"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?
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 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 your 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.
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.
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).
Do that over and over and that could be considered "talent."
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 (decision making, perception). 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).
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 of that 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 through 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. Ouch.
When asked about this the Dyanmo coaches simply revert. "That's because players are born, not made."
Relative age effect exists because clubs want to develop kids through successful teams made up of "best kids."