Successful performance in elite football does not usually show itself until the early 20s due to unpredictable factors during a player’s development, particularly the effect that the growth spurt (puberty) will have on them physically and psychologically (although there have been some prodigies to prove the exception (e.g. Wayne Rooney or Michael Owen). However, it is believed that if ‘windows of opportunity’ during development are missed, then an individual may never regain those potential gains and realise his or her optimal or genetic potential. It is thought that this ‘golden age of learning’ exists somewhere between the ages of 5 and 12 depending on who you listen to. So even if a player is not showing signs of fulfilling potential in their teens then they still need to build this basic foundation during this supposed critical period if they are to blossom at a later stage. This would point to the necessity of the players being in the right coaching environment at least during these formative years (quality and quantity).

Whether you subscribe to the 10,000 hours rule of expertise (K Anders Ericsson) or not, it is clear that ‘natural talent’ alone (i.e. performance governed purely by genetic factors making practice unnecessary) is not enough to reach elite status in any domain. The old maxim that “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” holds very true. So a blend of genetic and environmental factors, combined with a healthy slice of luck seem to be the ultimate determinants.

Some theories about luck:

  • Resultant Luck – the outcomes of our actions are affected by luck.  E.g., training to be a philosopher of sport just prior to the sudden creation of a number of appointments in the area
  • Circumstantial luck – the circumstances in which one acts introduces luck  e.g. by chance, a young athlete finds himself attending a club run by an expert coach for a certain sport and his career benefits as a result of this.
  • Constitutive luck – luck affects the kind of person you are e.g. some long distance runners and cyclists have freakishly low resting heart rates, and because of this, it makes sense to say that they were genetically lucky, within the context of cycling or running.
  • Antecedent causal luck – there is luck in the way one’s actions are determined by antecedent circumstances e.g. children born into ‘sporty’ and supportive families are more likely to be motivated and better prepared to engage with sport than those who are not so fortunate

Attempts have been made to quantify what it is that separates a successful elite player (prototypes) from those classed as sub or non-elite.

Elite players showed higher performance in internal factors:

  • Agility, Balance, Co-ordination (acquired)
  • Speed /speed endurance/explosive speed (genetic – muscle fibre type)
  • Lower body fat/somatype (genetic)
  • More aerobic power (genetic)
  • More tolerant to fatigue (genetic)
  • Dribbling (acquired)
  • Flexibility (genetic)
  • Power e.g. jumping (acquired)
  • Personality:
    • Task > ego orientation (acquired?) leading to greater skill mastery/personal improvement (intrinsically motivated), more determination & stronger work ethic
    • Self-confidence
    • Anxiety control (perceive anxiety/confidence as helpful to performance – relish the intensity)
    • Motivation (intrinsic links to ego orientation of task oriented)
    • Concentration including:
      • Anticipation skill (acquired)
      • Attention
      • Decision-making
      • ‘Game intelligence’
      • Creative thinking

And later in development to internal & external factors:

  • Muscular strength (genetic & internal)
  • Time to practice (10,000 hours? – external)*
  • Injury free (luck – external)
  • Correct coaching/mentoring environment (luck/parental investment – external)
  • Personal (e.g. family life), social (e.g. peer pressure) & cultural factors  – external

As mentioned above, genes alone do not make a player. Appropriate training is required to achieve the maximum from inherited potential (e.g. speed governed by muscle fibre type), as well as developed the components of fitness that are acquired (e.g. ABCs – agility, balance and co-ordination)

Some family-based variables have been associated with participation in sporting at high levels:

  • Parents achieved high standards in domain
  • Relatively high socioeconomic status
  • Ability and willingness to financially support participation and specialist support*
  • Ability and willingness to invest high amounts of time to support the child’s engagement in the activity*
  • Parents as car owners
  • Relatively small family size
  • Two-parent/carer family
  • Attendance at independent school*

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