Editor's note: This is the fifth of a series discussing some of the important problems facing youth soccer (between the ages of about 5-13). Much of the ideas and content are derived from the work of Paul Mairs and Richard Shaw in their essential book, “Coaching Outside the Box.” This series was originally published on the Philly Soccer Page.
“He couldn’t run. He was a little one. Had asthma. No strength or power. No athleticism. No endurance.”
That’s how coaches at Manchester United described Paul Scholes, one of their most successful players of all time as a youngster. Had Scholes been born into a family here in the U.S., what do you think his future in soccer would have looked like? Would he have made the cut for his local club’s tryouts? Would he have received equal playing time? Would he have been given a chance to develop like everyone else? Would he have had fun playing here?
Lucky for him, he lived in England where the sporting culture was different and coaches didn’t prioritize winning today over developing long-term potential.
His story is no different from that of many other elite soccer players around the world. Children develop physically and psychologically at different rates that often have no bearing on final ability. There have been countless studies trying to uncover the key formula in identifying talent, and the conclusion is you simply can’t predict which players will become a success 10 or 15 years into the future (ahem, Freddy Adu). Therefore, we should be careful about how we treat all of our young soccer players in the U.S., not just those who have advanced quicker than their peers.
Relative age effect
As I alluded to at the start of this series, the reason the majority of birthdays for Canadian-born hockey players are skewed toward the first few months of the year is due to the relative age effect. The theory, as outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers,” is due to the age group cutoff being Jan. 1. Those born earlier in the year are older, bigger, faster, more coordinated and more experienced than their late-year counterparts. As a result, they receive more minutes of playing time, more attention from coaches and more positive feedback on their performances, and that increases their enjoyment of the sport and willingness to continue to train and participate.
Soccer is not immune to this relative age effect. It is prevalent throughout the world and the United States. The only difference being that traditionally the soccer year cuts off on Aug. 1. In fact, research into the ODP program shows that it is prevalent at the regional, state and national levels. Bad news for young American soccer players born in July.
Here’s a little list of players: Pele, Maradona, Messi, George Best, Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Philip Lahm, Sergio Aguero, Frank Ribery, Wesley Sneijder, Juan Mata, Carlos Tevez, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Eden Hazard. Can you guess what they have in common? Besides being some of the best players in the world, they are all 5-foot-8 and under — less than the 25th percentile for men’s height.
Even in the U.S., where you might argue our soccer culture is different than the rest of the world, several of the best ever to don the stars and stripes fit this bill as well: DeMarcus Beasley, Cobi Jones, and, of course, Landon Donovan. Need another local example? Listed at just 5-7 (debatable) is the Philadelphia Union’s most influential player Vincent Nogueira.
Small players are forced at a young age to develop their technical skills to be successful. They must become more creative and often develop vision and awareness at a faster pace. Yet these attributes are overlooked too often in youth soccer.
Maddeningly in the U.S., we continue to see smaller players neglected in favor of their larger counterparts. Even when shorter players possess superior skills, they are still chosen less often. The tallest players are placed at striker and center back and are more likely to be given the lion’s share of playing minutes.
As any of you who’ve grown up playing soccer can probably attest to, we’ve all seen players that were “gifted” in elementary and middle school fade away as they became older. Many selected for their physical attributes at a young age struggle when they become older as their lack of technical abilities is exposed.
When there is a clear, important place for smaller players in the game, why do we continue to do this in youth soccer? The reason is probably simple: Some youth coaches are more interested in winning now.
The pitfalls of tryouts
I am an advocate for giving every child the opportunity to play soccer. Yet many clubs, with limited resources, simply can’t take every child that wants to play for them. Subsequently, they are compelled to enlist every parent’s nightmare: the tryout. And it’s not just the parents who fear tryouts. Most children view them as an unpleasant and tense experience.
Tryouts are problematic for several reasons. This is especially true when clubs use them to identify which children can increase their chances of winning now rather than focusing on potential to develop.
The biggest factor that many traditional coaches use in tryouts is how one child compares to another. This creates an environment in which the children focus on comparison rather than their development. As a result, skilled players become complacent while weaker players become less enthusiastic.
Coaches naturally will choose children who benefit from the relative age effect, are bigger, or who have had more opportunities to play. Tryouts that typically include “cuts” will send the clear message to many children that they are simply not good enough and that soccer is not for them. This is a significant factor which contributes to the large dropout rates we see as young players begin to approach their teenage years.
So what then is the answer?
Ideally, we would have enough resources to allow every interested and committed child to learn soccer from skilled coaches. Obviously a pipe-dream, perhaps, but not one worth ignoring. Instead, other qualities should be assessed by knowledgeable coaches.
In my son’s fortunate experience, we received an email that specifically stated the children would be assessed more on their level of enthusiasm than their current abilities. This is where tryouts can have value. They should be used to align players with the best fit for their learning, rather than solely on increasing a team’s chances of winning without any consolation offered to those who are cut.
When clubs pass out “Your child has been identified” business cards with an effort to recruit the best players away from their local clubs, they are emphasizing winning over development. Rather than developing their players, such clubs are happy to cast them aside in favor of shortcuts to success. The best clubs, in my humble opinion, are the ones that boast more about their retention and ability to improve players rather than how many tournaments they won with elementary school children.
Trying to identify talent and potential by comparing children to their counterparts at young ages is one of the biggest mistakes we’re making with youth soccer. The relative age effect, size differences, and differing rates of development create imbalances that are not predictive of long-term success.
With so many children dropping out of soccer, you have to wonder how many Paul Scholes' we’ve missed out there.