Manchester United, Malcolm Gladwell and The Importance of Starting Young

As Fergie gets older his sides get younger and with good reason.
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What Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson wants, Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson gets. A lovely watch that tells Fergie Time? Yours, Sir Alex. All the chewing gum you can chew? Yours, Sir Alex. The stud fees for Rock of Gibraltar. Yours Sir… oh actually, no you can’t have them but the rest is yours.

Most recently, he succeeded in gaining a radical overhaul of youth academies when, at the back end of last season, Premier League top knobs rubber-stamped the Elite Player Performance Plan.

The plan, which is not without its critics particularly among non-Premier League clubs who are concerned it will see the top clubs hoover up the best young talent, is designed to create ‘hot-house’ learning environments. The current rule that means youngsters can only attend academies within 90 minutes of their home will be abandoned so they can live on site, much like the Royal Ballet School or Barcelona’s La Masia.

Most significantly of all, contact time with qualified coaches will treble. Under current regulations, young players can only receive 3,760 hours of contact time up until the age of 21. By contrast youngsters at La Masia receive at least 8,000 hours by the time they reach 18.

It’s this increase in ‘deliberate practice time’ which Sir Alex views as the most significant aspect of the plan, saying: “We are only allowed to coach [schoolboys] for an hour and a half [each week]. Barcelona can coach every hour of the day if they want and that’s the great advantage they have got.”

Now, I’ve never met Sir Alex but I’d place a small wager that he’s read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  In it the fuzzy-haired maths nerd (that’s Gladwell, not Sir Alex) explains the theory of the 10,000-Hour Rule.

Put simply, Gladwell’s argument is that elite-level performance in any field from sport, music, art even software engineering is not innate, but rather the result of hours and hours – years in fact – of dedicated practice. The idea of talent as we know it – that some people are geniuses in certain fields while the rest of us are, well, just a little bit shit in every field – is, Gladwell argues, a myth.

The basis for his theory is research conducted in the early Nineties by psychologist Anders Ericsson which looked at violinists at the Music Academy of West Berlin. Ericsson divided the violinists into three groups – the outstanding students destined to become international soloists; extremely good students destined to join top orchestras; and the least able students simply studying to become music teachers.

Ericsson discovered that all the students, no matter what group they were in, had remarkably similar backgrounds and none deviated greatly from the standard pattern. They started playing at more-or-less the same age; they decided to become musicians at more-or-less the same age; they had on average 4.1 music teachers and so on. However, the one stand out difference was in the amount of practice time. By the age of 20, the top performers had practiced an average of 10,000 hours; the good violinists an average of 8,000 hours and the least able only 4,000 hours.

Furthermore, practice was the only differentiating factor. No one reached the elite group without putting in the hours and no one put in the hours and failed to reach the elite group. As Ericsson wrote: “[…] the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long persistence of deliberate effort to improve performance.”

Barcelona’s La Masia is founded on the principles of Ajax’s Toekomst Academy where youth teamers will have five contact hours a day, four days a week over up to 10 years. You do the maths. (Hint: it’s about 10,000 hours).

It’s not just the Spanish and the Dutch; now I don’t know much about football, but I do know them fellas from Brazil are a bit good. Must come naturally, Right? Well, again, maybe not. Simon Clifford, who runs the Brazilian Soccer Schools talks of how Brazil produces better players because their “kids are practising three, four hours every day”.

Not just that, but the particular type of football young Brazilians play – futsal – which involves a smaller pitch and heavier ball than normal football, has been shown to lead to six times more touches per minute thus honing ball control and vision. So, not just hours more practice but a much higher-quality practice than that on offer in England.

Given that we’re repeatedly told that best footballers are somehow blessed with special gifts, born with a football brain, or football DNA it’s a tough concept to get your head round. Yet, if you’re still a little sceptical think of other elite sportsmen and women.

When he’s not getting all upset and shouty on Twitter or being beaten up by a tree stump, Rory McIlroy is the most exciting young golfer around having just become the youngest winner of the US Open since 1923 and doing so with a record-low score to boot. Natural genius, right? Well, no.

His father was a keen golfer himself, playing off a scratch handicap and he started training Rory from when he was about 18 months old. By the age of two, Rory could hit a 40-yard drive. His parents dedicated themselves to earning enough money to fund his development. At the age of seven he became the youngest ever member of his local golf club. Hell, he even used to sleep with a golf club in his hands – the correct grip in place. So, by the time he became a 22-year-old Major-winning sensation he had hours of practice behind him.

