Differing schools of thought

One option for talented young footballers is to attend a performance school. But will more time spent training produce better players? By Neil Gibson & Robert McCunn

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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Part of the drive to create more opportunities for young players to practise was the belief that insufficient time was being spent ‘on task’, or, more popularly, we were not creating an environment that delivered 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate’ practise.
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As with scholarly pursuit, is there an argument for starting with a broad exposure to many different activities and gradually specialising as an individual’s propensity and enthusiasm for a particular sport emerges?

Choosing a secondary school for your children can be a complicated matter; there are league tables to consider, the opinions of other parents whose children attend or have attended, proximity to home and catchment area, to name but a few.  However, if your son or daughter displays an aptitude for football in Scotland it is likely that there will be an additional consideration: should you send them to a school that incorporates football training into the curriculum? Schools that, in partnership with outside organisations, allow their students to undertake football training as part of their curriculum have become known as performance schools. These schools and the initiatives under which they were created have the remit of exposing the best young players in the country to more training, more often, in an effort to enhance their technical and tactical development.

Everything comes back into fashion if you wait long enough
School football is no exception; we don’t have to go back too far into the past to recall a time when the majority of development activities organised for young players were delivered through the school system. In an attempt to professionalise the development of young players, however, clubs began to establish their own academies in which they could control the training content in each age group; with this, however, came resistance to players receiving coaching from any other sources. The result was that once signed by a club, players were discouraged from playing or training with their school team or local boys club. Ironically, it was this attempt at limiting the coaching input to solely the club environment that led many to believe that young players were not being exposed to a sufficient level of practise opportunities. Remember, most clubs train their teams two to three times per week for around 90 minutes per session; in some instances, players will have spent more time in the car or bus getting to and from training than on the pitch. So, we find ourselves back to the start where schools are, once again, being seen as a key component in the development of young footballers.

Beware of round numbers
Part of the drive to create more opportunities for young players to practise was the belief that insufficient time was being spent ‘on task’, or, more popularly, we were not creating an environment that delivered 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate’ practise. Whether you buy into this notion of accumulated practise time, or at least that it can be quantified using a conveniently round number (and we don’t) it does reinforce the message that young people, if they want to master something, need to practise. The issue with allocating a number to this is that organisations, even large ones that should know better, try to manufacture ways in which young players can reach the target through a systematic program of training. Indeed, when the English Premier League launched their Elite Player Performance Plan they cited the 10,000-hour rule in their documentation, highlighting the shortfall in practise hours a young footballer might encounter compared to other sports such as tennis and swimming. The phrase: “10,000-hour rule”, was coined and popularised in The New York Times bestselling book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, published in 2008. The original scientific article, from which the conclusions regarding the number of practise hours required to be successful were drawn, was published much earlier, in 1993, by Ericsson et al. in the academic journal Psychological Review.

However, while many readers will be familiar with this phraseology, fewer will be aware that Ericsson and colleagues were studying violinists, not footballers. In what has proved to be an influential study that has captured the imaginations of many policy makers, the researchers asked 40 violinists, of varying technical proficiency, to estimate how many hours of ‘deliberate’ practise (truly focused training) they had engaged in throughout their development. In summary, the very best violinists reported having completed an average of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice by the age of 20 years old. This value was higher than that reported by the other sub-groups. Now, while this may seem like a cut and dry case of more practise equals better future performance, there are a few points worth considering.

Firstly, how relevant is the developmental trajectory of violinists to footballers? Secondly, how accurately could you recall the amount of time spent performing a specific activity that took place over a decade ago? Thirdly, and very importantly, consider this: the authors of said study only reported the average number of hours of deliberate practice each group of violinists estimated they had completed. This means that within the group of 10 musicians deemed the very best, half could have stated they completed 5000 hours while the other half may have said they completed 15,000 hours. This example hopefully illustrates the necessity to critically analyse scientific research. Indeed, 20 years later in 2013 Ericsson himself stated in a brief editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, that: “Given that this is my first opportunity to comment on the “10,000-hour rule” – a term that I do not use in my own papers – it is important to point out the differences and inconsistencies with our research findings and the popular internet view”.

