In sport we talk a lot about instinct, namely an innate natural aptitude that produces a hardwired excellence that others cannot mimic. Instinct is part physical, the ability to perform an action, and part mental, knowing where and when to best perform the action. Instinct, by its nature, is inherent within us or not.
It does exist, of course; there are talent freaks. Robbie Fowler is perhaps the best Premier League example of a young player who seemed to arrive almost fully-formed into Liverpool’s first team. Fowler’s finishing looked so easy, from every conceivable angle or shot type, even as a teenager.
But in general we overestimate instinct. Is England’s record goalscorer Harry Kane a natural-born finisher, for example? Far more common in elite sportspeople is what we might term “learned instinct”, where natural talent meets hard work to create the illusion of innateness. And so to the famous Arnold Palmer quote: “The harder I practise, the luckier I get”.
Scott Chickelday is an individual striker coach, who works with forwards from elite level to non-league, including England internationals and Premier League stars. He sees instinct not as an all or nothing, but a spectrum.
“Some players have to work harder than others, but then that is the same in all walks of life,” Chickelday tells i.
“In schools, there are some students who are naturally brighter and others who have to work harder to get their grades. And even within those individuals, they may have some subjects that come easier than others. It’s the same with football – some players have more natural ability than others and at every level every player will have their own strengths and weaknesses.”
“But there is also sometimes a misdiagnosis with instinct. I work with a player who scored a lovely goal a few weeks ago, and we had repeated that type of chance so often recently. I spoke to him and he said that he said that he executed the finish without even thinking about it because it felt instinctive. Now before, he might have been thinking about how he was planting his foot, how hard he should try to strike the ball, his body shape.” To the player, it felt instinctive. But this is not pure instinct. This is our learned instinct.
If we agree that strikers are like students, we must also agree that finishing can be improved. This is not usually a question of raw talent. Every elite striker is capable of outrageous skill, power and technique (or, to rephrase the point: Simon Cox scored the greatest goal I have ever seen and he only ever scored one Premier League goal).
The ceiling of professional footballers at every level is higher than the layperson can even conceive. The difference between them is not the ability to perform a particular action, but to perform it consistently and under pressure, and that you can practise. Kane is the perfect example, with his monastic commitment to shot-taking in training. That is why the France penalty stung him so much: “It hurt because it is an action I have practised thousands of times”.
“The key is consistency and that comes through repetition,” Chickelday explains. “All of the strikers that I work with, at all levels from the Premier League down, come to me for repetition. If I already work with them, we might go through a few of their matchday moments, both good and bad. If it’s a new player, I will have studied them and clipped up some blocked shots, missed shots, saved shots and goals.
“We will pick about five of each, discuss them and then build sessions and drills around them. It’s not just about the misses, remember. If a striker is scoring a certain type of goal or shot, we want to maximise it so they increase their efficiency.
“Each session will be between 60 and 80 minutes long, and in that time a player may have between 400 and 500 shots. So if you do that once a week, you’re probably having almost 20,000 extra practice shots over a season. And I believe that works – good habits become natural habits.”
Those habits are, again, part physical and part mental. The physical action becomes second nature through muscle memory, but just as important is that players believe that it is working. Whether or not a particular training drill has any meaningful impact on performance is clearly important, but just as crucial is that a player believes it is making a difference. Either a session goes well and confidence is brimming, or it goes less well and they are re-energised to perfect it next time.
For strikers, confidence is everything because perfection is impossible. You will miss chances. You will go through spells where you miss more chances than normal and those spells will increase the pressure from your teammates, manager, supporters, media and, most importantly, yourself.
Chickelday himself names Kane as an example of a player who has an unerring ability to put missed chances out of his mind; he believes that is one of the greatest weapons in goalscoring prolificacy.
“We call it ‘resetting’ and we work on how quickly we can reset mentally after a missed chance,” he says. “When a striker misses a chance, it has to have gone. There is nothing that is going to let you get that chance back, so you must reset your mind and go in search of that next opportunity.
“That is often the hardest part of the game for strikers, particularly if they have missed a good chance in a tight match. You have to work on techniques that allow you to push it away and be totally prepared to make the best of the next one.”
When I ask for the most important asset of an in-form striker, he smiles and says that “finishing isn’t just finishing”. Speak to all of the best strikers, and they will discuss the importance of their movement.
When still at Tottenham in 1989, Gary Lineker was asked how he was always in the right place at the right time. His reply: “Be in the right place all of the time”. The better your movement, the better your chances and the more of them you get.
“It’s never just the final shot but the touch and the movement that gets you there,” Chickelday says. Spatial awareness is the most important part of forward play, because if you get that right, every time you receive the ball you will have a little more time, and time means a greater opportunity to execute a finish.
“We work on spatial awareness, identifying space and delaying movement. When you have low confidence, that spatial awareness can drop because you go to extremes – either too desperate or deflated. That comes back to the resetting and the resetting comes back to the confidence in your repetition. It’s all linked.”
We are talking about marginal improvement here. No coach is promising that pure repetition can transform a career and promote a player through the leagues or get them their dream move. But at every level, players are looking to get the edge.
Goals are the most precious currency in organised sport; they would be foolish not to. The stakes, pressure, impatience, money – it all keeps increasing. You can see why strikers at every level might employ someone to try and make them even only a fraction better or more efficient.
“It’s the smaller details that make the big difference,” Chickelday says. “A goal is everything, it can be the ultimate difference-maker. The strikers who can cope with that pressure are the ones that will get the moves they want. I always say to the forwards I work with in lower leagues: ‘If you get your numbers up, that’s potentially a move’. Every club you speak to is looking for a goalscorer. They always will be.”