What are the ingredients to make an elite soccer player?

So much goes into making a really good soccer player. Beyond the players involvement are many other agents in the formula from coaches to parents to peers. Which ones matter and which ones matter most? Hard to say and undoubtedly varies from individual to individual but if you could narrow the sample down and create some common parameters you could maybe start to identify what those ingredients are and how important each of them is to the final product.

For the sake of argument, let’s locate the player in Vancouver to give this some context. Let’s also say the player is now 14 years old. What does that player need to end up as an elite player by the age of 18?

Here’s my pie chart breakdown of what the right mix is.

Elite player ingredients

Plays unstructured games with friends: 16
Watches games regularly on TV: 13
Watches games live regularly: 7
Trains at least three times with week with quality coach: 22
Supportive parents: 10
Highly competitive by nature: 14
Have already developed an excellent technical base 18

I’ve done this up quite quickly as an exercise in what I instinctively think. I may re-visit this when I’ve given it more thought and see if my elements or the values ascribed to them change.Are there elements missing there? Does it change depending on whether we’re talking about boys or girls? Would it change substantially if we were talking about a different location? Say the USA or somewhere in Europe?

To save going back in and editing the chart in Excel I’ll just add that by “plays unstructured games with friends”, I mean that the player spends a lot of hours per week playing with friends in a non-threatening environment where they can get lots of touches on the ball.

I’d be interested in people’s thoughts or even better your own pie charts in the comments.

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18 Responses to What are the ingredients to make an elite soccer player?

  1. Mark. says:

    The one thing that i see especially on the girls side is the lack of watching of games either on the box or live.I think this is a huge learning tool in learning a base understanding of the game. I would also be interested to see how many pro coaches watch games to help understand how the best coaches react in different situations.I have spoken to a number of very highly regarded local pro coaches who tell me they never watch a game on TV.

    • Gregor says:

      I’m surprised professional coaches would admit to not watching games on TV even if it’s true! Obviously, I watch too much and I heard it about it last night from wife and daughter. Their mocking still stings my ears…

  2. cutleron says:

    I’ve always said unstructured games WITH OLDER KIDS AND ADULTS. You can only learn so much about decisions and patterns and communication from other 10 year olds or even 14 year olds. This is one major advantage other countries and cultures have: kids play unstructured at the park with multiple ages and when someone makes a bad _decision_ (not a bad touch), they’re called out on it by the other kids. That’s at least as powerful as coaching.

    • Gregor says:

      Yeah that’s a great learning tool. As a coach there’s times I feel like they’d benefit if I jumped in and started playing but then you really lose a lot of the ability to coach effectively

      • cutleron says:

        Yeah, I don’t mean coaches playing, though sometimes that’s a good idea. I mean a 14 year old harumphing when his11-year-old teammate gets into trouble after he doesn’t make the early, easy pass. Peer pressure works. Think of inner-city streetball basketball in the USA.
        On the other hand, this isn’t something we can easily change here.

      • Gregor says:

        I’d actually like to guilt some of my U18 girls players, some of whom have really become very, very good, smart players, to come out and join scrimmages with some of our younger divisional girls teams for just that reason.

      • cutleron says:

        Do it. but before you do, Hendry and I should set it up as a proper experiment with a control group of younger girls who just scrimmage on their own 😉

  3. Brendan Quarry says:

    Looks a bit like the TSS Layers of Learning

  4. Brendan Quarry says:

    Can never get the last word in with you, Young.

  5. Coachrich says:

    “Would it change substantially if we were talking about a different location?” Yes, as in North America sports are a plenty to choose from. The best athletes chose the sports pathway that has the best opportunities and rewards.

    Also, the factor of money comes into play as NA sports are pay to play. If you’ve decided on your sport, the extra money that goes into your training over and above the 3 days in this case becomes very important. Outside of NA, the pay to play model in football gets balanced off at a very early age as large or pro clubs pick up the best youth players between the ages of 14-16.

    When I was living in the UK, some of my friends/mates had been picked up by football clubs before they finished their forms. Basically, they were apprentices who where boarded but during the days it was some school and being in the pro environment day in and day out. The came back to their home once in awhile to visit their family and mates.

    The nearest sport we have like overseas football is the Junior A hockey structure where they don’t pay to play, move away from home, are boarded and etc. They are drafted into the Junior A’s before they finish high school but not before they are 16. The NHL doesn’t draft before 18 and I believe they are trying to change that to 19.

    • Gregor says:

      Money definitely factors in now and I mentioned on Twitter after posting this that I wish I’d broken down the Parent Support in the first pie chart into “Parent Support/Emotional” and “Parent Support/Financial”.

