This will be a shorter post as it’s been a truncated week with the Euros, but who wants long reads for the sake of long reads?
This past week I finished Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s new book Peak: How to Master Almost Anything. Ericsson is best known for his research with Berlin violin students, which demonstrated the powerful effect of deliberate practice—practice which relies on feedback and relentless focuses on improving on weaknesses and breaking through ability plateaus.
Ericsson’s life work has been dedicated to attacking the idea that certain people are born with inestimable gifts, whether for music, the arts, or even athletics. In contrast, his research shows that elite skill in any field is instead the product of deliberate practice, over a long period of time, in some cases beginning at ages as young as 4.
Deliberate practice is defined by practice which
- is repetitive
- has clear goals and objectives for improvement
- assumes the existence of a good level of knowledge in the relevant field, so that instruction can be understood quickly
- is effortful and motivated—a regular, repeated attempt to push past previous best performance
- provides clear and unambiguous feedback
Unfortunately, Ericsson has also become the subject of ridicule, largely through no fault of his own—Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers used Ericsson’s study to propagate the idea that one needed only to put in 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field. Ericsson spends a few pages in Peak knocking Gladwell down a peg, which was good, but many in the sporting field in particular have been critical of Ericsson’s work, most notably David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene.
I don’t want to weigh into this debate. But I think football is an area where a better understanding of the role deliberate practice might play in helping to develop an elite footballer.
Though I’ve only read a couple of studies on the subject, it seems that one of the defining characteristics elite footballers is an ability to read actions in the pitch quickly, in real time, and change their decision making process in response…a better ‘spatio-temporal’ awareness, if you want to get pretentious about it. That involves having a clear sense of how things should normally appear on the pitch—ie, a useful, detailed mental model.
This is supported in part by a passage from Peak, in which Ericsson makes the case that improved mental representations, or mental models, of what happens in various situations in a football match, distinguish good from average footballers:
To study this phenomenon, I and two colleagues, Paul Ward and Mark Williams, investigated how well soccer players can predict what’s coming next from what has already happened on the field. To do this we showed them videos of real soccer matches and suddenly stopped the video when a player had just received the ball. Then we asked our subjects to predict what would happen next. Would the player with the ball keep it, attempt a shot at the goal, or pass the ball to a teammate? We found that the more accomplished players were much better at deciding what the player with the ball should do. We also tested the players’ memory for where the relevant players were located and in what directions they were moving by asking them to recall as much as they could from the last frame of the video before it was hidden from them. Again, the better players outperformed the weaker ones.
The idea here is that better players have a more accurate, more complete mental model of what tends to happen out on the football pitch, not on a chalkboard, but in real time as events unfold.
This ties in well with this recent Telegraph profile on Harry Kane’s autodidactic approach under Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs. Kane’s self-imposed training methods fit very neatly into Ericsson’s deliberate practice mould, but they also are clearly geared to improving his mental model as a forward:
Kane’s shooting practice is strictly set to between 100 and 150 balls in the hour and all shots must be taken from inside the box and replicate genuine shooting positions that come up during games. There will generally be six offensive players – Kane, Christian Eriksen, Érik Lamela, Dele Alli, Nacer Chadli and Heung-Min Son – and three goalkeepers from the academy who jump at the chance to test themselves against a group of full internationals.
Kane will often go to Tottenham’s impressive Enfield training complex on the day after a game and work through what he felt benefited him from the previous Thursday’s training session in the match.
Over the week, Kane will attempt to replicate situations that came up in the last match to learn from what went right and what went wrong, and attempt to make sure he is even better prepared in the next fixture.
All the elements are there—clear goals, focus on weakness, clear feedback (Expected Goals enthusiasts will no doubt appreciate Kane’s focus on taking shots that are closer to goal). Moreover, by working to replicate “genuine shooting” positions, Kane and others work to develop a more realistic mental representation of what it means to take a chance on the pitch.
This brings me to Euro 2016. One of the truisms of any international football tournament these days is that the quality suffers because, unlike at the club level, these players are relative strangers. Many for example point to the fact England’s ‘core’ is made up of several Spurs regulars as an advantage—they are more familiar with each other.
Yet, if true, this shows a relative weakness, a plateau in these players’ ability. Because while a robust mental representation is likely key to having elite skill, if it is too dependent on ‘ideal conditions,’ ie the same teammates in the same formation, all playing the same roles each week, it can sometimes be a weakness.
Fans for example tend to overreact even at the most cosmetic change to a player’s traditional role on the football pitch—consider the hemming and hawing over the fact Kane was assigned to take corners for England. Yet if a player is suddenly average simply because they’ve been moved over a few yards to play a slightly different role, perhaps we should worry more about the basic talent pool of the side in question?
I would also recommend Ted Knutson’s Statsbomb column this week, which raises similar questions on how coaches might best expand their stylistic repertoire.