Right now the question on every coach, parent and teachers lips is, how can we develop elite performers like Messi and Ronaldo. We marvel at their talent and wonder how they became so great. Based on these questions there have come dozens of books on ways to develop talent, the world of social media is awash with methods, ideas and beliefs of developing elite individuals. The main argument is that these individuals are not “natural talents” but in fact products of many factors which have contributed to their rise to be elite. This article will discuss my beliefs and understanding of how we can create elite football players.
The focus in youth development right now is based around the concept of 10,000 hours. It has become the magical number in developing elite athletes and the work by Ericsson seems to hold true to a certain extent. The difficulty in football, especially in England, is that many players struggle to get even near 4,000 by the time they are 16, a long way off from the holy grail of 10,000. This is having a major effect on the lack of players becoming elite footballers in this country.
Firstly, contact time with the ball. If our players are only receiving 4,000 hours of contact time between 7-16 then there is something wrong surely. Do our kids get the right training, time and opportunity in school, clubs and in their free time? From my experience, this is an emphatic no. In schools there are simply not enough teachers qualified to teach physical education lessons, and their lack of knowledge thus leads to a reluctance in getting kids moving and participating.
Some schools will seek to bring in outside organisations to conduct “PE” lessons, which mainly is just football, and which shockingly is usually some 16 or 17 year old coming in, with little or no qualifications and understanding of what children need and what a good session is. We are failing our kids at this age because we are not giving them the right experience and opportunity in school to develop motor skills, and not just in football, but in a range of skills, this is key.
In Germany, they take kids into their football academies at 11, the reason being because they want their players to have bi-lateral movement, meaning they have experienced other sports such as tennis, badminton, basketball, hockey, handball and climbing in the key developmental years of 5-11. They want their kids to have more motor skills than just football can offer. The question is, do we offer or seek this in England. No.
This article will be based on academy football, as realistically a player will need to be in one of these to have a real chance to be a professional. For me, going in too early, between 7-10 is actually detrimental to the player’s development, and in fact it is better for the player and the academy if they bring players in from 11 onwards. However, with the amount of academies seeking to find the best talent, players are going in earlier and earlier.
What is needed therefore is not 10,000 hours of just “football”, but in those early years, 7-11, a child needs to be moving, experimenting and having the opportunity to experience a multitude of sports and activites which will give them a more rounded and improved multi linear movement which will improve neurological development. It has been found that just playing football does not develop these skills as well.
Therefore seeking to hit 10,000 may be in part based on an individual’s opportunity to find the right school, the right teacher or coach and thus, the pathway to become an elite footballer is based on the environment and opportunity afforded.
Opportunity is perhaps the single most important factor for the development of an elite performer. I will only touch on this because it is an extensive subject. Yet it concerns everything from a players parents, to the place they were born, to the kids they play with as they are growing up. It matters whether they have an enthusiastic teacher who helps them develop and love a sport or parents who are willing and able to take them places and develop their skills.
It may even be that having an older sibling enables rapid development and the “stretching” of skills to catch up, which excel an individuals development. All these factors and many more help lay the foundation and build the map of a persons chances of being elite.
Although genetics play a part, having parents who played much sport for example would increase an individuals chances of possessing the right abilities for a particular sport, the message given from these new books and ideas is that innate talent is not as important as opportunity, because opportunity gives a young performer the chance to develop and master their abilities and thus hone and refine their skills. Thus, it enables them to clock up more hours on the quest for that golden 10,000.
Now opportunity and luck almost go hand in hand. Where you’re born, who you’re born to and the opportunities provided to you are predominantly based on luck. Parents choose good locations, yet one can never guarantee or promise certain outcomes. Remember, my focus here is football, yet what if like Matthew Sayd, author of Bounce, talks of his opportunity; Syed’s teacher was a keen table tennis player and teacher who passed on his love for the sport onto a young Sayd, who developed his skills with hours of practice at school.
He makes the point that if he had lived one road down from where he did, he would have gone to a different school, would never have met the teacher and thus his table tennis career would more than likely never have happened. His opportunity came about by luck and through that he developed his skills and became an elite table tennis player.
It is not easy to provide and create the right environment for footballers to develop, yet positive and enthusiastic teachers, inspiration, passion and providing chances and opportunity from parents and relatives all contribute to building a flame inside a child, which if ignited could motivate and lead a child to excel.
