Google+ Blueprint for Football: Bursting the Specialisation Myth

Friday, September 14, 2012

Bursting the Specialisation Myth

There is something terribly saddening in the way fans tend to talk of young players at their clubs.  The finality with which verdicts are delivered, and their brutality, is often of an incredible harshness especially considering that it involves individuals who are still in their teens.  It leaves you in no doubt that even at this level most fans see that success as the only objective.  Anything else is rubbish.

What is even worse is that some clubs act in the same manner.  Education delivered to the players is minimal with little care being given to whether enough attention is being given.  There is little empathy when players are released or an attempt to help them sort their future.  All that matters is whether that player will make it at the club and, if not, whether he is good enough to be sold on to someone else.  That is what defines success for them.

Yet that shouldn’t be the case says Dr. Martin Toms, Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham.  “It is my firm belief that we should measure success not by the number of kids who make it to a high level from the club, but that it should be done on a basis of legacy and enthusiasm.”

“The best argument for success is around numbers of kids from all levels who want to be involved, have fun and play the game, so the best indication of success is that these kids are involved the next year.”

“Clubs (at whatever level) have a moral obligation to act as safe, nurturing environments for all levels, talent and participation.”

First of all can you explain what your area of expertise involves?
As a Senior Lecturer in Sports Coaching in the world renowned School of Sport & Exercise Sciences at the University of Birmingham, I look at the development of talent from a socio-cultural perspective across many sports. For example, whilst we know that there are biological and psychological characteristics in sporting talent, we often forget that what underpins all of this is the social. Where you live, what sports you play as a youngster, what your family background is, what sports they play(ed) are all massively influential on both participation and also the development of talent. Getting a better understanding of this is crucial – as there are interventions we can use to help support talented young players. One of the greatest things we can do is look more at the number of sports young people play at various ages. We’ve just completed a study of 1,000 sports people and identified that the longer you play a number of sports (i.e. sample), the more chance you have of being successful at an older age. This suggests that specialising in one sport at a young age is actually detrimental to success – and this seems to go across all sports in the UK.

It’s an interesting dilemma with the Olympic legacy where they want children to be enthused and participate in a particular sport – whereas it could be argued that they would be better playing many sports!

What you're saying goes against the popular belief of the 10,000 hour rule. Is there any truth in this rule? And does that mean that one can take up any sport and excel in it even without long years of training?
I think the best thing to say about the 10,000 hour rule is that it is a popular ‘belief’ (as is Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy!). Yes, there is a lot of common sense in the notion that it takes a long time to gain the skills to become an elite performer, but the idea of it taking 10,000 hours is fundamentally flawed. At this juncture it is worth pointing out an excellent blog written about this issue - - and also highlighting that the main research behind the 10,000 hour rule is in music (difficult to argue that expertise in a repetitive skill is the same as that in a dynamic skill). It also ignores the biological, psychological and social aspects of development – can ANYONE who does 10,000 hours of work become elite? Quite clearly it is much more complicated than that! The problem we have with the 10,000 hour rule in sport is that some people have taken it far too literally – I just love the idea of the clock ticking on from 9,999 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds and then ‘bingo’....... I’m now an expert!! Now, in a closed skill (like juggling), then the more you practice the better you get, but in an open skill it is clearly very different.

On the second point, the answer to that is not that simple. Yes, it is possible (but not easy) to excel in a sport without 10,000 hours of training – but this very much depends upon what your sporting background is!  Take many of the people who are involved now in talent transfer (from one similar activity to another), have they actually worked at the second sport for 10,000 hours? Rebecca Romero is an interesting example, she went from an elite rower to an elite cyclist in less than 2 years, which begs the question what do we mean by the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice needed? More importantly, what do we mean by deliberate practice and how does that work in a dynamic and open skill like sport. Quite clearly, going from a zero to hero in sport depends much more on the individual and their bio-psycho-social background than anything, but it also depends upon the competition they come up against as well. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer here!

