Practice, instruction and skill a...
Practice, instruction and skill acquisition in soccer: Challenging tradition A. MARK WILLIAMS* & NICOLA J. HODGES Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, UK (Accepted 24 July 2004) Abstract The acquisition of soccer skills is fundamental to our enjoyment of the game and is essential to the attainment of expertise. Players spend most of their time in practice with the intention of improving technical skills. However, there is a lack of scientific research relating to the effective acquisition of soccer skills, especially when compared with the extensive research base on physiological aspects of performance. Current coaching practice is therefore based on tradition, intuition and emulation rather than empirical evidence. The aim of this review is to question some of the popular beliefs that guide current practice and instruction in soccer. Empirical evidence is presented to dispel many of these beliefs as myths, thereby challenging coaches to self-reflect and critically evaluate contemporary doctrine. The review should inform sports scientists and practitioners as to the important role that those interested in skill acquisition can play in enhancing performance at all levels of the game. Keywords: coaching, expertise, motor learning, performance Introduction A significant amount of research has been under- taken in recent years to identify the important factors underpinning elite sports performance. This increase in research activity has been particularly evident in soccer, where the importance of sports science research and applied work is now more widely accepted (see Reilly & Williams, 2003). While the importance of sports science is appreciated by those involved with professional clubs and national gov- erning bodies, the majority of work has been undertaken by exercise physiologists. Other tradi- tional sports science disciplines, such as sport psychology and motor learning, are generally un- der-represented both in the applied and research fields (Reilly and Gilbourne, 2003). It appears that the soccer world has embraced the biological sciences with greater enthusiasm than the behaviour- al or social sciences. Several reasons may be advocated for this leaning towards the so-called ������harder������ sciences. First, it is much easier to evaluate the effectiveness of fitness conditioning programmes than interventions which attempt to change behaviour. Meaningful changes in aerobic and anaerobic capacity or in anthropometric characteristics such as body composition and mass can be easily determined using standard laboratory- and/or field-based measures. In contrast, constructs such as anxiety, self-confidence, anticipation and decision-making are difficult to measure directly and can only be inferred from changes in behaviour over time. The difficulties involved in attempting to verify the effectiveness of interventions that alter behaviour have made it harder to demonstrate the value of such approaches to practitioners. Another reason for the reluctance of those working in the field to embrace more fully the behavioural and social sciences may be due to the historical precedence that certain aspects of player preparation and development should remain the domain of the coach. Current coaching practice is determined mainly by subjective evidence and the historical precedence established within the club and/or governing body, what others have referred to as the processes of intuition, tradition and emulation (see, for example, Abraham & Collins, 1998 Lyle, 1999), rather than on empirical research. The most worrying aspect of this trend in favour of the biological rather than the behavioural sciences is that players spend most of their time attempting to refine and develop technical and behavioural skills, Correspondence: A. M. Williams, Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, The Henry Cotton Building, 15 ��� 21 Webster Street, Liverpool L3 2RT, UK. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org RJSP102115 (NT) Journal of Sports Sciences, ?Month? 2005 ??(?): 000 ��� 000 ISSN 0264-0414 print/ISSN 1466-447X online �� 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd DOI: 10.1080/02640410400021328
whereas much less effort is spent attempting to improve or refine aspects of fitness. Players who are offered full-time employment contracts by English Premier League Academies at the age of 16 years are likely to have devoted more than 10 years to the sport, investing an average of around 15 hours per week, 700 hours per year, and a total of 7000 hours in specific practice activities designed to enhance performance (Ward, Hodges, Williams, & Starkes, 2004). By the time a player makes his debut in the Premier League, the amount of accumulated practice is likely to exceed 10,000 hours. A significant investment of practice time and effort is required to reach an elite level of performance. Compared with the published work focusing on biological aspects of training, the research aimed at uncovering the important factors underpinning effective practice and instruction is noticeably limited. An important question to consider is whether the overemphasis on biologically based research at the expense of more behaviourally oriented work is leading to a situation where fitness training and conditioning are often given priority over the teaching of technical skills. The intention of the current review is to highlight how the effectiveness of certain aspects of coaching practice can be questioned in light of recent empirical research from the field of motor learning. We present a number of commonly held beliefs about practice and instruction and, by reference to recent research, expose these views as potential myths that may be undermining the development of elite soccer players. The overall aim is to illustrate the need for coaches to rely on evidence-based practice in developing elite performers and to encourage other behavioural scientists to take up the mantle by exploring in greater detail the