With the fire lit inside and with a good foundation level of motor skills, a young player will often seek to join a local team. Again, opportunity and luck contribute to the success and potential of the player. Yet grassroots football is both an excellent and potentially disastrous experience for a young player. With the right coaching and players around, a player can develop their skills and learn about the game, if done positively, with good coaching and the right communication, players can further their development in this environment.
However, there are too many poor, uneducated coaches who are actually harming the potential of players in this country. I am sure it is not just a problem in England, yet I have seen too many occasions of shouting, blaming and simply poor coaching from the “coaches”, who possess little or no knowledge of the game and importantly no understanding of how a child develops and learns.
The unfortunate truth is that these coaches are damaging the confidence and potential of young players and are restricting and at times killing the creativity and expression of young players. The desire for winning comes first over the development and enjoyment of the players. It is at time a terrible experience for players and for me personally, an embarrassment to witness.
The best environment for a young player is thus one which will give a child enthusiasm, enjoyment and importantly allow expression and creativity without the fear of being reprimanded if they make a mistake. Developing skills and improving a players ability to beat a player 1v1 are important at this early level, too often in this country, especially at grassroots level, coaches prevent and restrict players from beating players, based on them being “selfish” or because they may lose the ball. Watch videos of Messi as a young kid, see him beat players just like he does today and think how quickly he would have been told off and not praised if he did that in England.
Ultimately, where players develop their skills is through playing the game. With the new rules changing the amount of players for younger age groups the knock on being the restriction in size of the pitches, the hope is more players will get more touches, develop their skills and improve.
However, the same problem still persists; poor coaches and harmful spectators. Many coaches argue for the return of “street soccer”, where kids would play in the streets or the parks on their own, it is here they argue where they develop their skills, hone their moves and become better players. It is no surprise they will; more contact time on the ball, the ability to be more expressive and importantly, no parents or coaches telling them what to do and when to do it. In their own environment they develop their own game and make their own rules. This not only develops football skills but social skills too; confidence, leadership, expression, friendship and importantly competitiveness.
Young children could play for hours with their friends, trying to win (which is not a bad thing) and not even think they are developing their skills. Imagine when the young kids play against the older ones too, the challenge they have, the “stretching” they need to do to compete, after a while they become faster and more skilful because they are being challenged.
All this could happen without coaches, without organisation, yet health and safety, fear of allowing kids to go off and thus the protection of TV and computers have made kids less active, less social and ultimately have reduced their ability to get in that key 10,000 hours of practice.
Go to Spain and Portugal and you see cages set up all over the towns, lit up at night, free to go in and play in, a safe environment for the players to improve their skills without the need for parents and coaches to instruct and tell them what to do. In England we restrict and close these areas, places like Powerleague and Goals have become money making machines and have actually killed street soccer for kids, not improved it.
The gap between grassroots football and academy football is bridged by the most important people in the development of elite athletes, scouts. It is therefore shocking and nonsensical to have people with little or no understanding of the game and children, to be scouting games and finding players.
The best example of evaluating poor scouting can be found in the book Moneyball, where the old school scouts are dismissed by the GM Billy Beane for their lack of knowledge and understanding of the game, in that instance it was baseball, yet it holds true to football. The thing is, these scouts are mainly older guys getting some extra pay and they are looking for is the player who stands out, who looks the part, over the one who actually has the correct attributes to be a pro in 5-10 years time.
Seeing the stand out kid and making a judgement on his talent seems an obvious intention and goal of a scout, yet what do you think they find. They find the strongest, biggest and most dominant player in the game, the one who is running past the others for fun, not surprisingly he is literally the strongest player on the pitch. Now, it is hard in some respects to not to see their logic here, however, talent ID for players of this age should not always be based on what the player can do now, but what they can do in the future.
In my opinion, if I was scouting, the key characteristics I would look for in a player for football is possessing speed, agility and intelligence. You see, if they are intelligent then they can be coached and thus they can improve their skill and tactical knowledge. The misconception which these books are trying to inform the reader and coaches, is that skill is not natural, it is developed. A player with more skill simply has worked harder and more on developing the skills. Meaning that if you find a player possessing those previous characteristics, then you know you can develop their skills and will have a talented player.
Now if you find a player with skill already then excellent, yet as a scout I will be looking for their movement, decisions and understanding. We always hear people say our footballers are stupid, which although not always true, does have some semblance of truth when you consider those being scouted. You see the problem is, power, strength and size are being given premium on all the other more important factors in developing elite athletes. Therefore it is no wonder we are not developing better players, we are not bringing the right players in.
