Getting it right: Why “talent selection” doesn’t work well enough

JohnOSullivan-HeaderIn 2004, FC Midtjylland in Denmark set out to establish Scandinavia’s first youth soccer academy. As a new club, it did not have the pick of the litter of Danish soccer talent, which went to bigger, far more established clubs. And as the coaches put together their first team, they were short one player.

With the season about to start, the coaches still could not fill that elusive final spot on the roster. They settled on a player none of them wanted, the son of the club’s materials manager, on the condition that he pay his own way to play.

According to one of the coaches, Rasmus Ankerson, who tells this fascinating story in his great book Gold Mine Effect: Crack the Secrets of High Performance, they selected the boy more to ensure that his father would not quit his job than the inkling that he had a future in the game.

In 2010, that last boy picked, Simon Kjaer (pictured above), was a starting center back in Denmark’s first game of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa against the Netherlands. Since 2004, he has appeared 30 times for Denmark, and played club soccer for Palermo and Roma in Italy, Wolfsburg in Germany, and currently plays for Lille in France. Not too shabby for the kid no one wanted at age 15.

Six months after Simon Kjaer took the last roster spot at FC Midtjylland, the club director collected the eight staff coaches in a room, and handed them all a piece of paper. They were asked to list the five current players (out of 16 on the roster) most likely to advance the furthest in the next five years. The results were then sealed in an envelope and locked away.

Five years later, shortly after Kjaer was sold to Palermo for a tidy $6 million transfer fee, those results were opened. Not a single one of the highly qualified, UEFA “A” Licensed coaches even had Kjaer on his list!

I recently wrote about our obsession with selecting talent instead of identifying it. Many parents, coaches and soccer fans have asked “What can we do about this?”

We have seen firsthand our obsession with winning, which forces us to select the biggest, fastest kids at young ages to win now, instead of identifying kids that might evolve into future elite players. Why do we do this? Because, as the case of Simon Kjaer points out, talent identification is really, really hard!

Highly trained, professional coaches cannot say with certainty who will make it and who will not, even at 15 years old, as the Kjaer story points out. In our country, more often than not lightly-trained, part-time coaches are making that decision, usually at 8 to 10 years old!

This is insane!

This is killing soccer in our country.

We are culling our potential future talent pool based upon relative age of players (age compared to the arbitrary calendar cutoff), which usually leads to the selection of bigger, faster and slightly older players at the expense of younger, smaller, and often more technical ones, who are just not aggressive enough, fast enough, strong enough to help a team win the Under-11 State Cup.

But we have to win the U11-13 State Cup, we are told, because our best players will leave if we don’t. We need to have the best players when we join the U.S. Soccer Development Academy at U-14. And we need to have the best players in our academy program, so our club gets recognition, sponsors, and plays for the academy championship. It would be nice to develop kids, but we have to win! This is American youth soccer in a nutshell.

[ +Our Biggest Mistake: Talent selection instead of talent ID ]

We are taking all the young soccer players in the U.S., and putting them in the proverbial tube of toothpaste, and then squeezing out a few through the narrow opening, and calling them elite. If we were doing this at age 16-18, I’d say OK, but we are doing it at 10 years old, sometimes younger. These elite 10-year-olds are then given better coaches, better facilities, increased travel, asked to specialize and trained like future pros.

But what about the rest of the kids in the tube of toothpaste? What about the Simon Kjaers?

They are cut, put on lesser teams, with less experienced coaches, in weaker leagues, and every once in a while one kid perseveres and makes it back to the elite level. Most just wither away, play other sports, or just quit.

And the elite ones? They train, but as physical differences mitigate, many elite 11-year-olds fade away, supplanted by weaker 11-year-olds who develop better physically, are more technical, coachable and sensitive to training and have more grit, because they were forced from a young age to fight a little harder then the big stars of pre-pubescent soccer.

As the young stars fade away, they have to be replaced by the best players from other clubs, for many clubs have not developed their own talent sufficiently to replace these kids.

