Why Doesn’t Scotland Perform Better At Football?

A Nation in Crisis?
For a nation that proclaims football to be its national sport, Scotland’s international football team have underachieved in the last 15 years.  With a population of 5.2 million, and a position of 50th out of 207 in the FIFA rankings, a record of not qualifying for any European Finals or World Cups in this time is unacceptable.  Particularly when compared to a country with a similar population like Denmark; world ranked 27th and participating in two World and three European Cups with Scotlandonly watching.  If you think it’s different at club level, it’s not; Celtic FC are ranked 62nd in the UEFA rankings whilst FC Copenhagen are ranked 45th. So why doesn’t Scotland perform better at football? 

Approximately £13.7 million worth of talent between the four of these players
The new SFA performance director, Mark Wotte, has been tasked with finding both an answer and a solution to that very question. He states “We need to produce more Barry Bannans and James Forrests, players who are technically brilliant, creative and agile.” I hope that he is correct, and that we start turning the corner, but I – like many other Scots – have my concerns about our future direction. 
Coach the Key Skills
You see, in my opinion Scotland already have players with talent, that are technically brilliant, creative and agile. I should know; I have seen them with my own eyes in the junior youth academy system at Celtic FC. I have personally witnessed a young James Forrest and his fellow Celts, including his younger brother Alan, working hard on the skills required to be become a top player. Week in and week out, these young boys would perform series after series of ball control drills, tricks and skills in keeping with a young Ronaldinho. Indeed players in the youth academy had new tricks named after them, such as the ‘Maloney’ and the ‘LD’ (Luke Donnelly is currently in their U19 squad). The problem is maintaining this development through the rest of the academy and into the senior squads. Some coaches ‘over-coach’ and put more emphasis on tactics. This cuts down on ball time in training and robs the player of ball touches.
Shaun Maloney: A great example of a Scots player with technical ability, creativity and agility. 

Deep Practice
Mr Wotte has stated recently that players need more ball time, more match experience and ultimately need to play more football. He also feels that players should have a minimum of one hundred competitive matches at senior level before leaving the Scottish system. Whilst ESP support this, we would add that it’s not just about the number of hours on the pitch, it’s about the content of that time. Players need to be more skilful and hence coaching should focus on the basic competencies of passing, dribbling, tackling, heading and shooting. For me there is a lack of fault correction in the coaching that is currently delivered. I’ve listened to a professional team manager, ex-internationalist and seasoned pro criticizing his senior players, stating that they can’t pass the ball and nor will they ever! Why not? Coach them. Teach them how to pass. It’s never too late to learn a new skill or technique, the research tells us that myelin is laid down in our nerves well into the eighth decade, so you can’t use age as an excuse. [The worlds leading scientists and experts in talent, agree that myelin, (an electrically insulating material that forms a layer around the axon of a neuron and speeds up how quickly a nerve impulse is sent) is the cornerstone to learning skills. Indeed illnesses like Multiple Sclerosis attack the myelin in the nervous system, making movements less well controlled and coordinated]. Training drills shouldn’t be an opportunity to ‘eat-up’ training time. Instead players should have their technique appraised: “Why wasn’t the shot on target?” – perhaps the shoulder alignment was off, or “Why did your shot not have any power?” perhaps the hip flexor is too tight or the hip extension is limited.  Coach them.  Teach them.  Correct faults.   
Talent is Grown
For too long we have used the excuse that Scotland’s style is to play the long ball and chase people down. The reality is that we have been hiding away from the fact that we don’t have the basic skills required to play the game the way it was designed to be played. We also have this notion that talented players shouldn’t need to work hard to get to the top; instead many believe that you are ‘just born with it’. Indeed, I recently heard a well respected manager state on the radio that Messi was a better player than Ronaldo, as he had more natural football ability. What exactly did he mean by this? The research tells us that talent is grown and that players are not born with it. Does he base his opinion on who is the better player by the fact that Messi did not need to work as hard as Ronaldo to get to the top? In reality I’m sure both players worked incredibly hard to get to where they are now, and more importantly they haven’t stopped working! It is naive to think that hard work and talent are two separate entities. For more information on this read the Talent Code. Coaches, and in particular players, need to understand the relationship between hard work, deep practice and success. You don’t need to look much further than Gareth Bale to understand that concept!

