There is a philosophy deeply ingrained in Dutch football. First adopted over 10 years ago and implemented by many top level professional teams, it is the idea that every youngster hoping to become an elite player should be touching the ball 10,000 times per day.
Yes, that’s every day.
Malcolm Gladwell’s infamous 10,000 hour rule, in which he suggests that those wishing to reach a world class level in their particular discipline should amass at least 10,000 hours in focused practice, is remarkably similar in theory.
Whilst there are many skills and disciplines in which this can be achieved; counting hours in the context of team sports isn’t ideal. One could play a full 90 minute game of football and only touch the ball 30 times.
What is measurable however is the concept of individual touches. Instead of aiming for 10,000 hours of ‘play’, young Dutch footballers are being trained to perform 10,000 touches per day as an alternative route to mastery.
Former youth player Jonathan Townsend recalls the occasion he first witnessed FC Twente players performing this drill in training;
Each player had a ball and assembled into groups of six and, after hearing instructions, the whistle blew. The entire field of players began a series of ball touches in unison while the crew of coaches clicked away with the counters. It didn’t take me long to figure out what was happening; these players worked through rehearsed ball movements in sets of 100-200 repetitions, at match speed.
After rounds of toe-touches, Cruyff turns, drag-backs, pirouettes, juggles, dribbles, or paired one-touch passing the players rested, rotated to a different station, and began another set targeting a different skill.
Another area of skill acquisition named ‘the Coerver method’, is often used to structure these 10,000 touches into a series of specific drills focused on reducing complex movements into simple, habitual patterns.
Developed by Wiel Coerver, his method involves analysing elite performers and reverse engineers their skills into a structured, pyramidal system of learning; thereby breaking down these 10,000 touches into specific areas such as passing, moving forwards with speed and finishing.
Facing the dragon
This is an excerpt from Andre Agassi’s autobiography ‘Open’;
My father yells everything twice, sometimes three times, sometimes 10. Harder, he says, harder. But what’s the use? No matter how hard I hit a ball, no matter how early, another ball comes back. Every ball I send across the net joins the thousands that already cover the court. Not hundreds. Thousands. They roll toward me in perpetual waves. I have no room to turn, to step, to pivot. I can’t move without stepping on a ball—yet I can’t step on a ball, because my father won’t bear it. Step on one of my father’s tennis balls and he’ll howl as if you stepped on his eyeball.
Every third ball fired by the dragon hits a ball already on the ground, causing a crazy sideways hop. I adjust at the last second, catch the ball early, and hit it smartly across the net. I know this is no ordinary reflex. I know there are few children in the world who could have seen that ball, let alone hit it. But I take no pride in my reflexes, and I get no credit. It’s what I’m supposed to do. Every hit is expected, every miss a crisis.
My father says that if I hit 2,500 balls each day, I’ll hit 17,500 balls each week, and at the end of one year I’ll have hit nearly one million balls. He believes in math. Numbers, he says, don’t lie. A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable.
In a sport such as Tennis, it is unrealistic to perform 10,000 touches in a single day but Emmanuel “Mike” Agassi clearly had a vision for his son, and a method in which he believed would set Andre apart from every other player his age.
Here, the arbitrary goal was to hit one million balls in one year. A grand task, yet the only possibly outcome was one of excellence.
How can you use this?
The 10,000 hour rule can be daunting due to the huge time scale involved in reaching this milestone. However, by using the 10,000 ‘touches’ theory, we can scale this huge task into an attainable goal which yields quicker results.
Unknowingly, I used this method during my first few years learning how to play the guitar. I would take a specific riff or series of notes, memorise the pattern and then, whilst watching a movie, would perform this sequence of notes over and over again.
Take the opening riff to ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ as an example. I would first commit these 8 notes to memory and then watch a movie whilst continuously playing this riff. What’s the maths here?
Let’s say, 8 notes every 2 seconds.
That’s 30 riffs per minute.
30 x 8 = 240 notes per minute.
240 x 90 = 21,600 notes per movie. Give or take for the occasional mini break.
That’s a lot of notes, and broken down this means I would play this riff approximately 2,700 times.
I would use this method for anything which I found particularly tricky.
Here are some examples of how you can use this in your day to day lives;
- Writing – You could easily write 10,000 characters every day or read 10,000 words from your favourite author/writer/blogger.
- Language learning – A combination of 10,000 words worth of writing, speaking and listening every day is achievable. On average we speak 16,000 words a day so aiming for a 50/50 split of 5,000 words speaking and 5,000 words listening is a great target.
- Playing a musical instrument – Like my example above; you could learn small pieces of music and play them repeatedly whilst performing another task such as watching TV.
- In the gym – A friend of mine regularly counts the total poundage of the weights he lifts instead of the actual reps/sets as one barometer of his success. Aiming for 10,000 pounds or 10,000 kilos per workout is a great way to continually push the boundaries.
- Running – There is roughly 2000-2500 steps to a mile, so if you’re an intermediate/advanced runner, aiming for an average of 70,000 steps per week (accounting for rest days) will do wonders for your cardiovascular fitness and body fat levels. Of course, these steps can be alternated between running and walking for those who have yet to reach this standard.
I’m sure that every skill or goal can be broken down in this way so find something in which you wish to improve and work out how you can implement the 10,000 touches principle into your everyday schedule.
The key here is consistent daily practice. Yet this practice should be sufficiently challenging enough so that you make continual progress towards your goal. That’s where the 10,000 touches philosophy proves to be so powerful. It is a number that is large enough to require effort and a stretch of your comfort zone, yet is small enough to be attainable by the vast majority of those who attempt it.
Give it a try and see what happens.
How can you implement this in your every day life? Have you done something similar? Let me know in the comments below!
Image source; Clive Brunskill