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"Primum non nocere" (first, do no harm) --Hippocratic Oath

Youth sport is broken. Too many resources thrown at a system that too often leaves kids with shattered dreams, underdeveloped skills, and perhaps a difficult break up with the sport they once loved.

At the heart of that system is our player development pathway -- from the fruit snacks and fun of kids being first introduced to soccer all the way to the world beaters at the International level. What is our plan and path?

If a ten year old boy or girl dreams of playing in the World Cup, then shouldn't we put together the best education we can think of? I think it's our first duty. But the reality is that the system does not work--player development is about as understood as string theory, with opinions and methods going in all directions. So let's dig deep to see what is happening and if we can do anything about it.

Let's begin where most clubs do--Player Identification and it most common from: the tryout (we will use the word "Tryout" to cover all aspects of player evaluation and ID --in it's many forms where kids are seperated by supposed "Levels").

If you believe players are special you go looking for them. Search the favelas of Brazil, the street courts of Amsterdam and Paris, and here in the US you hold tryouts.

Tryouts exist because it is widely believed that the first step to Player Development is to gather talented kids. It's part of an assumption (that goes unchallenged). Their math looks something like this:

The best kids


The best coaches


The best competition


Best Development

(Along the way you will see that this math is incorrect, but for now understand that this has been the working assumption for almost every organization around the world).

But as you will see our efforts to gather the "best" kids is severely flawed--and the end Tryouts deliver a diabolical side effect: to actually eliminate those chosen early only to serve success to those that develop later.

Numbers game

"All the world, even football, is a number."

--Valery Lobanovski (Coach of USSR 1988).

The secret may lie in the numbers. And what the numbers tell us is it is very difficult to ID the "BEST kids.

But, of course they have to try. It goes something like this. When a tryout is held, those selecting are looking at thing they can see, a dribble, a goal. That's what we want.

The issue begins when we project. If a player is ahead at age eight (See Harry Kane's difficult journey) then following the same trajectory they will be superstars at age 19.

In Player projections they are less sure so they beg to prove they are looking for something deeper, "Great vision," "Smart," "High soccer IQ." But go ahead and ask them to define in concrete terms what it means to have a "High Soccer IQ."

If there is a 'best kid' --in terms of a developmental tryout--no one really knows who they are--and, here is where it gets crazy--When coaches pick kids teams through the tryout system--it is not that they are mostly correct--they are mostly wrong. And in the end it is the kids they do not select that will rise to the elite level.

I am going to say that again. When selecting kids the tryout system is not mostly correct--it is mostly wrong--and the numbers show it.

This is not a subjective opinion--it is a hard fact---something we have been afraid to acknowledge, instead, when development falls short clubs and leaders take the easy way out, saying things like: "Oh well, only one percent of kids go pro, not everyone can be an elite soccer player." Imagine if Harvard or MIT said --"well not everyone can be brain surgeon or a rocket scientist." How long do you think they would last with such a low bar of expectation?

FACT 1 -- the Tryout is not fair

Any youth team that has gone through a few years of tryouts will show signs of something called Relative Age Effect (RAE). RAE is basically a bias of selecting the oldest kids in an age grouping while deselecting the youngest so that the the older kids are over represented while the youngest kids are underrepresented. A player born in early January is almost a full year older than one born in late December.

During the teens, even a few months' more or less physical, mental and emotional development and technical training can make a huge difference on a player's perceived quality. The resulting rosters will show heavy emphasis on the early part of the year--with a majority born in the first two quadrants of the year.

This is way bigger than just soccer, it has been seen in all sports and even in the classroom where early birthdate quadrants show better grades. Worse, kids born in the later parts of there year have shown higher rates of ADHD and obesity.

Why is this so important? Coaching and selection have been subjective opinion based systems that for so long that coaches have passed off as fact. It not only shows that they are wrong, but It gives us a glimpse into what those coaches are thinking. And most importantly, it reveals that their selections at early ages are being used to hold a place for others who will take their place later.

But, if you take hard honest look--it also shows us some important cues how to develop the next great player. And it's all in the numbers.

Fact 2--it follows a common pattern

Any "select" team will have a breakdown (by rule of thumb) by quadrant of 40-20-20-10 (Forty percent born in the first 3 months of the cut off Jan, Feb, Mar] and 10 percent in the last quadrant [Oct., Nov., Dec.])

  • 40 percent --Jan, Feb, Mar (Q1)

  • 30 percent --Apr, May, Jun (Q2)

  • 20 percent--Jul, Aug, Sep (Q3)

  • 10 percent--Oct, Nov, Dec (Q4)

Don't believe me? look at your premier roster (not as heavy on the girls side....yet). Years of tryouts will have secured this phenomenon. Your coaches are making the same mistakes as everyone else. It is everywhere, from US youth to Barcelona academy. to your local travel team. Barcelona have 20 players born 2000. 17 born in first 6 months of the year 13 of whom born jan to march.

