#Science explained

Nicola Hodges on deliberate practice

Professor Nicola Hodges, 04 May 2023


Not all forms of practice are created equal. In this session, Professor Nicola Hodges explains how we distinguish "deliberate" practice from other forms of training, and why this deliberate practice is so important for player development.

Strange as it may seem, not all practice, even on the training pitch, is considered "deliberate." In this Science Explained video, Professor Nicola Hodges of the University of British Columbia tells us what researchers actually mean by "deliberate" practice and explores how it can be used to optimise players' leaning and develpoment. Her presentation is followed by a Q&A session, hosted by FIFA's Dr Paul Bradley.


Define what we mean by "deliberate" practice and what distinguishes it from other forms of training. Provide an outline of current scientific debates surrounding deliberate practice and specialisation. Examine how best to use deliberate practice to develop players.


The definition of deliberate practice is disputed, but it can be seen as a form of training specifically designed to improve performance and acquire new skills. It complements other types of practice and some studies suggest it can bring significant benefits, but only if used appropriately.


To teach athletes new skills, coaches need to take them out of their comfort zones, and this is where deliberate practice can be effective. However, deliberate practice can also be difficult and tiring for players, so coaches need to strike a balance.

Watch presentation

Welcome by Dr Paul Bradley
Part 1: What is deliberate practice?
Part 2: Football-specific research and controversies
Part 3: What can we learn from existing data?
Part 4: Q&A

Read summary

Part 1: What is deliberate practice?
Professor Hodges opens the session by examining the claim, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell and others, that practice alone is enough to obtain expertise. Although performance does improve with practice, athletes still need the right kind of practice in order to learn and progress. This is where deliberate practice – practice that is tailored to helping athletes develop skills – plays an important role. Professor Hodges explains what it is (and isn't), what it looks like in practice, and when coaches might choose to use it.

Part 2: Football-specific research and controversies
Here Professor Hodges explores some of the research that has previously been conducted into deliberate practice in football, and highlights some of the controversies surrounding deliberate practice as a concept. Studies have shown that "elite" players invest more time in individual practice as children than their peers at lower levels of the game. However, these results must be balanced against the fact that both the definition of "deliberate" practice and the benefits of early specialisation among athletes are disputed within the research community.

Part 3: What can we learn from existing data?
In the final part of this session, Professor Hodges draws on studies that have analysed both the men's and women's games to explore issues ranging from why female players have generally had less individual practice and play experiences than their male counterparts to how deliberate practice complements informal kickabouts. Finally, she introduces two frameworks that might help coaches take players out of their comfort zones and continue to learn new skills and adaptations.


How important is it to start playing the game early? Is there an optimum age to start specialising in a single sport?

What does "practice for learning" actually look like? 

We know definitions are open to interpretation. Can you provide a negative definition of deliberate practice, what it isn't as opposed to what it is?

In a typical coaching session, how much practice should be deliberate in nature?  

Is deliberate practice only practice that is not enjoyable? Can we get the learning we want along with enjoyment? 

If play is not deliberate practice, why is it so important for skills development in football? 

People might be asking how we can see whether deliberate practice is working in our players? How can we judge its effectiveness?

Learning is only learning if the knowledge is retained. Is there a set amount of time for which knowledge has to be retained before it is considered "learned?" 

Coaches say things like "Just let the kids play the game, and they'll learn." How important is match play for skill development, and why does it not count as deliberate practice? 

Why does deliberate practice not account for more variance in performance, given it is so important?  

How do we structure deliberate practice to optimise skill transfer to the pitch? How age-dependent is it when working with youth players? 

If you could give coaches a couple of practical tips in this area, what would they be?

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