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Talent Identification & Development in Professional Soccer Club

By Tobias Gopon

Maguire and Pearton define soccer as an achievement sport. This involves its production on a global scale, its consumption by a global audience, and the utilization of talent identification and development. An increased need for early talent identification and development came with the passing of the "Bosman Ruling" by the European Court of Human Rights in 1995, which forbade professional soccer clubs from "withholding a player's registration at the completion of his contract" (A. M. Williams, "Talent Identification"). This led to a swarm of foreign players invading the major professional soccer leagues, Spanish, Italian, English, and German, and produced an inflationary affect on player's salaries and transfer fees (A. M. Williams, "Talent Identification"). Therefore since 1995 it became necessary for clubs to find a cost efficient method of staffing their squads while "retaining the services of their most talented players on a long-term basis and balancing flow of new players so that stability in performance of the team was not adversely affected" (A. M. Williams, "Talent Identification").
The most obvious and economically beneficial solution to this problem as Reilly, Bangsbo, and Franks indicate was for the "club management to be on the look-out for emerging stars developing in under-age and youth ranks." Along with the aid of the "Charter for Quality" of the Union of European Football Association (UEFA), which allows English clubs greater access to youth players and to place top players in soccer talent facilities (A. M. Williams, "Perceptual Skill"), has led to the institution of soccer academies affiliated with the professional soccer clubs (Reilly, Bangsbo, and Franks) and linked to the Football Association's Centre of Excellence program (Maguire and Pearton). "In France, it is mandatory for each of the Division One Professional Clubs to have their own soccer academy" (Stahl, Session with French National Team). However, before player's can be developed and groomed in these soccer academies they must first be identified, preferably at an early age.
A. M. Williams and Reilly describe talent identification in soccer as a process of recognizing current participants, who have the potential to become elite players. As Regnier states, "it entails predicting performance by measuring physical, physiological, psychological, and sociological attributes as well as technical abilities"(qtd. A. M. Williams and Reilly).
Furthermore, the advantages of early talent identification cannot be overemphasized. The earlier talented players are recognized the more time they have to prepare in quality facilities, surrounded by first-class coaches. Not only does this increase their chances of becoming a successful soccer player in the future and a great asset to their club, but, as Carlson points out, it also makes them more trainable in the future (qtd. A. M. Williams and Reilly).
However, there are some problems with the reliability and efficiency of the talent identification techniques used by the clubs. Reilly, Bangsbo, and Franks describe the identification of talented soccer players as "not straightforward" due to the numerous variables that exist in the talent identification of prepubescent athletes in a team sport, such as soccer, versus those in an individual sport. Therefore, as one reviews the literature involved in talent identification of youth soccer players, one will not find a concrete process used to select talented youth. Instead, one will find variant styles of identification that utilize and emphasize a diverse combination of factors to test and analyze prospects. From these hundreds of factors, there are eight that are consistently used by the coaches, scouts, sports psychologists, and administrators: visual search strategies, decision making and anticipation, motivational orientation, shooting, dribbling, aerobic power, and anaerobic power. These eight characteristics can be grouped into three specific categories: physiological, psychological, and soccer specific.
Arguably the most important of these factors is soccer specific skill performance. According to Rob Stahl, Ohio South Director of Coaching and Soccer Education, both the French and the Dutch are most interested in sound technique and skill. The French system will not teach soccer team strategy and techniques to the youth players until they have mastered their individual skills (Stahl, Session with French National Team).
Reilly and Holmes have identified three components that are key to the assessment of skill play: shooting, ball control, and dribbling (qtd. Morris). Dribbling is the act of moving the ball using one's feet passed defenders and towards open space. Ball control is the act of controlling the ball's movement, speed, and direction during dribbling, trapping and shooting, which is the act of striking the ball towards the goal with one's foot. There are many methods of assessing ball control and dribbling, but one of the most popular is slalom dribbling. Morris describes slalom dribbling as dribbling a zigzag path around cones with the ball from one point to an end line and then back. According to Jeremy Sutton, a National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) specialist, the object of this drill is to complete the path quickly, as it is timed, and efficiently, since one is penalized for every cone that is knocked over. The evaluation for the shooting skill of a soccer player entails shooting a ball from approximately nine meters toward nine targets that are located in the goal (Morris). The player has nine balls to hit all nine targets and is awarded points for every target hit. The scores from these two tests are tallied together in order to give the coaches, scouts, and administrators an excellent profile for the individual soccer-specific skills of each talent.
