Watch and learn: The real secret to becoming a master

You can observe a lot just by watching,” the quote machine that is Yoggi Berra offered and reading a book on and with Dennis Bergkamp in recent days, we’re guessing the Dutchman would agree.

Watch and learn: The real secret to becoming a master

His touch was many things — soft, elegant, masterful, simply the best football has ever known, according to the book itself — but not a gift.

Instead it was something Bergkamp developed during his Amsterdam childhood. Though he’d later play for Arsenal, he was once a big fan of Spurs — or at least of Glenn Hoddle and his capacity to kill a ball in the air.

Every day Bergkamp would kick a ball against a wall for hours, yet for all the repetition involved, there was huge variety too. Controlling it with one foot, then the other; inside of the foot, outside of the foot; making the ball spin; letting it bounce once, then twice. Then game, the wall, was full of possibilities as was the local playground where he’d emulate and add his own variations to moves like a chipped goal of Hoddle’s.

“I got a lot of pleasure out of those shots,” says Bergkamp in Stillness and Speed. “It’s fun but it’s also effective. I got upset when people complained about me only doing it ‘the nice way’. I said, ‘No, it’s the BEST way. There’s a lot of space above the goalkeeper.’”

Bergkamp played a lot of sports, another endorsement that kids should play multiple sports before specialising in one, and he was good at most of them too. How?

“He saw everything down to the smallest detail,” one of his brothers contends. “He plays golf but he’s never had lessons. It was the same with tennis and snooker.” He’d watch and watch and then do it himself.

It’s something the writer Daniel Coyle has noted about the best performers in virtually every field. They study and steal from the best to become the best — while making it distinctly their own too.

The Beatles stole the high ‘woo!’ in ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Twist and Shout’ from Little Richard. Steal without apology, Coyle implores in The Little Book of Talent, by staring at what you want to become.

“I’m not talking about passively watching,” writes Coyle. “I’m talking about staring — the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats.”

Bill Russell is considered the greatest winner in the history of American team sport, winning nine NBA championships with the Boston Celtics. Yet when he was in junior high school he couldn’t make their basketball team. His breakthrough came the summer before his final year in high school.

“Something happened that chilled my spine. I was sitting on the bench, watching Treu and McKelvey the way I always did. Every time one of them made one of the moves I liked, I’d close my eyes just afterward and try to see the play in my mind... Usually, I’d catch only part of a particular move the first time I tried this; I’d miss the headwork or the way the ball was carried or maybe the sequence of steps. But the next time I saw the move I’d catch a little more of it, so soon I could call up a complete picture.

“On this particular night when I went in the game, I grabbed an offensive rebound and put it in the basket just the way McKelvey did. It seemed natural, almost as if I were just stepping into a film and following the signs. When the imitation worked and the ball went in, I could barely contain myself. I was so elated I thought I’d float right out of the gym.”

In football, Kerry have routinely produced the most “natural” forwards because nowhere else do they study and stare and practise as much. Take one field in Caherciveen and four generations. As a kid Jack O’Shea would act as a ballboy for Mick O’Dwyer and Mick O’Connell. Then Maurice Fitzgerald became Jacko’s ballboy. Later another local kid called Bryan Sheehan would study and emulate and possibly even surpass Fitzgerald’s freetaking prowess.

Colm Cooper was another student and fan of Maurice’s — and Dr Crokes Pat O’Shea with his basketball-like movement. Most forwards on the Kerry team of the noughties all had a video of Kerry: The Golden Years at home which is why the county had more golden years long after Mikey and Egan and Spillane had hung up the boots.

The Dutch are similar. Bergkamp was the youngest of four boys, validating Coyle’s thesis that the youngest tend to be best because they’ve watched their older siblings perform, seen what works and what doesn’t. Others would then learn from him. Last year Robin van Persie spoke about how much he studied and learned from Bergkamp. One time Van Persie was having a bath upstairs overlooking the training ground when he saw Bergkamp doing a passing and shooting exercise with a fitness coach, three youth-team players and some mannequins. He waited for Bergkamp to make a mistake. Forty-five minutes later he was still waiting, his hands wrinkly from the bath. “He completed everything to its max — perfect passes, perfect first touch and immediate passes back. From that moment on, I did every drill 100%. I wanted to be like Bergkamp.”

The value of Van Persie and brilliance of Bergkamp has been underlined even more in recent months. As has Berra’s wisdom. You can observe a lot just by watching.

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