It’s Not the Trainer’s Fault (Book Review: Soccernomics)

One of the last conversations that I had with Jan van Beveren was about misplaced expectations.  A parent approached him regarding their child who was training at SSSC where Jan was Director of Training.  Jan was asked what he was going to do to get this talented 9 year old a college scholarship.  Of course, Jan being Jan, he likely avoided telling the parent that two training sessions per week will not get your child to college, the MLS, the national team, etc.  I am sure he smiled, encouraged the parent and saved the head scratching for later.  

The training model that we have in our country is a paid-for service.  As soccer becomes more and more popular, I would anticipate that our Academies become more European where players, even at a young age, are seen as assets, not customers.  Once the demand raise to justify that sort of position, then training will not be a paid for service, but a service for youth who fit the training models (asset-based).  MLS teams have been doing this with Pre-Academy and Academy teams.  

In England, a player’s acceptance into a training club is skill based (at the professional clubs).  If you are good enough, then they will train you.  If you are not, you are out.  There is no cost to you.  In any event, it is not the training sessions per se that make great players.  Here, because parents are required to pay large sums of money to have their child “professionally trained,” the assumption seems to be that if we spend enough, then our kids will become stars.  

But soccer is a muscle memory activity.  The only way to master soccer is to put the appropriate amount of time training your brain to communicate with your muscles in the soccer-appropriate manner.  In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a report from a neurologist that expertise in an event requires ten thousand hours of practice.  Since his book, this is referred to as the “10,000 Hour Rule.”  Citing the neologists report, he states:

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert–in anything.  In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice time than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all this it needs to know to achieve true mastery.  Outliers, M. Gladwell 2008 (page 40)(with emphasis).  

Gladwell also cites a study by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music.    In comparing amateur pianists to professional pianists, they found that the amateurs never practiced more than about three hours per week over the course of their childhood, and “by the age of twenty had totaled two thousand hours of practice. The professionals, on the other hand, steadily increased their practice time every year…”  Outliers, page 38-39.  In the study, they were unable to identify even one musician who floated to the top on natural ability.  “Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguished one performer from another is how hard he or she works.”   Id.

The same rules apply to soccer players.  In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski cite Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” and apply it to professional soccer players. They state:

In soccer, it is the poorest European boys who are most likely to reach the ten-thousand-hour mark. They tend to live in small apartments, which forces them to spend time outdoors. There they meet a ready supply of local boys equally keen to get out of their apartments and play soccer. Their parents are less likely than middle-class parents to force them to waste precious time doing their homework. And they have less money for leisure pursuits. A constant in soccer players’ ghost written autobiographies is the monomaniacal childhood spent playing nonstop soccer and, in a classic story, sleeping with a ball.  Soccernomics, S. Kuper & S. Szymanski (2009), page 272.  

Now, it may be that world-class mastery is not what you desire for your child.  But, the ten-thousand-hour rule portends to prove also that the more time spent practicing an activity, the better you will be.  Maybe you are interested in the five thousand hour rule.  In any case, two ninety-minute sessions per week is not enough to develop the type of mastery that will result in a level of competency required by college scouts.  So, we should encourage our children to touch the ball more often — on days they are not training — if they want to.  Don’t ask the trainers what they are going to do to get your kid to college, a starting spot on the local varsity team, etc.; rather, ask yourself, “how am I going to give my child the opportunities to develop the mastery necessary to succeed.”  

It should be noted that Gladwell says as much.  In addition to luck, month of birth date (in league play, it is August; for ODP, January), access to instruction (again, luck), timing (again, luck), as well as parents willing to support, encourage, and assist in the accumulation of hours.  He notes:

The other thing about that ten thousand hours, of course, is that ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time.  It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you’re an adult. You have to have parents who encourage and support you…”  Outliers, p. 42.  

Finally, and probably more important that the number of hours practicing, the kid must desire the greatness.  At young ages, my philosophy is that children lack the ability to choose whether or not they like a sport.  How can a 7 YO decide she does not like tennis if she has not learned to hit a ball over the net.  But, at some age, the athlete must have their own desire, apart from the parent, to excel.  Today on The Football Show (11-11-11) hosted by Giorgio Chinaglia and Charlie Stillitano and they added these additional ingredients for great players:  (1) some god-given talent, (2)  opportunity, and (3) desire to be great.  While parents may desire their children to be great soccer players, at some point the youth needs to desire it too. 

So, it’s not the trainer’s fault.  Rather than criticize trainers, let’s facilitate mastery over the ball by giving our kids more time with it to create and play. 

One thought on “It’s Not the Trainer’s Fault (Book Review: Soccernomics)”

  1. From information Keith Barrow gave me:

    “As a kid you need to touch the ball as much as you can. You should always be with the ball. You should have a feeling that wherever the ball is, you can do anything with it. No matter
    where it is, where it is on your body, how it’s spinning, how it’s coming at you, the speed it’s coming at you, anything. You can learn the tactical side of the game later. It’s amazing to me that people put so much emphasis on trying to be tactical and worry about winning when it doesn’t matter when you’re 12 years old. We’re going to have big, strong, fast players. We’re
    Americans, we’re athletes. But if we never learn at an early age to be good on the ball, then it’s just useless.”

    Landon Donovan, USA World Cup hero, in Soccer America, July 2002

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