Twitter can be a fantastic forum for conversation around a topic, the immediate exchange of ideas and the presentation of media for others to consider. I use it heavily and have benefitted from it considerably in terms of being introduced to people and their ideas around youth soccer development.
The downside is the ‘silicon tower’ effect that is long on, often vaguely supported, theory and short on practicality and overall reality. Take the idea of “talent selection vs talent identification” raised in an article by John O’Sullivan who runs a site called Changing the Game Project.
It became a source of Twitter interest last night amongst several of us who wring our hands over the state of youth soccer here in Vancouver.
Boiled down the article chastens, rightly, the win at all costs approach in teams sports before high school and warns of the perils of selecting players based on current abilities rather than potential future abilities. O’Sullivan advocates for non-tiered playing environments that keep a larger pool of players engaged for longer periods of time and not over-training.
First thing to note is that O’Sullivan is American and coming at this from an American youth sport point of view which is a somewhat, though not entirely, different perspective from those of us in Canada. What is true is that the club structure in the States is generally delineated into elite clubs and recreational clubs with elite clubs being much smaller and much more expensive while recreational clubs generally have lower costs but fewer resources in terms of professional coach or technical director support.
In Canada, generally, soccer clubs offer all, or most levels of play available within each age group. The number of levels of play averages around eight on the boys side and six on the girls side in Vancouver.
My reading of the article gleaned these assumptions being put forward by Mr. O’Sullivan:
- Win at all costs youth culture is the status quo
- Kids quit or move to a different club if they don’t make the top level
- Kids all aspire to the highest level of play
- Kids are content playing with players who are either far better or far worse at an activity than they are
- Kids will develop just as well in a non-tiered environment up until U14 than they will in a tiered environment
- Talent identification is an art
The article interests me primarily from the angle of tiering vs non-tiering and how that affects development and player retention.
First off, the environment here is becoming more progressive, perhaps not in a linear fashion and perhaps not across all clubs and coaches but its moving away from early ‘success’ and towards valuing coaches who have evolved past this and are committed to longer term development. We also see this in leagues not keeping standings or having Cup competitions before U13. We’re moving in the right direction and sometimes need to remind ourselves of that.
Looking at player retention, the statistic stating 70% of kids stop playing organized sport by age 13 is shocking. It’s also un-supported by citation in the article and I’d imagine getting that number like that measured across all sports in an entire country would be a massive research project. I’m not denying it’s true but I’ve yet to see a reference to the research that supports it.
My experience is that if a club provides multiple levels of play and can offer a level that is suited to a players current technical and tactical level of play that also fits with their commitment level, you will likely retain that player. If you just tell them they didn’t make the one team you can offer and cut them loose to go find another club, yes, you are more likely to see that player quit the sport due to a lack of support and a lack of ability for them to continue playing in their community. I find having up to eight levels of play at our disposal when we form teams to be a highly beneficial tool.
If kids were all as focused on playing at the highest level it would make sense that participation in lower levels of play would be minimal but a casual look at league tables indicates that there are many, many kids content to play at levels that represent the bottom third of what is available in their age group. Kids don’t quit because they didn’t make a particular team. Kids quit because adults don’t facilitate their continued play on terms that make sense for them.
Perhaps most contentious for me is O’Sullivan’s assertion that kids should not be tiered before high school age and there should simply be larger pools of players playing together. This is where theory seems to like the sound of its own voice too much and conveniently ignores practicality, logistics and reality. It should be noted that O’Sullivan does not say put players of a similar ability together for training and games and allow quick and easy movement between these groups to ensure players are always suitably challenged. Beyond that, there’s no detail on how to organize these teams, if there’s leagues that make sense to put them in and the difficulties of coaching to a wide range of ability and motivation.
I have worked with youth soccer players in Vancouver since 1997 and professionally since 2000. I have a very clear idea of the range in ability at each age group and at what point that range starts becomes too wide and begins to warp how the game should look. The assumption that O’Sullivan’s model is an enjoyable experience for kids and that it doesn’t hinder their development is entirely wrong in my experience.
This expectation we have that we should just let kids play without guidance from knowledgeable coaches and that somehow they will learn from their mistakes is wishful thinking. Just because we can pull quotes from a handful of exceptional people who managed to do this, or at least believe they managed to do this, does not prove that its a sustainable model for the majority. The reality is that the model for elite development is defined by top European and South American clubs and they provide excellent coaching in a highly structured environment for the best players they can find. Yes, there is a definitely an element of talent identification involved and often patience in waiting for some players to physically develop but there is not a wide gulf in ability in their training groups and the amount they train is higher not lower than the average player who likely trains twice per week.
The situations you see in a U11-13 bronze game are monumentally different than those you see in a U11-13 gold. Everything from time on the ball, quality of first touch, defensive shape, attacking shape, everything is massively different. So how does it make sense to expect that U11 bronze player to enjoy and thrive in an environment with U11 gold players? Why would we expect them to be able to combine with gold level players at this stage in their development? Why would we expect that they feel they are contributing to their team and develop a love for the game when they are clearly in over their heads and increasingly marginalized by stronger, naturally competitive teammates who don’t involve them in play? Conversely, how does it benefit the stronger player who is being told to work co-operatively on the field and move the ball around the field to teammates when it breaks down as soon as the ball goes to certain teammates who haven’t developed the necessary technical skills yet? How many times will they continue to look up and pass to a teammate when they know it will, 9 times out of ten, lead to a dispossession? This is definitely a source of frustration for kids at both the higher end of the spectrum and the lower end and it does nothing to help either develop.
And I’m afraid it’s far from convincing to use, as O’Sullivan does, a non-contact, individual sport like tennis to support an argument about contact team sports like soccer. But even if we do use tennis as a discussion point, would it work to have a ten year old who’s been playing tennis since she was five and receiving excellent, professional coaching from that age, rally and play against another girl who just picked up a racket six months ago and is still learning the basics even if it’s also with the same excellent coaching? One gets bored, one gets embarrassed at being put in that environment by adults who must surely know it does neither an ounce of good in terms of their development as players nor their engagement in sport in general.
We have to stop pretending that tiered environments are wrong and elitist and accept that the solution for all players begins with an environment that feels safe and nurturing in terms of parent support, adequate coaching and being able to play with and against peers of a similar ability. That means creating multiple playing environment to meet those needs rather than jamming them all into one environment.
What would make our current system better is to build in more fluidity between levels so that players aren’t locked in for a year before they can move. I’ve been an advocate for this for some time. And once that tool is made available, over use it early on to normalize it so that young players aren’t overly-excited or overly-nervous about being moved up a level or overly-stigmatize by moving down a level.
Do this and the whole idea of talent selection vs talent identification moves away from being a systemic issue rooted in a ‘desire to win at all costs’ to ensuring sufficient resources are put into coach education so that correct decisions about talent identification are actually being made. This then helps us move them up and down through levels of play as they acquire skill and knowledge of the game. This benefits both their enjoyment of the game and their development.
To finish, I’ll open another can of worms. As alluded to above, moving from ‘talent selection’ to ‘talent identification’ is not as simple as just changing gears. O’Sullivan says talent identification is an art form. Another way to say it is that it’s a very, very difficult art to guess what an 11 year old will look like as a player when they are 14. The degree of acumen needed is not just a function of coach education but a long track record working with players at these ages and levels. We already have a dearth of coaches truly capable of working with young players to develop them effectively. I’d suggest the number of coaches capable of accurate ‘talent identification’ is even less.