The characteristics that are crucial to the assessment of individual technique are decision making, anticipation, and perceptual skill. In soccer, decision making is the process of thinking about a certain action, such as dribbling, passing, or shooting, and then executing. A. M. Williams argues that at the young ages of seven to nine one can distinguish between high and low skilled soccer-specific decision makers. The test that analyzes the level of a player's soccer-decision making skill utilizes ten problems, which are commonly found in a soccer match. These problems are captured on photographic slides and projected onto a monitor. In order to replicate a game situation where a player is under constant mental and physical stress, the players are asked if they would either pass, run, shoot, or dribble while they are cycling on a cycle ergometer at seventy percent and one hundred percent of their maximal power output (Mc Morris and Graydon). Anticipation involves having an instinct for where a teammate or opponent will play the ball, or where the opponent or teammate will run. "The ability to read the game and to anticipate an opponent's intentions is an important characteristic of talented performers" (Morris). The test used to measure a player's level of anticipation is very similar to the decision making test. Again, a film-based approach is utilized, where the participant is required to respond verbally when presented with life-sized clips. After viewing the film of one offender versus one defender, three offenders versus three defenders, and eleven offenders versus eleven defenders, the participant is asked if he would anticipate the opponent to dribble or pass, and in what direction (Williams, A. M). Furthermore, throughout the decision-making and anticipation tests, a player's eye movement data is carefully recorded and analyzed in order to evaluate their process and skill level. The player's eye movements are vital to the recognition, analysis, and interpretation of visual information, such as defender positioning or potential areas of free space (A. M. Williams). They are key to good decision making and anticipation, and are defined as perceptual skill (A. M. Williams). A coach assesses a player's accuracy and quickness in decision-making, anticipation, and perceptual skills since the possessor of the ball is under constant pressure to perform accurately and deal with the rapidly changing game situations.
The second factor of talent identification is psychological profiling, which is utilized in the talent identification process to recognize and analyze the personality characteristics that facilitate learning, training, and competition (A. M. Williams and Reilly). Although, in some countries, such as France, the sports psychologists never directly work with the players, they are invaluable as they administer and analyze various psychological tests, essential to the assessment of player's psychological characteristics (Stahl, Sessions with French National Team). The most significant of these psychological characteristics in the game of soccer is motivational orientation. Motivational orientation can be either characterized by task-orientation, which is preferred, or ego-orientation (Morris). Beswick describes task-oriented players as desiring to participate in soccer for the love of the game and in order to learn and improve their skill, and ego-oriented players as participating in soccer in order to raise their self-esteem or social status. "Coaches look for players who have proven self-control strategies with arousal, stress, attention control, self-confidence, and all those confrontations and distractions that interfere with performance" (Stahl, Talent Identification). Sports Psychologists administer the Task and Ego Orientation in Sport Questionnaire (TEOSQ) in order to measure the motivational orientation of a player (Duda). The TEOSQ contains a seven-item task orientation subscale, which assesses the extent to which an individual defines success in terms of learning, and a six- item ego orientation subscale, which assesses the extent to which success is viewed in terms of outperforming others (Ebbeck and Becker). Coaches and administrators prefer players that are task-oriented because this means that they players will be persistent in the face of failure, possess a strong work ethic, play at an optimal performance, be more coachable, and be more successful in the developmental stages (Duda).
The final factor of talent identification is physiological evaluation. According to Stahl, the emphasis placed on a talented youth's physiological characteristics varies among countries. For instance, the French and Dutch believe that at a young age physiological traits should not be emphasized, whereas the Americans believe this is crucial. Although the emphasis placed on physiological characteristics vary among, countries there are two physiological characteristics that are heavily emphasized in every talent identification system, and according to Sutton, they are the difference between the English professional divisions: aerobic and anaerobic power.
According to Sutton, aerobic power is the ability of an athlete's large muscle groups to produce maximize oxygen intake and also sustain oxygen flow to the muscles in order to continue strenuous activity. Aerobic power is an integral component of a soccer player's ability since throughout a regular soccer match, it is evident in the majority of a player's movements: creating space for teammates, following opponents runs, and checking towards a pass (Reilly et al). The VO2.sub.max test is the examination used to evaluate an athlete's aerobic power. According to Sutton, during a VO2sub.max test the participant utilizes a motor-driven treadmill or an electrically braked cycle ergo meter, while wearing a heart rate monitor and a mouthpiece. The mouthpiece catches expired air, which is then analyzed for the maximal oxygen level intake. Furthermore, the blood pressure is analyzed because the maximal oxygen uptake level is directly related to the maximum capacity of the heart to deliver blood to the muscles. The VO2sub.max machine then processes the participant's blood pressure and oxygen intake in order to give the participant his or her aerobic power evaluation (Reilly et al).