All of this is not to say that the concept of the performance school is a bad one; however, national governing bodies and policy makers should be able to provide sound rationale as to why they feel a particular initiative is a good idea and ideally, produce evidence to back it up. Combining training within the traditional educational curriculum clearly provides football with a way of bolstering practise opportunities; however, does this come at a cost? Emerging evidence within the field of sport science is questioning the value of early sport specialisation. Proposed risks include increased incidence of injury, greater psychological stress and increased likelihood of dropout for those who focus on only one sport intensely from a young age. An oft-used analogy highlighting the concerns around early sport specialisation is that of limiting your child to studying only one subject at school. We are confident that not one reader of Nutmeg would advocate that approach to academic education. As with scholarly pursuit, is there an argument for starting with a broad exposure to many different activities and gradually specialising as an individual’s propensity and enthusiasm for a particular sport emerges? We’ll leave you to ponder that one.

Where did you say I was supposed to be looking?
Whether or not you agree with the concept of performance schools, the choice of where you send your son or daughter may well be out of your hands. It is the responsibility of clubs, their coaches and national governing bodies, through selection trials and scouting, to decide which players would benefit from being in such an environment. This is no easy task; one of the present authors posed the question to a room full of academics recently; how many of you can spot the potential PhD candidate at the age of 11? As you might imagine, few felt they could yet this is precisely the challenge facing football; identifying players who have the potential to play first team football at the age of 11. It may not come as a surprise then to hear that the relative age effect is still alive and well – that is, an over-representation, compared to national averages, of players born in the early part of the selection year.

It would be easy to assume at this point that older players are bigger, stronger and faster than their younger counterparts and that it is their physical precocity that explains the over-representation. However, this may not necessarily be the case. Research conducted by the authors of this article and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that within youth players in Scotland those who are chronologically older may be more biologically mature. They do not however necessarily display superior physical qualities. Clearly there is more work to be done in selecting the players likely to benefit from the extra training that performance schools provide, especially when the aim is to achieve an environment in which the best learn from and compete with the best, years after their initial selection.

A question of ethics
The challenge of selecting players with potential is a by-product of the laudable ethical stance taken by the Scottish Football Association’s performance school programme, however it is not one that is universal within the game. When players are selected into the SFA performance school programme it is done on the premise that they will remain at the school until their education is complete. Such an approach prioritsies educational stability rather than a ‘win at all costs’ mentality Furthermore, it affords young people the chance to develop over time rather than being subjected to the short-term approach adopted by clubs in the way young players are signed and released.

A similar model has been adopted by the Manchester City academy; however this is not standard practise. There are also clubs who offer educational places to children but only so long as they are deemed good enough to play for the club. Perhaps as practitioners determined to work with the very best players we can understand this approach; however, from a parent’s point of view it does not sit too comfortably. What is apparent is that the notion of performance schools is an improvement on what was happening prior to their inception: young players identified as talented were allowed to take time off school to engage in additional training at their club. While there was a requirement for clubs to assist in players ‘catching up’ with their educational commitments, it is easy to see how for many young players the lure of training might have overtaken their desire to excel in the classroom.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
When the SFA performance schools programme was launched it was a bold and ambitious step to provide more opportunities for young players to access the type of coaching and training facilities that would facilitate their development towards the professional game. While there have been detractors it is clear that the concept is one that appeals to decision-makers within the game who are responsible for developing young, talented players. A number of clubs have since followed their lead establishing their own performance schools where they receive on-campus training as a group. Whether there is greater value in schools that accommodate players from different clubs and that expose players to a variety of coaching styles rather than a more uniform model of training with your teammates remains to be seen.

We need a crystal ball
As with all initiatives and strategies designed to facilitate the development of young football players, it is only in the fullness of time that we will be able to assess their effectiveness. This requires – and such a notion may not sit well with some – a robust and dare we say it scientific method to document the activities undertaken by the players and what additional benefit might exist over and above training only with their club. Such work is already being undertaken; however, it requires a national approach to understand whether the financial investment in developing such initiatives is actually worthwhile in the long term.

Some may point to the fact that developing young players is no longer a pre-requisite; there are examples south of the border of clubs who have abolished their youth academies. Indeed, most recently Falkirk have expressed concern over the viability and value of their own youth academy. More important, however, is the work required to ensure that young players, and their parents, do not prioritise a career in football that statistically speaking is unlikely to materialise, over an education that will open more diverse career opportunities. In light of recent evidence that opportunities for social mobility are decreasing, the need for education is more important than ever and should not be compromised no matter how passionate a player is about becoming a footballer.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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