Fact 3--The higher the level of the Youth team/Tryout the more prevalent RAE

In other words the more you try to create the very best team of young soccer players (or any sport) the more biased (Or you could say inaccurate) your choosing.

Here in Minnesota we just had a new MLS academy come to town. Of course they had a huge selection of currently talented kids to choose from. It is a good example of a large sample size, the stakes involved, and the inevitable resulting RAE.

Here is their selection of the U13 and U14 MNUFC academies:

As you can see the kids selected were over represented in the first part of the year. But what is going on with the Q3 uptick? The double dip increase of Quadrant 3 representatives are simply remnants from the old RAE with the August birth cut off. (The birth cutoff was changed last year). When you mix recent cut offs you will find this phenomenon.

For instance, here is is the MNUFC Academy as compared to a Nation-wide U16 Academy representatives when the academy and US youth soccer had the two different cutoffs. See the similarities?

Wierd, double dip is similar in both. This was caused by the dual birth cutoffs (Jan and Aug). Eventually the August, September kids will slide away and be unselected as the quota moves from 27 percent to the average of 20% --tough to be born in August, September.

It's not the oldest kids--it is the most mature

All kids develop at different rates. It is always possible to have and early mature child born in december and a late maturing child born 12 months earlier in January. It's not about who is older, it's about who is more mature and the need to have those kids on your team.

Therefore, the kids born in December and November on your local elite team are likely not there because they are extra "talented" more than likely they are there because they matured early.

We confuse maturity with talent. And we confuse talent because we don't know what it is.

Fact 4--Where there are no tryouts--or no concerned about winning the RAE is gone.

For instance, using MNUFC as another local example. There is little or no RAE in their Pre Academy (U11/U12) . (They have since taken down their Pre Academy roster, but the breakdown is without RAE.)

So why is this? It is because of the nature of the team selected. They do not play a schedule, so no worry about selecting with a concern about winning. But next year as they trim from 40 to 20 and new kids come in to the tryout then there is no question, there will be RAE.

Here is the percentage breakdown of the full time kids at our club, Joy of the People. We do not hold tryouts.

JOTP RIce and Beans Percentages:

24 percent --Jan, Feb, Mar (Q1)

26 percent --Apr, May, Jun (Q2)

23 percent--Jul, Aug, Sep (Q3)

27 percent--Oct, Nov, Dec (Q4)

As you can see the breakdown is fairly even and without RAE.

Fact 5--It's not about your birthdate, it's about winning

The more advanced RAE the most likely they are to win. A German study found that records matched the appearance of Relative age effect: where it was more pronounced those teams won more game than teams with the least RAE who won less. Even if the coaches tell you otherwise, do not believe the mantra because they are lying to themselves and you.

Fact 6--Coaches are confused about "talent"

"These are not the drones you're looking for" -- Obi-Wan Kenobi

Why does this happen? Coaches in evaluating players tend to look at the wrong things. Coaches are looking at the physical execution of a task and assuming it is the most important thing. But, as Denis Berkamp so elegantly said, "before every action is a thought." The decision is more important than the execution, and perhaps the perception is more important than both.

So coaches are trying to select players based on soccer IQ, right?

You would be surprised how many coaches struggle with this. However they term it "Soccer IQ," "Soccer brain," "soccer intelligence," "creativity," so much vernacular is thrown around by soccer coaches

"The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Their blustery assurance on what makes a good soccer player or what soccer IQ is, really gives it away.

They have no idea. Now while this is concerning, the good news is that it is not isolated to your local elite club, coaches around the world struggle with this. Hold a gun to their head (don't actually) and they will tell you that when they pick one player over another, it is on "gut" feel.

I was at a US Club class "La Liga Methodology," hosted by US Club and the Spanish federation. 100 top level coaches were listening with everything they had--4 days of theory and practice, the presenters were excellent, knowledgeable, fantastic communicators. During one of the classroom sessions one of the Spanish coaches let something slip.

"American players," he said, "are stupid."

Then one brave coach raised his hand. "What is stupid."

"Not smart." said the Spaniard.

"What is smart?"

'Making the right play at the right moment."

"What is the right moment?"

And the back and forth went on and on until...

"You will know it when you see it." said the Spanish coach. At which point the crowd, perhaps seeing the irony within that statement, broke out in laughter.

This reminded me of another Cruuyf quote "If I wanted you to understand it I would have explained it better."

