Elite athletes learn more from unstructured sport than from formal academy trainingby Tim Wigmore / September 11, 2020 / Leave a comment
Every year, Premier League academies destroy tens of thousands of dreams. If a boy is recruited by a Premier League academy before the age of nine, they have fewer than a one in 200 chance of going on to play for the club’s first team. And so, for 99.5% of the academy intake, the thousands of hours training are ultimately only the route to heartache.
It would be comforting, perhaps, to think that there was a strong correlation between how much time children spent in an academy and their prospects of stardom. But this idea has been debunked. A comprehensive analysis of Premier League academies compared two groups of academy graduates: players offered three-year scholarships aged 16; and players released by their clubs at 16. These two groups had accumulated an identical numbers of hours in the academies. There was no evidence that the players offered scholarships had trained more diligently.
But the two groups did differ in one important way, which had nothing to do with what happened within the academy grounds. Players offered scholarships had done an average of nine hours each week of informal football play—street football with their friends in streets and parks, which they fit in alongside their time in the academy. Those not offered contracts engaged in such informal play for only five hours a week. This was the only notable difference in the development histories of the two groups.
These findings—that the salient differences between elite and near-elite footballers lie outside the training ground—have been replicated in similar studies. Most striking was a comparison between the 2014 Germany squad that won the men’s World Cup and two groups of other German players – those that played in the nation’s top domestic league, the Bundesliga, but did not play for the national team; and players from the fourth to six tiers. It showed that the future World Cup winners had actually played less formal football all the way up to the age of 22. But they had played significantly more unstructured football in their teens. The future world champions learned more of their football themselves, rather than following instructions from coaches.
A glance at England’s…