Notice that in that previous section I did not mention size, it means nothing in terms of being an elite athlete. Some of the best players in the world are Messi, Xavi, Ronaldo and Yaya Toure. All with different body types and sizes, yet all excellent footballers. They all possess intelligence, skill, speed (physical and mental) and agility. Messi and Xavi possess strength too, they have an excellent centre of gravity and are thus able to compete and retain possession, a skill which is developed through practice.
Yet in England, we rarely see talent coming through which is under 6ft. Yet, in Spain we are seeing dozens of players of 5”5 -5 “10 coming through and being some of the best in the world. My point is, that size does not matter. Yet scouts are making their judgements based on this factor, their lack of knowledge it appears is damaging our potential to develop better players.
Now birth effect is something which is very difficult to manage yet very easy to understand. In England the school year goes from Sep 1st – Aug 31st the following yea; which means that in a game of football there may be two players who are separated by 364 days, making them a year apart. This is a major issue in the development of elite athletes because although puberty and maturation occurs at different times for each person, the majority of players born earlier will develop earlier and thus will be stronger, taller, perhaps quicker and will more than likely be a better player, when seeing objectively.
Studies have shown that in academies, 57% of players in there are born between Sep-Dec, whereas only 14% are there who are born between May and August. From my own experience, I have worked with and seen players with real talent and skill who have been disregarded because they aren’t big enough and their birthday? May, June, July, August. Yet amazingly, scouts and academies seem ignorant or dismissive of this fact and what is happening is that players are being neglected solely because of when they were born. Opportunity is the most important factor in developing elite athletes, and amazingly, being born later in the school year, rapidly restricts a players chance of becoming elite.
Now you may argue that they were will develop and eventually match or even grow taller than their older school mates, however, my argument is that by then, between 17-21, that player has missed the boat as such, all the opportunity to develop further is gone. The key to being an elite footballer is between 12-16 to be in an academy set up. If the right environment is there; meaning coaching and facilities, then the environment will take the player further forward in their development. With better quality of team mates and opposition, the competition and challenge is greater, meaning the player is pushed further and developed greater. The new EPPP plans seek to put the best with best and thus develop higher quality players, yet nowhere have I read about scouting or birth effect being addressed. The worry is, a boy born August 31st may never get this opportunity, yet with it he may have been something special.
My argument is that this situation is not simple, if you have split the year into two bands, the same situation will still arise. Changing the banding’s like in Spain, who go from Jan 1st – Dec 31st brings the same problems, fort them, more players come in from Jan – March.
Perhaps allowing more movement up and down age groups based on biological age and chronological age is a step forward. It may be that development centres are created over the country which focus on skill over the strength and through this, the smaller players can develop their skills and importantly confidence to develop further.
Yet the same obstacle will still arise when that player is recommended to go into an academy and they are judged on their size, on their present appearance, and not on what they can do and what they could do in the future. Thus, the problems are occurring in academies and in their short minded approach to judging players.
Perhaps Spain find smaller players possess more skill, speed and balance than taller players and thus their vision is honed to these skills, whereas in England we continue with the Charles Hughes formula of success, of which England have won nothing and have produced few high quality players compared to other nations.
We need to alter how we view youth players and learn from other countries that it is not the size which matters, but what the player is capable of which is the main issue.
Now so far I have covered the different opportunities required to get the chance to get into and stay in an academy environment, because without this, it will be difficult to become an elite athlete. So when the player is there, the most important factor becomes the quality of the coach. And from my experience the quality of the coaching in academy football is not good enough, there are some excellent coaches, yet every age group should have a fully qualified, knowledgeable and thus expert coach.
All the talk of needing more coaches in the game to develop more players is not correct, what is needed is more quality coaches. Quantity is pointless without quality. And what is required, which is what the FA are starting to do, is develop expert coaches for all age groups; 7-11, 12-16, 17-21. Now you could argue that there should be an expert coach for EVERY age group, which by all accounts seems the way academies are going. Yet we are so far behind the Dutch and Spanish in terms of understanding the need for quality coaching.
Earlier I spoke of the need for street soccer being a key factor in the development of skilled players, this is true, however what is important now for a player, between the ages of 12-16, is that players receive and are educated by highly qualified coaches who can further these players. Too many players between this age of ruined by bad coaching. The 12-16 period is a crucial time for players in terms of football and socially also, there is much going on and coaches should be aware of this.