What Cruyff was trying to get across to journalists was that some real knowledge is unconscious, unreteivable until the moment you need it. Really 'gut' instinct.

Here were these top, top level Spanish coaches who now did not look to smart themselves. But you would be surprised how many coaches struggle with this. the terms "Soccer IQ," "Soccer brain," "another level of soccer intelligence," "creativity," it really doesn't matter, coaches rely on gut instinct, feel, and subjective references, the Spanish coaches, I am sure, know it when they see it. They just don't really know what 'IT' is.

As I watched the field session a lightbulb went off. Everything the coaches were trying to show was how to accomplish the task easier.

Skill as defined so lyrically in the Brazilian soccer nomenclature--is the ability to perform a task successfully in the least amount of time (as fast as possible) with the least amount of effort (easy as possible).

Meanwhile the evolutionary theorist, Leslie Orgel's first rule states "Whenever a spontaneous process is too slow or too inefficient a protein will evolve to speed it up or make it more efficient."

What this means is that 'improving' is measurable based on two resources, time and energy. In sport it would be a successful action completed in less time or with less energy, or more likely, some combination of both. As fast as possible, as easy as possible.

So a player can improve the speed of his actions and/or by completing the action easier with less energy used.

Do that often enough and that player could be considered "talented."

Easy as possible or fast as possible?

"The object is not to run as much as possible--it's to run as little as possible" . --Johann Cruyff

We can see the execution of a fast run with the ball, a hard curving shot, an explosive dribble, but can they see the thought (or lack of) behind it? I would argue that if there is evidence of Relative age effect--well, then no, we can't tell the difference.

It is sometimes easy to see as fast as possible --thus is greatly affected by physical maturity--while it is difficult if not impossible to measure easy as possible.

In other words, It is hard to see easy.

Another way to look at it...

The car or the driver?

Ayrton Senna is arguably the greatest race car driver to ever walk this planet –- and neighboring planets too — but when it rained it was game over.

In formula one racing drivers have faster cars and slower cars. When the track is dry the driver with the fastest car wins. When it rains the cars must go slower and the best driver wins. Senna never lost in the rain.

Rain is the great equalizer. It makes the car less important and the driver more important. It provides a driver an opportunity to overcome mechanical deficits. The emphasis is set on feel, awareness and adaption. This is where Senna shined.

When we select early we are more focussed on the car (speed, braking, the ability to turn). Then with a whole team of fast cars and average drivers we set up the schedule with dry tracks--competitions that emphasize speed.

If we thought the driver was important and set up to develop the driver we would push for more equal set ups (like a wet track).

And Equalization is important. Dr. Marianne Torbert identifies Equalization (along with expansion and interactive challenges) as one of three interrelated concepts that when applied to play activities enhance and increase the growth and development of children.

The game says we should focus long term on the driver (communication, decision making). The desire to win shifts that focus to the fast car and dry tracks (physical output).

We under develop the driver by assuring the dry track for our young kids.

Let's go further.

"Speed is overcompensation for lack of ability" -- Raymond Verheijen

Q1-(Jan., Feb., Mar.) does not represent Jan., Feb., Mar birthdates, it's about Physical maturity.

Raymond Verheijen's Action Model can provide some clarity here. Instead of breaking down players abilities to the traditional pillars of Technical., Tactical, Physical, Pyschological, he uses his objective model to try to see through the subjective opinions of 'talent' and instead focus on the actions of the players.

"I need players who can make plays--get a goal or a cross when need. I don't need another two touch player." --Tab Ramos

A Football Action comprises of three sequential stages: Communication (perception), Decision Making, and Decision Execution (technique). The "physical fitness." of the player is the support structure of the above three parts of the action. The "physical " attributes are the least important.

Looking at soccer this way helps makes sense of the confusion over talent. Talent is not technical, or fast players, but super communicators, social geniuses, kids who think, see and move and make plays. (BTW--"Communication" is not a bunch of shouting, it is non verbal, quiet and fast).

Overload vs Underload

If Verheijen is correct and communication is going on then what is the medium? The answer is the lightening fast non verbal communication of the game, where the ball is, what the player with it is doing, etc. --so then what is the language? Movements, intentions, hidden intrusion, game theory. A language of negotiation, truth and deception

Of course this model does not make it easy. Kids will still make plays and actions. It is not easy to dicern whether the successful action was a physical overcompensation or a genius piece of innovative decision making. But it does show us to be careful.

