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Football as a lottery – luck as a winning ticket

I stated in a previous post that I think it’s highly unlikely that this country will ever produce another Paul Scholes (although admitting there is still a slight possibility), because our coaches and fans nurture and appreciate different, conflicting and sometimes downright incorrect characteristics in our footballers.

If the fans and coaches demand a certain type of footballer, then that is what will be supplied. When you consider the massive information asymmetries present in football, in that fans and coaches aren’t sure of what they want and how they can go about getting it, bad choices are obviously going to be made.

But the issue runs deeper than this. We must also consider the massive role that luck plays in determining whether a budding young athlete makes it to the top level, down which of their potential life-paths they will venture, as there are numerous forces at play that determine their success that are beyond their control. But on the other side of the coin, it appears there are also determinants of success that go against our romanticised belief of how a professional footballer comes to be.

Consider this (quite big) extract from Super Freakeconomics, by Stephen D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner:

“If you visit the locker room of a world-class soccer team early in the calendar year, you are more likely to interrupt a birthday celebration than if you arrive later in the year. A recent tally of the British national youth league, for instance, shows that fully half of the players were born between January and March, with the other half spread out over the nine remaining months. On a similar German team, 52 elite players were born between January and March, with just 4 players born between October and December.

Why such a severe birthday bulge?

Most elite athletes begin playing their sports when they are quite young. Since youth sports are organised by age, the leagues naturally impose a cutoff birthdate. The youth soccer leagues in Europe, like many such leagues, use December 31 as the cutoff date.

Imagine now that you coach in a league for seven-year old boys and are assessing two players. The first one (his name is Jan) was born on January 1, while the second one (his name is Tomas) was born 364 days later, on December 31. So even though they are both technically seven-year olds, Jan is a year older than Tomas – which, at this tender age, confers substantial advantages. Jan is likely to be bigger, faster, and more mature than Tomas.

So while you may be seeing maturity rather than raw ability, it doesn’t much matter if your goal is to pick the best players for your team. It probably isn’t in a coach’s interest to play the scrawny younger kid who, if he only had another year of development, might be a star.

And thus the cycle begins. Year after year, the bigger boys like Jan are selected, encouraged, and given feedback and playing time, while boys like Tomas eventually fall away. This “relative-age effect”, as it has come to be known, is so strong in many sports that its advantages last all the way through to the professional ranks.”

And so we can see where the English “results-based” approach of coaching youngsters can lead to. People respond to incentives, and if the incentive is to win (to please the parents and the FA), the coach will pick the player that, in the short-term, gives him the best chance of achieving that goal. If he wins, we therefore think he’s a good coach, and so he is able to adopt his myopic and foolish approach at even higher levels.

How many players have you heard of, such as Scholes, that were nearly turned down as professional footballers because they were considered too small? Quite a few I’m assuming. So think of how many, who may have possessed a similar level of ability and determination to that of Paul Scholes, who were turned down because they didn’t fit the coaches short-run mantra of seven-year olds winning games. Alternatively, think of the bigger boys like Jan that do well at youth level, and then, once their physical advantages that give them the edge over their opponents are evened out over the years as all players eventually reach a similar level of maturity, so we realise that we are mistaken in our assessment of said large footballer.

What is it they say, if you’re good enough you’ll make it? Life isn’t that simple.

Now couple the above issue with the points made by Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper in their book, Why England Lose, regarding the inefficiencies in the football transfer market in that, due to information asymmetries, players are often misjudged and overvalued because of certain characteristics that they possess. Here’s one of those misleading characteristics:

“Gentlemen prefer blonds. At least one big English club noticed that its scouts kept recommending blond players. The likely reason: when you are scanning a field of 22 similar-looking players, the blonds tend to stand out (except, presumably, in Scandinavia). The colour catches the eye. So the scout notices the blond player without understanding why. The club in question began to take this distortion into account when judging scouting reports…. Scouts look for players who look the part. Perhaps in soccer, blonds are thought to look more like superstars.

This taste for blonds is an example of the ‘availability hueristic’: the more available a piece of information is to the memory, the more likely it is to influence your decision, even when the information is irrelevant. Blonds stick in the memory.”

And so imagine this hypothetical scenario, where we have two players, Paul Scholes and Schaul Poles. They are both of equal ability, physically and mentally and, in a world with no other factors at play, both stand an equal chance of attaining football stardom. However, Paul has blonde hair and Schaul has black hair. Due to the reasons explained above, it may be Paul that catches the scouts eye, Paul that gets the trial, and Paul that goes on to train at Carrington. And maybe, Schaul getting overlooked yet again, decides to pack it all in and become, I dunno, a porn director, telling himself he never had the natural ability to make it anyway (as people often do in situations of adversity).

