I read an interesting article recently “Why Practicing Practicing from an Early Age Is so Important”. This article looked at an Australian study where the practice habits of young musicians, aged 7-9, were tracked over a 3 year period. The researchers focused on how effectively young learners could self-regulate and direct their own practice. The study found that while the teachers helped students identify what to practice, the students weren’t very clear how to practice. Students weren’t also able to effectively notice their errors and monitor the quality of their practice. This article made me think, firstly about the importance of soccer practice in young footballers and secondly how we can help create and develop good habits in young players in their attitude/relationship to soccer practice.

Firstly it is important to recognize how important practice is. For any young aspiring performer whether it be in sport or music, practice doesn’t always make perfect but practice makes permanent. If you practice something the wrong way it is not going to make it right! Just as important is deliberate practice, practice that will actually improve you.

Steph Curry is currently the hottest property in NBA Basketball, his father is continually quizzed on the recipe of his success,

“Parents ask me; What’s the key to getting my son to shoot like yours?” Dell Curry said. “Repetition. You have to have confidence you can do it, and that only comes by putting in work, and then doing it when the game’s on the line.”

Kobe Bryant, another NBA basketball star, had his work out analysed which reportedly consisted of making 800 jump shots in a single session. Frank Lampard, Chelsea soccer legend and holder of 106 caps for England, is famous for his obsession with technical training, isolating both his right and left foot ball striking.

Repeat, Practice, Repeat, Practice?

NBA Basketball star Steph Curry practising 3 point shots repeatedly for the contest he eventually won.

What this teaches us is that technical work away from the game is key to develop elite level technique and what also set these outliers apart from the rest is their attitude to practice and improvement. This is even more acutely important as we come to understand the importance of game related training in team sessions and the fact that with the changes in society and the apparent death of street football, players aren’t getting that essential 1 on 1 time with the football that they need.

Going back to the Australian study, one of the main findings was that children who had more extrinsic motives for learning made the least progress whilst those who identified intrinsic motivations progressed more quickly. This is a pivotal point and goes straight to the heart of the early specialisation debate. I’ve worked in an elite football environment for 10 years and I have seen many instances of players forced to undertake training by extrinsic forcers, mainly over bearing parents. I have also witnessed many players motivated by intrinsic forces, the desire to get better and a passion and love of practice. It is important as coaches that we identify this and come up with strategies to try and develop and promote an intrinsic love of soccer practice within players. In my role as Director of Coaching at PDA Football & MyPersonalFootballCoach.com and as a Premier League football academy coach, one thing I have noticed is that players who progress through the Academy system and into Pro football more often than not are willing to do that bit extra away from training.

Growth Mindset

Watch Carol Dweck talking about “The power of believing that you can improve

The question for football coaches is how do we go about this and build these intrinsic motivations with the players? As we are now working with soccer players at an ever increasing young age, it’s an excellent opportunity to change and develop their technical DNA as a player.

We can also have a massive impact on their psychology and particularly their mindset. As the excellent work of Dweck has shown us, growth mindset is a key element in any individuals make up.

This works in practice by linking feedback for players to the process rather than the outcome. This has worked for me in the past in trying to motivate players to work on their weak foot away from training.

I make no apology in being obsessed with young players who are in an elite environment working towards developing balance with ball striking off both feet. I think this is an important area which is relatively easy to develop at a younger age through hard work and deliberate practice. During my sessions, I regularly hold penalty shootout competitions in which players can only use their weak foot. Players who are able to strike the ball well with their weak foot are celebrated before the group and rewarded with praise for the quality of their weak foot and particularly ‘well done for working so hard on that weak foot, look how much better it has got’. Similar praise must also be given to players trying to use their weak foot in opposed environments, even if the quality isn’t yet there. This subtle use of language helps players understand the importance of practice and working towards something, establishing intrinsic mechanisms to associate effort and hard work with reward.

I often set homework challenges, be it juggle or skill combinations after which players are then encouraged to show the group in the following session only if they wish to. This works really well along with the ‘hardest worker bib’ award in training for the hardest working player in the session. Another strategy i use is in my team talks before, at half time and after the game where effort is always clearly outlined as the most important factor which I am looking for as a coach, both effort in terms of hard work and effort in relation to trying things and being inventive! Culture is important in any environment and as the time spent with players is increasing, it gives a great opportunity to instill this culture of hard work and practice.

Another key finding of the study was that although teachers were good in identifying what the students should practice, the students weren’t that clear how to practice? The students also weren’t able to monitor the quality of their practice and recognise when they were making mistakes. This is another interesting point and relates to a debate which I have seen recently on football coaching forums. The question of ideal and functional technique?
Many people argue that soccer players should be left to their own devices to naturally develop technique, rather than ‘have a technique imposed from above’. This notion insinuates that somehow a players creativity is stunted by the coach. For me, as a coach who has an obsession with technique in football, the answer is more like an ‘effective technique’ which looks at what works for the players to be effective in game situations. Now as a youth coach I am there to support the players when needed which sometimes takes the form of showing the players new techniques that will make them more effective and efficient and this comes back to the title of this piece, practice makes permanent!
Soccer practice makes permanent

An example of this was as my role as an individual technical coach where I received a call from an u18 player from a Cat 1 club. The player wanted to work on their shooting and during the session we discussed why he wanted to work on his shooting? He said that they only get to play games in training and he doesn’t get the opportunity to work on this area so he felt that he lacked confidence and quality with his shooting. As a result his shooting in his own words wasn’t good enough. Through analysis of his shooting technique in the session I noticed that he was using the inside foot to strike the ball. I suggested he try closing his foot a bit more to adjust the position of the foot when striking the ball. He then went on to practice this which had an immediate impact on the power and effectiveness of his shooting. His confidence had increased so I then told him to go away, develop, practice and experiment further. This subtle tweak in his technique did not stifle his creativity, on the contrary, this supported him in being more effective on the pitch and being able to be more creative resulting in an increased threat on goal. This is one of numerous examples and as coaches we must see when we are needed to step in, support and challenge players and when to step back and just let them play football.

Practice does make permanent, and as we strive to develop more world class footballers in this country and beyond it is important to remember the power and influence we have as coaches. We can and must support soccer players in not only being better technically and as decision makers but also give them the tools that will support them in later life and the pursuit of their dream.

Saul Isaksson-Hurst
Master the Ball…Master the Game

Success Story Banner