Fact 7 --Does Zagreb owe me money? Placeholder Theory

All this confusion about talent leads us to a scary compensation method. In highly complex sports such as soccer, the early maturers tend to solve problems with their physical advantage. Because they are encouraged to devote resources to maximizing physical output, they tend to lag behind in cognitive decision making. And by the time they reach 19 and the game is more complex, they just spent 10 years working on the wrong things and run out of ideas

Early academy entry, that is joining an Academy before Peak height Velocity (age 15 to 16), is more associated with dashed hopes than fulfillment. The academies around the world have a poor record of producing young talent all the way through their system. Because if their system was so strong, why would they ever cut a kid?

Is the purpose of the tryout to develop? Or is it to form a team to hold a place?

A few summers ago we brought in the youth academy coaches from GNK Dinamo Zagreb Academy of Croatia, in 2013 they were named a top 6 academy in the 2013 ECA report. You can read that report here.I met their Director, Romeo Jozak at the Indianapolis convention, and he proposed bringing in some academy coaches for a week in the summer working with kids during the day and coach education in the evening.

It was a a enlightening week. You can read my earlier blog here,

  • Academy forms at the age of 6/7

  • Single age groups U7 to U19

  • Systematic training set up and plan throuout

  • Their U8 teams go around the country and mostly dominate

  • Each year they bring in new kids replacing those previously in the academy

  • They attract other kids who take their place making a stronger team

  • Repeat each year

My takeaway was the purpose of the academy is to create a placeholder--a dominant team--to attract kids to join later, and it is those late adopters, the ones who join after the age of 15 that eventually make it.

Early adopters are just there to attract and hold a place for the kids that will eventually take their place.


When asked about this the Dyanmo coaches simply revert. "That's because players are born, not made."

Placeholder process

  1. Relative age effect exists because clubs want to develop kids through successful teams made up of "best kids."

  2. This creates a tryout selection of older/more mature players that win mostly using physical advantage.

  3. They create a team that dominates the landscape. Either culturally or on the record books--they are seen as the team/academy to be on.

  4. Each year they add a few new kids and release some placeholder kids that have been with them for a few years.

  5. The kids they add after the age of 15/16 will end up as their top players

So we have a top 6 academy in the World with beautifully structured academy from the age of 6 on. You would think that spending time in the academy all those years would give you an advantage. But only one of their top ten transfers joined the academy before the age of 15. If the academy really did work the make up of the top ten transfers would be full of kids in the academy since they were eight.

TOP 10 Biggest Transfers in Dinamo Zagreb’s History:

1. Marko Pjaca – Juventus 2016 – €23 milion. Age 19 (Q2)

2. Luka Modrić – Tottenham 2009 – €21 milion. Age 16 (Q3)

3. Eduardo da Silva – Arsenal 2008 – €13.5 million. Age 16 (Q4)

4. Vedran Ćorluka – Manchester City 2008 – €13 million. Age 17 (Q1)

5. Mateo Kovačić – Inter 2011 – €11 million. Age 16 (Q2

6. Josip Brekalo – Wolfsburg 2016 – €10 million. (Q2) Age 18

7. Dejan Lovren – Lyon 2010 – €8 million Age 15 (Q3)

8. Jozo Šimunović – Celtic 2015 – €8 million. (Q3) Age 12

9. Boško Balaban – Aston Villa 2001 – €7.8 million. Q4 Age 22

10. Mario Mandžukić – Wolfsburg 2010 – €7 million. Q2 . Age 21

The funny thing is that those players that were released by Zagreb (and were not paid) had a large part in bringing in these players that came late and helping Zagreb sell them for a profit. They were the placeholders.

Placeholder teams are everywhere. (They exist on a global level, Barcelona, Zagreb, Real Madrid; and they exist on a local level, your local elite age group team: U9 Elite Premier United, etc. They have vaunted, coaches, schedule, and, or course lot's of RAE. Go to almost any top team, DA, ECNL, Club or otherwise and you will observe as the strongest kids those who joined that team at or after the age of 15.

Weaponizing RAE

Why does this placeholder mechanism--which in all respects is abhorrent-- exist? First of all coaches don't mean to do this--they just don't understand what is going on-- (hence the Dynamo coaches saying "Players are born special")

It is a way to use relative age effect-- a temporary advantage of age and maturity to win games, get better players and vioila, development

It is a failure of ideas. When the only way to develop high performers is the Best kids/coaches/competition--you run out of ideas quickly--but while you run out of ideas...there are always more kids.

A better system is running in the background

The heart of the problem is the best elite/academy/club system can not keep pace with the systems of development players take on when allowed chose. Kids playing basketball 3 v 3 pick up, the hockey kids playing hours of pond hockey, or the kids playing street soccer with love (not tryouts) in mind.

