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I think it would be fair to say that most soccer players, of all ages, would want the same as Lionel Messi. But how do we improve? Is it a factor of ‘practice makes perfect’? Should players just play? Should they be practicing or playing soccer?
A common belief is that learning anything requires practice. You can’t learn the violin by
randomly dragging the bow over the violin strings. You have to put aside time to practice
certain coordinated movements over and over. And when you’ve learned enough to be pretty good, you have to then do even more practice in order to get better.
In soccer, practice is thought of as a way to learn a skill and then seek to improve those skills over time. Playing the game is when we use the skills learned and is always the most enjoyable aspect of it all. Wouldn’t it be great if we could improve just by playing, without any need for practice? “Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment.”  - Zig Ziglar

When we first learned to ride a bicycle, we first had to learn the essential skills of balance and coordination with the help of training wheels. Practice continued until we felt confident enough to drop the training wheels and ride. This example shows the importance of repetition and regular practice when learning new skills. However, in youth sports such as soccer, there has been a large dropout rate, and repetitive practice, thought of as boring, has been said to be a contributing factor. According to a poll from The National Alliance for Youth Sports, around 70 percent of children in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 because “it’s just not fun anymore.” The conclusion is that when coaches take the fun out of soccer, by restricting their playing time, young players will eventually drop out. The lesson to be learned here is that for children 13 and younger coaches need to let them play. By playing soccer at a young age the players develop a love of the game. That love will develop a strong desire in the young player, to want to get better and as a result be involved in the sport longer. Playing the game increases the players levels of motivation and enjoyment, and certain basic skills are developed along the way. “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” - Vince Lombardi 

Playing the game will help develop some very basic skills for the player, but hours of deliberate practice are necessary for that young player to reach an elite level performance. To learn any new skill and to make improvements with that skill soccer players need to practice. The quality of your practice is just as important as how often you practice. Deliberate practice is the term used as a method of training to help bring about positive results. However, players will need to be motivated and willing to do this kind of practice if those results are to be seen. With deliberate practice players will need to repeat the technique again and again whilst receiving informed feedback, such as that given from a coach. Just going through the motions in simple practice isn’t enough for those who want to elevate their skill level. “You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.” – Michael Jordan

Recent research from Brooke Macnamara, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, concluded that the hours spent practicing account for just a small part of an athlete's success. McNamara’s team analyzed the practice and performance of about 3,000 athletes over 34 separate studies. What their findings revealed was that practice accounted for only 18 percent of performance. This tells us that there are other factors other than the 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" needed to reach elite level of performance. This is further explained by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.  “Our best teachers do more than impart facts and figures - they inspire and encourage students and instill a true desire to learn. That's a fine art in itself.” - Sonny Perdue By allowing children 13 years old and younger to play the game more than practice the coach will help instill a love of the game, which provides young players with a solid foundation on which to build with deliberate practice as they get older. Deliberate practice does not guarantee success at reaching an elite level; there are other factors involved. These are factors such as intrinsic motivation, genetics, facilities, access to good coaching etc. 'More importantly you have to be dedicated you have to make sacrifices', that’s one of the most important things for me." - David Beckham

Many of the best players in the world, such as David Beckham, have spent hour after hour
kicking a ball at a wall or juggling a ball on their own. They had high levels of intrinsic
motivation and a common love of the game, with a strong desire to get better. When children under 13 play the game, they play to have fun. However, after about 13 years of age games tend to become more competitive and results start to matter. At this time in a players development, the need for individual improvement through deliberate practice becomes more prominent. A certain type of mindset will be required from the soccer player in order for the player to be able to focus and put themselves through deliberate practice drills.

After decades of research, Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, discovered the power of mindset. In her book, Mindset, she shows how success in sports, and almost every area of human life can be influenced by how we think about our talents and abilities. Her basic conclusion is that people with a fixed mindset - those who believe that abilities are fixed - are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset - those who believe that abilities can be developed.  “We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselvesextraordinary.” – Carol Dweck

Those that believe that players are born with a certain level of soccer ability and nothing can be done to change that level have this fixed mindset. Those that believe players can develop their ability through hard work and effort are described as possessing a growth mindset. Carol Dweck believes that having a growth mindset is the key to success. Those who develop a growth mindset are most probably out juggling a ball or kicking a ball against a wall without being told to do so. Once we have developed a love of the game through play in a players formative years, that passion will provide the foundation needed to then work on the necessary skills of the game through demanding deliberate practices. A growth mindset is necessary if players are able to put themselves through many hours of deliberate practice. Such players fully embrace the saying, ‘Learning isn’t about what you get out of it; it’s what you put into it.’ Finding a coach to give feedback is also essential to ensure the player is doing the technical skills correctly. During practice it is always a good idea for players to constantly analyze their own performance, comparing their technique with the feedback they have been given by the coach. This keeps the player focused on their goal of seeking improvement and helps keep their mind from drifting to blame or self-pity when mistakes are made.
“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” -Pele

STEP 1: When 12 Years old and younger - just go out and play and have fun.

STEP 2: When 12 years old and older - start to get involved with deliberate practice either on your own and/or with a team.

STEP 3: Find a coach and ask for feedback to ensure you are repeating the correct technique.

STEP 4: Develop a Growth Mindset – choose a positive mantra or phrase to always use prior, during and after every practice such as, ‘I am the captain of my ship, and the master of my fate’. This will remind you that you understand the connection between hard work, practice and positive development.

STEP 5: Develop a good self-analysis style during practice comparing your performance with that of the feedback given by the coach.

Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset. Random House. Gladwell, M. (2011) Outliers.  Back Bay Books. National Alliance for Youth Sports. Macnamara, B.N. Moreau, D. Hambrick, D.Z. (2016). Research Article: The Relationship Between Deliberate Practice and Performance in Sports: A Meta-Analysis Association for Psychological Science, Volume: 11 issue: 3, Perspectives on Psychological Science Journal.







Kevin Sherry

Louisiana Tech University head women’s soccer coach
US Soccer Federation “A” Level Coaching License