The Secret to Becoming a Professional Soccer Player

The title of this article was supposed to pique your interest whether you are an aspiring player looking for that “secret” that can separate you from everyone else, a parent looking to give your child the best opportunity possible, or a coach who cynically clicked on this post looking to see the latest 'shortcut' another coach coach is offering. Whatever your intentions are by reading this you already know the secret. Nothing I say here will be mind blowing or revolutionary. It will be the one constant that anyone who has ever become a master at anything will already know.

Before I reveal the secret I think it is important to address who I am to be saying this. Like every school boy growing up in England I started playing soccer in the school yard. I was lucky enough to be able to leave school at 16 years to play soccer full time and luckier still to get offered a professional contract at 18. At 19 I came to the US to play in college. After my college career was over I began coaching. I do not say this to impress you but rather to show you that it has taken me over 10 years of experience to fully appreciate that to be good at something there is one thing that is needed above anything else.

The “secret” I refer to is hard work. That is it. There is nothing complicated about it. If you want to be a professional soccer player, practice, dedication and hard work is the magic recipe. Anyone who has gone on to play in college or professionally has done this. I am not talking about working harder than everyone else during your training session (although this is also important). I am talking about the amount of hours of practice you are putting in. If you want to play in college or professionally you have to be better than 99% of players. Most players have organized practice at least twice a week and a game on a weekend throughout the year. This averages out to about 3 hours of playing time per week which is about 150 hours of practice per year. This means that the majority of youth players are putting in 3 hours of training time per week. Will averaging just this amount of time make you better than 99%? Definitely not. The hours and hours of hard work outside of training is where the difference is made. This is where you see the separation between those who go on to play in college and professionally and those who do not.

“How many hours?” you ask. In his book “Outliers” Malcom Gladwell says that to achieve true mastery of a skill you need at least 10,000 hours of focused practice. Let's say that an average player starts playing soccer when they are 6 and practices for an average of 3 hours a week. This is 156 hours a year. The average American student goes to college when they are 18. This would mean 156 hours for 12 years totaling 1,872 hours (Less than 1/5th of what is required). In order to have a realistic shot of making it to the professional level more than 8000 more hours are required. These hours are made up at home when no one is looking. These hours are monotonous. They are hard. They are not always fun. But if professional is your goal then these hours are required.

Are all hours of practice equal? No. You can spend hours and hours with a ball practicing nothing in particular. The practice must be “focused practice”. That is, each practice must have a specific purpose. This is where coaches come in. To guide practice towards a specific objective and to teach players to train themselves. Good coaches coach players. Great coaches, teach players to teach themselves.

So where does natural talent fit in? The more I coach the more I think that natural talent  matters less and less. People seem to be in awe by the concept of natural talent. I think it is an excuse for many players just to say another player is naturally talented as it gets them off the hook for their own practice if they can say that soccer talent is god-given. Maybe one player is naturally more coordinated than another, or naturally has a better ability to see the field, but these skills must still be practiced and honed. I challenge you to find anyone who can strike a ball effectively who has never kicked a soccer ball before. A truly naturally talented player may be able to achieve mastery in 8,000 hours instead of 10,000 but this is still four times more than what most players are practicing. If a player is better than you are it is because they have put in more work. Lionel Messi, arguable the best player in the world once said “I start early and I stay late, day after day, year after year, It took me 17 years and 114 days to be an overnight success”.

Those of you who clicked on this post looking for a “short-cut” will be seriously disappointed. There is no fancy drill or secret stuff that will make you better than everyone else. Hard work is the shortcut. I guarantee that every player you have seen that is better than you has put in more work and more practice. I am no exception. I may have been lucky enough to play at a fairly high level but there is a reason I am 27 and no longer playing. I was provided with everything I ever needed - my parents bought expensive cleats and drove me all around the country to play. My coaches planned excellent training sessions, but I did not put in the time. It is not my parents fault, it is not my coaches fault, it is my fault I am not still playing.

This has not been the most upbeat article I have ever written but that is not what always what youth players need. Youth players need to realize that they are accountable for their own development. Soccer is a beautiful sport because when it comes down to it all you really need is a ball and wall. You want to know how to practice by yourself? Ask you coaches for what you can do at home. Go on the internet and lookup drills. Text or call some friends and go and play. Take responsibility for your own development and know that your goals are achievable if you’re willing to put in the hours.

The goal of this article is to make you realize that there is no secret to success. Hopefully that one sentence alone is enough to motivate you to go out and put the time in. If your goal is to be a professional soccer player then it is possible. 10,000 hours. Start counting.

Thanks for reading,

Matt Needham