The science say the academy/elite club model is second best --Implicit versus Explicit learning

The elite/academy/club system kids are coached. This is explicit. This is conscious, this is reflective, feedback based. This type of learning is ego based, specific and tends to be susceptible to pressure. The coach is in charge. They are told to "work hard" (explicit) to be the best. They are treated like professionals. And it works, and that's why coaches do it. At least until it meats implicit learners.

In comparison implicit learners do not concern themselves with being good, they just want fun, they eschew feedback, especially from adults, the kids are in charge. This type of learning is faster, more variable, and impervious to pressure. And everyone--including the coaches, academies and elite organizations--know they are the best. And they haven't even worked at it.

Want an example? Riding a bike. Implicitly you know how to ride a bike, but if I asked you how to make a left turn you would have no idea. You might even say "Push on the right handle bar and pull on the left to turn the wheel to the left." You would be wrong and crash. See Counter steering.

But it would not be possible to make this mistake if you were actually riding a bike because you understand and can make that turn implicitly. How is this possible when you were not coached? How is it possible that you may be a world class left turner and not even ever tried to be the best? Because you will see that the explicit method used in most soccer clubs is often more associated with crashing then success.

The good news is the explicit coaching of the elite/academy system is the the top second best development program out there--bar none.

Fact 8 --Exceptionalism

Now you may be thinking "Thank god I am not in Zagreb Academy" But this only an easy example. The truth is if you are involved with a serious youth team, you likely have had tryouts, because you have had tryouts your team will display RAE--the presence of RAE is not a coincidence--it is proof that you are focusing on the things (physical) that will be less important later. The more you attempt to create a higher level team the more prevalent RAE.

So the higher the level of the team, the greater the RAE, the more likely you are placeholding--that is using current talented kids to hold a place for the kids who join late.

Why does this endure? It's due to each particular group (Academy or club) believing they are the exception, that the RAE in their group is just a coincidence. That THEY will be the ones to deliver. This exceptionalism turns a blind eye to the inequities of the roster, early and late maturation, the subsequent curriculum and methodology and finally the poor outcomes.

See the US Soccer response and then read in the same article:

Half of the 20 players on the U.S. U-17 national team squad that qualified for the 2015 U-17 World Cup -- for players born on or after Jan. 1, 1998 -- were born in the first quarter of 1998. Fifteen of the 20 were born by the end of May 1998!

We have heard it for years as an overused talking point. "Focus on winning hurts the development of the player." Well, take it seriously because your roster is proof that you are not developing. At least you are not developing who you think you are.

Fact 9 --The best players were not selected

"The first shall be last, the last shall be first.."--Matthew 19:30

Want to play at a high level? Go to one of these tryouts (any tryout really) and NOT be selected. Just as the higher the level of tryout sees greater RAE--then it is not too far of a jump of logic to assume that the harder we try to develop the less chance we have to do so. And there is some evidence too support this.

Studies in sports such as Hockey, skiing and soccer have found that the highest achievers come from those NOT involved with early selection.

Interestingly the high flyers tend to come from Q4--late birthdates, and late bloomers. Studies in Hockey and soccer have shown that RAE is pronounced at the youth level, moderate at the professional level, and reverses at the elite level. The best players, once they reach the age of their mid twenties maturity will either come from Q4, or more likely were not selected at all.

This phenomena is called Reverse Relative Age effect and predicts that the late developers rise the highest.

Reverse Relative Age Effect

From "The Rise of the Underdog" The Relative Age Effect Reversal Among Canadian-born NHL Hockey Players:

"The relative age effect associated with cut-off dates. But when the National Hockey League rosters of Canadian-born players are examined, the pattern is less pronounced. RAE is moderate for the average Canadian National Hockey League player and reverses when examining the most elite professional players (i.e. All-Star and Olympic Team rosters). We also find that the average career duration is longer for players born later in the year. In sum, there is a surprising ‘relative age effect reversal’ that occurs from the junior leagues to the most elite level of hockey play. This supports an ‘underdog’ hypothesis, where the relatively younger players are thought to benefit by more competitive play with their older counterparts."

We used to see Relative Age Effect as a problem for those not selected (Gladwell). But what it appears is that this is a problem --not of those not selected but of those selected.

Here are the numbers by percentage of the general path of those selected. The next set of graphs are examples general rules of thumb when the number samples are large. We do know that as RAE moves from youth to Elite it reverses itself. The following charts are representative examples of what might be the case.

Heavy RAE in Youth

Slight RAE in Lower level Pro (NASL, USL, Lower Level MLS)

Higher Pro (Champions League) Slight RAE reversal

Low Pro

Elite RAE Reversal

Youth = 12-19, Low pro = NASL, some MLS, High Pro, premier league, champions league player some national teams, Elite= top 100 players. Notice the shift. It has been proposed that this is a selection issue. The problem only exists as a problem for those selected.

