World Cup Stars – They’re Just Like Us!

brazil soccer

Photo by ecpelotas.

Cosmo and US Weekly love to deliver the following message: “Stars are just like us!” Magazines are flooded with images of actors performing quotidian tasks—Kate Hudson walking her dog, or George Clooney shopping for groceries. These photos are appealing in part because they’re so incongruous: it’s hard for us to imagine that people with such superhuman talent (or at least, superhuman fame) could live a normal life.

As the World Cup enters its fourth week, it’s easy to make the same mistake with athletes as we do with actors. Too often, we view athletes as case studies in apotheosis: athletic prowess has simply floated down from the heavens and bestowed itself upon them. If only we could be so lucky.

This attitude serves to mask an important truth: that talent is not inherited—it is earned. “What seems like talent … is often better practice habits in disguise,” writes educator and coaching expert Doug Lemov. Consider the Brazilian case. Could it be true that Brazil just happens to produce an extraordinary number of skilled athletes, making it one of the most formidable opponents in every World Cup? Possibly, but it’s far more likely that a cultural factor is at play. Brazilians are not good at soccer because they were born to be athletes; they’re good at soccer because they’ve trained  to be athletes.  In their book Practice Perfect, Lemov and his colleagues explain:

Brazil’s passion for soccer makes it an international power, but its passion for futsal, a soccer derivative featuring small-sided games in an enclosed space using a less elastic ball, yields as many as six times the touches per hour for a developing Brazilian player … than for a similar player in some other nation. The game’s space limitations reward skills learned to speedy automaticity. ‘Commentators love to talk about how “creative” Brazilian players are—but that’s not quite right. The truth is, they’ve been practicing that creativity for their entire lives,’ writes [sportswriter Daniel] Coyle. The humble details of their practice separate Brazil from every other soccer-obsessed nation on Earth.


A futsal stadium. Photo by cordeport.

In soccer and in life, Lemov argues, we cannot wait for superhuman skills to arrive at our doorstep. This point is obvious. What is less obvious is the corollary: that success is not contingent on some glamorous practice routine. The best athletes (and coaches) do not have fascinating tricks up their sleeves: they simply put in many hours of careful, dedicated labor. John Wooden, one of the most famous coaches of the century, made his players spend hours on minute details—like how to put on socks—but spent little time reviewing more complex skills. “He repeated drills until his players achieved mastery and then automaticity, even if it meant not drilling on more sophisticated topics,” Lemov writes.

One of the most important predictors of success, Lemov reminds us, is the capacity for boredom. We must be willing to do the same thing, again and again, no matter how unstimulating the task. This approach is contrary to the American ethic. “The United States,” Lemov writes, “remains a competition-loving culture”:

We love the heroic upset, the last hurrah of the aging veteran, the final ticking seconds as the game comes down to the wire. We watch games and follow teams and players, sometimes to the point of obsession (especially if our own kids are playing), but if we really wanted to see greatness—to cheer for it and understand what made it happen—we’d spend our time watching practices instead. We would pay a lot more attention to how drills were designed, to a culture of humility and perseverance among the players, to whether there was enough practice, or indeed—as we will soon discover—where there was any practicing at all.

What Lemov is advocating for goes beyond the “10,000 hours rule” described by Malcolm Gladwell. “The mere fact of doing something repeatedly does not help us improve,” the author Dan Heath observes. He quotes Michael Jordan: “You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way.”

Despite the old adage, practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. The more we practice a skill, the stronger our neural pathways become and the harder it is to make a change. In that sense, some practice is not only unhelpful, but harmful.

So the secret of Brazil’s soccer team is neither talent (bestowed by the gods) nor dedication (in terms of raw hours devoted). Rather, it is the willingness to engage in patient, precise, and often underwhelming practice.

Want to learn more about Practice Perfect? Watch the video below:



Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting BetterRules for developing talent with disciplined, deliberate, intelligent practice.

Buy NowIn this book, the authors engage the dream of better, both in fields and endeavors where participants know they should practice and also in those where many do not yet recognize the transformative power of practice. And it’s not just whether you practice. How you practice may be a true competitive advantage. Deliberately engineered and designed practice can revolutionize our most important endeavors. The clear set of rules presented in Practice Perfect will make us better in virtually every performance of life.

“Learning to practice, this book vividly illustrates, takes time and effort, trial and error. It won’t happen tomorrow. But even a small movement in the direction of more practice will reap benefits….”

—“Class Struggle,” a Washington Post blog

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