When growing up, a phrase that was often repeated by our coaches was “practice makes perfect”. But does it? During my football coaching, I always encourage my players to practice a technique or skill outside of the football session and indeed use similar phrases myself. I believe this is important given our short amount of time that we spend with players to encourage practicing away from the session when factors such as the tempo and environment can be dictated by the player. But what does it mean? Simply kicking a ball off a wall?
I decided to investigate further how learning a technique could be improved more efficiently. First of all I needed to ascertain any truth behind that phrase…Recently I read a book titled The Talent Code by Dan Coyle, I thought I’d share some aspects of it, and other sources of info, to discuss practice.
Firstly, every human being who performs an action repeatedly will become more comfortable after performing that action a number of times, right? But why exactly? Dan Coyle, author of The Talent Code, investigated and was lead to something called “myelin”. Myelin, is a neural insulator our brains produce which increases around specific neural pathways when we perform a movement. The myelin sheath acts as an insulant to the signals the brain sends down these pathways, reducing the amount which can escape, just like insulating wires, the result is a stronger, higher concentration of signal reaching its destination rather than escaping. So therefore according to this theory, each time we perform a technique or skill, the brain wraps more layers of myelin around the neural pathway allowing us to perform a required movement with more speed, precision, quality and timing.
Now then, here’s the interesting part. Anyone can grow it, but it is most swiftly produced and distributed by the brain in youth. So, when we hear so called golden ages of development with youth players, we need to recognise that the time for high myelination (as you guessed, the process of myelin being installed by the brain) is during childhood. The FA Youth Modules state that we should focus on introducing to players a high variety of ABC movements during the ages of 5-11 and recently U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna referred to ages 6-12 as a golden period for development as outlined in the U.S Soccer Curriculum. Dan Coyle in his book identifies a number of elite performers who began performing repeated activities during these ages such as tennis players, musicians and Brazilian footballers.
So we’ve established that practicing a technique repeatedly causes the body to insulate the neural route responsible for delivering the signal. Consequently, performing the technique or skill becomes more fluid, efficient and accurate amongst other things. We’ve also seen that golden ages for development exist as a result of the myelination process being more efficient in childhood. So is it a case of just performing a technique so many times or for so many hours it becomes perfect? Possibly…
Coyle believes that elite performers may need 10,000 hours of practice to fully master a particular activity. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist, along with his colleagues proposed in The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance every expert in every field is the result of around ten thousand hours of committed practice. Ericsson and colleagues validated the claim of the “ten year rule” that all world class performers in any discipline have spent a minimum of ten years (or roughly) perfecting their art.
Also Coyle mentions, that a specific type of practice may be required to fully benefit from this theory. He refers to it as “deep practice”, which he describes below;
Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them—as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go—end up making you swift and graceful without your realising it.
Robert Bjork, chair of psychology at UCLA, says “the trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities; to target the struggle”.
I find it very interesting to try and picture what a coaching session based on the above may look like. Firstly, if these theories are to be observed, would it require less input from the coach and for them to simply allow play to continue when often we are encouraged to stop play and ‘coach a fault’ ? Also, it’s very interesting to note that deep practice mentions mistakes, the very thing we don’t want…or do we?
Would it therefore be prudent to allow an element of problem solving and exploration into our sessions, rather than providing all the answers for the players?
In his book, Coyle eludes to a number of places in the world he refers to as ‘Talent Hotbeds’, which have produced world class talent. One may expect these places to be full of young, aspiring, perfect performers producing works of art at will. However, Coyle notes “The people inside the talent hotbeds are engaged in an activity that seems, on the face of it, strange and surprising. They are seeking out the slippery hills. They are purposely operating at the edges of their ability, so they will screw up. And somehow screwing up is making them better. How?”
Coyle states the following in an interview:
When you really look at what’s happening in these contests and what’s happening inside the competitors’ brains, there are very, very specific things.
