Our Biggest Mistake: Talent selection instead of talent identification

JohnOSullivan-HeaderMany youth sports coaches claim to be great talent identifiers, and point to the results of their 11-year-olds’ all-star team as proof. Yet they are not talent identifiers. They are talent selectors. The difference could not be more striking, or more damaging to our country’s future talent pool in many sports.

Talent selection is the culling of players with the current ability to participate and be successful in events taking place in the near future. Talent identification, on the other hand, is the prediction of future performance based upon an evaluation of current physical, technical, tactical and psychological qualities. Talent selection is pretty simple; talent identification is an art. One yields great results today; the other builds elite athletes and winning teams for the future.

Our current “win at all costs” youth sports culture promotes talent selection. When a coach is pressured to win by parents or a club, or when he or she feels the need to win to serve their own ego, that coach becomes a talent selector. When you are focused on talent selection, you are picking athletes to help you win now, and cutting ones that will not. You are looking at current athleticism, technical ability and traits to help achieve short-term success.

You naturally select the biggest, strongest and fastest young athletes, and play them extensive minutes. You limit playing time for the kids who are not up to snuff, and tell them they need to work harder, get tougher, etc., if they want to play more. You yell at them because they cannot get to the ball quick enough, or cannot shoot well enough to score. You tell them that this type of pressure is what they will face when they are older, so they better get used to it now.

Then, according to the latest statistics, 70 percent of them quit organized sports by the age of 13!

[ + More on this topic from John – Getting it right: Why “talent selection” doesn’t work well enough ]

On the other hand, talent identifiers are searching for young players who may not be elite athletes yet, but possess the physical and psychological attributes to eventually become one. Perhaps they have not yet grown, or been exposed to high-level coaching. Perhaps they are not as skillful yet, but show a high level of coachability, sensitivity to training and the motivation to learn. Identifying talent requires the skill to weigh all the physical, physiological, psychological and technical components of an athlete, as well as a measure of “gut instinct” of which kid has what it takes to become elite, and which kid does not.

Talent identification also takes a long-term approach to player selection and development, and focuses on training large numbers of players, instead of cutting all but the elite ones. It recognizes that many factors affect whether a kid will make it or not, but rarely are childhood results the main factor.

In a fascinating study on junior tennis players from 1994 through 2002, Piotr Unierzyski evaluated 1000 players age 12-13 in 50 different countries, a pool that included future stars Roger Federer, Kim Clijsters and others. His study (Click Here to Read More) found that of all these players, the ones who eventually made it into the Top 100 Professional Rakings were:

  • Three to four months younger than the mean age for their group
  • Slimmer and less powerful than their age group
  • Usually faster and more agile than average
  • They played less than the average number of matches that the top players did
  • Their average practice hours per week were two to four hours less than the elite players in their age group
  • Their parents were supportive, but not overly involved

Mountaineer United Elite (in dark blue) vs. VSA Heat 97 Blue in U-16 play at the 2013 Capital Fall Classic.Let’s extrapolate this data onto the current elite youth athlete in the United States. Does a player who is young for his or her age, thinner and weaker, practices and plays less than their peers, and has parents who are not overly involved sound like today’s  U-11 All Star? Not that I have seen. Now, I know that is quite an oversimplification, but do you get my point here?

American youth sports are far too often focused on talent selection, and not talent identification. We are committed to winning now, to getting on ESPN, or achieving some hypothetical pre-pubescent national ranking. Yes, some team sport clubs have B and C teams and develop large numbers of players. Others have those same B and C teams, and players are often jettisoned there with less experienced coaches, less committed teammates and an overall lesser experience.

We say we are developing them for the future, but all too often we are using them to balance the budget. We select the current talent that will help us win now, because if we do not, the club down the road will grab them and win, and our best players will leave. We are not identifying and developing the kids who are most likely to become elite competitors after puberty. We are selecting the ones who already are elite, but often do not have the characteristics needed for long term elite performance.

This is why the emphasis on winning prior to high school is destroying youth sports. This is why nations with 1/100th of our population can compete with us on a world stage in many sports. They actually identify and develop future talent, instead of selection based upon current results. Our wealth and sheer numbers allow us to succeed internationally, but other nations are slowly but surely closing the gap in nearly every sport because quite frankly, they identify and develop talent far better than we do.

