There is little doubt that an athlete’s attitude towards practice affects how much is learned and how much improvement is made. Focus, effort, and attention are all important to leaning and developing the skills needed to compete at a high level. In a new study focusing on Dutch youth players, researchers found that the ability of players to reflect on and critically evaluate their own performance may be an important developmental aspect. Their findings show that elite youth players often use the process of self-reflection. They are more aware of weaknesses in their game and use this information to invest more effort into practice than their less talented peers.
The researchers examined a concept called self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to control ones thoughts, feelings and actions. This usually refers to an individual’s capacity to respond and adapt to their social or physical surroundings. For an athlete, self-direction is often thought of in terms of performance on the field - focus, attitude and decision making during a match. However, self-direction can also be applied to player development. In this case, the athlete uses self-regulation to identify and correct weaknesses and to focus on achieving those goals. In short, a self-directed player has the psychological characteristics to understand what they need to do to improve performance as well as the motivation to make those changes.
In this study, youth players (U13-U17) affiliated with Dutch professional clubs (elite) and regional clubs (sub-elite) were enrolled. All of the elite players played in the highest national leagues and while most of the sub-elite players played in regional and local leagues. All of the players were administered a questionnaire designed to assess various aspects of self-regulation such as planning, evaluation, reflection, effort and confidence.
The results of the questionnaires showed that the elite players excelled in two key areas of self-regulation: reflection and effort. The elite players more often reflected on their training and competitive performances. This allowed them to identify weaknesses in their game and to develop strategies for improvement. The elite players were also more motivated to put in the time and effort needed to correct their shortcomings. The researchers argued that these personality traits translate into a more effective developmental environment. By understanding their weaknesses and being driven to improve, the elite players get more out of competition and training sessions than do the sub-elite players. In a nutshell, the elite players know what to work on in training and are motivated to improve. This is a concept called deliberate practice – training that is directed towards specific outcomes.
What does this mean for the coach and player? Coaches often talk with players and point out weaknesses and shortcomings in the players abilities. In many cases, information flows in one direction, from the coach to the player. The authors of this study suggest that this pathway be reversed. Instead of simply telling players what they need to work on, encourage them to reflect on their performance and critically evaluate what aspects of their game need improvement. Have them think about what they did well and more, importantly, what they did poorly. Once players can describe where their weaknesses lie, help them identify ways to improve and develop a more deliberate practice session. By using this approach, players will be more motivated because they understand why certain drills are being used and will “buy into” what the coach is trying to accomplish. The goal is to have players use reflection on past performances to put more effort onto executing skills more successfully.
Using a self-directed approach to training that includes self-reflection will make it possible for players to develop their skills more effectively. This in turn will lead to faster development, greater skill development and improved performance on the pitch.
Toering TT, Elferink-Gemser MT, Jordet G, Visscher C (2009) Self-regulation and performance on elite and non-elite youth soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences, DOI:10.1080/02640410903369919