Elite Football: The Myth of Talent and The Power of Practice

Opinion

When David Beckham stood over an injury time free kick against Greece in 2001, he carried the entire weight and expectation of a nation on his shoulders. Beckham still faced harsh criticism from some sections of English fans over his role in England’s elimination from the last World Cup. Defeat against Greece would mean failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup and certain public humiliation for the team.

At 2-1 down, an equaliser would be enough to secure qualification. As Beckham stood over the dead ball, fans breathed in with anticipation, knowing he had already missed a number of free kicks in this match.

The rest is history. He curled an unstoppable strike over and around the wall and secured England’s place in the next World Cup. In many quarts of English fandom the goal finally brought him redemption.

After the game, a journalist said to Beckham that he was a “natural taker” of free kicks. To which Beckham disagreed. He has been recorded as saying: “I must have taken tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands [of free kicks]. I would go to the local park, place the ball on the ground and aim at the wire meshing over the window of a small community hut.”

As fans, we were not seeing natural talent at work – but the execution and culmination of hours of devoted and diligent practice toward a specific skill. We believe it is a natural talent or gift because we do not see the hard work preceding the decisive moments.

In Western culture we often believe talent is dominant and people, particularly athletes, are born with a natural gift. But this is not the case. In football, the top players have completed more hours of practice than others who are lower skilled.

In his excellent book, ‘Bounce’, Matthew Syed talks about the myth of talent and the power of practice. He draws upon another superb book, ‘Outliers’, by Malcolm Gladwell, who proposes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” is required to become world-class in any field. 10,000 hours of practice could clock up to a decade of devoted time toward a skill or set of skills.

There has been confusion in both the public domain and the media in what this means. Some have taken it to mean talent is not important – and with 10,000 hours of practice anyone can reach an elite level. If somebody was able to devote 10,000 hours to anything, they would certainly become very skilled, but world-class is another level entirely. To reach the very highest levels of performance there must be some evidence of ‘talent’ – and by ‘talent’, both Gladwell and Syed define it as “activity-specific knowledge”.

The greatest players of the current era, Ronaldo and Messi, were both identified as having talent from a young age. But both possess an incredible work ethic, devotion to their craft, and belief that practice will help them improve. For the best players who are identified early, they are often picked up by the best teams with the best coaches and best facilities.

For a player like Messi, who showed a natural talent for football, he has not been left to his own devices to guide and nurture his development. He signed with Barcelona and joined the La Masia academy. He played on some superb picthes with access to some of the best coaches in the world, he played with some great players, and received valuable feedback on how he could refine his practice to improve even further.

The emphasis of practice does not mean, as some believe, repeating the same action over and over. In fact, Einstein once reportedly said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The practice undertaken by elite athletes must be purposeful and thought out, otherwise it is rendered useless. It must be geared towards a skill or attribute overloads their current level so, like muscles do, they stretch and grow. Elite football players are guided by coaches to engage with diligent practice to develop activity-specific knowledge bases that lead to activity-specific improvements.

Talent without practice is nothing. Ravel Morrison was highly regarded in the Manchester United academy and described by Sir Alex Ferguson as the “saddest case” of his career. A boy who had swathes of talent did not focus on developing what he could do and was consigned to a career below the standards his potential suggested.

In turn, 10,000 hours of practice without some description of “activity-based skill” will undoubtedly lead to improvements being made – but not necessarily mean players can reach the highest levels of the elite.

There are many examples of players, who are not the most talented or naturally gifted, that have made it to the top. Gary Neville clearly did not have the same ‘talent’ as other members of Manchester United’s Class of 92. But he had in his playing career, and still does in his punditry career, the desire and belief to excel and improve. Although not as naturally talented as others, Neville was able to fully maximise the ability he did have to get the most from his career.

The Class of 92 is a case in waiting for the importance of practice and hard work. This group of players, who all grew up in close proximity to each other, went on to become arguably the most successful group of English club players in football history. It is not an accident of unique and coincidental geography. They went through the same youth system and were expertly coached by Eric Harrison and constantly given feedback on how they could improve as players.

Ferguson recently praised all the Class of 92 graduates for growing into “outstanding men”. This was a direct and positive consequence from the development of their devotion and commitment to practice and to cultivate a growth mindset outlook.

Ultimately, most clubs, players and managers understand the importance of purposeful practice. They commit time to developing the skills a player possesses when they first join a club. The best clubs and players see success as a journey, not a gift or a destination. In reaching the golden 10,000 hours of practice, many skills will be mastered over time.

Mastery itself is not fully understood by the public. Any skill at any level can be mastered. For example, stopping the ball with the inside of your foot is a skill that can be mastered by children, in the same way a step-over can be mastered away from live play, then executed in the full and free-flowing nature of a competitive match.

We are guilty in our culture of expecting success to be instant. In school life, children can become frustrated at not being able to acquire skills quickly. This illustrates the importance of why we teach our young people to become resilient, manage setbacks, and view time, practice, input and feedback as the route to success.

Otherwise, they will see success as a gift they will never obtain – and stop any true potential from ever being unlocked.