Life, Sport, Football and the Art of Deliberate Practice

Life, Sport, Football and the Art of Deliberate Practice
April 11, 2017 Daniel Rhodes

By TTT Subscriber Marius Norheim.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

In football as well as other sports there exists a myth that some players were born as a natural goal scorer or an innate talent. The reality being that every single top performer in any field has put in a high number of hours within their field to achieve expert level performance popularised through Ericsson’s 10,000 hour rule. The classical example here would be Mozart who by the time he was four years old had put in a lot more hour piano playing and composing music than other students who were a decade older. From the outside it would appear that Mozart was born with an innate gift to play the piano while in fact he just put in his hours of practice at a much younger age than other children. This is not to say that genes do not play a role at all, merely that studies on top performance over a wide range of fields have shown that practice is the key to becoming an expert. The masterpieces that made Mozart famous beyond his time where produced in his twenties, when he was way beyond the 10,000 hours of practice. ­This is also why the majority of athletes peak in their late twenties, when they have put in their hours of practice into their craft and have gained experience from competing at an elite level.

The importance of practice

So what is it with practice that makes perfect? Through practice the brain optimises neural circuits ensuring that the skills are performed fast and correctly without thinking. This is called automaticity. In more popular terms one would say that the skills performed become habits. Tom Brady, the famous quarterback, learned a set of basic drills from the late QB coach Tom Martinez, when he was in college. Brady kept seeing Martinez multiple times over the years after he became a professional and ever since college he has been carrying a copy of the basic drills Martinez taught him in his wallet. He still practices them regularly and this year, aged 39 he won his fifth Super Bowl.

There was an article posted on TTT a year or two ago, which described the difference in practice time between Olympic athletes and lower level football players. How the former had several practices throughout the day, while the latter only practised for an hour and a half before they went home for the day. In other sports you have extreme athletes who dedicate every single minute of their lives to reach their goal of taking an Olympic Gold medal that is four years away. The world’s best biathlon (Ski-Shooting) athlete through all time is the Norwegian national hero Ole Einar Bjørndalen. His list of achievements includes eight Olympic gold medals (13 in total), 20 World Championship gold medals (44 medals in total), double that of any other biathlete, and a ’95 World Cup race win through a career stretching over 24 seasons. He won the sprint at the 2014 Winter Olympics and picked up another Gold medal at the 2016 World Cup on a team relay. Today Bjørndalen is 42 years old. Is he planning on retiring yet? No. Last year he built a custom-made trailer that he has parked outside of the training field in order to practice as much as possible ahead of the coming World Cup and the 2018 Olympics. That is dedication. A key difference between individual and team sports is that as an individual athlete you must take the full responsibility of your actions and results, because there is no one else to blame.

The largest difference between professionals and amateurs is consistency. An amateur might be able to control a long pass perfectly with a sweet touch one try in three. However the professional will do it 99 times out of 100. Also, at the professional level you have less time to make every decision, which makes it even more difficult for you to perform the action consistently with high precision. Thus you need to reach high levels of automaticity, where you perform the action without thinking. This is what happens when Coutinho makes a stepover or when Lallana does a Cruyff turn. They have practised this time and time again throughout their career as footballers until the movement patterns become a habit that they do not even have to think about.

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