This isn’t to say Paul Scholes isn’t deserving of being a professional footballer, being able to play at the top level at the age of 36 doesn’t come down to luck, that comes down to discipline and hard work (as explained below). But perhaps he was given the chance that others of equal ability weren’t because of his rather loud hair colour, just as someone in the business world is more likely to succeed and be given chances to succeed because they are tall or irrationally overconfident (link here).

But in Super Freakonomics Levitt and Dubner go further, explaining that luck, whilst significant in determining whether someone succeeds or is given the chance to succeed, isn’t the be-all-and-end-all that they seem to make out:

“[K. Anderson Ericsson] is now a professor of psychology at Florida State University, where he uses empirical research to learn what share of talent is “natural” and how the rest of it is acquired. His conclusion: the trait we commonly call “raw talent” is vastly overrated. “A lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with,” he says. “But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it”. Or, put another way, expert performers – whether in soccer or piano playing, surgery or computer programming – are nearly always made, not born.”

Gary Neville might agree with this (link here), as might Jamie Carragher (link here). Both believe they were not as naturally talented as some of their counterparts during their early years, and had to get to where they are today through hard work and practice. So perhaps the English belief that players like Gazza and Wazza were ready-made football geniuses destined to walk the path of football greatness isn’t as simple as that. Spanish children don’t have a genetic advantage over English children when it comes to football; no country has a genetic advantage (but a cultural advantage, yes). So how is it that La Masia, the famous Barcelona youth academy, has been able to churn out the likes of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Busquets and Pique over the years? How you train them is also important.

In one of the best football articles I’ve ever read (link here), Michael Sokolove of the New York Times travels to the Ajax academy to see how they produce the stars of tomorrow. At Ajax, attention is directed towards not just the detail, but also ruthless practice and repetition of particular tasks that makes certain skills and traits become part of the subconscious. After a certain age, players train for many hours a week, whereas in England, training is normally after school and consists of a practice match.

The issue of doing the right kind of practice and training is also identified in Super Freakonomics:

“And yes, just as our grandmother always told you, practice does make perfect. But not just willy-nilly practice. Mastery arrives through what Ericsson called “deliberate practice”. This entails more than simply playing a C-minor scale a hundred times or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Deliberate practice has three key components: setting specific goals; obtaining immediate feedback; and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

The people who become excellent at a given thing aren’t necessarily the same ones who seemed to be “gifted” at a young age. This suggests that when it comes to choosing a life path, people should do what they love – yes, your nana told you this too – because if you don’t love what you’re doing, you are unlikely to work hard to get very good at it.”

And so as Pavl Williams of Better Football (link here), the coaching website, often explains, it is enjoyment that should be the goal when training our youth, rather than results. And as Frank Scicluna, regular contributor to this blog, pointed out to me, it is impossible to say that certain players, such as Best, Maradona, Ronaldo and Di Stefano, weren’t genetically blessed with some of their gifts. Levitt and Dubner say as much in an article of theirs with the New York Times in 2006 (link here):

This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn’t spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was”

The problem is when people cite a lack of natural ability behind their failings, when in fact they didn’t love what they were doing, nor where they taught in the correct way.

So consider this last point that Levitt and Dubner make on the issue in Super Freakonomics:

“But as prevalent as birth effects are, it would be wrong to overemphasize their pull. Birth timing may push a marginal child over the edge, but others forces are far, far more powerful. If you want your child to play Major League Baseball, the most important thing you can do – infinitely more important than timing an August delivery date – is make sure the baby isn’t born with two X chromosomes. Now that you’ve got a son instead of a daughter, you should know about a single factor that makes him eight hundred times more likely to play in the majors than a random boy. What could possibly have such a mighty influence?

Having a father who also played Major League Baseball. So if your son doesn’t make the majors, you have no one to blame but yourself: you should have practiced harder when you were a kid.”

So we’re incredibly lucky to have Paul Scholes. As shown in this post, he may have easily been overlooked as a youngster because he couldn’t help English Under 7’s teams win their matches, or perhaps because of another random variable such as hair colour. And who knows, had another club have picked him up first, maybe he wouldn’t be the player he is today. But if things don’t change soon, chances are we won’t see another English player like Paul Scholes for a very long time. And so the next time you’re watching him at Old Trafford, just take some time to step back and appreciate how lucky all of us really are to have him.

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