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Cracking the Code

06/06/2012, 2:06pm CDT
By CMYSA

Recently there have been a couple of forays into the mystery of skill development by renowned authors Malcolm Gladwell, with his bestseller Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated. While both of these authors provide many useful insights for the soccer coach, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code devotes even more space to scientific and anecdotal research that is invaluable to a coach who values player development.

Via Andy Barney's Blog

Recently there have been a couple of forays into the mystery of skill development by renowned authors Malcolm Gladwell, with his bestseller Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated. While both of these authors provide many useful insights for the soccer coach, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code devotes even more space to scientific and anecdotal research that is invaluable to a coach who values player development. In fact, in many ways The Talent Code serves to reinforce the teaching pedagogy and player development philosophy espoused by both the NSCAA and USSF.

Coyle first challenges his audience to rethink the standard definition of skill. According to Coyle skill is "cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals". While this definition appears to be relevant only for a neurologist, Coyle goes on to explain the importance of a neural insulator called myelin in building and refining skill and its application to soccer. All human skills, whether it is walking or heading a corner kick into the back of the net, are created by linked nerve fibers in your brain that send a signal to your muscles. Myelin plays an important role by serving as an insulator for those nerve fibers. The more insulation, or myelin, that is wrapped around those nerve fibers the stronger and faster the signal becomes as fewer of these electrical impulses leak out. When soccer players train myelin responds by wrapping additional layers around the nerve fiber with each repetition. With each new layer of myelin added the player increases their ability to process the soccer specific skill required. As opposed to golf which is a consistent circuit game (also referred to as a block or closed skill game) that requires the athlete to perform the same exact skill in isolation over and over again, soccer is a flexible circuit activity (also known as a open or random skill game) since the athlete must comprehend a fluid set of conditions and then apply their skill set to meet these challenges. Since soccer requires a flexible circuit framework myelin is also key in regulating the speed of neural circuits so that they combine at the optimal time thereby enabling the player to properly time their jump and execute that perfectly placed header past the goalkeeper. These relatively new scientific breakthroughs on the importance of myelin in skill acquisition have a profound impact on coaching and player development.

Coyle turns the age old nature vs. nurture debate on its head when explaining talent development. Most believe our genetic makeup gives us certain unique gifts and our environment enables us to either act on those gifts or let them waste away. Myelin though is universal in all humans and the development of myelin follows one consistent rule according to Coyle, "it doesn’t care who you are, it only cares what you do". Our genes don’t provide us with the ability to come prewired for a specific skill set. This is why none of David Beckham’s three sons are guaranteed to be free kick artists. Myelin is only built through action or repetition. It doesn’t respond to thoughts, ideas, or visualization. Watching Youtube clips of Messi will not make you a better soccer player, but imitating his skill set through thousands of hours of practice could.

Coyle proceeds to prove that the nature vs. nurture debate is a bit antiquated by exploring what he calls "talent hotbeds". These are regions where an inexplicable number of talented individuals with similar skills emanate from. Many soccer coaches may argue that Brazil, with its intense passion for the game, favorable climate, and large population that includes millions of desperately poor who view soccer as a possible way out of the favela, as the perfect example for nature vs. nurture impacting skill development. Coyle concedes that these factors do play a role, but he argues that most greatly overestimate their importance. What Coyle found, not only in Brazil, but in each of the hotbeds he visited, was that three key ingredients were consistently on display; deep practice, ignition, and master coaching. All of them must be present to facilitate maximum myelin growth, and subsequently skill development.

Deep practice involves training at the edge of your capabilities. Obviously, training in this zone leads to players making numerous mistakes as they are asked to perform certain demands of the game that they may not yet be comfortable with. As deep practice is occurring the athlete is wrapping even more myelin around each circuit thereby increasing skill. Thus a paradox exists in which operating outside of one’s comfort zone leads to making mistakes that ultimately makes the individual better. Simply put, making mistakes leads to skill. In Brazil this deep practice is facilitated through futsal. When children in Brazil play futsal they are in an environment in which risk taking and experimentation are encouraged. With all of the nature vs. nurture factors already in place, Brazil experienced only moderate success on the international soccer stage until 1958. It is no coincidence that this group of players was the first to come of age with futsal. Coyle believes futsal explains the success since it, "compresses soccer’s essential skills into a small box; it places players inside the deep practice zone, making and correcting errors, constantly generating solutions to vivid problems". As opposed to regular 11 vs.11 soccer, futsal greatly increases the velocity of deep practice and myelin creation since everyone gets to experiment with the ball so much more frequently. Coyle argues that deep practice can increase the speed of skill acquisition ten times faster than regular practice which simply incorporates static drills.