In the teen years, when specialisation begins to occur and we are failing the players based on a misunderstanding of what is required. In these years, differences occur which are not understood or accounted for and which in my opinion are meaning that players with genuine potential are being neglected.
For many players in academies they are working with coaches who still do not understand that their main role is to facilitate the players development,. Many coaches instead seek to overload the player, they try to give them ALL their knowledge and thus confuse and actually prevent development. Thus knowing more about teaching, learning and master coaching, should be key characteristics of being a youth coach. Coaches need to ask more questions of their players, they need to include them in the decision making process and not just bombard them with information and answers. Football especially requires decision makers on the pitch, thus coaches should prepare their players and sessions for this role.
I believe that too many coaches don’t trust their players to make their own decisions which makes them believe that they have to shout, instruct and appear to be “doing” something. The hardest challenge for a coach is to sometimes so nothing and the best coaches are those that know when and what to say at the right time. Not an easy task.
In other countries players of this age of given a strict tactically education so they understand the game, it is something we have failed to do effectively in this country. This comes from our belief that our players will find it boring and also because the coaches lack the knowledge. Firstly, the players need to realise that understanding the game is crucial to being a top player, all top sides are tactically efficient, which is a reason why England performs poorly in my opinion, a lack of tactical knowledge contributes to poor performances.
This period of player development needs patience, knowledge and the continued development and mastery of technical skills, along with increased education of tactical objectives both individually and for the team. Added to this are key components of social development; notably leadership, ownership and responsibility. Too often coaches and parents do too much for the players, they glorify them, pick up for them, answer for them and simply treat them like kids.
This is no way to develop a potential elite athlete, they need to learn maturity, respect and importantly take responbility for their actions, health and development. By doing this coaches will develop learners and thinkers and not just mindless robots. Yet, as said before, do these players possess the intelligence required or was this neglected for over their physical attributes?
Too often in England we have invested in the players and facilities and neglected investment in the coaches. Spain invested 20 years ago and today we see the benefits. Coach education, producing master, expert coaches for all levels, is essential. A one size fits all coaching curriculum is not sufficient to produce elite players, the key is to be a specialist in a certain age group and thus know what is required to improve performance. It will be 20 years later when we start to see the changes coming through and it will require time and much patience, unfortunately something we lack in England!
A key factor for a young up and coming player is the ability to continue high levels of motivation. It may sound simple, yet many players cannot deal with this period, where expectations of behaviour and commitment, along with the expectations and pressures of family and friends can increase the burden and pressures of achieving the goal of becoming a professional.
A key factor for a player between 14-17 is the ability to be able to sacrifice and have strong discipline. Too many talented players lose their focus, become arrogant or fail to accept that to be a professional requires more than just attending training. It is a difficult period for any teenager, so one who is seeking to be an elite athlete requires key people around them to guide, instruct, help, support and importantly keep balanced the player.
By failing to be disciplined, players will throw away their potential, it is not easy and it is why at this age level, mental strength, understanding and drive are more important than technical skills and ability. Many clubs are beginning to test their players from 12 years old on psychological factors in order to understand the player and thus understand the player more, know how they can be motivated, understand the way to communicate with them. A coach will 16 players, all of whom have different styles of learning, who are motivated differently and thus the role of the coach will be to know this and conduct sessions and communicate the right way for each individual to achieve success.
No wonder the introduction of psychologists has become a key part of development and the neglect of this important tool has meant many players have been left behind or neglected instead of worked with and developed. A new period in understanding the mental aspects of adolescents and elite development should enable more players coming through the system.
One the of most key and essential factors which again has only become understood and tested is a players mindset. Work by Carol Dweck has found that the way children and young athletes are spoken to and importantly commended, can be a key factor in their development to become an elite athlete. She argues that coaches who praise the talented players for their “abilities”, for their “natural talent” are actually detrimentally affecting a players development.
The argument goes that individuals who are successful at tasks are commended in the wrong way, and when they eventually find something they cannot perform successfully, they believe that they aren’t “naturally talented” at this task. Dweck has found that the majority of these individuals will not seek to improve their performance, instead they will neglect a task which they cannot do and settle for an easier task which they are successful in, where they will be commended as being “talented”. Now of course, by not “stretching” theirself and furthering their development the individual is not improving and ultimately will not be able to reach elite levels, because in order to attain this level requires many, many mistakes to happen.
