"Primum non nocere" (first, do no harm) --Hippocratic Oath
Since the failure of the USMNT to qualify for the World Cup, much reflection has focused on the system we are in and how we might affect change.
At the heart of that system is our player development pathway -- from the fruit snacks and fun of kids being first introduced to soccer to the hopefully 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 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
(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.
"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?