One element of it is chunking, when you’re breaking your practice down into the smallest component and working on one aspect at a time and then adding those chunks together. That pattern where you’re breaking it down, slowing it down, speeding it up, making a mistake and fixing that mistake, looks horrible and ineffective and slow, but in fact it’s not. This ugly piecemeal, broken up practice is calculated to produce ten times faster learning than normal practice. That doesn’t seem to make sense until we see it as an act of construction. You’re actually building this neural circuit.
To make it work well, then once you have whatever it is down accurately, whether it’s a piece of music or a move on the soccer field, you have to repeat, repeat, repeat, a process which literally is wrapping that circuit in myelin. Once that neural road is paved through repetition, the traffic on the road, i.e. the electrical signals, can go not just ten times faster but hundreds and thousands of times faster. It’s literally like installing broadband in your brain.
Then there is the emotional element. Operating right at the edge of your ability is this uniquely frustrating experience. It’s not the experience of thrashing around wildly; it’s the experience of reaching just one particular thing high on the shelf and that your fingers scrape against it and you can’t grab it. That is the feeling that they are having and that feeling is very connected to this active neural construction that they are doing. So if you don’t have that feeling of reaching that candy bar that your fingertip is almost brushing then you are not necessarily in that zone of deep practice and high-velocity learning.
So what are the answers to producing world class footballers? Sadly, that blueprint hasn’t been developed and I don’t have the answer! But it seems with research like the above, we can change our attitudes, tailor our coaching sessions more appropriately and understand how particular techniques and skills are improved. As a result of extensive reading on subjects such as skill acquisition, myelination and practice I’ve listed a few points I believe I can consider going forward;
The golden ages for myelination are during childhood
Supplement training with opportunities for players to repeatedly practice individual techniques and skills and encourage this repetition outside of the session. The golden ages are there as a result of extensive research for us to use, for the benefit of our players.
Encourage problem solving
Are you a dominant coach? Consider allowing your players the opportunity to solve their own problems and find their own answers. Practice may look messy and unorganised but remember:“What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand” – Chinese Proverb.
Elite players may need ten thousand hours/ten years
Introducing a wide spectrum of techniques and experiences earlier to our players will increase the likelihood that they will learn these to a high level. It may be also worth noting that whilst early specialisation will introduce elements to a player earlier, it may also restrict other techniques being introduced.
As Coyle mentions, one characteristic of talent hotbeds is that mistakes were common place. Allow players the freedom to make mistakes and encourage learning from these situations.
One rule of deep practice Coyle eludes to is chunking and slowing movement down. Encourage players to practice techniques but to break the move down into chunks, slow them down & practice and then repeat the whole technique.
In The Talent Code, Coyle writes that performers are practicing at their limits. Make practice challenging and varied so the players are striving to achieve their goals, not always comfortably and are encouraged to try new methods and techniques regardless of a potential negative outcome. Performance before result?
Amongst other things, does the environment allow experimentation? Encourage mistakes? Encourage practice outside of football? Encourage new techniques to be broken down to aid learning? Allow adequate repetition? Incorporate the theory that myelination is most effective in youth and this is the golden age to introduce and encourage repetition of new techniques and movements?
It seems we can summarise the theories into three main categories of myelination, practice and our coaching input. The topic is interesting, broad and has only been recently touched upon with regards to football coaching in this country. I look forward to further publications and research being conducted to further enhance the scientific approach towards grassroots coaching.
I highly recommend the following books and publications.
The Talent Code – Dan Coyle
Bounce – Matthew Syed
Mindset – Carol Dweck
Early Specialization in Youth Sport: a requirement for adult expertise? – Joseph Baker
Literature from the FA Youth Modules
The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance – Ericsson et al
D. A. Rosenbaum, S. B. Kenny, and M. A. Derr, “Hierarchical Control of Rapid Movement Sequences,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 9 (1983), 86–102.
Play the Brazilian Way – Simon Clifford