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Football Skill Development

‘Talent development’ in football is a model which provides players with the appropriate learning environment to achieve excellence (Williams & Reilly, 2000). Since the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2012, the English talent development model has become more structured (Elite Player Performance Plan, 2023) and currently works in line with previous youth development models by Bloom (1985) and later elaborated Côté (1999). The aforementioned models follow three distinct development stages, which include: the sampling stage, the specialisation stage and the investment stage. Similarly, the EPPP follows three stages of development, which is constructed of the foundation phase (under-9 to under-11 years), the youth development phase (under-12 to under-16 years) and the professional development phase (under-18 to under-21 years) (Elite Player Performance Plan, 2023). Despite this clear structure, studies have shown 90 – 95% of all academy players fail to achieve professional status (Roberts et al., 2019; Roe & Parker, 2016), which has created scrutiny surrounding the development of skill acquisition, amongst other attributes (i.e., psychological), in youth football by coaches and researchers (Ford et al., 2010; Fuhre & Arve Sæther, 2020).

Currently, there are two types of practice coaches deliver to players, training form refers to repetitive drills, which is decontextualized. Whereas, playing form refers to game-related practice, which represents real situations (Bergmann et al., 2021; Ford et al., 2010; O’Connor et al., 2018). When practice takes place as training form, the repetitive nature often focuses on breaking down the underpinning skills (i.e., passing), theoretically increasing motor learning and reducing the demand on a player during a game (Ford et al., 2010). Whilst this traditional block practice has seen skill acquisition improve (Bergmann et al., 2021), it controversially does not allow the perceptual-cognitive skills to develop at an equal rate (Ford et al., 2010). Therefore, by conducting practice in playing form, players actively use the perceptual-cognitive system allowing skills like anticipation, decision making and game pattern recognition to develop (Ford et al., 2010) whilst also placing a demand on effective skill acquisition transfer (Roca & Ford, 2020). Nevertheless, given 5.4% of a players total training time is spent individually working with a ball (O’Connor, Larkin & Williams, 2017), we could argue players cannot effectively transfer skill acquisition if they have not currently attained the required skills for performance. That said, coaches should consider their practice design to include the interaction between the motor skill and perceptual-cognitive skills (Ford et al., 2010).