Deliberate Practice and Deliberate Living

The following drills comes from Jeff's book, “Drills and Exercises to Develop the Elite American Soccer Player©.”

This book focuses on sessions and exercises which address the issues specific to American players. It is a book for coaches at every level but, especially, coaches of players aged U9 to U14. This is a vitally important age when players are, without even knowing it, making decisions on which sport they will choose to play. Preview

If you belong to a health club or a gym you will, possibly, see body builders who spend hours and hours in the gym. The top ones refine every muscle to give their bodies that sculptured look. When I was really into weight training and beginning to notice some muscle gain, I found myself, not only looking forward to going to the gym, I would be thinking about tomorrow’s session the night before. I think that is where “Deliberate Practice” is born. A player begins to see some success and improvement and begins to hunger for more. There is a small but critical moment of self-realization of “I am good at this and I can get even better.”

Deliberate practice comes hand in hand with deliberate living. Deliberate living comes from having goals and beliefs which can only be reached by dedication and lifestyle. Arsenal’s famous manager Arsene Wenger said, “We are not just teaching players a game, we are teaching them a way of life.” Until the sport becomes a way of life to an individual there will be a limited amount of deliberate practice. The tricky bit is that this kind of mental maturity comes at different times for different individuals.

The universe only sends you a certain number of “aha” moments and my real sports epiphany came in the summer of 1977, prior to my senior year in college, when I realized that I was beginning to have some success as a decent defender and, maybe, had the potential to be a professional player.

My college coach, Jim Lennox, Hartwick’s “Jeddhi Coach”, said to me, “At 21 years of age you need to work on what you are good at and become superb at those things. No point in trying to improve what you are lousy at when you are 21.” As a stopper back in the old man to man sweeper system that meant basic marking of forward players, heading, tackling and passing the ball to someone who knew what to do with it. That was about it for a stopper back in those days. No dribbling or fancy stuff – in fact try not to play but stop others from playing.

Fortunately, my college team consisted of players who wanted the same thing. The 1977 Hartwick College team was full of talented players who wanted to be pros – and win the NCAA Division One National Championship. US Olympic captain and Herman Trophy winner Glen Myernick graduated the year before and he, together with Keith Van Eron, were drafted by the Dallas Tornadoes who happened to be coached by former Hartwick College coaches Al Miller and Timo Liekoski. Watching Glen playing for the Tornadoes was pretty inspirational. The 1978 class my class) which succeeded Glen consisted of six starting seniors. Billy Gazonas, Art Napolitano, Duncan Macdonald, Gary Vogel and a handful more were chasing the dream of playing pro soccer…and willing to do the work to make it happen.

The 1978 NASL and ASL draft was a bumper one for Hartwick and five out of six starting seniors were drafted into one of those leagues. Why was this group so successful? A variety of factors came into play but first and foremost was the quality of our individual and group practices. Not only was every formal practice red hot with competitive intensity, the senior players would arrive early and leave late, working on various aspects of their game. We played our games on a Saturday and the senior players would practice by themselves on Sundays – theoretically our day off. Sundays were interesting as the players would, often, simply go to an area of the field alone and go about their own routine of skill practices which pertained to their position. Soccer, at that stage of our lives, had become a way of life and nothing was allowed to interfere with or distract us from our desire to play at the highest professional level possible…and pick up an NCAA Division 1 National Championship along the way.

One of my favorite routines was to go to the gym and drive soccer balls against the end wall. The end wall was supported by four struts in a, sideways, X shape creating four triangles. I would drive the ball at each of the triangles from 50 yards and go 1,2,3,4 in sequence. If I missed I started again. Driving the ball in a dead straight line is one of the weaknesses of our American players but I developed a wicked driven pass – on a rope – which arrived at the center forwards chin giving the opposing stopper back almost no chance of intercepting the ball without fouling the center forward. There are a number of exercises offered in this book to provide coaches with ammunition to help our American players master the driven ball. (Preview this chapter here) The point I am trying to make is that the target and focus of the exercise were very specific and related, directly, to the needs of my game. To me that is deliberate practice.

Footnote – Hartwick did win the NCAA Division One National Championship that year, defeating an excellent University of San Francisco team 2-1. The second Hartwick goal came from Steve Long who ran onto a driven ball which split the USF back line, rounded the keeper and the game was, for all intents and purposes, over. All that driving of balls against the wall paid off! Practice, in this instance, did make perfect!