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Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Nature vs Nurture Debate When It Comes to Talent

"To what extent does the role of a coach affect an athlete or team’s behaviour or success?"

This question was posed to me last week on Twitter and got me thinking about the importance of a coach on the development of a footballer and the team as a whole. 


While considering this question I thought of something a very experienced coach and ex-professional told me about a young player becoming a pro. In his opinion he believes that certain players are will become professionals, no matter what. He believes that regardless of the environment, coaching or obstacles in their way, certain players will make it. This is a man who has been part of the world of football for several decades, who has played with many talented players and worked with many youngsters who went on to become professionals. This got me thinking greatly being a coach of ‘elite’ players whose ambition is to become professionals. 

The behind the scenes development of talent
If we take the view that it is some sort of fate that a young player is destined to become a professional then it brings up a few concerns on my part. While I believe that genetics are important, if they are ‘naturally’ athletic, agile and if possess more fast twitch fibres, the individual may be of benefit in a game which requires athleticism and speed. In this way 'nature' determines the potential of a young player. However I believe that while genetics plays a part, and of course it does, it will only take a player so far. 

The key word for me that will determine the pathway of a young athlete, in almost any sport, is opportunity. There is a common view that certain players are ‘natural footballers’ yet what does this mean? That they are born footballers? I don’t buy it. I believe that those youngsters who ‘look’ the part have actually developed their game and understanding through years of work ‘behind the scenes’. 

For instance, a young boy brought up in a family obsessed with football, perhaps the 2nd or 3rd child of the family, born between September – November in England will have a far greater opportunity of developing his football skills and brain at an early age. In his early years he will experience a culture and passion for football which his family share, he will watch a lot of football, he will develop a love for the game, he will want to play as much as possible. He will play with his older brother(s) in the garden or at the park, he may even ‘train’ with his dad by kicking a ball around. By the ages of 5-8 years he may have accumulated many hours of practice, development and education which another child who hasn’t come from a ‘football family’ simply didn’t experience. 

The player afforded years of football opportunity is way ahead of the others, he looks confident, composed, his technique is very good, he seems to 'understand' the game. He looks like a ‘natural’ however the truth is he has been practicing and developing for years away from the eyes of others. Therefore without seeing all these foundations being built he looks natural, when in fact it is more about being nurtured.

As we move on this story our young player starts to generate interest from scouts in the local area after impressing for his U8 side. He is regarded as gifted and talented and invited in to an Academy to train. Being one of the older in his year means he is physically as good or better than most his age, and because of his ‘talent’ he has developed a confidence in himself where the compliments of those around him have made him think he is something of a ‘natural’ (we will discuss mindset and the issues of a fixed/growth shortly – but at this stage in his development he doesn’t think he is doing anything different to other kids around him – the truth is he has been). His dad, being knowledgeable of multi-skill development takes his son to tennis and swimming lessons and also to gymnastics classes. He wants his son to have an all-round development. 

So now we have a player who has benefited from ‘opportunity’ – his families love of football, the challenges of ‘playing up’ against his brother and his benefit of relative age effect. He has had the foundations laid down thanks for opportunity, not necessarily fate or nature. 

The importance of coaching to enhance talent
Now, to return to the question posed. The next step in his development is to make sure he gets the ‘right’ coach to nurture him. How many players have been like the one we have discussed here, a talented 9,10,11 year old, bags of skill and confidence. Already we have agreed (yet perhaps you don’t) that this isn’t natural but the benefits of opportunity and even ‘luck’. There isn’t much natural going on here except for perhaps genetics, yet this probably won’t be evidenced until these players go through puberty and their physiological potential are seen more prominently.

For me the coach is of great importance. Of course many players first coaches are their parents, either the mom or dad, the amount of time they put into their development, the way they react to success and failure, the kind of values they imprint into their children from a young age. These building blocks are essential to the player we see in the future. The player we have used as an example has benefited from a positive, energetic and passionate dad, who has instilled a love for football and helped the player develop skills and expression in his play. 

Next up is the coach. Now this could be the volunteer school coach, who if he loves football, perhaps played a bit himself, or has been ‘coaching’ the school team for a while, may understand what he is doing more than others. And what about the U8 coach? It may be a parent or even an older sibling of one of the players in the team, they may be great with the kids, enthusiastic, allowing for expression and creativity. If so, our young players are in good hands. 

But what of those who aren’t? What if the coach is aggressive, negative, restrictive and cautious of skill? Will our young expressive talent thrive in this environment or will he have his talent crushed? It is more likely the latter. Of course his ‘talent’ may mean he excels against players below his level and the coach, who loves to win, and sees in our little starlet the route to success. It’s possible. However I believe that young players are often a reflection of their coach. Their beliefs, actions and style of play are often copies of the way their coach approaches training, games, values, success and development. I often believe that you only need to look at a group of players and how they act to get a sense of their coach. 

Let us look at our youngster again. Because of this 'talent' our young player has being attending pre-academy sessions at a very good academy which promotes skill, expression, creativity and is a very positive environment for young players. Our player loves it and develops even further. He is excelling now and moving ahead of many of his peers, his advantage being that the work with dad allied with his date of birth has helped him get this opportunity, which others have been denied. 