How do we fix this? Here are a few simple thoughts for youth sports that to be honest, should not be that hard to implement:

  1. Stop cutting players at young ages, and develop large numbers of players instead of just the elite ones. I recently read that Sweden, for example, produces more NHL players per capita than any other country, and they do not cut players until age 17. Hmmm.
  2. Focus on developing all players at the youngest ages, with particular attention given to helping the less skilled ones catch up technically to the stronger ones. Thus, when they finish their growth spurt, we have a much larger pool of adequately skilled individuals to choose from, instead of just the kids who happened to have facial hair at 12 but stopped growing at 13.
  3. Put an end to the win at all costs nature of pre-pubescent sports, especially things like state and national championships prior to middle or high school, and televising events like the Little League World Series (which has run since 1946 and produced a whopping 27 Major League Baseball players in that time). OK, admittedly, this one might be tough to implement!
  4. Better educate our coaches to understand the difference between selecting and identifying talent, and then teach and encourage them to develop it rather than try and win with it immediately.

U-11 players in action at the 2013 Capital Fall Classic in Richmond, Va. Photo property of SoccerWire.com.This is just a start, but unless we start making some drastic changes to our youth sports system, we will see smaller nations continuing to close the gap, and eventually surpass the United States in many sports. We are not elite in soccer yet because of the culture. We are falling behind in baseball because of it. Even in basketball, the gap has been significantly reduced. Why? Because our competitors are not relying on a player development system that is often based upon a large population and dumb luck.

[ + More on this topic from John – Getting it right: Why “talent selection” doesn’t work well enough ]

The best part about making all these changes? Our clubs and schools will have larger numbers of skilled athletes to choose from, as well as additional healthier and well rounded kids. We will have families who are less stressed both financially and anxiety-wise, because their kids can just be kids again, and they don’t feel pressured to have their 10-year-olds travel 2,000 miles to play a game. We will allow coaches to actually coach, and develop both better people and better athletes.

Abundant skilled players? Lower costs? Less time devoted to youth sports and more to family and school? More success for our national teams and elite individual athletes?

These are changes worth making.

Please share your thoughts below on this article. Do you agree? Disagree? How can we change this?

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By | December 13, 2013 | 59 Comments | Tags: , , , , ,


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  1. Garfield De Silva says:

    Agree totally. I am a soccer coach and I see that every year at tryouts. That’s why we are struggling to become an elite soccer playing country. Every parent want to win now. They want their kid to be on the top team all the time,although the top team is not the best place for their development. And that’s because off our win now culture.

  2. Gary says:

    I agree with your piece and very well written. You could simplify this further just by saying “take a look at what the English FA have done with youth football (soccer) over the past decade and do the opposite”, (I am English and involved in youth football). Youth football is extremely cut throat in this country with professional clubs often taking on large numbers of already skilled players at the age of 8 identifying the stronger 4/5 and concentrating on those rather than looking at the wider picture. Cutting players usually at 10 and looking for others to bring in. If all else fails they will go and bring in players from abroad anyway such is the football culture at the top today.

    • Thanks Gary, I know the English FA has recently made a big push in the other direction. Whether it sticks, who knows. I remember a story about Paul Scholes, who was asthmatic and not very mobile, but incredibly skilled, at 16. Rene M said in any other academy he probably would have been let go for not being athletic enough, but they held him, and the rest is history. Thanks for chiming in.

  3. interested says:

    I read this and still there is one commenter bragging about how tall his son’s are. Does he realize that none of the truely great soccer players are over 6’1″? Height does not matter in the game of soccer!

    Lionel Messi 5’6″
    Cristiano Ronaldo 6’1″
    Kaká 6’1″
    Fabio Cannavaro 5’9″
    Ronaldinho 5’10”
    Zinedine Zidane 6’1″
    Ronaldo 6′
    Luís Figo 5’11”
    Rivaldo 6’1″
    George Weah 6′
    Romario 5’6″
    Roberto Baggio 5’8″
    Marco van Basten 6’2″
    Lothar Matthäus 5’8″
    Pele 5’8″
    Maradona 5’6″
    George Best 5’9″
    Gerd Müller 5’9″
    Johan Cruyff 5’11”
    Hagi 5’8″

    The average height here is 5’9.9″. And when you realize that most heights of athletes are listed 1-3″ taller than their real height then you can realize that the average height of a soccer superstar is only 5’8″.

    Pele is more like 5’7″, Maradon is really only 5’5″, Messi might only be 5’5″, Hagi is more like 5’6″.