I have been told by USSDA clubs that they have an 80-90 percent player turnover rate on their top team between U-11 and U-18. I know of a USSDA U18 national champion that had five players in its starting lineup for the final who only joined the club that year (I know because I coached those five when they were younger in another club).

Are we talent collectors, or talent developers?

The fact is, no one can accurately predict and identify future talent prior to puberty. Yes, some are better at it than others, but whenever I ask a room of coaches, “Have you ever had a player who developed so fast that you never saw it coming, and he surpassed all your expectations?” everyone raises their hand! Let’s face it, we all miss kids!

And that’s OK, as long as we stop culling players at young ages, and taking those kids we missed off the player development track.

We need to admit that even the best of us cannot predict and identify future talent.

And if we admit this, then what logically follows is the need to start developing the masses of players. We need to focus on grassroots soccer. We need our best coaches working with younger players. And we need to keep as many players as possible involved in the developmental tract that may eventually lead to the Development Academy, and to the pros or college.

I was relieved when the USSF recently appointed Tab Ramos to the Youth Technical Director position, for he has been both a player and coach who emphasizes the technical aspects of the game. Thankfully, upon his appointment, one of his first statements was “We need to focus on the root of the game. There continues to be nationwide a reliance on results rather than development at the younger ages. In particular, Zone 1 is an age group where there continues to be too much travel. There continues to be too much focus on the competition without attention on the individual player.”

Thank you Tab Ramos, for bringing this vision to our youngest ages. It is sorely needed. Only time will tell whether he has the support and resources to accomplish this. He needs all the help he can get.

How can parents and coaches help him achieve this? What is the model of a successful 21st-century youth soccer club? Here are a few ideas for our Zone 1-2 kids (U-6 to U-12):

  1. Focus the vast majority of time on technical development, especially comfort on the ball, with as many players as possible through U-12. Don’t just say it, do it! In my experience technical players figure out the small group tactics pretty quickly, and tactical players without technique do not make it very far. Have you ever heard a pro coach say “that player is brilliant in tight spaces, touch, vision, the whole package, but give him space and time and he is a disaster?” Of course not,
  2. Identify your weaker technical players and give them the best coaching, helping them catch up to the strong ones to build deeper player pools. We need three times as many high school-age players who are competently trained and technically proficient in order to compete on the world stage.
  3. Through U-12, keep no standings, play for no state championships. Instill a love of the game, and let the games belong to the kids. Let them fail, let them figure out how to solve problems instead of solving them for them (that means you too, parents). Give them the game!
  4. Play small-sided games! Research demonstrates that 4v4, 7v7 and 9v9 are more enjoyable for young players. They get more touches, complete more passes, score more goals and have more success then in 11v11 games. As for those state and national organizations who sanction 11v11 play for 10-year-olds (you know who you are) start serving the kids and play small-sided soccer!
  5. EDUCATION for coaches! We have a ton of licensed “professional” coaches who know little about child development, child psychology, and effective educational tools. We need to provide more avenues for learning, as well as environments where they are allowed to develop players instead of focusing on winning to keep their jobs and parents off their backs.
  6. EDUCATION for parents! Yelling constant instructions from the sideline, pushing your kids to your own goals instead of theirs, harassing them on the ride home after games, and inadvertently or not, tying your love of your kids to their sporting outcomes is ruining a generation of young athletes. Yes, its the norm, but it is completely wrong! When parents sign a kid up for youth soccer, they, too, should be enrolled in ongoing education. We need to teach parents how to help, instead of telling them to step aside and leave it to the pros. Most parents want to help, and need the resources provided so they know how, yet few if any clubs do this on an ongoing basis. (I founded the Changing the Game Project to change this.)

If we admit that we will never be able to identify all the future talent, then we MUST STOP TRYING TO DO SO at the youngest ages.

Instead, let’s sign up and develop more kids!

Let’s train them all for a few extra years!

Let’s educate our coaches and parents so that they become the players’ allies, and not their adversaries.

Let’s emphasize the youth in “Youth sports.”

