Westfield Soccer Association

Rethink talent identification

Weekly email 5/5/2016


In prior emails I’ve already discussed that it is very hard to identify the most talented players at a very young age. Talent quite often is confused with early development, with the result that the physically more mature players are considered the best players by many. These players might help someone be successful, aka win games, but to think that the best players at U9 will all be the best players at U15, U16 or U17 is obviously a bit odd. Children develop at a different pace and is very common that some peak a lot earlier than others. Finding those really talented players, who might not be your best players currently, is not very easy. There is a big difference between talent recruitment, finding the best or most mature players currently, or identifying the most talented players. It is possible to identify those players who will be the best players once all players are fully grown?


Please note that this is a topic discussed worldwide. It is not easy to assess players, because child development is not a linear process. It has its up’s and downs, but to assume that the best 7 and 8 year olds currently will all be the best players by the time they are adults is ridiculous. This is not only an issue in the US, but an issue worldwide. I recently read an article addressing the same issue in the Netherlands. The scouts of all the youth development programs in the Netherlands are identifying the best 7 or 8-year-old players to bring them into their system. Since soccer is an open skills sport it is impossible to determine how players will develop before they really hit puberty. Btw, this means that many of the skills needed to be successful (vision, technique, decision making, speed, strength, mental strength, etc.) constantly have to adjust to the ever changing environment. Some other sports, like gymnastics, are considered to be closed skills sports as there is far less change in the environment of these kind of sports.


To proof that it is a bit strange that the best 7 and 8 year olds will become the best players by the time they turn 18, below a few interesting stories:


·         At PSV, 1 of the stronger professional teams in the Dutch Eredivisie, only 1 player who was brought in at the age of 8, has made the first team in the last 10 years. In 99% of the cases the scouts didn’t identify the most talented players.

·         Research in Australia among 256 professional athletes shows that only 7% of these athletes were indeed the best players growing up. 84% of them weren’t identified as top talents at a young age or didn’t even play for the best team every year while growing up.


I can give you a few more examples, but I’m sure everyone gets the point. In some countries and sports they have taken this information to rethink the way they identify talent. In 2000 the Swedish hockey federation recognized they had to rethink the way they ran their youth programs because they were struggling at the highest level of hockey. Among a few other changes, they decided not to scout the best players till they were 16 years old. By that age it becomes a lot easier to work out which players really have the potential to do well at the highest level. Identifying “talent” at a young age, also means you are excluding other players who might have potential, but are never given the opportunity to show it. Due to these changes, and a few others as well, 1% of all hockey players in Sweden becomes a professional hockey player. This percentage is 10 times higher than the success rate of a hockey mad country like Canada. Close to 10% of the professional players in the NHL is from Sweden nowadays (I don’t follow hockey closely, but that is obviously an amazing statistic).


I do not want the email to become too long winded, but I’m sure the point of the email is clear. The academy set up used this year is giving all players a fair chance to be assessed accordingly. No system is perfect, but some of the facts shared with you earlier in this email do proof that we have to be careful when stating that 7, 8 or year 9 old players are A, premier or elite. There are plenty of people, organizations or clubs that thrive by selecting “the best players”. This is, however, mostly about selecting the players to win now, rather than to help talent development.  It is important to give everyone an opportunity to grow and develop.




Ruben Vloedgraven

Director of Coaching - Westfield Soccer Association