So how important will the coaches be for this young player moving forward? This is a player coaches and parents look at with amazement, he looks so natural, such a talent. Yet is he destined to be a professional? He has a chance. Yet it will be down to the Academy nad his coaches to push him on now. Therefore the role of the coach is essential. Of course his parents will be important also. The values they instil in their son, the attitude to hard work, the belief in always improving, the understanding of how key extra training is to continue to improve, all these are key for the players continued development (as mentioned earlier - stressing hard work over talent has been shown to enhance performance and develop the growth mindset). 

From U9 to U18 will the club and its coaches help to nurture the skill, intelligence, mentality and physical development of the player? If so there is a greater chance of the player making it to become a professional. If the coaches in this Academy value hard work, understand psychology, skill acquisition and allow for skill and expression, they don’t go irate at mistakes and allow for players to develop their decision making, then there is a very good chance you will see a better player. 

The nurturing of the person, athlete and team
Compare this to a coach, or group of coaches, or an Academy whose philosophy and values ignore or neglect skill, expression, creativity. Who shout and scream with anger when players make mistakes and lose possession, who scare the players into playing ‘safe’ and ‘rigid’ football. Or perhaps those who don’t value the type of player our example is, perhaps they don’t use a number 10, instead they prefer a different type of player.

Now tell me, how natural is this pathway? With all these variables along the way how can you say a player ‘would always have become a professional’. If this is the case about a player in your own academy then there is the sense of a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ where you have consciously (or sub-consciously) given this player extra opportunities – played them up to challenge them, made them the focal point of the team, given them extra sessions, perhaps 1-1’s – all these have helped their development compared to others. When this player is compared to others he looks ahead of the rest – but is this ‘natural’ or simply the benefits of his opportunities? 

In regards to the importance of a coach on an individual and team then it is very hard to say that a coach does not play a massive role in the mentality, collectiveness and their approach and demands in training and games. I can’t imagine a team who are not a reflection of their coach, either in a positive or negative sense. 

Let me refer to the picture I used for this article. It is of Phil Jackson, the legendary coach of the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers, winner of 11 NBA Championships, hugging Michael Jordan, the best player ever. Jackson's philosophy as a coach, of embracing the concepts of team, of sacrificing the self and ego for the good of the team, were key reasons why he won so many titles. He persuaded the individuals of the group to give themselves to the team, and produced success. The Bulls were a near complete reflection of Jackson and his beliefs. He even changed Kobe Bryant (which took some time and lots of work) and brought him round to his way of thinking and playing the game. 

Jackson's philosophy resonates with me even as a coach of younger players. My belief is that a strong team, who work for each other and trust each other can achieve great things and importantly can help enhance the development of each individual in the team. You teach the 'correct' values, embrace concepts of the team and sacrifice while not taking away the individual brilliance and creativity of the individuals themselves. Great coaches can persuade, change the mindsets of players and produce great teams and players. A poor coach can ruin harmony, cause frustration and take players backwards, both as people and players. 

When asked how important the role of a coach is for players and a team, it seems ludicrous to even ponder this. I believe coaching can have as great an influence on people as anything else. The coach for me can influence the mentality of a group and individuals greatly by reinforcing the key messages they wish to portray. A strong minded coach can have a great impact on players approach and beliefs. A great coach can change players mentalities, can influence them to value the team and understand what selflessness, sacrifice, discipline and teamwork can help to achieve when it comes to the (relative) success of the team. 

To achieve this a great coach needs understand the needs of his group, as well as the individuals in that group, where they are in their development in terms of technical, tactical, emotional, whether they are early or late developers and how that impacts their current development. 

The essential role of the coach
A coach’s role is so important to pushing a player forward, or sending them backwards, making them dis-like football, turning passion to frustration. A coach can either ignite or enhance the flame or in some cases put it out. Strong willed characters may overcome a negative coach, yet I don’t’ believe they will reach their potential in this environment. For me positive engagement trumps negative engagement all the time. A coach who can be demanding, challenging, inspiring and motivating as well as having a good knowledge which they can communicate effectively to their players, is the kind of coach young players need to progress. For me, a potential professional requires this type of coach throughout their young career, as one bad year with the ‘wrong’ type could have a detrimental effect on their future. 

While I do not doubt that genetics will determine the potential and ceiling of a players athletic capabilities (yet extra athletic training can enhance this further – along with a good diet). If the player is at a 'good' academy they may be part of a full time football programme which gives them the extra time and coaching to develop these key skills. 

Ultimately, to say a young player can be a ‘natural’ is in my opinion incorrect, or naïve. There are so many variables involved in the development of becoming a professional, which nature just can’t control. I also don’t think it's fate either. I believe it is the fortune of opportunity, the importance of what the individuals family provides and as the question at the start determines, the importance of the coach in the players development.


How much is it down to ‘natural’ or how much is ‘nurture’, I would hope you know where I stand after reading this. If you’re a coach of young players, the potential of your players is in your control, that is a lot of responsibility, make sure you do right for those players under your guidance. 

The Whitehouse Address @The_W_Address

Do you agree with this article? Is there something I've missed or neglected? Please send me your views, opinions and feedback. Email thewhitehouseaddress@gmail.com


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