What about Sir Donald Bradman, the greatest batsman ever to grace the game of cricket? Surely he was born with batting blood coursing through his veins? Well, perhaps not. When he was a small boy, he developed a game where he would throw a golf ball at a water tank in the backyard of his house and hit it with a cricket stump on the rebound. The ball would cannon off the tank at all sorts of angles and speeds and Bradman would practice for hours on end thus honing his batting technique.

If you still need more evidence of the difference between youth coaching here and abroad, look at Dutch-born Schteve McClaren’s recent interview with the Guardian in which he commented on the difference between managing in his home country and England.

While at FC Twente, Schteve asked a 21-year-old midfielder how he felt the team should counter their forthcoming opponent’s system. The youngster spent 20 minutes outlining the perfect tactical plan and McClaren was moved to ask him where he learned to speak in such detail. The answer: “We’ve been doing this since we were eight or nine.” Once again, hours of high-quality practice.

Matthew Syed picks up on the 10,000-Hour Rule in his book Bounce, recalibrating it to 10 years but he also argues that all that practice is worthless unless it’s the right type of practice and the right type of practice requires not just dedication and concentration but access to the right training systems.

This is another problem for young players in England today - the quality of training on offer is in the main of a much lower standard than in other countries. The number of qualified coaches is far fewer than the other top European football nations. As of June last year (OK, the numbers might have changed a little but let’s be honest England won’t have caught up much) only 2,769 English coaches held UEFA’s B, A or Pro licences. Compare that to 23,995 in Spain; 29,420 in Italy; 34,970 in Germany and 17,588 in France.

So, that’s one coach for every 812 registered players in England compared to one for every 17 players in Spain. Even Greece has one coach for every 135 registered players, but don’t worry there’s no chance of them winning a major tournament any time soon. Oh, hang on…

The FA themselves, in their Level One coaching course acknowledge that the golden age for learning is eight to 12 and yet this is exactly the age when most young players are under the charge of well-meaning but unqualified parents or school caretakers, a situation which wouldn’t be allowed to happen elsewhere.

The problem extends also to managers even at the top clubs, where there is a stubborn resistance to the need for qualifications. Only in 2003 did UEFA insist that new managers in the Premier League had to first obtain the UEFA Pro Licence.

But what do them meddling Europeans know with their useless currency and their straight bananas, eh? Well, according to Dr Sue Bridgewater of Warwick University they know quite a lot. Her research showed that managers with the Pro Licence won significantly more matches than those without and that experienced managers consistently outperformed novices. Whodathunkit?

This rejection of qualifications and quality training has been labelled by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in Why England Lose as the ‘anti-education requirement’. For example, they quote one football administrator who had tried to get coaching courses introduced into clubs as saying that ‘coaching’ and ‘tactics’ became shame words and that ‘People would say: ‘The trouble with football today is that there is too much coaching’.”

And here’s the thing, if the managers haven’t had the right training, then the training regimes they put in place for players are unlikely to be of a high-enough quality and so the vicious circle continues.

It's depressing, not least because Syed argues that if your train in the right way for the right amount of time then you undergo a literal mental and physical transformation. Citing several studies he demonstrates that when top performers repeatedly push themselves beyond their limits "the cells of the body reorganize in response to the metabolic demands of the activity" whether it be typists with more supple fingers or London taxi drivers who see a continuing growth in the area of the brain governing spatial navigation.

Yeah, whatever. We invented the sport. There ain't nothing we can learn from this, right?

Tiresomely, predictably: Wrong. Over in Belgium there's a football coach reaping huge rewards by utilising 'brain-centred' learning with young footballers. Michel Bruyninckx believes that footballers will only fully develop and excel if football is seen as a mental as well as a physical game.

His players are encouraged to concentrate on their academic studies, to the extent that if they don't they are banned from training with Bruyninckx. His methods include players training in bare feet to improve 'sensorially'; doing maths games while training and - get this - only tackling as a last resort. I mean, come on! He's clearly the sort of bloke that wears gloves and a snood in winter but despite such suspicious qualities, Bruyninckx's methods are successful. He estimates about 25 of the 100 players he has trained are now professionals or in women's team squads (whereas in England the PFA estimates of the 600 youngsters joining clubs aged 16, 500 are out of the game aged 21). Furthermore, it may not come as a surprise to you that one of the first teams to have picked up on his methods is Barcelona.

This squares the circle - think back to the violinists. At La Masia a footballer will get about 8,000 hours of advanced training during their youth career - the equivalent of the virtuoso soloists. It’s no wonder that English players will, for the foreseeable future, be playing second fiddle.

Forget the kids here's a Manchester United old boy

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