      • Steve B. says:

        Forgive my very late reply to this thread, but it’s now that I’m witnessing “location” as important to some, believing it will lead to the best advertisement of a young player. After seeing the off-season movement of an excellent U13 player from one 2013 BCSPL losing club to another BCSPL winning club, I’m assuming some players and their parents believe they will be scouted better for their future. It bothers me that commitment to team growth and improvement is being tossed in favour jumping on the bandwagon as it passes. I admire the character of an excellent player when he/she commits to a their team both on and off the field when winning or losing (should be considered by scouts). I suppose paying considerable money to play in the BC Premier League helps feed this mentality. I love to read what other’s think of this subject…

  6. Jim says:

    I agree with all of the components you describe in the chart. Proportions will vary according to each player, of course, and what they have in their past. I don’t know how you fit it into the chart, but diet and lifestyle need more attention in Canada. But a key ingredient in my view: sheer joy in playing the game. You can do all of the the things in the chart, but if you have had the joy of playing stamped out of you, I believe you won’t go far. It’s the passion and pleasure, together with competitive instinct, that take players further. Think Ronaldinho, Romario, Messi — these guys fundamentally LOVE to play. I see lots of talented kids who are being driven so hard by their parents and/or coaches that their love of the game dies.

  7. Scott says:

    Next time you have a group of kids together at training or a camp or an academy session, ask them how many play the game away from organized soccer. There will be some boys that do, but very few girls. Now if you really want a shock, ask how many of them have a ball at home.

    Parents spend thousands on training their kids, but don’t think to drop $30 on a ball.

    It’s hardly an original thought (as evident by the above posts), but I have long said that we have over-academied the game in Canada. (That’s not a shot at TSS or the like – clubs are just as guilty, as is BC Soccer.) Kids simply don’t play enough, and I mean play in the truest sense of the word.

    In the spirit of Coerver, it takes a 1000 touches a day to be an average player. How many kids do you know get a 1000 touches a day? They get speed and agility training but no touches.

    We have missed the boat in Canada when it comes to soccer development and have overcompensated in the direction of professional, structured systems. Canada is the top nation in hockey. Our best players weren’t made in the hockey schools or hockey training centres, but on the frozen ponds and in the streets. In the rest of the world, football players have developed similarly. Free play in the parks, streets, beaches. It’s no different than basketball in the US (kids playing pick up games in neighbourhood courts) or baseball (playing at local parks).

    Our club has adopted a 4v4 program for BCSPL and MSL players. It’s essentially free play. But there’s a sad irony that the club had to essentially structure an unstructured activity to make kids participate.

    All the long term player development programs in the world won’t do a lick of good until we change the culture and make soccer an activity for kids before they take it up as a sport.

    As for watching the game, any coach that admits that should be banned from coaching. Muppets. But kids need to watch soccer. It’s the only way to learn. I email the tv schedule every week to my players in hopes they will watch. I know one coach who made all his players sign up for a EPL fantasy league so they’d have an interest (great idea).

    • Gregor says:

      I agree to a large degree as you can tell by how much emphasis I gave unstructured play in my version of the pie chart. Where’d I disagree is the comparison with hockey. I think that used to be the case but when I hear that the North Shore Winter Club now charges 12 year olds $7500 to play on their elite Pee Wee team, I think it’s fair to say that hockey is now following the trend in professionalizing the game at younger and younger ages. Burnaby Winter Club not far off that too.

  8. Larry says:

    Watching TV, recorded or live soccer matches on a regular basis. On the girls side of the game this component is sorely lacking. At recent events such as the CONCACAF qualifying or upcoming Whitecaps women’s games there was or will be significant female attendance, particularly in team groups as an outing or team experience…and this a good thing. However, on a week in, week out routine, or on their own accord basis, there does not seem to be a regular mechanism where most girls will watch a game on TV or live event.

    Playing unstructured games with friends or just hacking around the backyard with the ball is another challenge. Again on the girls side of the game many players simply do not engage in this type of “play” activity and much if not all of their soccer life is through structured practice and games (3 practices a week + game). Often when the girls teams are training their will be other kids hanging around the field hacking the ball around. Almost always, they are boys.

    In addition, girls often have to break through social or cultural barriers that exist as they are not in general socialized to be blatantly openly competitive. Society can sometimes work against them in indirect ways by implying that girls should be polite, cute or sweet. This speaks to the importance of the supportive parents and competitive by nature part of the mix.

    • Gregor says:

      The whole role modelling thing for girls both interests and puzzles me. Is it better for girls to watch an average game played by women on TV or an excellent game played by men? I’m not saying ALL women’s games are average and all men’s games are excellent. I’m just wondering if girls are (a) more interested in watching women play and thus that will help ingratiate them emotionally more into the game because they can relate more to females playing the game than men, or (b) more interested and helped more by watching a really well played game by men as that will help their development.

      Or should we just be happy when girls show interest in watching any game on TV or live period?

      Touches on the social vs development argument that some have made here and via Twitter.

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