In this article three developmental pathways to expertise in the field of sport were critically analysed. Activity patterns were explored and compared, in an attempt to find trends in footballers that reached top-level performance as an adult.
There are three current pathways to expertise that exist within sport (for a review, see Cote, Baker, & Abernethy, 2007; Ford, Ward, Hodges, & Williams, 2009). These pathways are termed early specialisation, early diversification and early engagement. The early specialisation pathway involves engagement in deliberate practice in one sport at a young age (i.e., 5-12 years) and early participation in competition in that sport (e.g. tournaments) (Ford & Williams, 2012). In contrast, the early diversification pathway includes deliberate play and the engagement in a number of different sport activities at a young age (i.e., 5-12 years). Activities are mainly designed for enjoyment and fun, followed by a late specialisation in the primary sport (Ford & Williams, 2012). The early engagement pathway differs from the early specialisation pathway in that it involves players engaging in sport largely through soccer-specific play activity during childhood (6-12 years of age). As the players age into early adolescence, engagement in practice and competition increases and the amount of play decreases. This however is dependent on the country and its youth development system (Ford et al., 2012). The majority of professional football players in England followed the early specialisation pathway starting football at 5 years of age, spending time in soccer specific practice and play activity (Ford & Williams, 2012). A question that must be raised (and is a central debate within talent research) is which pathway leads to later success? In order to come to a conclusion, one must critically analyse the three pathways, examine their advantages and disadvantages, and study the different developmental pathways of elite youth soccer players who have progressed to professional status.
The works of Ericsson and Colleagues (1993) on deliberate practice have led to an increase in popularity in the early specialisation approach to talent development (Côté, Mills, & Abernethy, 2012). Deliberate practice is highly structured practice for the specific purpose to improve performance in the field of specilisation with a coach present. The characteristics of deliberate practice are sustained cognitive and/or physical effort, involving repetition and error correction (Ford et al., 2009). Supporters of the early specialisation pathway believe that investment in deliberate practice in one activity from a young age separates future experts from non-experts. Research carried out by Helsen, Hodges, Van Winckel & Starkes (2000) found a relationship between the amount of deliberate practice and the achievement of expertise across a variety of sports. This reinforces the belief that early specialisation leads to expert performance. However, further comparisons of expert and non-expert athletes in football found that training based differences did not occur till the age of 13 (Helsen et al., 1998). High levels of specialised involvement during early periods of development may limit a child’s acquisition of fundamental motor skills (Branta, 2010). Individuals who have specialized too early in life, often do not have a good base in motor skills, making it difficult for them when they need to change positions or even sports. This will have ramifications on their opportunities for further involvement in football and can ultimately affect the number of prospects available for talent development programs (Côté, Mills, & Abernethy, 2012).
Cote’s (1999) model of sport participation proposes the role of diversified early involvement in the development of sport expertise. Cote’s model identified three stages of development: the sampling phase (6-12 years), the specializing phase (13-15 years) and the investment phase (16+ years). During the first stage of a career in competitive sports, deliberate play, sampling and diversification can optimise the selection of the appropriate sport (Zibung & Conzelmann, 2012). Sampling a range of sports can lead to the transfer of skill and abilities in the field of movement, perception, concepts and physiological conditions (Côté, et al., 2007). Deliberate play activity in games such as street football, that involve small-sided teams with no adult involvement required. The characteristics of deliberate play are enjoyable, flexible activity with no real intention to improve performance (Côté, et al., 2007). Early sampling and high levels of deliberate play during the early stages of a career is proven to lead to a top-level of performance as an adult (Zibung & Conzelmann, 2012). An analysis of the initial career paths (up to 12 years old) of Swiss national youth football team players was conducted by Zibung & Conzelmann (2012), in order to see patterns and trends in players that reach top-level adult performance. One player that achieved a top level of performance as an adult engaged in extremely high amount of free playing and an above average activity in other sports. Apart from speciliasing in football, he played a lot of basketball. This suggests that the early diversification pathway and commitment to other sports can promote later top-level performance. However, research by Ford et al. (2009; 2012) suggests that sampling other sports has no positive effect on later performance in football with other research results suggesting for early specialisation in football (Ward, Hodges, Williams, & Starkes, 2004).
Ford and Williams (2011) have proposed the early engagement model as the developmental activity pathway currently followed by elite soccer players. The early engagement pathway involves players participating during childhood in meaningful amounts of soccer play activity. Elite players in Brazil followed this pathway and they engaged mostly in soccer-specific play activity and futsal during childhood rather than in coach-led practice and competition (Ford & Williams, 2012). The research suggests that football players who engage in greater amounts of play activity during childhood possess superior anticipation and decision-making ability, as compared to those who engaged in less of this activity (Roca et al., 2012). Moreover, because engagement in soccer play activity is fun and enjoyable, it likely increases motivation to continue engagement in the sport. This increased motivation may be especially important when players reach adolescence and adulthood and engage in relatively high amounts of soccer practice and competition (Ford et al., 2012).
In summary, all three pathways can lead to expertise in football. The pattern analyses of top-level performance footballers display a clear focus on football from an early childhood, suggesting that the early-engagement pathway is the most appropriate (Ford et al., 2009; 2012). However this is not to say that this is the optimal pathway to develop professional players, it is merely a reflection of that country’s current youth development system. The current literature has led me to conclude that a combination of all these pathways is ideal. Children should experience above-average amount of free-play as well as above-average commitment to in-club training. Engagement in other sports in replacement for a smaller amount of free football playing is another activity pathway that may lead to expertise. When putting theory into practice, I believe that Cote’s model of participation should be used as a theoretical framework when developing training programs for young footballers, especially during the early phase of their career. When designing practice sessions, practitioners should have a good understanding of these pathways. They should ensure that sessions are appropriately designed, scheduling more soccer-specific play making sure there is enough time for free play (deliberate play), as well as suitable periods for specified practices (deliberate practice). If a football club’s academy needs to further improve their program, skill-acquisition specialists can be invited or hired to offer further advice and advancement on developing players. They can deliver a series of workshops to illustrate how practitioners can improve their current models for talent identification and development, and emphasise the importance of visual awareness and decision-making.