‘You create your own luck, in a way’. About Norwegian footballers’ understanding of success, in a world where most fail | A summary

Pål Augestad, Mats Bruu & Frode Telseth
Department of Physical Education and Outdoor Studies,
University of South-Eastern Norway

It’s like I said, for every player who makes the grade, there are three who don’t – of the good players, that is. If you take four equally good players and there is one who makes his way through the ranks, the other three don’t make it, and they might possibly have been better than the one who did. (Lars)

Most young, hopeful talents are never offered a professional contract. And it might be difficult to relinquish a dream a player has tried to realize through thousands of hours of training and scores of player conversations, and that has been the focal point of a strong social community for several years.

When trying to explain performative development and success, the players and the coaches we interviewed highlight the trifold interaction between training, will, and understanding what is required. Such an explanatory model resembles what Ericsson et al. call deliberate practice. According to Halldorsen, such practice ‘focuses on the systematic improvement of performance, emphasizes repetition, provides clear feedback and mental challenges, and is generally not enjoyable’. Deliberate practice presupposes that the athlete is motivated to train diligently and at length. Both the players’ and the coaches’ interpretation of talent development and the theory of deliberate practice identify targeted training, strong resolve, and mental work as keys to success.

Deliberate practice and the development of performance have a few sociocultural preconditions. We must ask what it is that makes the young talents put up with all the training, experience the toil and hard work as meaningful, and gain an understanding of what is required for making progress. What is it that creates determination, understanding, and training zeal? In their accounts, the players highlight the environment as an important factor in order to explain their development and their continued belief in turning pro. The players underscore certain characteristics of this environment we recognize from Henriksen and Stambulova’s model of successful talent development environments: proximal role models, supportive training groups, a cooperation between the school and the club, and training that allows individual differentiation and a focus on long-term development. These are characteristics of the performance environment that also the coaches claim must be in place in order for the players to succeed.

In the interviews it emerged that the players were convinced that the force of their efforts would overcome all external obstacles, and that their slog and toil would finally pay off with a signed professional contract. Sports in general, and football in particular, continue the elements of what is referred to as the American Dream, or what is encapsulated by the proverb ‘everyone is the smith of his own fortune’. According to this maxim, those who are determined, work hard, and make the right choices will succeed in the end. And society loves stories about women and men who became sports stars and multi-millionaires against all odds. The notions of institutionalized talent development and the coach as a role model is formed on the basis of an understanding that it is effort, will, and smartness that determines who will ultimately succeed. This is a socially acceptable explanation of success, even as it provides room for action for the coaches and a rationale for talent development.

The reality, by contrast, is that most of the hard-working talents never realize their dream of turning pro. Regardless of whether they all train diligently, are focused in their work, and embody a strong identity as a promising footballer, this cannot eradicate the structural uncertainty that the players find themselves in. In his famous book chapter ‘Social Structure and Anomie’, Robert K. Merton describes the social and psychological effects of a strong emphasis on success in a system where most of the actors are more or less doomed to fail. In such a situation, many of those involved – both those who succeed and those who fail – will look to what Merton called ‘mysticism’ for an explanation, that is, ‘the workings of Fortune, Chance, Luck’. People who succeed in such a social situation may claim that they were ‘lucky rather than altogether deserving’ of their success, while for those who fail, despite all their commitment and effort, ‘the doctrine of luck serves the psychological function of enabling them to preserve their self-esteem in the face of failure’. The young football talents have long had their dream of turning pro as their goal – and family, coaches, and friends have cheered them on. It is as though the red carpet has been rolled out in front of their eyes, but just as the player is about to walk through the doorway and enter the life of a professional footballer, the carpet is whisked away and the door is slammed shut. And what caused the door to be shut was not a lack of talent but a wind of unfortunate circumstances.

The concepts ‘deliberate practice’ and ‘successful talent development environments’ refer to circumstances that everyone in theory can factor in and seek to develop. The concepts provide directions for how the clubs can organize their talent development programmes, for how the coaches should work, and for which factors the players must consider in order to realize their dream of turning pro. But such concepts do nothing about the competitive situation itself, namely the fact that although many feel the calling, only a few end up being selected. In other words, recipes for success – instruments that specify how everyone can manufacture their own success – have been created, but these recipes do not relate to the structural situation the players find themselves in. In order to tackle the uncertainty, the players seek recourse to notions of luck. And Lady Luck may provide hope in an unsure situation, and solace to all those who fail.

Copyright © Pål Augestad, Mats Bruu & Frode Telseth 2021

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