There is a great deal of ignorance on the amount of practice one must undertake for professional football. This is mainly because there is no uniform path to professionalism, much less an ‘established standard’. Opinions also differ widely depending on which club or coach you talk to.
One school of thought believes that the practice hours should not exceed a certain number of hours per week. Proponents believe that more than a certain amount leads to risk of injury and long-term burnout. The recommended quantity of practice by this group is about 2 to 4 times per week and 1 to 2 hours per session depending on the age of the players. Most grassroots (U6-12) coaching programs follow this recommendation.
The other school of thought believes that there should not be any restriction on the football exposure of the player. In fact, proponents of this theory highlight that most professional footballers practiced a lot when young – far more than the ones recommended above.
Professor Anders Ericsson, a pioneer in the study of Human Expertise, came up with the concept of Deliberate Practice through decades of research. He found that simple practice was not enough for excellence. One needs to focus on both the quality and quantity of practice. This also led to a misinterpreted rule of thumb – 10,000 hours of practice leads to expertise.
There is a general lack of understanding about this concept in the football industry – even among the top clubs and coaches.
Most people tend to focus on the number of hours, which is also not a one-size-fits-all characteristic while giving no attention to what actually makes a practice ‘Deliberate’. Dr. Ericsson has explained this very clearly in his highly insightful book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.
Nevertheless, one of the underlying pillars of this concept is that more practice leads to better players.
Though the two philosophies above cause unnecessary confusion among young players and their parents, these are not necessarily contradictory. The reason is that these principles talk about two different things and hence can’t be directly compared.
Practice need not necessarily be structured and under the supervision of a coach. Any engagement with the game leads to practice and the quantum of benefits depends on the level of self-engagement. So playing unstructured matches in the streets could also qualify as Deliberate Practice as long as it meets the criteria of being purposeful and driven by sufficient analysis.
Soccer Training In Different Countries
Years of underachievement in international football had led to a lot of internal research by English FA and they launched the controversial Elite Player Performance Plan in 2011 based on the findings. One part of the research compared the number of hours of practice across some other countries in Europe:
Incidentally, these are the hours of clocked practice by the youth players in their academies. This doesn’t take into account the practice hours that are outside the academy environment including street football. The FA recommended more hours of practice for the young players in England to bridge this gap – compared to other countries.
In countries like Brazil, quite a few youth players clock even 10,000 hours by the age of 13, as found by Rasmus Ankersen through first-hand research and well documented in his book, The Gold Mine Effect.But most of that is through playing matches on a daily basis and not supervised coaching.
Similarly, in many resource-constrained countries of South America and Africa, the main way of learning football in the younger ages is through unorganized matches, and not supervised coaching.
On the other hand, in countries like the US, although there is some emphasis on quality of training, the quantity of training at the youth level is not comparable to that in the top-ranked nations. A greater emphasis on structure and an over-reliance on the pay-to-play model have also meant that players from poorer backgrounds are shut out of the game. This leads to poorer quality of competition – an equally important element for success. The result is clear – a lot of money over the past few decades and very little to show for it in terms of global success.
In countries like India, there is a problem both with the quantity and quality of practice. Given the lack of unorganized football in most cities and also the lack of regular competition, young players are only exposed to football practice through coaching centers. And most coaching centers follow the principles of 2-4 sessions a week / 1-2 hours per session. This leads to increasing gaps in ability starting from the age of nine or ten.
What Should Your Child Do?
The way to decrease this gap is not by increasing the coaching sessions but by increasing the game time – organized or unorganized.
The main principle to keep in mind is that any amount of exposure is beneficial as long as it is voluntary and self-motivated, rather than governed by external influencers like parents or coaches. This would negate the risk of burnout significantly. Injury prevention can be ensured by the right practices – including an emphasis on warm-ups and warm-downs – and also making sure that the body gets enough rest and recovery time between different playing sessions.
Increasing the quantity of game time will result in far more improvement than when one solely relies on the fixed practice hours principle through supervised coaching.
- Training for a few hours per week in any coaching center is not enough.
- One also needs to supplement this with more matches/game time.
- Even unorganized street football to ensure greater improvement.