2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: England – Nature vs. Nurture


Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at England, World Cup champions in 1966 and the country that is credited for developing rules of the game and spreading it around much of the world 120 years ago.  The English have drawn a tough group that includes Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, and they play their first match against Italy on June 14th.

In the last few decades the English National team has had a history of entering major tournaments with high expectations and then failing to produce results.  Since their World Cup victory in 1966, their next best showing was a semi-final appearance in Italy in 1990, and they even failed to qualify for the World Cup in USA in 1994.  England’s lack of results at the highest level is somewhat confusing, considering they have a long history and experience in the game, and also that they boast the world’s richest and most talent-laden professional league, the Barclay’s Premier League.  The “Nature vs. Nurture” debate, in this context, could take one of two different viewpoints to explain England’s lack of success internationally:

  1. That English players are naturally less gifted technically and tactically (their are not succeeding because of their “nature”); or
  2. That English players have different cultural values, which translate into different training habits and methodology, than players from other countries (they are not succeeding because of “nurture”)

In his 2007 book titled “The Italian Job: A Journey to the Heart of Two Great Footballing Cultures“, Gianluca Vialli compares the soccer cultures of his native Italy (where he grew up and began his professional career) and England (where he came to play for Premier League power Chelsea in his late 20’s and eventually became a Player/Manager at the club).  Among the themes examined in his book is the “Nature vs. Nurture” aspect of English and Italian soccer.  Vialli has a unique foreigner’s perspective of the English soccer culture, having experienced it both as a player, and coach.  He thinks that one of the reasons for England’s lack of international success are the values their English coaches instill into young players from a very early age, which also affect their physical development (the “nurture” viewpoint).  Here is an excerpt from Chapter 2 (‘Early Pre-Selection’) of his book:

“The realization that someone isn’t good enough only occurs once he enters ‘organized football.’  Before that, most kids dream of becoming a professional.  Reality sets in when adults enter the equation.  And that’s where everything changes.  It is also where Italy and England split.  In Italy, youth coaching is about turning kids into the best possible footballers.  In England, it’s about using sport to understand values such as teamwork and sportsmanship.  And it’s about having fun.”  

This difference in values also translates directly into the physical abilities that players develop.  Later in the same chapter, Vialli interviews Tony Colbert, then the Fitness Coach for top Premier League club Arsenal.  Here is what Colbert had to say about physical differences between English and Italian players:

“In general terms there are no genetic differences between English and Italian players.   However, there are athletic differences, due to the type of work done at an early age, I’d say starting at about eight.  First of all, English players tend to be somewhat less coordinated than foreign players.  It’s something we notice right away in the exercise we do.  Foreign players tend to be more supple, more agile.  Having said that, English players have more endurance.  They can run for ninety minutes, always at the same speed.  They may lack the explosive acceleration to get to the ball first, but they maintain their pace throughout the game.  Foreign players, on the other hand, are more used to accelerations and pauses.  Their endurance is not as good but their quick burst of pace is better.  I think this is a function of the work they do as kids.  In England, traditionally, we always trained with the ball and often in scrimmages, 8 vs. 8 or 5-a-side.  In that context, you’re always running, always moving.  In Italy, you do more specific work, stopping and starting, plus work aimed at improving the technical base of each player.”

Several other prominent coaches and players interviewed for The Italian Job echoed the sentiments expressed by Colbert, however, the book was published almost 8 years ago.  With recent advances in coach education and training in England, the addition of some foreign coaches, as well as domestic and foreign sports scientists and fitness coaches, things are changing in the country.  Players are developing physically, technically, and tactically, closer to the standards set by their European and South American counterparts, and the result could be more success for the English National team.  Could England perform above expectations this year, and reach their first World Cup final since 1966?  We will have to wait and see what happens in 2 months’ time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.


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