But lets place the elite selection and youth selection on top of each other.

It starts to present a picture and the key to that picture is in the growth of the child. Now we start to see a picture of what tryouts and player selection create.

"Quantity has a quality of it's own." --Josep Stalin

In order to grow we need challenges. Challenges for kids are different to challenges as adults. As kids we want quantity--lots of games, wins, losses, touches, decisions, successes and failures. They deal with each and grow. Most of these challenges for kids when left to choose are under loaded.

Underloading is playing at or below your current level. (see Torberts learning activities). It is poorly inderstood and underappreciated--it is certainly absent in the Elite/Academy/ set up. It does not require recovery.

Overloading is playing at or above your level. Mostly academy set up focus on this. Overloading requires recovery. You can not overload safely everyday.

Kids that learn to underload create more learning opportunities. They learn with younger, older, less skilled, more skilled, they are diversified, they have quantity.

Kids in academies have Quality. Or what they think is quality. See above--since no one is sure of who the best kids are how are they sure the game has "Quality?"

Quality is subjective. Quantity is objective. But I think if a coach was asked to describe "Quality" competition they would struggle to eventally describe overload.

What it teaches is Easy as possible. This is implicit play/learning.

That does not mean this is always the case. As adults we want quality challenges that overload us to grow. We want to take on the best, the boy becomes a man, the girl becomes a woman. they want overload.

Overload refers to the amount of load or resistance, providing a greater stress, or load, on the body than it is normally accustomed to in order to increase fitness.

Overloading physically is works best after the Peak Height Velocity Growth spurt. The prefrontal cortex closes, they become better decision makers, hormones are readily available. This happens at different times for all kids but usually around 15 to 16 for boys.

Overloading is specific and challenging and common. It is playing above your level--an age group up, or against strong opponents.

Overload teaches ' fast as possible." This is explicit coaching.


Why is PHV important?

Because it appears to be a dividing line. Joining an elite set up before PHV is associated with NOT making the highest level. It may help explain what we are doing wrong and why kids (even at Dynamo Zagreb) who join the elite/academy set up after this age do very well.

Academy/elite program before PHV

See our own US Development Academies. Here is a list from wikipedia as "Notable US Development Academy products."

When did they join the Academy?

  • JOINED ACADEMY Before age 15 = 7 players

  • JOINED ACADEMY After age 15 = 16 players

What about the Relative Age Effect? Were they born early? (Picked for maturity?) or late (not selected).

US Soccer Development academy graduates show Reverse RAE

We see that the notable DA players were late birthdates

Now, what about putting them both together:

So the most likely to rise to the highest level came from

  • Born in second half of the year, (Q3,Q4) and

  • Joined the academy after 15 years of age

So what is going on here? As we have already seen the US soccer DA has many, many more kids born in Q1 where they have a maturity advantage. But those early birthdates are under represented as the the late birthdates and late joiners rise to the elite level.

If the academies are beneficial at the early ages then where are the outcomes that show that?

Late birthdates and late joiners

what do they both have in common?

Neither group was in the academy.

The US development academy actually served to weed out kids by selecting them early and then systematically providing them second tier development--therefore securing that those kids are deselected (let go) with kids who trained in a better system.

The sobering fact is the numbers suggest that the early academy system participation (before Peak Height Velocity) in the US (and perhaps elsewhere) is not working. And worse--it is serving to eliminate those who participate early.

Could we, can we look at the academy/elite club system itself as the culprit?

The finger is pointed at all of us--anyone who holds a tryout is part of the problem here, just in different degrees. However the major culprits are at the top of the pyramid, and in the US that is the Development Academy.

Paul Caliguri uses looser, more frontal numbers:

"The DA has been a failure. Since 2008, USA men have had the Development Academy. Since them we have missed 3 Olympics and now a World Cup. Meanwhile the US women have opperated without a DA and have won 2 Olympics and 1 World Cup in that same time frame. And our idea is to now install a DA for the US women?"

The Late advantage theories

"you can squeeze the lemon,

or you can grow the lemon,

you can't do both" --Gerard Houlier

Rocky Road theory

So why do the late bloomers have the advantage? Two main theories. The most popular is the Rocky Road theory or "Ability needs adversity." It is here we get the "Push them out of their comfort zone" approach that is so prevalent today. Since these players were younger and smaller they had to scrape and fight to get to where they are. The grittyness carried them to elite levels.

Here is a Story of the U17 MNT and it's Director, Wilmer Cabrera. They had just lost to Brazil by a big score. The press asked Cabrera what happened.