Was Gareth Bale naturally born with it? 
The Solution
So what’s the answer? At ESP we like to keep things simple. In our opinion the backbone of player development should be split into the following four quadrants:
1. Physical development
2. Mind skills training
3. Technical coaching
4. Tactical awareness.
We focus on the first three of these areas in great detail but leave the tactical aspect to the player’s club coaches to deal with. We would say however, that in terms of tactics, players should have game and position awareness.  They should be independent and accountable for their efforts. Coaches should no longer ‘play’ the game for them. Coaches should let the players make mistakes, raise awareness of the errors and develop them appropriately. Don’t over criticize and don’t over praise.
Let’s Break that Down
As we have touched on already, at ESP we make sure our players are accountable and drive their own development. The player must have an understanding of the mental and physical processes that occur during training and this allows the player to regulate their own training more effectively. 
We also adhere to the principle of repetition; the proper sequences of work and rest, fatigue and recovery, injury and rehabilitation, all vital in producing the proficient athlete. We ensure that the athlete fully comprehends the skill they need to learn before attempting to master it.  We ensure the athlete learns how to concentrate their full attention/deep practice on the skill that they are attempting. We ensure that the player uses visualization; to picture the correct movements necessary for mastery of football skills.  Finally, the skills are practiced until they become so well-conditioned the player no longer needs to concentrate consciously on the movements to perform them efficiently.
ESP also place emphasis on individualization; no two players are the same and this is especially important when considering the brain and central nervous system of each athlete.
Lastly, ESP makes sure that all training is structured, periodised and encompasses everything from long-term programming all the way down to the content of individual training sessions; we carefully progress an athlete from lower intensities and volumes to higher ones, as well as moving from simpler to more complex skills.  For us it comes down to organisation with detailed focus on the exact specifics that are needed to develop and create skilful, athletic, powerful footballers. I believe that this formula works, our athletes know that this formula works; our results make us believe this formula could be used to produce Scotland’s next generation of world class footballers.  Yet, unfortunately, I – like many other Scots – have my concerns about our national sport’s future direction.   
This original blog was written before Scotland played Belgium in the latest World Cup Qualifying match. For anyone that follows us on Facebook or Twitter, you would know that we predicted the outcome of being ‘out muscled’. So this last paragraph is an ‘add-on’ to the blog, my reaction to that result and the aftermath in the press.
It’s Not About Genes
Earlier this year Mark Wotte invited Rasmus Ankersen to Scotlandto perform a presentation on his book – The Gold Mine Effect, which explains the secret to high performance. In his book, among other things, Mr Ankersen states that there is no genetic link to superior athletic performance, no bad genes, and that successful athletes “just work harder, much, much harder”. Imagine my surprise then, to read the SFA Assistant Coach Mark McGhee’s words in an interview before the Scotland match, “They [Belgium] are also choosing from a pool that is different to us. They have the advantage of an African connection and can bring in real athleticism.” This comes as a striking contrast to the advice from their expert on high performance, and set Scotland up with a nice excuse for failure before a ball was even kicked. 

Benteke: Is his ability and power really all down to genetics? 
Like any Scottish fan I was disappointed with the loss, but even more so after reading what was written in the national papers the following day. Quotes from the management team such as “We cannot make players bigger, stronger, quicker”, “It’s heavy weights v flyweights” and “You can’t coach genetics” not only highlighted our ‘woe is me’, excuse making attitude, but also the distinct lack of knowledge about producing talent and also the benefits of strength and conditioning. 
It is highly apparent that the closed, being-born-with-it-or-not mind-set is still rife within this country and in particular Scottish football. In our opinion if we are to move forward, and become a new force in world football, then it needs to stop now! As a nation we must be accountable for our current football position, we cannot blame genetics, or geography for our downfall. The reality is, it is no one’s fault but our own. The concluding statement from ESP is that building a Scottish player that is bigger, stronger, and faster is perfectly achievable!  We CAN make players bigger, stronger, quicker.
Stay strong!

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