By John Cartwright
When watching TRULY great players in any sport have you wondered how they seem to be able to recognize, assess and quickly respond successfully with the correct decision in difficult situations ? This immediacy of judgement is neither luck nor a divine gift, it has been acquired from learning their sport in a practical, realistic way.
The development of TECHNIQUE is important in sport but it should be introduced and developed in such a way from childhood onwards to include realistic practical situations to develop SKILLS. In football, subtle use of space(area sizes) and player numbers (suitable overloading for age and ability) in practice provides a time/space factor. A transformation from unrealistic, non-interference Technical (drill) practises into controlled realistic, interference (skill) playing situations is, in my opinion, how the ingredients of playing greatness are acquired.
In all occupations, the ‘hands-on’ approach to learning has been a major part of skill acquisition. In the past, on the job Apprenticeships were common in industry, commerce and sport and students learned their future occupations from the ‘ground/upwards’. In football the street provided the apprenticeship,…..it was the footballers’ classroom; it was here that space and playing numbers provided the learning and examination of the skills for the game. Mis-applied teaching and learning theories applied to football here since the demise of the natural street-learning period have produced a ‘sameness’ of playing ability and a loss of individualism.
I have watched most of the world’s great players during my lifetime; all had/have immediate skills and were/are beneficiaries of repetitive, realistic football practice. A first-class example of a present day, TRULY great player is…… LIONEL MESSI— who, like other greats of the game, has compiled a mental database of football situations from childhood upwards. Realistic practice time has provided an ability to ‘play(see) in the future’ stimulating early recognition of situations for the appropriate use of the ‘immediate football skills’ required. These ‘situation signals’ have become second nature to him and they allow him to select the correct ploy to use —either to play simply or to deliver skills to exit or exploit some seemingly impossible situation he sees but others miss.
I have ‘championed’ the use of REALISTIC PRACTICE methods for many decades and Messi, like so many other great players are wonderful examples of —PRACTICE WHAT YOU PLAY. Realistic practice involves the ‘chaos’ aspects of the game and encourages individual flair and exciting team-play; the over-structured coaching methods adopted for decades by our academic football overseers has prioritised organization and practical ‘tidiness’; this has produced a game of ‘robotic sameness’ in the football we see here today.
Through continually ‘practicing what you play’, players can acquire a ‘sixth sense’- a ‘playing in the future’ quality that can lift them from the ordinary to the great. The seeming instantaneous ability to react quickly and decisively to situations occurs because players are prepared early to react to situations — because they have been in these situations many, many times before and are pre-prepared to utilize the necessary skills for the job.
I believe over the years we have had a very large number of talented players capable of providing our game with excitement and success. Virtually all of them have fallen by the wayside through their involvement with poor development methods– -and I see no light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to player development. Unless we restructure our thinking on player development and the standards required for player and team improvement we will continue to fall further behind in world football status.