important factors underlying effective practice and instruction. We begin by illustrating the importance of practice and instruction on the road to excellence. The intention is to promote the view that practice and instruction are key ingredients in the recipe for success, challenging the belief held by many lay people and some coaches, particularly at lower levels of the game, that skilled players are born to succeed because they are ������gifted������ or posses certain innate talents or abilities that predispose them towards achieving excellence within the sport. The premise that talented individuals are born with certain abilities that differentiate them from less gifted individuals, and that there are some indicators that enable trained people to identify the presence of these superior abilities at an early age, is fundamental to the talent identification process (Williams and Reilly, 2000). The remainder of this review focuses on the process of instruction in greater detail and attempts to provide practitioners with some guide- lines as to how best to facilitate the skill acquisition process. Practice and instruction: The key determining factors in attaining excellence Coaches and spectators often imply that elite players are in some way ������gifted������ with unique abilities that ensure that they will achieve excellence within the sport in question. In support of this presumption, scientists argue that we are not all born equal and that certain individuals may be endowed with characteristics that predispose them towards achiev- ing excellence more than others (Bouchard, Malina, & Pe ��russe, 1997 Rowe, 1998). However, to achieve excellence in any domain, individuals have to spend a considerable amount of time trying to improve performance through practice-related activities (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Ro ��mer, 1993 Howe, Davidson, & Slaboda, 1998). A consistent observa- tion is that elite performers in the sports, arts and sciences accumulate in excess of 10,000 hours of practice before reaching an international level of performance (i.e. the so called 10-year rule Simon & Chase, 1973). It is likely that the development of expertise is dependent on a complex recipe where innate hereditary factors are blended with the correct environmental factors, such as the influence of parents and coaches, as well as an individual���s commitment and motivation to practise (for a recent discussion, see Starkes & Ericsson, 2003). The crucial point for coaches is that while hereditary factors are likely to play a role in shaping an individual���s response to practice and training, skills are highly modifiable and adaptable to training and every player will need to practise for many hours to develop and refine these skills. What is under- estimated is the specific amount of practice needed before expertise is attained. Initial attempts to identify the practice history profiles of experts occurred in individual sports such as wrestling (Hodges and Starkes, 1996), figure skating (Starkes, Deakin, Allard, Hodges, & Hayes, 1996) and karate (Hodge and Deakin, 1998). The average amount of practice per week over a 10-year period in each of these sports was consistently high (approximately 26 hours per week in karate, 28 hours per week in figure skating, 25 hours per week in wrestling), and comparable with those reported for expert musicians (Ericsson et al., 1993). The practice history profiles of soccer players have also been examined (Helsen, Starkes, & Hodges, 1998 Ward et al., 2004). Helsen and colleagues (1998) examined the practice history profiles of professional, semi-professional and amateur players in Belgium. The amount of time spent in team practice was the strongest discriminator across skill 2 A. M. Williams & N. J. Hodges
groups. The professional players also spent more time in individual practice than the semi-professional and amateur players at 6 years into their careers (11 years of age). The professional and semi-professional players reached their peak in terms of the number of hours per week spent in practice (individual and team practice combined) at 15 years into their careers (around 20 years of age). At 18 years into their careers, the professional, semi-professional and amateur players had accumulated a total of 9332, 7449 and 5079 practice hours respectively. Ward and co-workers (2004) used a novel, quasi- longitudinal design to assess practice history profiles in elite and sub-elite soccer players between 8 and 18 years of age. The mean number of practice hours per week in soccer-specific team and individual practice, playful soccer activity and match-play is highlighted in Figures 1a (sub-elite) and 1b (elite). The elite players spent much more time in team and individual practice per week than the sub-elite players regard- less of age, with the amount of time spent in team practice being the strongest predictor of skill. The elite players spent twice the number of hours per week in team practice compared with the sub-elite players in each age category. While the notion that elite players practise more than their sub-elite counterparts is not altogether surprising, the amount of accumulated practice provides an astonishing portrayal of the immense commitment required to become an elite performer. This commitment fosters a clear ������rage to master������ in players at an early age (Winner, 1996) an almost obsessive desire to achieve excellence within the domain. It is this commitment and motivation to practise that may well be the most important precursors to expertise players at Premier League Academies in England considered that the motiva- tion to succeed allied with the commitment to practise were more important in achieving success than their initial skill level or talent (Ward et al., Fig. 1. Cross-sectional data outlining the practice history profiles of (a) sub-elite and (b) elite soccer players from 8 to 18 years of age (adapted from Ward et al., 2004). Practice, instruction and skill acquisition in soccer 3