    Even further, you can realize that all of the world’s top offensive soccer players have been comming from latin playing style countries, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Italy, France and there are hardly any truely great players from the non latin countries because they have changed their focus to recruit only the tall players who are over 6′ tall, all the while the shorter latin players have been cleaning up with all of the World Player of the Year awards.

    Simply focus on creating skillful and fast players and we will go far.

  4. BD says:

    Thank you for this great article! This very thing just happened to our daughter. She was new to a competitive U11 team, so she was a bit behind in the skills department and also much smaller than the other girls. But she worked hard, made significant improvement, made every single practice, and in the last few games of the season, showed an aggressiveness that I had never seen before in her. I was so proud and she was extremely encouraged by her development! So imagine our surprise to get an email from the coach telling us he’s not inviting her back – after just a single season! We haven’t broken the news to our daughter yet, but it’s not going to be easy. She’s definitely a victim of the win-at-any-cost mentality.

    I have been a coach of several sports over the years – mostly hockey, but it’s similar to soccer in the talent selection process. As I got older and more experienced, what I realized is that it’s the overall quality of the teamwork that will decide if you win or lose. You could have a whole team of all-stars and they would lose consistently if they didn’t play as a team. The great Herb Brooks proved that with the 1980 US Hockey Team who won the gold medal in the Lake Placid Olympics.

    The point to this is that a good coach – and for that matter a good organization – realizes that it’s not only the talent that counts, but the teamwork. This means developing the lesser skilled players, but also providing the elite players opportunities for leadership and mentoring. But the bottom line is that all players learn to apply their skills within the context of a team. That team may not win initially, but if a culture of teamwork and skill development is established at the get-go, winning is a natural by-product; but it’s not the focus.

    But to the point of the article, that winning culture isn’t just in youth sports. You can see it every day all around us. In business, this attitude caused the recent Great Recession in 2008. In politics, it shut down the government earlier this year. It’s all about winning. It’s endemic to our very culture in the US, and it unfortunately seeps into our youth sports.

    • Great points BD, and sorry to hear about your daughter. I know its going to be a very difficult conversation, and I recommend when you have it, make sure your daughter knows 3 things:

      1. What can we learn from this?
      2. Let me tell you about atime when I had a huge dissapointment like this, and how I overcame it and learned from it
      3. We love watching you play, and you worked so hard and improved so much this year, that if you keep working hard, great things will happen.

      Good luck!

  5. Robert says:

    Bravo Mr. O’Sullivan on your thoughts and direction on this subject. My ideas on the subject are simple: If there is innate talent, drive, and abilities, those qualities will come out whether the child starts a sport at an early age OR an advanced age. He/she may be behind on the basic development curve if they start a sport later, but it stands to reason that their abilities will flourish on a much steeper scale in a shorter amount of time. Michael Jordan, arguably the most talented and best basketball player of all-time, did not make his high school’s varsity team until his senior year!

    • Brett says:

      Let him compete at the highest level he desires to play that your family can support and balance. If he wants to do it, he’ll let you know.

  6. Barry says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I am a US based Scottish soccer coach and although I believe that youth soccer back home is also very much success driven, the pressure to win in the US struck me as very pronounced. The cutting of players does not exist where I come from, if a young player shows up to play for a team, and keeps showing up, then they are never told to stop showing up. Now that just seems like the right way to treat an enthusiastic child, which makes the fact that the opposite happens here in the states just mindblowing.
    Lionel Messi could well have been cut by a US U-10 coach because of his size, in Europe his attitude and technique were identified and nurtured until he developed into the player he is today.
    The numbers just make sense, the more players that maintain participation to an older age, the larger the player pool becomes. When that pool becomes larger, colleges and eventually professional teams and national teams have more players to choose from and more competition for every position. It just seems so counterproductive to sacrifice that possibility to win a U-11 regional championship.
    Imagine the momentos we would have been robbed of if Maradona, Romario, Jinky Johnstone, or Messi had been canned because of their size. Great read John, all the best.

  7. Abe says:

    Our biggest mistake IS organized soccer (partly joking). For physical talent, go inner city. For desire, go to poor communities. For talent development go to communities who have pickup games and play all the time.
    I had a Brazilian girlfriend and I asked if the pro players there were from rich or poor families. She said almost all were from poor families. Makes sense to me. Rich and affluent, even middle class kids have opportunities, like lawyer, doctor, engineer. Poor kids don’t have that kind of role model and don’t have a plan B; that can motivate ;)
    What I worry about is that the system in the US has an approved path for players and I think it’s too expensive for poor kids.
    I worry that the idea that height IS talent is a bit silly. Barcelona players (seem mostly short and slight) would never get picked in the USA and might have been bullied out by coaches at 13.