These principles were first researched by Anders Ericcson who coined the phrase "deliberate practice" and developed the 10,000 hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell focused so much attention on. The basic premise is that to become truly great at any skill you need at least 10,000 hours of deep or deliberate practice constantly experimenting, correcting mistakes, and building myelin. The concept of deep practice is most important for kids in the 6 year-old to 12 year-old range. While their spatial awareness and ability to understand tactical concepts is still developing in this range, they have an almost unlimited capacity to acquire and develop new motor skills. In general, one’s ability to build myelin slows tremendously with age. Specifically related to soccer, by their mid-teens an athlete’s ability to pick-up new skills wanes. This is why repetition at an early age through small sided games is so critical to youth development. Coyle believes that the simple math of the more repetitions the better during conventional practice doesn’t fit the deep practice model. He argues, "spending more time is effective, but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits". This reinforces the fact that training sessions should focus on dynamic games as opposed to drills. Myelin is also unique in the fact that it doesn’t unwrap, it only wraps. This fact has massive implications for youth development and underscores the importance of children receiving proper technical training at a young age. Myelin is the reason that bad habits are so difficult to break. It is also the reason why an over emphasis on winning and tactics at a young age jeopardizes the long-term development of the player. At the youngest ages all energy should be focused on proper technical training, or myelin building

The second key to cracking the talent code is what Coyle calls "ignition", or the "motivational fuel that generates the energy, passion, and commitment to deep practice". The ability to partake in deep practice for 10,000 hours, and operate at the edge of your capabilities throughout, obviously requires an extraordinary amount of hard work. This is where the "master coach", as Coyle refers to him or her, factors into the equation. A master coach ignites or inspires passion and commitment is their athletes. In soccer it is through the realization that the game is the best teacher. Coyle quickly developed this insight that is also the key to American soccer coaching methodology while watching futsal training sessions in Brazil, "to stop the game (activity) in order to highlight some technical detail or give praise would be to interrupt the flow of the attentive firing, failing, and learning that is the heart of flexible circuit deep practice". In American coaching schools this is sometimes referred to as the utilization of the "Coach’s Toolkit". Coaching pedagogy has quickly moved away from the freeze, rehearse, and restart combination that used to dominate. There is a much greater emphasis on coaching within the game and looking for natural stoppages to be, as Jeff Tipping would say, "Brief, but brilliant". Through his travels to all of the hotbeds motivational praise was dispensed from the master coach only when it was earned. He also discovered, "high motivation, "you’re the best", has its role, but it is not what ignites people. What works is precisely the opposite, speaking to the ground level effort and affirming the struggle". He believes this is the case since the effort based praise focuses on nourishing the roots of deep practice.

Delving further into the qualities of the master coach Coyle seemingly contradicts the typical theory that good coaches are patient by saying that in reality they need to be "strategically impatient". A master coach is always tinkering and trying to figure out the best way to ignite their athletes and get them to train on the edge of their abilities. The verbal cues used by the coaches he studied were often targeted and highly specific. They were also very brief. The coaches Coyle observed were very quiet, and in fact listened more then they talked. These coaches also created an active learning environment. Coyle sited a study that came to the conclusion that Japanese 8th graders spent 44% of class time engaged in active learning versus American students who spent only 1% of their class time in that state. This simply reinforces the use of the "Guided Discovery" method of engaging players that is a cornerstone of U.S. Youth Soccer’s National Youth License. It should come as no surprise that kids retain only 18% of concepts learned passively while 68% of concepts learned actively stick. Deep practice in a flexible circuit activity like soccer should as player-centered as possible. Command methodology, or a coach-centered emphasis, should be used sparingly.

Manfred Schellscheidt’s quote in the Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States provides an elegant summary of Coyle’s findings, "I don’t believe skill was, or ever will be, the result of coaches. It is a result of a love affair between the child and the ball." This love affair implies deep practice ignited by a master coach.

Tag(s): Coaches Corner