And next time you are about to cut a kid, or have decided that he or she has stopped developing and needs to be let go…

…Remember Simon Kjaer, and get back to teaching!

John O'Sullivan - Changing The Game Bio

By | December 19, 2013 | 16 Comments | Tags: , , , , , ,


  1. Kerry says:

    Technical coaching is very, very lacking in the US. Especially critical because our kids are structured out of playing soccer–FOR FUN–from when school gets out until the sun goes down, as kids around the world do. Our best MLS teams can scarcely compete with tier 2 or 3 English teams because they cannot pass, shoot, or defend as well as a random kid from Hamptonshire or the East End. Only training in the basics can make the US a real power in world football. Win-obsessed parents and coaches need to know what is actually important.

  2. Dutchviz says:

    To be generous, this is a rehash of the articles printed back in the late 70’s early 80’s that coincided with the rise of the Federation and the birth of the State Associations. If you didn’t live through it maybe new to you. For those who did it’s just more of the same. You’ll have to take two steps out of the soccer system before you’ll have any chance of making a difference.

    As one Federation consultant said, “We’re a terribly insular group.”

  3. Tom Dolan says:

    I could not agree more with John Sullivan’s article. His closing comments are the most on-point: parents and coaches need to be reminded that this is not about them, it’s about the kids. Classifying youth athletes early on does a terrible injustice to so many kids who develop at their own pace. Separate young players from those “high end” coaches who are looking to create a team of stars at 10-12 years old. Rely more on coaches who are more developmental than tactical for the primary coaching chores through age 12, at least. The reduction in pressure will develop players who love the game, are advanced technically and improve with support – not cutthroat competition for a place on a “premier’ team.
    Seek out coaches who know the game’s technical aspects for all u13 players, not high pressure, win at all costs coaches looking for that “star squad.” The expense of elite programs is absurd and only encourages coach and parental pressure on the kids. The burn-out rate speaks for itself and is shameful, in my opinion.
    Local clubs should mandate parental guidelines regarding behavior during matches and game results should be secondary at the younger ages. Skills and teamwork improvement must be the emphasis. The “need” to win comes from parents and coaches.

    • Thanks Tom, I think one of the thing every club I know of is missing is ongoing parent education. it could make the biggest difference in performance, and help develop the game tremendously in our country. Most parents want to help, they are just never told how to help. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Scott says:

    I really enjoyed the article. We are making our first foray into youth club soccer here in the USA after relocating from Brazil (spent 2yrs). One thing I can say that is far different from USA and Brazil is the lack of technical coaching, coaching experience, and the actual games, in Brazil they will mix the kids regardless of age (within reason) if the talent is there technically, not physically. They also play 11 a side even at 7 years old, learning how to play all positions on the field. It was disappointing to learn my son will only play 5v5 or 6v6 in the U8/U9 catagory. However, it is a step forward in USA soccer that this is even a discussion.

    • Scott, actually all the evidence (and there is a lot out there) points to the fact that kids enjoy small sided soccer much more than 11v11 soccer. At 7 years old they are far better learning positioning (in small sided) rather then positions. They get more touches, complete more passes, and develop technically far quicker in small sided soccer. Most Brazilians learn the game through futsal and street soccer, and I have not heard of a pro club that has 7 yer olds playing 11v11. I know that Barcelona, Ajax, Man Utd and other top youth academies all play small sided soccer, so be glad your program does as well. Welcome back to the US!

  5. ChelseaFan says:

    You are so very right, John. We were fortunate, indeed, to get into a program where the coaches followed your train of thought. It was difficult at times watching our U10s & U11s get trampled a bit by the big, fast players from other clubs. By U12, the girls in our club were starting to gain so much more possession. The coaches continued to add layers of technique and tactics to the game and by U14, the local clubs could not beat our girls–and two “indie” teams in their age group dissolved–why? Because they had been taught boot ball and the parents actually thought this was good soccer. The key in our club was that the coaches did a lot of explaining to the parents about what was happening on the field each game. They understood that we didn’t know a thing!! But they were nice about it. One area of concern with groups like ECNL forming is that the current anxiety over college recruiting causes more and more parents to chase the winning team in order to get into the tournaments where coaches show up to recruit. The ODP program needs work as well…some consistency about the way the program is run from state to state and region to region would be nice.

