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The Importance of Practice – Talent v Hard Work

by  Dr. Jay Martin,

Editor NSCAA Soccer Journal

Surely, what separates one soccer player from another is the level of talent, right? That is the conventional wisdom and, coaches, teachers and parents support that paradigm! But is it true? How should this affect you as a coach?

Talent, experience and practice…

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores what makes some people more successful than others. What do all successful people have in common? Gladwell tells us it is the 10,000 Hour Rule! He refers to the studies of K. Anders Ericsson who found that “once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from the other is how hard he or she works!”

Ericsson and others tell us that practice is more than just being there and going through the motions. Players who are engaged will learn more and better. And certain types of practice are more effective than others. Ericsson found that what matters most, even more than experience, is what he calls deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is repeatedly doing the most difficult tasks. To Ericsson practice should never be easy. If it is easy you are not getting better. For example, at your next practice ask that every shot on goal is taken with one touch. That is hard. The players want to take two or three touches because it is easier. Set restrictions to get your players out of their comfort zone.

So, does talent matter? In a Fortune Magazine article, Why Talent is Overrated? the author, Geoff Colvin, discusses Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice in depth and concludes that the “findings do not prove that talent doesn’t exist. But they do suggest and intriguing possibility; that if it does exist, it may be irrelevant”.

Colvin tells us that “deliberate practice is a specific and unique type of activity…characterized by several elements that together form a powerful whole.”

• Deliberate practice is designed specifically to improve performance – it involves continually stretching a player beyond his or her limits
• Deliberate practice should be repeated – a lot
• Feedback on results is continually available. That’s what good coaches do!!
• It is demanding mentally – it requires focus and attention
• It is hard – most people will not do it. Doing it will distinguish the player from others
• Before the work, the best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but the process necessary to reach the outcome
• During the work, the best players monitor what is happening in their own mind and evaluating how things are working
• After work, practice activities are useless without useful feedback about the results – a self evaluation

Gladwell, Ericsson and Colvin are not alone in their emphasis on practice. Educators use the term “reflective practice” to describe applying knowledge to practice through one’s own experience. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle takes talent and practice even further. Relying on amazing new world of neuroplasticity, Colye tells us how “deep practice” changes the brain by creating myelin.

Deep practice provides us with “The Three Rules of Deep Practice”.
• Rule one: Chunk it up – absorb the whole thing, break it into chunks and slow it down
• Rule two: Repeat it
• Rule three: Learn to feel it – be aware of what you are doing.

What does this mean for coaches? In a general philosophical way…

• You should continually stretch your players. Get them out of their comfort zone
• Have the players think about what they are doing and why. Have the players challenge themselves in training instead of going through the motions. For example, in a simple drill of two players and one ball with one player serving and his/her partner executes a skill by playing the ball back to the server – ask the players to play it to a certain spot – the knees, the waits etc.
• Teach a new skill by “chunking it up” and giving it to the players in parts
• Work on the mental side of the game. The players should have a mental and physical goal for each session. You will have to help with this. A mental goal?? Today I will stop all negative thoughts from creeping into my head.
• Emphasize work and effort NOT talent. If you recognize talent only, the work ethic will diminish. But with talent AND hard work the players can move to the next level.

Some suggestions for practice…

Here are some thoughts you should consider as you plan a training session:

• Make a plan and write it down. Carry it onto the field with you and use it as a guide. Do not “wing it”!
• Instead of running to promote fitness, use small sided games. You will increase fitness, technique and tactics with SSG!!
• Use problem solving (Discovery Method) of teaching as much as possible. i.e. two teams playing 3 v 3 – How can you get the ball from one end line to the other with three passes?
• Do not use drills where the players are waiting in lines. There is not enough training time as it is! Use activities!
• Make all sessions as realistic as possible
• Restrict each activity to a set time period. i.e. we will play 3 v 3 for seven minutes. Then stick to it. You will get more out of your team.
• Tell the players what they will be doing in training and why!
• Make it fun for the players and you

Dr. Jay Martin-
Editor NSCAA ‘Soccer Journal’
National Soccer Coaches Association of American

Dr. Jay Martin

Editor: United Soccer Coaches, “Soccer Journal” Author: Recently published his first book, “Lessons from a Great Coach: Develop a Winning Team Culture That Lasts!” Head Coach: Ohio Wesleyan is the winningest coach in NCAA men's soccer history with 749 wins, making him the first men's soccer coach to reach 700 wins. Heading into the 2023 season, he boasts a 749-158-80 record and a career winning percentage of .799, ranking 14th all-time in the NCAA. Under his guidance, the 2022 Bishops were NCAC tournament champions, and the staff was named NCAC Coaching Staff of the Year for the 10th time. In 45 seasons, Martin's teams have a 297-30-24 conference play record, winning 26 conference crowns. Martin led Ohio Wesleyan to NCAA Division III national championships in 1998 and 2011 and has reached the NCAA Division III semifinals nine times. His teams hold records for playoff appearances (43) and victories (65). Awards: 16-time NCAA Regional Coach of the Year. Inducted into the United Soccer Coaches Hall of Fame in 2020. Beyond soccer: A successful lacrosse coaching career and has turned out 61 All-America and 214 all-region or All-Midwest players in both sports. He served as president of the NSCAA and spent six years on the NCAA Division III selection committee. Martin, a professor and former athletics director at Ohio Wesleyan, has also been a color analyst for the MLS's Columbus Crew for nine seasons. Learn more about Dr. Jay Martin at Super Soccer Camp at Ohio Wesleyan University.