One of the many things football commentators like to say without thinking is “You can’t teach that”. Some even like to add: “it’s something he was born with a gift”.
They call it “talent” – “a special natural ability or aptitude”. Some footballers suggest they were gifted and thank God for their gift.
However, more and more scientific researches show that what we call “talent” is no more than “skill”, which is “proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training or experience”.
“It’s practice, not ‘talent’ that is driving patterns of success and failure,” wrote Matthew Syed, the three-time commonwealth table-tennis champion in “Bounce”, his book about talent. “Investigation of British Musicians, for example, show that when top performers seem to possess an early gift for music, it is often because they have been given extra tuition at home by their parents”.
Malcolm Gladwell supplies further proof. The author collected statistics about the date birth of top American football players and English premier league players and found an incredible bias in the birth dates among professional players.
In the Premier League in 1990′s there were 288 players born between September and November but only 136 between June and August. Why? Eligibility cut off for youth football in England is September 1. This means that a player who turns 11 on September could be playing alongside a player who is almost 12 months younger than him. In this age a year is critical in body growth and skill development. Furthermore, coaches see the quality of the older player and focus more on his development because he has “natural talent” (although it’s not talent, it’s age) thus creating a gap.
Genes are playing an important role in player development, and it’s true that some are born with “natural abilities” (height is an example) passed on from their parents, but most other traits like agility, reflexes, guile and speed could be learned and the sooner they are learned the better the athlete will be.
Tiger Woods, for instance, is considered the “The most naturally talented golfer in the world”. Yet, a short research shows that he got his first golf club before he had celebrated his first birthday. He began practicing the game much earlier than all his rivals because of his golf crazy dad.
Let’s take the three Barcelona amigos Anders Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi – as another example. The three aren’t blessed with great genes: Messi had a problem with his growing hormones and Iniesta suffered from a pigment deficiency. Xavi is also not the alpha male type of athlete girls and sponsors drool on yet they all came from football obsessed families. They all had fathers who threw the ball at their feet the moment they could start walking.
“Practice” for the kids is not just an exercise “(a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency” – it’s more game than practice. The more fun it is, the more the kid will repeat the action and get better in it.
That’s what happened with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and almost every “talented” footballer. They all started “playing” football, touching and controlling a ball with their feet from an extremely early age. When they joined other kids, they had more skills than their peers and again the coaches saw their quality and focused more on their development.
No footballer was blessed, there was no ray of light from the sky that touched a kid’s forehead and turned him into a football superstar, no one was born with the skills of Ronaldo or Messi. It’s about hard work, proper training and having fun from an early age. A very early age.