This week saw the performance of an athlete in an elite football setting that marvelled many of us - Messi. And it was far from messy. It was composed, creative and captivating prompting many debates from radio to the pub - how do we create a player like that? Are they just born that way?
Apparently, if myths are to be believed, if I complete 10,000 hours of 'something' then I will become an expert. It's that easy. Well, that is the law according to some and the truth for all involved in talent development. However, is that the answer, just do loads of hours?
The background to this field of discussion has come from work in the early 90's by Anders Ericsson, who looked at a variety of different 'experts' and concluded that this was the magic number. And the scary thing is, for those that have then gone on to read Bounce, Outliers, Talent is Overrated etc. it has become the Holy Grail, deeply ingraining this in modern talent development society. People are getting hung up on the fact that greatness needs to hit this number.
Now, I don't profess to be an academic and a lot smarter people than me are debating this issue but one thing I do like to do is read around a subject. So, Ericsson says 10,000 hours is the number, what do others think? Why should I believe Ericsson and take it as read? When you actually read into this subject, it gets quite interesting, and for us involved in developing athletes in sport, or more importantly, developing people, things start to get unearthed about the matter.
For example, Ericsson's research has no variables within it - so it doesn't say if some people took 2000 hours and some took 25000 hours, its just a neat average of those that became experts. Furthermore, the research was undertaken largely with finger manipulative tasks like playing the violin, or chess, so how does this relate to a cognitive, physical, physiological, technical team game like football? Or doesn't it?
Evidence exists in other research of elite athletes that have played international sport having completed 4000/5000/6000 hours of training and the work of the Australian Institute of Sport highlights athletes that have crossed into sports with no experience and competed with far fewer hours.
The one thing that is evident is you need to work hard, using deliberate and deep practice, and this is why I'm not convinced totally that it is all about 'nature'. No-one gets born with a talent and they just become world-class without hard work. Messi has completed years of practice, honing skills, recognising pictures within games, understanding tactical elements in order to play the game successfully in amongst other exceptional players. You don't get born with that skill, it comes from experience.
However, is it totally down to 'nurture' then, the environment you are in, the opportunities you get given and presented with and as it happens, the time of year you were born? I don't think you can totally rule out 'nature' either. Some of us born with a genetic predisposition to do certain things to certain levels. Height is an obvious one. I would have struggled however many hours of practice to play in the NBA. There is the odd one under 5' 10, but that is very much the exception. Sprinters from Jamaica, long distance runners from Africa - this is something that we probably don't fully understand but something makes this happen genetically.
So what does this mean for us when developing our players? From my stance, it comes down to a focus on the environment and the things we can control.
- Make it an incredibly enjoyable place for young people to come to. No-one stops doing something because it is too much fun!
- Try and use practices that are as close to the game as possible. That's what they come for, to play the 'game', not to stand in lines and take their turn.
- Ensure your coaching knowledge is up-to-date and current. Do you understand questioning techniques? Do you know about when, where and why to use different coaching styles?
- Focus on aspects wider than just technical work, help them become better people through sport first and foremost.
- Provide opportunity for children to play. If they want to play, and are intrinsically motivated to do so, they will play forever. As someone told me recently, children are the experts of play, not the adults.
- Help kids fall in love with the game.