Is practice enough to make a player great?

While there are adherents to the 10,000-hours rule, to be a true elite player you need the right genetics, too.

Published : Jun 14, 2018 18:45 IST

Belgium's Vincent Kompany, left, and Eden Hazard challenge for the ball training session at the Belgian Football Center in Tubize, Belgium, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Tomorrow, Belgium is playing a friendly soccer match against Portugal.
Belgium's Vincent Kompany, left, and Eden Hazard challenge for the ball training session at the Belgian Football Center in Tubize, Belgium, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Tomorrow, Belgium is playing a friendly soccer match against Portugal.

Belgium's Vincent Kompany, left, and Eden Hazard challenge for the ball training session at the Belgian Football Center in Tubize, Belgium, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Tomorrow, Belgium is playing a friendly soccer match against Portugal.

The best footballers in the world have always expressed themselves freely, drifting and darting graciously across the field with an indelible grace. Their shimmies, dribbles, touches and entire game seem to come naturally to them. Inadvertently, they embody the nature argument: to be a true elite player you need the right genetics.

These genetic factors are wide-ranging – from natural physical ability (hand-eye/foot-eye coordination, visual acuity, among others) to innate mental attributes such as focus, determination and motivation. So, in a way, Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar were simply born to win.

Unlike these three, most people can barely contemplate playing in a World Cup. A professional career, let alone World Cup participation, is but a fantasy for the majority of humanity. Or is it?

Deliberate practice

The 10,000-hour rule – popularised by Malcolm Gladwell’s 2009 novel Outliers – posits that this number of training hours over a period of 10 years will allow a talent to attain a professional level. It’s the ‘magic number of greatness’. The tenet is that skill, predicated on innate talent, is simply the manifestation of thousands of hours of ‘deliberate practice’ – practice in which the athlete cognitively engages. The rule – and its controversies – has to a degree taken hold in football.

The rule is based on a study by K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and a researcher into the psychological nature of expertise and human performance. Ericsson designed a methodology to examine how many hours musicians practise to improve their skills and performances, applying this primarily to pianists and violinists, in the early 1990s.

Werner Helsen, a professor in the faculty of movement and rehabilitation sciences at Belgium’s KU Leuven, decided to apply Ericsson’s methodology to football and hockey – both team sports – at the turn of millennium. He enlisted three groups of male footballers – international, national and provincial players, the first two comprising the professional level and including players who had represented Belgium at USA ’94. The hockey participants had played at the 1994 World Cup in Australia, the European Championships in 1995 and the pre-Olympics tournament in 1996.

Helsen had the players fill out questionnaires, though he was wary of the reliability of the recollection of the athletes, who tend to overstate their actual practice time. At the elite level, he found the median practice time for the football and hockey players 13 years into their careers was 6,328 and 6,403 hours, respectively – similar to Ericsson’s findings of 6,351 hours for violinists 10 years into their careers. By the age of 20, the best violinists had spent more than 10,000 hours in practice.

“It’s about targeted practice,” said the Belgian, whose work focuses on the theory of deliberate practice in professional team sports, adding that the attained level of performance is monotonically related to accumulated practice, and talent would not play a particular role in the development of expertise.

“The 10,000 hours rule was confirmed,” said Helsen. “Young players need 10 years with the 10,000 hours rule to attain an international level and break through.”

“I went to the FA (Royal Belgian Football Association) to highlight that the number of practice hours at the different elite clubs in Belgium was simply not sufficient,” Helsen continued. “Practice hours needed to be doubled at the youth level.”

The next question was: What was the requisite game form to maximize the output of practice? If players practised for innumerable hours, coaches had to offer them an optimized environment throughout the various stages of their youth development.

In Italy, Spain and England – the leading European football nations – there was little consensus on what constituted the optimized game forms across different age groups. But Helsen and his students analysed 1,500 hours of game footage of elite Belgian players between the ages of 9 and 12 years, focusing on the nuts and bolts of the game – short passes, the number of touches of every player, the build-up play, a possession-based sequence of passing in the defence and the long ball – a long-distance hoof/pass without an intended recipient, which inferior teams often resort to.

Eventually, Belgium became a conveyor belt of talented players – Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens – who all ply their trade in Europe’s top leagues. The country had modified its football blueprint in the time since its disastrous first round exit at EURO 2000 on home soil, and academia and the 10,000-hour rule played no small part in its transformation.

It’s more than just practice

Hobbling behind: At last year’s under-17 World Cup held at home, India were true underdogs: small and inexperienced.

Last October, the under-17 World Cup in India also seemed to suggest deliberate practice is very important. The host nation was no match for Ghana, the USA and, to a lesser extent, Colombia in the group stages. The opposing teenagers breezed past their Indian counterparts. In the opening match, the American players on average measured 179.5cm – a full 10cm more than the Indians. The boys in blue were true underdogs: small and inexperienced. India was eliminated with zero points and just one goal from three matches. The host endured a brutal introduction to the international game: 270 minutes on the field showed the Indians were hobbling a decade behind the global standard.

“It was great for India to host the tournament and the boys had the best exposure, but they don’t have the base to work from,” says Scott O’Donell, a former technical director at the All India Football Federation. “A lot of them started playing just a couple of years ago. The Indian boys give it 100 per cent. They are a pleasure to coach. They don’t question, keep on working and working. It needs more than just hard work. It’s about giving a good footballing education.”

In hindsight, the under-17 World Cup was a disaster waiting to happen. Indian players don’t ‘understand’ the game at a profound level. They have not passed the ball 2,000 times at the age of seven. Indeed, the window to begin ‘deep practice’ in football closes by 13 or 14. At that age, it’s too late: a natural connection cannot be nurtured any more.

India's Jeakson Thounaojam (15) scoring India's first goal during the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 football match against Colombia in New Delhi on Monday.

Richard Hood, the director player development at the All India Football Federation, however, repudiated the importance of the 10,000-hour rule, which he said “of late has been relegated to being called the ‘10,000-hour myth after Ericsson went on record to state that the results of his study have been de-contextualised and misunderstood in popular books, marketing seminars and teaching platforms.”

“This number took the world by storm and for a good decade defined a change in how we viewed the development of human potential. Many programmes, especially in player development, around the world took the revelations of these books far too seriously and were based on the belief that all you need to do is clock in 10,000 hours and you will attain expertise in your field,” said Hood. “The principles of Ericsson’s study, in my limited understanding, should at best serve as no more than a reference for that it will take a lot of time, commitment, focus and effort with a good support system to maximize your potential in attaining expertise.”

“Unfortunately, an individual’s potential has its limitations genetically and physiologically, which determines how a player responds to the environment, opportunities and support he is given,” he added.

Deliberate practice may not be enough. Not to become a pro footballer, let alone make it to the World Cup.

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