  8. Action Jackson says:

    I learned this first hand as a baseball coach when another coach and I took a group of 6-7 year olds (included both our boys) that had been cut from all the local squads. We started our own team with 12 so called rejects. We got our rears handed to us for a few seasons (spring, summer and fall), but you could see us coming along. We worked on fundamentals and skills exclusively. We played less than half of the games that the other teams were playing, but practiced more than those squads. Fast forward many years, and 9 of my 12 boys decided to try out for their high school teams as a freshman and all 9 made it. Many “select” players were cut in favor of my boys. I was so happy for these kids. I’ve had a number of people ask me how I did this. My answer, “I just gave them a chance. That is all.”

    • Action Jackson your story is right on the money. its because no one can tell who is going to make it at 7 years old. That is what is insane about what we do when we select talent. Good for you for giving those kids a chance and training them the right way!

    • Mike S says:

      cut at 6-7! that’s insane! at that age some kids are 2-3 years ahead or behind of the average growth pattern; biggest growth spurt in kids happen between 12-15, before that all kids should play recreational and not competitive, with no separation.

      Congrats on your good work.

  9. gene says:

    my sentiments also. ie..when my son attended the national training camp, the coaches stated that nearly all players had the same talent, but, if he were picking a winning team, he would select the biggest…that may have worked then, but, these u-14 players had yet to hit the growing stage an now, ie..son is nearly 6 ft…was very small at the time, also, a player on his state team, now is 6’4″..was smaller than son at time..head coach at one of largest Universities in the USA told me he does not consider a hard look at players until they are past puberty….you have great ideas, like them. thanx for sharing.

  10. Bama17 says:


    Great read and thank you for your thoughts on youth setup here. I do agree with you but in my opinion your points stem from a larger issue

    I think the larger issue is the US’ identity as a soccer nation which a post can be devoted entirely to address this problem.

    I think some at the higher levels coaching recognize this problem as many coaches of college/youth national/odp teams see players with technical deficiencies in their game, making them more rigid players.

    Yes, you have identified the problems but can we all agree on the solutions to these problems? Will US Academy think of the same solutions to State ODP? Will US Youth Soccer have similar solutions to addressing the technical problems of players as US Club soccer?? Will these organizations agree on what type of player( 1v1 player/Passer/Multi-position player) should be coming through the ranks? Should players be prepared for what is currently happening in the world of soccer or the next evolution of the game??

    England is experiencing the same type of problem among its youth setup but the difference between the two is that the English have a feel for the game(i.e Intelligence + tactical discipline).

    • Drew DiCicco says:

      I also agree with your general points and appreciate hearing that sentiment echo around the soccer community. Ultimately, the culture of the game needs to continue to gain traction here and the emphasis of our system and coaches needs to be on developing players, especially technically and tactically so they can grasp more complex concepts at the higher levels. Too many of our players have relied on there athleticism throughout their youth careers rather than preparing for more fierce competition. It took Jozy Altidore going overseas to finally begin to develop that in his game and it shows in combination with his physical gifts and technical ability that he now has more culture and experience in his game. The problem is this only occurred because he made a good decision to play in Europe and emerge himself in the game. In a similar vein, our referees, especially in the MLS, are holding us back. Their lack of comprehension and understanding of the game results in combatitive and often unattractive grudge matches that lack ingenuity and creativity due to the challenges deemed acceptable by domestic referees. I like to focus on the positive aspects of everything when I coach and when I look at the game develop in the US so I won’t say another bad thing but rather commend our progress and exposure to the game and hope for us to continue to echo the sentiments in your article until players understand the game and possess the necessary skills to be successful even if they’re the fastest and strongest because eventually at the highest level it requires every once of skill and focus to be effective.

    • Thanks Bama and Drew. I agree that our soccer culture is not quite what other countries have, but its our winning culture in youth sports that is far more destructive. I have actually enjoyed coaching a lot of the less experienced players recently on my kids teams, not necessarily on day 1, but by season’s end their progress is observable on a daily basis. If I were cutting kids, none of them would have made it, but over the course of three months of training, these kids showed much more sensitivity to training, and surpassed many other players.

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