"Their kids were just so calm and would not be rattled, while our kids were not comfortable with the ball under pressure."

"what are you going to do about it?" they asked

"We need to push them out of their comfort zone." He said.

So the idea is to get uncomfortable to get comfortable?

The idea here is "ability needs adversity." And the methodology is to overload. We just need to squeeze the lemon.

The numbers do not support this idea as represented by the failure of so many kids--especially Q1 and Q2. They were certainly "Pushed out of their comfort zone," as that is the prevailing method--with ever advancing levels of play and competition, it is almost certain that Q1 and Q2 were challenged with adversity. So why do they fail?

Self-Organized Theory

The less popular but emerging theory of this phenomenon is the self organization theory. It not only explains the emergence of the late bloomer but also explains why the Early developers are inhibited.

The idea is not to win, it is not even to learn, it is to learn how to learn. Learning comes from improving --improving comes from searching for failure--even in success.

Back to the race car. Imagine the race car team. First on the Poll, everything looks good, it is important to find improvement in something they can do better. Where can they find an advantage? There is the car--and there is the driver. In the end the car is finite held so by the laws of physics. There is a little they can do, but at this point not much. Meanwhile the driver's possibilities are limitless.

The early developer pit crew works on the car. They make it faster. But there improvements are finite.

The late developer's crew works on the driver. They give him information, facilitate his safe learning. His learning possibilities are infinite.

Enabling others to "learn how to learn" is often taken to mean instructing them how to submit to being taught. The traditional coaching model of the "The expert knows best" inhibits the early developer from learning how to learn. They are learning from the coach while the late achievers -- not given as much attention are forced to learn on their own.

Self-Organized learning denies that "the expert knows best" or that there is ever "the one best method" In this theory it is the things we do not give to the kids that makes the difference. They become little problem solvers. They fall in love with the process and tend to look for problems and their solutions. Think the child playing video games without reading the manual. They enjoy the mistakes, the discovery, the solution and adapt.

The video kids find joy in the discovery, not the game. Or in other words, the game IS the discovery.

So the more we try to develop---the less we actually do so, The less we try to develop the more that development happens.

Fact 10: Why the answer will always be is a secret

So what is happening? When we try to develop, train, grow kids --how do we proceed toward a best practice?

We do know that this problem is not isolated to soccer. Almost all sports with a selection process will show similar results.

So let's step back and look for models that might better explain what's going on.

What if we look at play as a language? We can get a hint from Linguistics and something called Krashen's Hypothesis.

USC Linguist Steven Krashen stumbled on to something one day when he was trying to teach a young Japanese immigrant english. He was force feeding her, trying to teach her to speak through a step by step academic like method and it was not working. He knew that he was doing something wrong and began to see the overall process as a dichotomy, the two phases separate and best if one happens before the other. It led to one of the seminal theories in Linguistics, Krashen’s Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis. Krashen believes that to learn a language successfully (fluently, without accent) one must go through two phases:

Krashen’s Monitor Theory

(Acquisition vs. Learning)

The learner must

1) first acquire the language (This is an unconscious, immersion-like process where the joy of the language is most important--the in and around of the language, This is the child on the kitchen floor while the grandmother his cooking and Italian radio is playing. It is the unconscious joy of the language).

2) Learn the languuage--the rules laws skills and techniques.

In order to speak a language fluently the learner must "Acquire" before they "Learn" the language.

Sounds a lot like the perfect model of developing expert performance in soccer. The soccer player must “acquire” through play soccer before they “learn” it through Deliberate Practice.

At the younger ages 5-14, the brain seems adverse to FOCUS and CONCENTRATION, and open to PLAY and EXPLORATION. At these ages learning takes place best in play—unknowing, the opposite of focus, unconsciously, feeding supercharged learning right into the autonomous skill bank.

1-Early “play” where learning is unconscious, invisible, autonomous—this is the Acquisition phase

2-Later “work” that requires focus, effort and feedback—this is the deliberate Practice phase.

This practice model helps explain the missing early developers. We tend to only focus on the learning phase (rules, laws, skills) especially on kids selected early or join the system early--they are not given the proper time to fully explore the acquisition phase and perhaps move out too soon.

They are asked early to join the explicit coaching. They lose their interest in listening to that acquisition phase--They can not speak the language of play and soccer fluently.

As Berkley Psychology Professore, Alison Gopnick writes:

"The irony is that over the long term, play does lead to practical benefits. But it does this precisely because the people who play, aren’t aiming at those practical benefits."

The numbers are telling us that if you are aiming at the the goals you will not reach those goals. If you try to pick the best players, you will subsequently eliminate them.