According to Sutton, anaerobic power is the ability of the athlete to perform at maximal capacity for short periods of time and to minimize the amount of lactic acid produced when the anaerobic threshold, a level of insufficient oxygen availability to the working muscles, is reached. Anaerobic power is also an integral component of a soccer player's movements during a soccer match. For instance, when leaping in the air for a head ball, the player must be able to accelerate their body upward in one short movement (Reilly et al). Therefore, Sutton believes the simplest and most efficient method in order to test anaerobic power is to administer the vertical jump test. The vertical jump test involves the athlete lunging into the air from a standing position and then slapping the highest reachable plastic mark, which is horizontally attached to a pole. According to Sutton, this test measures "the extent to which the athlete can utilize his or her large muscle groups in order to displace their weight into the air with a single quick and explosive movement."
Although talent identification is an integral component and the initial step in the production of an elite soccer player, the player's development plays an even more crucial part. A. M. Williams and Reilly describe talent development as "the opportunity for a player to be provided with a suitable learning environment in which they are able to realize their potential." However, an essential question that must be asked before the developmental process can begin is whether the player has the ability to benefit from the program that he or she is about to enter (A. M. Williams and Reilly). If the coaches, sport scientists, and the administration believe that a player will not benefit from the developmental system, they will not place that player into their system. On the other hand, if the coaches are confident that the player does have the ability to benefit from the system and grow into an elite player, they will instantly place such a player into their developmental system, which includes initiation, repetition, and perfection (qtd. A. M. Williams and Reilly). As a player passes through these stages, their soccer specifics skills, physiological skills, and psychological characteristics will be developed in order to mold them into the elite soccer player, previously envisioned.
During all three stages of such a player's development, one of the most important figures will be his or her coach. The coach, who in the initial stage of the developmental system stays with his players from when they are fifteen until they are eighteen, is the key element that will either assist or hinder the player's development. Furthermore, the coach's demands and expectations of his players should change throughout the three stages of development. The French stress good coaching to such an extent that they erected a training facility in Paris, Paris training center, specifically for the identification and development of professional coaches (Stahl, Sessions with French National Team). In addition, the coaches are evaluated by psychologists to ensure that the coaches possess good communication skills, an open mind, an ability to focus on the positives aspects of a player's game, a commitment to their players, an unique personality, and a genuine passion and knowledge for the game (Stahl, Sessions with French National Team). The behavior of coaches and their involvement with the youth player are more important in the development of talent than the initial ability of the player (qtd. A. M. Williams and Reilly).
A major element of the repetition stage in the developmental is practice. In the French developmental system, this emphasis is on skill work. The soccer specific skills of passing, ball control, and shooting are practiced over and over again, two hours a day, five days a week. At a young age during the intensive training the player's mistakes are not admonished, which allows them to develop new skills, creativity, and a love for the game in a nurturing environment (Stahl, Sessions with French National Team). These skills are often improved using the dynamic learning system, which focuses on the appreciation and investigation of the development of particular soccer skills (Davids et. al.). Anderson and Sidaway state that an exercise that incorporates this dynamic learning system is one that consists of hitting a two by two target that is located five meters away over a ten week period (qtd. Davids). The way the dynamic system is incorporated in this exercise is that the motions of the player are first frozen and unfrozen, then each separate motion is practiced for several hours, and finally all of the motions are put together into one free range of motion (Davids). The feedback that the coach provides the player will allow the player to make faster and more effective progress in his or her development.
These players continue to work solely on individual technique until they are sixteen because the French believe that a player must have mastered complete ball control before they are allowed to work on team tactics and strategies (Stahl, Sessions with French National Team). After the age of sixteen, sixty-seven percent of the practice is provided for team oriented practice, while the rest is spent in the perfection stage of the developmental process. During this stage the perfection of individual skills, and physiological and psychological characteristics are heavily emphasized (Helsen).
