

Talent Identification and Development in Sport (International Perspectives): Editors; Joseph Baker, Steve Cobley and Jorg Schorer.   Publishers; Routledge 2012.