You've worked a lot with golf. Are there any lessons there that can be exported to other sports like football?
My background is actually in both cricket (my PhD is in socialisation of young people into club sport) and golf, and there are probably more lessons from cricket that can come in here because of the club environment and structured organisation/training that is so important as young people start playing the game. The biggest thing I would advocate (and a lesson I have learnt) is that we need to allow young people to focus upon sampling sports as much as we can. Regardless of that, the key lessons are actually now NOT to just play football, but to play lots of other sports as well (until at least 16-17).

Over the past few years I have been lucky enough to focus research on over 1,000 PGA golf Pros, and the biggest finding we have had is the commonality of certain other sports being played at certain ages which really seems to help future performance (I’ll not mention them here, but the evidence is over-whelming). On top of that, we know over half of those who have played at the highest level by the age of 18 were late specialisers in the game. (On a slight tangent and most remarkably, the data also suggests that to have the best chance of being a top player you need to be the youngest of at least 2 siblings – and have an older sister!). It is this social profiling that we need to do more in sport, as we now have the answer to what (we think) are the best sports for future golfers to do and at what age they should do them...........

What sort of responsibility do football clubs have to the community and the kids they train?  And does this change across the levels / divisions?
They have a huge responsibility to the community and the kids. Grass roots clubs should all act as they would a surrogate family – they offer opportunities for kids to socialise, learn emotional and social skills, interact with adults and are a ‘safe’ environment. The only danger is that the focus tend to be on the better players – and the old adage that “the skilful excel but the mediocre become disillusioned with the game” comes to the fore, and often these kids are the ones who are indirectly pushed away from sport. The most exciting clubs I have come upon are ones who are now doing multi-sports in one place, so the kids can have smooth transition to try other activities. One of the problems we have in the UK is often the fragmented structure of clubs, and the fact that they do not link across sports. As coaches, it can be too easy for us to forget that the key thing is the child not the sport. In a small town near me there are 5 entirely independent clubs (football, cricket, rugby, hockey and tennis) all vying for the same kids, and there are stories of them ‘stealing’ kids from each other – what an absolutely crazy situation!

So clubs (at whatever level) have a moral obligation to act as safe, nurturing environments for all levels, talent and participation – especially at grass roots. Even better, if they can ALSO provide links to other clubs (and/or offer other sports) then they will be massively successful. With the likely cuts to sports funding post 2012 then this is going to be important – and the idea of a “family club” becomes vital in every way.

It strikes me as odd that so called 'minor sports' do not work harder to attract youths who won't make it to the top in football.  Isn't this a waste of talent?
Absolutely! It is such a huge pity that very often people who do not make it to a high level drop out and live off their dreams. I’ve been lucky enough spending time talking to players who almost made it to a Pro contract, and once dropped from the system some never play again. Oddly, they almost refer to it as a bereavement (the loss of their dreams if you like), and give up. All that is needed (and this is beginning to happen more now) is careful counselling and the opportunity to ‘talent transfer’ to another sport.

The other crazy thing is that the odds on making it to a Pro level in soccer are so small (statistically less than 0.15%) then there are 99.85% of these fit, healthy young players who can make a huge difference in others sports.......... (which goes back to my earlier point about multi-sports). I will always remember a young player who was ‘released’ (an interesting word to use when you think about it – he referred to it as being a 19 year old “thrown on the scrap heap”) who was very bitter about the club/academy he played in. He said that he had been institutionalised in football with no opportunity to play other sports (because of the risk of injury) so felt he was 8 years behind his mates in sports like cricket, rugby and basketball. All this at the age of 19!

On a similar but slightly different point, has there been any study on the impact on players once they are released from a football club's academy or youth system?
Not yet (that I am aware of), and it is a problem with most research in sport. We only focus on those who did make it (because they are easy to find and access) rather than those who leave/are released. Yet these are the key people to understand what they can do beyond this. I’d love more clubs/academies to link up with other sports and offer ‘tasters’ in other activities. For those sports most of the hard work is done already – all they have to do is focus upon developing the technical and tactical of that sport in particular. The only issue here is that these young players may not have had the experience of that sport in the first place (which brings me back to my earlier point on multi-sports clubs!).

