The Talent Code with Daniel Coyle

Daniel Coyle is the author of the bestselling ‘The Talent Code : Greatness Isn’t Born It’s Grown’, ‘Lance Armstrong’s War’ and ‘Hardball:A Season In The Projects’. The Talent Code describes the traits common to the development of elite performance across a wide range of fields.

From studying the environments in which some of the worlds best sportsmen, athletes, musicians, artists and mathematicians developed their skills Dan saw that talent is almost always the product of a certain type of coaching, a certain type of environment and a certain type of motivation.

In this podcast interview I discussed each of these areas and how they relate to coaching soccer with Dan and Ross Tucker PhD (from the tremendous Some of the most pertinent points are also written below but I’d highly recommend giving the whole interview (around 30 mins) a listen.

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The Talent Code, 10,000 hours and Developing Footballers

Pavl Williams: The Talent Code is included in a collection of books which perpetuate the ‘10,000 hour rule’ but actually isn’t the book about quality of practice not quantity?

Daniel Coyle: It’s about finding the common principles of excellence.

The reason hotbeds of talent succeed is not because they’re magical or because there’s something special in the drinking water; they succeed because their everyday life, the boring, repetitive, substance of their day to day lives is aligned with the way people actually learn. So they practice repetition. They have these very dense – what I would call – reachful practices.

In the States you see soccer practice with fourteen kids in a line and the kid at the front kicks the ball and then goes to the back of the line. Well count the reaches…one.

Now let’s take those same kids and let’s put them in a game or 2v2 and design something clever (it’s about creating a space) to make it a game. You’ve taken the number of reaches from one per second to ten per second. You’re ten times more effective.

Principle #1 : Reach As Much As Possible

So this idea that you can glance at a practice field and say, “that is a waste of time; that is an effective practice” is an important first step in aligning your culture and aligning your practices to the way people learn.

PW: Deliberate practice is often interpreted as narrow focus, static and repetitive. Can you design ‘deliberate practice’ for a game as dynamic as soccer?

DC: It’s very difficult. When you see good coaches doing it, effective practice is slightly different for each individual. The edge of your ability is a little different today than it was a month ago and it’s different from the guy next to you. So the good coaches that I’ve seen are coaches who find a way to individualise that coaching.

Very little good coaching goes on if a single person is speaking to a group. Communicating through language is extraordinarily difficult, so the pattern I see amongst these great coaches is there’s some series of games, some series of drills with lots of fluid motion and the coach sidles up to one kid. [The coach] gets their attention, he gets their full attention, for five seconds and delivers a message; and it’s usually an image. It’s usually something very memorable and tactile. It’s not “kick the ball more softly”, it’s “let it kiss your foot”, that phrase “kiss” it’s an image. So they deliver that message and the kid takes that and the kid puts it to use right away. It’s not a lecture they see at night, it’s during the process.

PW: There’s a balancing act between letting kids make mistakes and solve problems for themselves and wanting to set good habits early and make sure kids are repeating good technique. Where do you draw the line?

DC: You obviously don’t want someone thrashing, having zero percent success, and you obviously don’t want them to have ninety percent success. You want them fifty to eighty percent success.

The less the coach says the better. Ultimately what teaches the game? The game teaches the game. A coach’s job is to make themselves obsolete.

If you can design a practice space that your team can do without you then you’ve done your job.

But finding that area of struggle, establishing the expectations that, “hey we are going to struggle” – and some coaches make their teams sign contacts to make that clear – “you are going to fail” as a part of creating the culture for success.

PW: We talk about myelin pathways being pretty specific so do you think skills are transferable from one narrow field to another?

DC: You bet! You could make an argument that the best skills are transferable. One way to look at this is, there’s an Australian study which looked at their Olympic athletes and whether early-specialisation was a good idea or not. The study found that for most people it’s not and that the people who succeeded were the ones who had this very broad-based athletic background.

Anecdotally, what did Kobe Bryant do as a kid? He played soccer in Italy. What did Roger Federer do as a kid? He played soccer until he was thirteen pretty intensely. What did Steve Nash (the basketball player) do as a kid? He played a lot of soccer.

Vision, balance, control, all this stuff is super-transferable. If you ask an athlete to pick a pattern out or choose who to pass to, that skill is present in lacrosse, hockey, soccer etc. So in this age, the message that seems to be most applicable is don’t specialise early for God’s sake. Or we have these clumsy ‘specialised’ older athletes.

PW: That’s an interesting point because Premier League academies are looking to recruit players, and dictate what they do, at younger and younger age groups. I wonder whether some kids are missing out on developing broader play skills.