    • Western MD Soccer Coach says:

      Aside from a poor choice in BPL teams to root for (go Gunners), your coach is doing it the right way. I wish that every coach from U8 to u18 was taught this method and I wish that every parent would be educated on how soccer players are developed. It would go a long way towards reducing the conflict between parents, coaches and players.

    • Thanks guys. I believe that the key is effective communication and a proven well supported curriculum. When everyone knows where they are going, and how long it takes to get there, you are much more likely to arrive.

      As far as ECNL, I think the bigger problem is that players are committing at age 15 and 16. I have never met a college coach who likes tying up money with players who will not play for his/her program for 3 more years, and are an unfinished product, The players lose motivation and change a ton. Parents are thinking about college in middle school, before we really know whether a kid will be a good college player or not. But ultimately, what I tell people is this: If you are really good, someone will find you. I have yet to meet a really quality player without a college that was interested.

      • Western MD Soccer Coach says:

        We are actually dealing with a different situation, our daughter decided in 4th grade she was going to play college soccer. Now (she is in 9th grade) many of her sports related decisions are totally based on the fact that she wants to play college soccer. She turned down the opportunity to run varsity track this winter because the varsity meets conflicted with soccer training activities. She is the one pushing to go to ODP tryouts, to college ID camps, she is writing college coaches on her own. We have tried to temper her enthusiasm, and do say no to doing everything she wants to do, but where is the line between keeping her goals realistic and crushing her dream?

        • Keg says:

          Western MD – Is she interested in Engineering at a D3 school? Grades? How far away from home will she go?

        • Western MD Soccer Coach says:

          Please post a link to the college and we can discuss privately. The only college she has ruled out due to location is the one 6 miles from our house because she wants to “go away” for college.

        • This is a tough one, and she is certainly old enough to know where she is going and what she wants to do. Your job is to make sure that she gets proper rest and nutrition, and takes time off. Top pros also do yoga, which is a great ‘second sport’ for a soccer player. Perhaps explaining to her how participating on some cross training type sports (not necessarily organized ones) will help her soccer as well, if not physically, then mentally. As far as her level of play, you would have to ask a good honest evaluator what level she can play on. Good luck!

  6. Thanks Soccermom and Belinda, I would like to think we are working hard to change this. Only time will tell. Make sure your kids stick with it, find them a team where they get to play a lot! if they have the drive and the ability, they will make it eventually. A player’s career is never over at 11 unless they choose it to be, no matter what a coach says. Those who play the best at 11 rarely are the best at 18. Those who play the longest, and love it the most, usually are.

  7. soccermom#6 says:

    I don’t know if my son is Simon Kjaer or not but I can tell you his experience is similar to what you cite here as the problem in the US. He is very talented (foot skills, vision to make accurate passes to feet, into space etc.) but small and didn’t go through a growth sprut yet. When he tried out for an academy team with one of the local clubs where we live, he did not get picked although he did exceptionally well at tryouts. When I asked the reason, I was told “inconsistent scores”. I probed further with his outgoing coach (academy team had a new coach), I was told he is not physical enough. I accept that but what infuriated me was that I was told he performed inconsistently instead of saying he needs to physically grow. If academies do not take technical players, who would? And might I add, that is why US Soccer is the way it is….that is players like Altidore won’t learn what a good touch means until they go play in Netherlands. Brute force mentality, will yourself, be scrappy have become or have always been the norm. Sad !!!

  8. Belinda Larson says:

    Having a U12 daughter who was just asked to step down from her team because her coach didn’t believe she was fast enough (although she has the top technical score), this articles hit too close to home. The coach has always admitted he likes to him and takes every opportunity to recruit new talent.

    Nowdays, development seems to have taken a backseat to your overall win-loss record. Too bad…

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