Dweck calls this a “fixed mindset”, where an individual believes that talent and skill is fixed; if you can’t do it, then you will never be able to do it. This has been the thinking of English football for decades. And coaches will always tend to compliment and shower the talented players in adoration, which gives a player the sense they are “naturally” better than the rest. More often than not this is the best player in the team at 12-16, yet if they have a fixed mindset, these players will not progress to elite levels because when they hit a wall, which they will always do at some point, they will choose to opt out and not develop and challenge theirselves. As coaches the importance therefore is to improve communication, which Dweck argues is the most important factor in the development of elite individuals.
She argues that by praising work rate over talent, a coach can motivate a player or group to persist and overcome boundaries and see mistakes as learning tools and challenges and not as signs of being un-talented. This is called the “growth mindset” and people who possess this are more willing to challenge and “stretch” theirselves and will ultimately become better than those deemed “naturally talented”. Simply by changing the wording of feedback, coaches could give a player a better opportunity to progress.
There is an example that Dweck uses which is the best one I have ever heard, because it concerns the best ever athlete in my opinion. Michael Jordan is regarded as the best basketball player ever, his willingness and drive combined with his immense skill brought success to his Chicago Bulls side. Yet did you know that he was not selected by any colleges to go and play basketball? At 17, he was not considered good enough. Amazing no?! His reaction to this rejection was not just accept he wasn’t good enough, but decided to work on his skills, enhance his speed and agility, all through hard work and determination.
The extra work he put in made him the player we all know and he talks of failure and mistakes as the most important motivational tool for his success, his willingness to try things and fail were what made him great, simply he possessed a “growth mindset”.
In football, could this moment of failure and rejection be the key motivational tool that players need to progress and work harder? It is interesting to ponder, because those who are showered in praise and accolade perhaps do not need to work as hard, believing they already possess the skills necessary. Yet when you listen to the world’s best players at this time, Messi and Ronaldo, talk is always about their need to improve further, to keep honing their skills, being better constantly. They never seem to be content and thus continue to improve and be the best.
Imagine if we could make all our players believe that hard work and practice will improve performance, there are no better examples for players than Messi and Ronaldo!
Messi is a great example of proving people wrong, the best player in the world, perhaps ever. At 11, he was deemed to be too small and rejected by many in Argentina, he must have thought his dreams of being Maradona were over. Yet Barcelona took a risk and gamble and clearly he repaid that and thanked them for their belief in him.
If all had been plain sailing for Messi, would he be the player he is today? I doubt it. Periods of failure and rejection can motivate a player more than any kind of success, understanding defeat and making mistakes improve players, coaches and individuals more than winning. For coaches and academies therefore, the psychology of young individuals is the single most important factor in taking a good player into an elite one.
Bridging the gap
Earlier I spoke that we judge players at 16, the key thing to consider is that by basing our judgements on players at this age are we are failing many players by not giving them the chance to improve and increase their hours of work. We simply we are basing opinions on players too young; both physically and mentally, without accounting for what they could achieve. What if we allowed players to “develop” up to 21, or like in Germany, 23 years old. Surely a player will be closer to achieving that magical 10,000 number and perhaps judgements could be then about their “true” ability then. Instead academies are too rash in their decisions, too quick to judge and cut, perhaps better communication, more individual work and psychology could mean clubs bring more players through their systems.
When all the foundation blocks are in place, when a player has risen to the professional level and at 17,18 they are beginning to make their debuts for the senior side, it is important to realise that these are still just boys. This a major period in their lives and careers and there is not enough being done to bridge the gap between youth and senior football. Expectations are placed too high at an early age on too many young shoulders, which increases the pressure and makes the task of improving harder. Between 17-21 players need more guidance and help than before, they are mixing with adults and playing in the senior levels, while still learning about theirselves and developing as a young man.
It is therefore key to surround these boys with the right people, who can keep them balanced, focused and keep them developing, as Messi and Ronaldo show, you never stop improving, and for these boys, good guidance and teaching of this fact may help more progress and become better players, improving the quality of the players in this country.
In conclusion, the path to developing elite players is not easy, straight or linear. Because of this it is important that coaches, parents and teachers understand their roles and impact on young individuals. More knowledge and understanding of how children develop will enable more to have the right opportunities and a better mindset to keep improving, persevering and developing. Nothing is easy and the pathway to excellence involves the factors covered in this article and more, if we can give young athletes more opportunities, then perhaps we can achieve something really great.