MESSI had it. So did Beckham. Forget talent, we’re talking about an ever-burning inner desire to succeed as a footballer. But how does a coach get that message across to young players? Matthew Syed, author of acclaimed book on becoming a champion, Bounce, investigates...

Ask most parents and coaches, possibly even most players, where excellence in football comes from and they will use a particular word. Talent. It is never precisely defined or explained, but my, it is seductive.

Talent is an idea that lies at the heart of the football industry and relies on the notion that success hinges on having the right genetic inheritance (or ‘god-given ability’). Talent is something you either have or you don’t have. And it is the thing that ultimately determines whether you have the capacity to become as good as David Beckham or Lionel Messi.

There is only one problem with this viewpoint: it is entirely misconceived. The evidence is now overwhelming that in football (and, indeed, most other areas) it is not talent that takes you to the top, but thousands of hours of self-motivated practice. Talent, to put it another way, is a great (and destructive) red herring.

In a previous piece for FFT [issue 62] we examined the ‘talent myth’ and reached the conclusion that most of us possess the tools to excel in football. It takes persistence, perseverance and dedication to sustain oneself on the long road to excellence.

So, the question is: why are some prepared to endure this path while others fade away? Why are some footballers willing to put in the hours, to make sacrifices, to go for early morning runs, to get down the local park to hone their shooting skills, while others fizzle out after a few weeks or months? The answers to these questions are now emerging.

It is a Sunday morning in late February and I am standing in a field in south-west London watching a training session with a team of under-13s. They are being put through their paces by Pete, a qualified coach who has worked in youth football for more than 15 years. The kids are doing a number of drills – rapid passing, defensive discipline – and, at the end of the session, they finish with a couple of laps of the pitch.

“They are a good bunch of lads, and I love working with them,” Pete says. “Most are quite hard-working, but I get the impression others would rather be somewhere else, particularly when it is cold. I only see them once a week for training, then on matchday, but I set them extra sessions to do in their own time. Only a few of them do it, to be honest. They won’t take personal responsibility and only really work under supervision.”

It is a familiar lament, and not just with coaches working in grassroots football. I have visited many Premier League clubs in the months since writing Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice (Fourth Estate). Coach after coach has bemoaned the lack of hunger among the youth team players. “Too many of these youngsters seem to think they have a divine right to be great players,” the head coach of one of the Premier League’s most prestigious academies told me. “They are already earning decent money and think they are God’s gift. They are distracted by the lure of nightclubs and seem to think that putting in an extra shift on the training pitch is like some kind of punishment. You can summarise it in one sentence: they are not hungry enough”.

Coaches try many things to instil hunger in their players. They praise them. They chastise them. They even invent elaborate punishments. I heard of one Premier League team enforcing a forfeit of 500 sit-ups for anyone failing to do their early morning run. “That is not unusual,” a youth team player at West Ham told me. “They will try anything to get you motivated.”

Carrots. Sticks. Praise. Blame. These are, of course, the traditional levers of motivation, at least according to the mechanistic theories that still reign in certain parts of the football world. But none of these things seem to be working. The answer has to lie elsewhere.

Perhaps a good place to start is by examining young players who do possess the requisite hunger. These are the players who work to the max during training sessions and then want more. To use the terminology of Ellen Winner, a leading psychologist from Boston, these players possess the ‘rage to master’.

David Beckham famously had this inner rage. For years as a youngster, he would take a ball to the local park in east London and kick it from the same spot for hour upon hour. Pele possessed extraordinary dedication, too. As do Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and pretty much every top player who has ever excelled. If you disagree, read their biographies.

But where did this appetite come from? We can glimpse an answer by looking at what they say. Here is Messi: “With hard work, anything is possible.” Here is Pele: “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and love of what you are learning to do.” Here is Beckham: “My secret is practice. I have always believed that if you want to achieve anything special in life you have to work, work and then work some more”.

These quotes are hardly unfamiliar, but consider what they are telling us. Yes, these players have worked hard and demonstrated remarkable persistence. But there is something more. Look at what these statements are telling us about their beliefs. They believe that hard work creates success. They are convinced that dedication is the key to excellence. By implication, they believe that talent is not the be-all and end-all. 

Why is this important? Consider, for a few moments, the motivational ramifications of this core belief. If you believe excellence is all about effort, won’t that make you want to strive to reach that excellence? Won’t it orient your mind in the direction of perseverance? Won’t it make you think of failure as merely a temporary impediment that can be overcome? And, if you are right about the importance of effort, won’t it also mean that come what may, you will eventually excel?

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