If you think about it, soccer clubs/academies put all of their effort into the (potential) 0.15% who will make it – rather than the 99.85% who will have a damn good try, but might be released and have a future in other sports.

Often, club's success is measured by the number of players they produce.  Should this be the case?
Absolutely not! I do worry quite what club’s are trying to do when they do this - is it advertise their ‘indirect’ success or use it as a marketing/money making tool. When you think about it, there are no doubt clubs who have excellent coaching and facilities who will produce good players – but is it that simple? If there is a good young player, and there is a club with a good coaching reputation nearby then they are more likely to go there – so it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. I doubt there is much difference here, apart from ‘luck’ playing a part (and luck can be mediated in your favour – better schools, coaching can be influenced, but genetics can’t!). It would be interesting to measure them more on the basis of the enjoyment and success of ALL of the players who went there, but sadly this is not feasible. One way of looking at it is that these clubs are “custodians of talent” as the good players go through them and to better things, but that is not the be all and end all.

Some people say that talented kids are lucky to be in good clubs – I say that good clubs are lucky to have talented kids. Measurement on success is difficult and participation at junior level does not link to participation at adult level. Take the England Under 17 UEFA football squads from 2002-2004, only 4 of the 54 have played at full International level, and only 9 played in the Premiership last season. So to actually base your success on the number of players you happen to produce (or who happen to have played through the club’s systems) is not necessarily the best measurement.

What is the most important metric by which clubs' development programs should be measured?
It “ought to be” measured through the number of those who go on to play the game at EVERY level once they have left the club, i.e. it should focus on the 99.85% as much as the 0.15% who make it. We’re currently working with the FA on beginning to look at this (as well as other projects) at Birmingham and my firm (and altruistic belief) is that we should measure success NOT by the number of kids who make it to a high level from the club, but that it should be done on a basis of legacy and enthusiasm. The best argument for success is around numbers of kids from all levels who want to be involved, have fun and play the game, so the best indication of success is that these kids are involved the next year.

Clubs, especially those at the higher level, are bringing foreign youths into their academies.  First of all, what kind of message does this send to the local community?
First up, this is a huge problem for developing our own ‘in house’ soccer talent, but it is a relatively cheap way for clubs to explore talent from elsewhere. Whilst I am more than happy for competition it does make it harder for very good British youths to get into the academy sides, and as we have seen before the correlation between age and ability vary greatly. I think the overall problem is that as youths grow and develop, their sporting ability changes, so many ‘good’ players at 16 are dropped because they are not as good as others at the same age, but may develop into far better players at 18 (by then they are on the scrap heap). The rules on the number of home player per squad are important, and in order to develop this we need top clubs to stick to it – unfortunately the top level clubs will currently not reflect this because of the pressures of top level competition and competitive success. We need a generation of young players to come through the ranks before we can make much difference here.

Secondly, what should clubs be doing to ensure that these players don't suffer from a culture shock?
I don’t think there is anything that can really be done about this, apart from some very clear advice and support structures for those coming to the UK from abroad. Education (formal, informal and advisory) is very important for these young players. In other words: formal education to help stretch them mentally and academically (more than just language lessons if they need them!); informal education to help with practical issues, and advice (such as mentoring and support) to help them professionally.  The best practice I have ever come across is to provide them with support by placing them in a supportive family environment/home where there is another young player. It’s never easy moving country or culture, so the best way to nurture these young players is carefully and through a number of different approaches – all based around the sport and sporting environment.

Thanks to Dr Martin Toms for his time in carrying out this interview.  Anyone who would like to discuss the items touched upon in this interview with him can get in touch on his Twitter page.

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