We have advocated in previous articles about technical development being the foundation of a young players learning. Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal Manager who has helped develop exciting young players such as Cesc Fabregas, outlined this in an interview many years ago that the development of a young player is like building a house and that the foundation must be built – based on technical development.
I’m a firm advocate of the 10,000-hour training rule — the theory, as advocated by Malcolm Gladwell and others, that if you truly want to be good at something, you have to devote at least 10,000 to practicing it. Further research has confirmed that 10,000 hours is only a threshold to become an “expert” or “world class” and that more hours may be required to be the very best.
That means that if young players wish to become world-class at their chosen sport, they should be training anywhere from 10-20 hours each week. Of course, the type of training a player follows is also crucial. In soccer, for example, I believe that young players can train for more than the 10-20 hour/week range, without negative side-effects, if the training is based on technique and players are enjoying playing small-sided games. They also have to be in an environment where there is no expectation on winning and losing.
Young North American players lag behind players from other countries such as Brazil, Spain, England, Germany and France in the number of hours spent with the ball. In Brazil, young players are still developed in the streets and have a head start over young players from other nations, based on the number of hours that they spend with the ball. The top Brazilian players, who have proved to be the most creative in the world, such as Pele, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo Zico all shared similar learning experiences. They grew up playing street football (soccer) and during their early formative years, most of their technical development was achieved by practicing on their own.
At professional clubs in Europe young players typically start training in academy teams at U9 (aged 8). They may have had two years of “informal training” once or twice a week until then, before entering a more structured environment at the U9 level. At the U9 levels young players in Europe typically train 4-6 hours/week in a team session and 1-2 hours in individual technical sessions.
At the U9-U12 levels, training time can increase to 8 hours/week for team sessions and 2 hours in technical sessions. Changes to the academy system in the UK have increased coaching contact time from U9 to U12 from 4 hours/week to 8 hrs/week. For the U12 to U16 age groups the coaching contact time has been increased from 12 hrs/week to 16 hrs, mainly by having the young players attend the academy 1 full day/week instead of attending school.
So how can young players in North America close this gap? How can they replicate the individual technical sessions at academies in Europe or the number of touches that young players in Brazil get? I believe that they have to take ownership of this and ensure that they are getting enough touches on the ball away from their regular practice. Many youth coaches do not focus on ball mastery work sufficiently in practice so it is left up to young players to ensure that they are developing their technical skills themselves.
During the last 12 months we have launched a pilot scheme with a few players where we assign them 30-minute technical work-outs via video on a daily basis. These can be delivered to a young players iPhone or iPad and it will provide them with structured ball mastery work to maximize touches on the ball. A lot of the work can be completed within a 5 x 5-yard area and can even be completed using a tennis ball in the basement, during winter months. We have also assigned a testing component where the players can measure their own progress and this provides them with feedback on their performance levels!
It is an important for young players to take responsibility for their own development and this can give them an important advantage over other young players. To be the very best, you have to find a competitive edge and this is one way of accomplishing that.
Player Tips: Take ownership of improving your technical skills. No one told Messi or Ronaldo to go practice and get better. They did it because they had, and still have, a deep passion for the game
Coaching Tips: Build individual technical training into your weekly program and recreate the street soccer environment with unstructured play to improve the number of touches young players get on the ball and increase their passion for the game
Parent Tips: Encourage your child to be constantly working on their ball skills in their free time, rather than doing non-athletic activities such as being online. Technical skills need to be constantly improved and developed