The only way to achieve those goals is to ignore them. Provide an environment for all kids for as long as you can in the best and most fun environment possible.

Then, later, after kids are ready (After PHV) you can begin with deliberate practice.

Oh, by the way. Back when Brazil was not just a little better than everyone else--but a lot better--this is the model they used. They let kids play and grow until 16, and then brought them into the academy.

If you want a great high performer in soccer you will need a great--or better than great--acquisition period where there is healthy play first at the family level then at the local, neighborhood level. It will help that this play contains the best practices, small sided, fast surface, big goals with keepers, etc.

But the main thing is that you can only, only, only do it for fun. And when you are at the elite level, and someone asks you "what was the most important part of your development?" You will talk about the hard work and dedication it takes--of course those things are important --but they are only half the story. The other half of the story, the great acquisition phase where you played everyday, for the love of it, for the beauty of it--that you will forget that part.

And that is why it must remain a secret.

What are the alternatives to tryouts?

The physical traits at young ages are the most important in any tryout, and this is proven by the RAE where we pick the oldest-most mature.

No coach wants to pick the oldest kid, and while they care about winning, it is not their first priority. Coaches want to help produce the next Messi. They want to develop kids.

There is an old coaching talking point. If you win 5-0 you simply say "good thing we are working on development, and if you lose 0-5 "that other team is not working on development."

Relative age effect is more than just a phenomena--it is an inside look at how we see kids, sport and ourselves. It says that we believe the expert knows best. It says we believe that some kids our special. It says we love to win, it points a finger at leaders, coaches and administrators it says that we are harming kids.

But if we are not afraid to look close maybe we can help. Because somewhere in the numbers of RAE and it's later reversal lies the secret to elite, high performance development.

And this is why we must look hard at ourselves. . We are not saying these systems are bad, they are just not working. Academies/ elite clubs/ your team (any team with Relative Age effect) are bad or evil. We are searching for the answers and the way to do it correctly. Kids want to be world beaters. It is our first duty.



Gladwell M. Outliers (Little, Brown. New York 2008).

Barnsley RH, Thompson AH and Legault PE. Hockey success and birthdate: The relative age effect. Canadian Ass'n of Health, Physical Ed & Recreation (CAHPER) Journal. 1985;51: 23-28. See also Nolan JE, Howell G. Hockey success and birth date: The relative age effect revisited. Int'l Review for the Sociology of Sport 2010;45(4):507-512.

Gibbs BG, Jarvis JA, Dufer MJ. The rise of the underdog? The relative age effect reversal among Canadian-born NHL hockey players: A reply to Nolan and Howell. Int'l Review for the Sociology of Sport 2011; DOI: 10.1177/101269211414343 (accessed October 5, 2012).

Ben Gibbs is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Brigham Young University. The contributions of Mikaela Dufur, Jon Jarvis, and Kevin Shafer to this article are gratefully acknowledged.

Read more:

Relative Age Effect Reversal Found At Elite Level of Canadian Hockey

Evidence for RAE found far from conclusive


The relative age effect and success in German elite U-17 soccer teamsClaudia Augste Institute for Sport Science, Augsburg University , Augsburg, Germany Read more:

The relative age effect in youth soccer across Europe WERNER F. HELSEN1 , JAN VAN WINCKEL1 , & A. MARK WILLIAMS2 1 Department of Kinesiology, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven, Belgium and 2 Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, UK (Accepted 24 July 2004)

Musch, J., & Hay, R. (1999). The relative age effect in soccer: Cross-cultural evidence for a systematic discrimination against children born late in the competition year. Sociology of Sport Journal, 16, 54-64

Rigney, D. (2010). The Matthew effect: How advantage begets further advantage. Columbia University Press.

Romann, M., & Fuchslocher, J. (2011). Influence of the selection level, age and playing position on relative age effects in Swiss women’s soccer. Talent Development & Excellence, 3(2), 239-247

Vincent, J., & Glamser, F. D. (2006). Gender differences in the relative age effect among US Olympic Development Program youth soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 24(4), 405-413

Barnsley, RH, Thompson AH and Barnsley PE. (1985). Hockey success and birthdate: The relative age effect. Canadian Association of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (CAHPER) Journal 51: 23–28.

Gibbs, B.G., Jarvis, J.A., & Dufur, M.J. (2012). The rise of the underdog? The relative age effect reversal among Canadian-born NHL hockey players: A reply to Nolan and Howell. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 47, 644-649.

Using Guided Discovery in your Coaching,%20Codes%20of%20Conduct%20PDF's/Youth%20Development%20Theories,%20Concepts%20to%20Practice.pdf

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