DC: Well kids don’t play in the street any more, anywhere. So we have situations where a guy I met in Philadelphia the other day has set-up this fantastic room full of foam balance beams and teeter-totters to compensate for the type of outdoor play we had as kids. It’s a funny problem to have.

Soccer Coaching

PW: We’ve already talked about deliberate practice and broadly transferable skills, but we’re not saying that you can take any kid and make them an elite performer by giving them thousands of hours of deliberate practice?

DC: If anybody’s saying that they’re crazy right?

That doesn’t jive with real life. Sports is played in the physical world and genes give you certain physical advantages.

My argument is not that genes are unimportant. It’s that we undervalue practice: the practice has the magic. You can design practice and make it game-like and purposeful and connect it to the goals you want to achieve, and the whole study of practice design is under studied and under appreciated. The idea is that you can create really useful, full, dense, reachful practices by being clever about the way you use space and cones and goals.

PW: One of your most interesting points is that ideas should be shared between fields of learning. Were there any left-field ideas you’ve picked up from your research which might be applied to the teaching of soccer?

DC: I think the celebration of repetition. Perhaps this plays too much in to the hands of this 10,000 hours Orwellian imposition that’s going on, but what did Beckham do to become a great free-kick guy? He got obsessed. It’s a similar story with everybody who has got good at that, they became obsessed too. Because of that obsession they worship at the alter of repetition.

One of the things that is very clear in music but which we don’t see in soccer is this: if you’re in music and you don’t practice between now and your next lesson your teacher can tell! There’s an expectation in that culture and an amount of disapproval if you don’t practice in the week between your lessons.

I don’t think that happens in sports. At least in my country you finish baseball practice and you put down your glove and you pick it up again on the way out to next week’s practice. There isn’t this expectation of “home is where the repetition can really happen”. It has to do with the passivity of the kid in our culture…kid’s are just toted around in cars, spill out and are expected to go get better. Which is just completely crazy.

Principle #2 : Ignite a Fire For Improving

Soccer Coaching

PW: The US has a culture which idolises the Coach and is a very coach-led system. Does that present difficulties in a sport like soccer which depends so much on players making decisions and reacting to dynamic scenarios?

DC: It can cut both ways. The reverence for the coach and the coach’s authority means you can change a culture very quickly.

The problem with the ‘myth of the coach’ is they make the players passive. You see it especially in basketball where you see these preening roosters on the sidelines with their suits, when really a good coach should do what John Wooden did, which is during games fold arms and legs and watch the game. Your players play the game so you need to create a team of learners.

The problem is that at the level a lot of these coaches operate at – and I see this a lot in american soccer too – they can mould a team. They don’t need to create a team of learners. They can be the ‘big s**t’ in their neighbourhood and that’s all that matters. They bring home the State Championship every year and they know how to do that but it doesn’t create elite players, especially in soccer.

PW: In England there are around ten thousand boys in Academy football but only two or three of these players will have a fulfilling career at the highest international level, plus even amongst the kids who stay in the system through to 17 or 18 years old around two-thirds drop out of football all together by the age of 22. So there’s clearly something happening in that space that isn’t working effectively?

DC: It’s the worst possible thing that could happen to kids to have that golden halo put round their head at a young age. It’s like shining a light on the orchids you want to grow and causing them to shrivel up under the heat.

This 10,000 hour idea encourages parents to specialise early and it’s crazy. So it’s our job to develop a language which goes beyond this idea of just 10,000 hours.

If you’d like to read more about ‘The Talent Code’ (and I’d highly recommend you do) then you can order the book from Amazon, visit Daniel Coyle’s blog and follow Dan on Twitter.

Ross Tucker PhD is a contributor to the superb Science of Sport Blog and is also on Twitter.

Daniel Coyle and Ross Tucker were keynote speakers at UKSEM 2011

5 thoughts on “The Talent Code with Daniel Coyle

  1. [...] author of The Talent Code, to discuss the traits common in elite performance across sports.  The full interview with Coyne is available as a podcast download, but I found this statement from Coyne very telling: One of the [...]

  2. Great interview and love the book

  3. Great conversation. Are you familiar with Michel Bruyninckx, the soccer trainer?

    • Yes I’ve followed Michel’s work closely (and observed him delivering a session) since he featured across the BBC last year. I’m hoping to travel out to Belgium to see him in February.

      What do you know/think about his training methods?

      • I think he really has something going. What I see from his drills on YouTube is how players moving in continuous movement patterns helps to create rhythmic movement during all the touches of the ball. He gets lots of reps in while keeping the players moving. Lots of variation challenges and trains the ‘brain’ to adapt. I am going to replicate some of his drills for lacrosse, the sport I am coaching now. I believe his concepts are based ‘differential learning’ (Schoellhorn) which I am a big fan of. Your website is very well done, by the way.

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