The training of anaerobic power, an example of a physiological characteristic, is a crucial component of a player's development because it improves the quickness and power of their movements. Several techniques can be utilized in order to achieve greater anaerobic power. One of the more popular and modern exercises is plyometrics, which according to Sutton, is used to develop explosive, powerful muscle contractions. Plyometrics specifically improves the player's stretch reflex, which increases their muscle contractions and allows the muscle to explode out of its stretch.
The second physiological characteristic that is focused on during the perfection stage is aerobic power, which is increased by using a special type of aerobic training (Hedrick, 19). During this training, the intensity of running is varied among walking, jogging, and running in one forty minute workout (Hedrick, 19). According to Sutton, this will affect the player's heart rate and force them to sustain maximum output and recover from the strenuous activity. In addition to the specialized aerobic running training, performing squats, glut-ham raises, and cleans can further increase aerobic power.
The soccer specific skills, which include perception, decision making, and anticipation can all be developed through experience and specialized video training. The opportunity of experiencing a situation several times allows the player to categorize information and circumstances into knowledge structures, where they can be more effectively recalled (A. M. Williams). According to Stahl, vision, decision making, and anticipation can also be improved in practice by playing smaller sized games, four offenders versus four defenders or five offenders versus five defenders, in smaller areas. This will ensure each player receives more touches, more pressure, and less space than in a regular sized game. This allows them to sharpen their decision making, anticipation, and visual skills. Digital video is one of the most popular aids in creating simulations for testing and training anticipation and decision-making skills (A. M. Williams and Reilly).
The player's motivational orientation, which is the emphasized psychological characteristic throughout the developmental system, should change from joyful and carefree to hooked and committed, and finally to obsessed in the perfection stage. Such motivational orientation can be developed through simply identifying the factors that create the different goal states, and then either emphasizing or avoiding certain situations, which will enhance or impede these goals. The situations which encourage task-orientation and thus are emphasized, have been identified as those that de-emphasize extrinsic incentives and offer a moderate challenge to the player without stress. On the other hand, situations where interpersonal competition is fostered and self-awareness is heightened create ego-orientation. The coaches and players should make an attempt to shy away from the ego-oriented characteristic enhancers and reinforce the task-oriented characteristic enhancers. This will provide the coach with a hard-working, persistent, and coachable soccer player (Duda).
Although the time spent improving these various skills and characteristics varies from each of the country's developmental systems, the constant theme is the absurdly long time spent practicing. In Israel, at the young age of six, players who have been recruited into soccer schools practice for one hour twice a week. At the age of ten they practice for one-and-half hours three times a week with one match or cup per week (Bar-Eli). In France, between the ages of thirteen and fifteen developing players spend seven hundred and fifty minutes per week improving individual skills and developing team concepts and techniques (Stahl, Sessions with French National Team). After developing for ten years the average amount of practice hours for English Premier players is 4,587 hours (Helsen et al). Furthermore, Helsen, Hodges, Van Winckel, and Starkes proved that there exists a ten-year minimum amount of time needed to develop a young talent into an elite professional.
The club's identification and development systems have been successful tools used to transform rough prospects into shimmering stars. The risks taken by the club to develop a youth into an elite player have been proven worthwhile by numerous comparative tests, which compared elite to novice players. The differences that have been recorded and analyzed between elite professional soccer players, who were identified as talents at a young age and developed in elite programs, and novices has been heavily slanted towards the experienced player. Mark Williams argues that an elite player exhibits greater task specific cognitive knowledge, which allows them to recall certain situations, strategies, and positions faster and more efficiently. Elite players are able to recall and recognize patterns of play due to their complex and discriminated long term memory structure, which is crucial to anticipation (Williams, A. M., Perceptual Skill in Soccer). "They have a greater than average idea of what is likely to happen given a particular set of circumstances" (Williams, A. M., Perceptual Skill in Soccer). Specifically, A. M. Williams points out that they are faster and more accurate in recognizing and recalling patterns of play, more apt to anticipate their opponent's actions based on contextual information, more effective at utilizing visual search strategies and more accurate in anticipation. They tend to, recognize and analyze visual information more affectively. In addition, elite players are also on average more task-oriented and less ego-oriented (Morris). According to Sutton, they have both greater aerobic and anaerobic power.
The youth identification and developmental systems of the leading European club teams are very successful systems. Furthermore, as more longitudinal studies and research are performed on the efficiency, profitability, and success of the identification and development of young talents, these systems will become more efficient. The future will bring many new and unexpected changes for soccer but the use of talent identification and development will continue to be at the forefront of the sport.


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