Sunday, February 21, 2010

What is 'Skill' or 'Good Football'?

From the Evansville Courier Press, February 21, 2010

The comment is etched in memory —when talking with a recruiting contact about a prospect, the coach commented "he's not the most skilled player, but he works really hard."

What threw me for a loop was the perception of what "skill" was to that coach, and how different his definition was from mine. Attributes like being able to work hard and compete are harder to acquire than the ability to dribble or pass.

I mentioned in my column months ago about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule — how someone who is elite at his craft has honed his skills for more than 10,000 hours. It is the technique or understanding of tactics that will attract the most attention by fans, but the reality is that without "skills" like determination, commitment and work ethic, the elite athlete would never get the chance to put in those 10,000 hours.

The players who stood out to me and who I admired as an athlete were those who had mastered skills in all areas — but stood out more for their competitive and commitment-based skills.

Bryan Robson was the high-profile captain for England and Manchester United, but became an icon for his country and club because of his commitment level and ability to drive his team to victory.

Chris Mullin was regarded as one of the great shooters in collegiate and professional basketball in the past 25 years, but what attracted me to following his career were stories of him spending an entire evening in his high school gym practicing jump shots.

Even today, many of the great athletes at the highest of levels are masters of that competitive inner drive to make them the stars they are today. Champions like Kobe Bryant, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Wayne Rooney and Peyton Manning are regarded among their peers for their ability to out-work their peers — it is not a coincidence that they win more than anyone else in their respective sports.

The first criteria I use to measure how special an athlete is starts with their ability to make their teammates better and the commitment to do whatever they are asked to help their team find success.

The same fans or coaches who think that working hard is not a "skill" also probably worry more about playing "good soccer"' than about results. This 'style versus substance' debate was a hot topic in England the past several weeks, with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill at odds. The mentality around Arsenal is that aesthetics in some ways are more important than winning titles. Wenger has been quoted in defeat with comments about how his team was the better team, despite the result. O'Neill's feeling is that the better team is always the one that ends up with victory.

Gabriele Marcotti of the London Times chipped in on this debate between the two managers.

"We are conditioned to assume that technique, passing and creativity constitute 'good' football (soccer), because those qualities are aesthetically pleasing. If that's your definition, it's pretty obvious that Arsenal plays 'good football.' Can you play 'good football' if your technique, passing and creativity are not as good as Arsenal's? I would argue that you can.

"But I'd go further than that. You can be direct and counter-attacking and still play 'good football' ... (which) has to be a means to an end, otherwise it is pointless football. 'Good football' means essentially execution. Do you have a game plan, do you execute that game plan well and does it bring results? If the answer is yes, then your football is 'good.'"

It is an idealistic view of the game to place how it looks over gaining results. Most fans of Arsenal or the Brazilian national team tend to romanticize more about how their team plays even more than how often they win. In the 2006 World Cup, Brazil was the most attractive nation, while Italy — the most organized and hard-working — went home with the championship.

The reality is that where it is fine to romanticize about these kinds of teams, the style of these teams are often difficult to emulate. Former Duke University soccer coach John Rennie would always say that "the only thing you need to play like Brazil is ... Brazilians."

Most coaches tend to see their teams with rose-colored glasses and fancy that they play "good soccer." Understanding that, it is important to know that fans tend to associate most with the players and teams that compete the hardest. Not only are these attributes that young players can replicate with hard work, but their teams tend to win more than the ones that prioritize aesthetics over victory.

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