How Did Dennis Bergkamp Get So Very Good?

dennis-bergkamp

Robin Van Persie is in the jacuzzi. He’s finished training for the day at Arsenal and is enjoying a relaxing soak. The gym and recovery facilities at Arsenal’s training ground were designed by Arsène Wenger for maximum light. There’s lots of glass and windows. From the hot tub, Van Persie is looking out onto the training pitch and watching Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutchman is on his way back from injury, practicing with two youth team players and the fitness coach. It’s a complicated exercise involving shooting and giving and receiving passes at speed. Van Persie tells himself that he’ll get changed when Bergkamp makes a mistake. 45 minutes later, he’s still in the jacuzzi and his hands are wrinkly.

How did Dennis Bergkamp Get so Good?

“Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it. I found that so interesting! Trying it different ways, first one foot, then the other foot, looking for new things: inside of the foot, outside of the foot, laces… getting a sort of rhythm going, speeding it up, slowing it down. Sometimes I’d aim at a certain brick, or the crossbar. Left foot, right foot, making the ball spin. Again and again. It was just fun. I was enjoying it. It interested me. Maybe other people wouldn’t bother. Maybe they wouldn’t find it fascinating. But I was fascinated.”

Here Bergkamp is talking to David Winner, who he worked with on his brilliant book, Stillness and Speed. He’s recounting his childhood in Holland, where he would spend hours and hours, year after year, practicing his control by kicking the ball against the wall. This fascination with the physics of a moving ball and mastery of a human body elevated Bergkamp to become one of the game’s greats. The speed and frequency of the feedback loop you get by repeatedly kicking the ball against the wall is impossible to beat. A child can practice on their own, for hours and hours of deep, uninterrupted learning, or ‘Flow’. This can result in a child acquiring a technical proficiency that’s impossible to coach.

“I have always said Dennis Bergkamp will remain the best partner I have ever had. He is a dream for a striker.” ~ Thierry Henry, via bergkamp10.net

What is Technique?

Johan Cruyff has made the point that technique is not being able to juggle the ball 100 times. Rather, technique is “passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your team mate”. It’s hard to disagree with this because ultimately control has to be expressed in the context of a game and under pressure. When Bergkamp began to play more competitively, he was able to cope comfortably with pressure from opponents due to his superior control. His technique was so high, he was able to adjust to any given situation in the best way. It’s the sort of deliberate practice that leads to moments like this:

When I was reading this Stillness and Speed, I remembered that I’d heard something very similar somewhere else. I looked in my notes and found it. Turns out there’s another player who enjoyed being on his own, kicking a ball against a wall: Lionel Messi.

“Ball against the wall, and again, and again … they used to say to him: ‘we love this wall, we look after it, we paint it, we try to avoid getting it dirty, you know? Calm down, you will be playing soon, take a breather’, and him: bang, bang, bang. Another coach said to me, ‘there’s no way of stopping this boy, he spends all day playing and he wants to play when the sun has gone down. And with no lights. When everybody is asleep.” ~ Adrián Coria

I’m giving away 14 free copies of Soccer Soccer Superpowers Volume II when it’s done. If you want to claim one, just click here.

 

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