The relative importance of play, practice and soccer-related skills in childhood on the later success of elite soccer players


There has been continued discussion about the relative importance of early sport diversity and play-type activities in childhood and its relation to later success in sport. In this study we evaluated whether these activities (in addition to other more traditional measures of practice and skill) successfully differentiated elite soccer players who subsequently attained professional (PRO) status at age 16 yr (n=26) from those that did not (RELEASED, n=76). These players were initially evaluated ~3 yr prior to being retained or released (see Hendry et al., 2014). At that time we asked for retrospective estimates of hours in organized practice and “play” (i.e., soccer activities outside of organized practice) during childhood (5-12 yr) and across their careers, demographics pertaining to start age and involvement in other sports, and coach ratings of tactical, technical, physical and creative skill. Players that subsequently attained professional status began practicing in an elite soccer academy earlier (Mpro =9.54 yr, SD = 2.18; Mreleased = 11.38, SD = 2.10, t(100) = 3.82, p<.001) and participated in fewer sports (Mpro = 4.17, SD = 1.69; Mreleased = 5.41, SD = 2.72, t(100) = 2.00, p <.05) than their peers. Binary, logistic regression analysis on the practice data showed that only hours in soccer practice significantly predicted group membership. With respect to the evaluation of skills, only technical skill was a significant predictor of group membership. Despite previous literature, we did not find any evidence that play or diversity were predictors of later success. In fact, the successful players engaged in fewer sports in childhood than their less successful peers. In contrast and more in line with early predictions of deliberate practice theory, early access into an elite Academy, coupled with high amounts of formal practice, were the best predictors of early adulthood sport expertise.