Talent Identification and development has become a key focus for National Governing Bodies, Regional teams and Local clubs all over the globe in many different sports. Being able to identify which young athletes may have the potential to be the next sporting superstars is no easy task but the task of helping them achieve their potential may be even harder. In this article I will review the key ideas behind Talent Development and discuss them briefly in relation to football and some of the key thoughts from leading football academies.
“Perceptions of talent are diverse and complex. As a consequence there is no consensus of opinion, nationally or internationally, regarding the theory and practice of talent identification, selection and development in sport.” (Williams & Franks, 1998).
There are many different issues tied to Talent Identification and Development. When identifying talent many programmes and scouts had often based their criteria on a “shopping list” of physical and anthropometric variables. For example, scouts may look for a Centre Defender to be strong, tall, large jump height, whilst a Forward may need to be quick, agile and have a physical presence. Whilst these examples represent criteria that would be expected or desired in an adult performance, they may not be the key factors in performance at a young age. Abbott & Collins (2004) argues that identifying talent through psychological tests may be much more beneficial than physical tests. Whilst physical tests can measure performance well, at a young age using them for Talent Id means they fail to take into account any maturation effects and may eliminate potential performers due to slower maturation. (Lidor, Cote and Hachfort, 2007). Abbott et al., (2007) say that different psychological factors may be much more important to talent development at a young age and throughout maturation than the physical qualities desired from adult performances. They claim that both “psycho-motor” skills (the fundamental motor pathways of skills, such as catching and throwing) and “psycho-behavioral” skills (self-motivation, determination, perceived self-confidence etc) are the keys to athlete development from a young age and will allow for better realisation of potential.
Abbott et al., (2007) suggest there are three key stages to applying these psychological skills. Psycho-motor skills are fundamental to sports as they set the formations for more complex skills to be developed from. First a “Basic Moves” stage – where, as coaches we can develop kicking, movement and balance as well as teaching the importance of health benefits to performance such as strength stamina and speed. By developing these early on young players can have the basic movements correct to build football specific skills upon. Following this a “Transition” stage where more complex moves can be taught, travelling and throwing, kicking on the move etc. We can also then introduce key concepts such as scanning and decision making in relation to different types of games. Decision making is vital to football and can often distinguish the difference between the good and the great whilst scanning aids this process substantially. Finally a “Sport Specific” stage where football related skills and movements and decision making can all be practiced and developed through deliberate practice.
In terms of development Psycho-behavioural skills are often linked with Orlick & Partington’s (1988) concept of “Psychological Characteristics for Developing Excellence” (PCDE’s). We need to consider what skills are required at each stage of development and how we can incorporate these into training and education. First developing goal-setting, performance evaluation and imagery could be 3 key concepts to a young footballer. Being able to analyse what you did well and poorly helps you recognise areas to improve on. This paves the way for creating “SMART” goals. Using model performers and techniques can also aid imagery. At a young age being able to recognise what you want to get better at could help players develop much better than others. Further developing their own performance when they get older can apply much needed practice. Helping players to plan improvements and performance can help them focus. Teaching basic psychological coping skills can help too, such as involving distraction and focus control to keep players concentrated during matches and training. Finally, increasing commitment giving players some responsibility for development can also help develop better self-awareness for targeting improvement. Introducing pressure can also help players experience what it’s like and how to deal with pressure. Having these psychological qualities is vital to elite perforamance. (Mcnamara et al., 2010)
By giving young players the fundamental movement basics and helping them to develop good habits and decision making can give them the tools they need to go on and develop into greater players. Giving players the psychological skills to deal with their performance, to reflect and improve is another ability that is vital to development. All great athletes are always striving to do better and need to have these basic skills.
In football there are many great academies that have produced countless numbers of players that have graced the biggest stages with their talent. The Ajax Academy producing Ibrahimovic, Suarez and Van Der Vaart, La Masia in Barcelona producing players such as Messi, Iniesta and Xavi and the famous Manchester United academy producing the “Class of 92” are all recent examples of world class graduates. Whilst these are recent success stories each academy has a history of world class talent development.
The Ajax academy uses the “TIPS” acronym for talking about players. Technique, Insight and Personality. Personality and Speed encompass all aspects of football development. Key areas within these involve all aspects of ball-control, 1v1, Combination Skills, Athletic Profile and Charisma can all be built and developed through Abbott et al.,(2007) stages. The academy also addresses the need for a psychological component to be developed through building charisma and a footballing “personality”. The Ajax Academy is viewed as one of the most successful in history and shows no sign of failing to produce modern talent.
Whilst some academies have a history of success some have invested in talent development and are now reaping the rewards on an international stage. World cup winners Germany created a national overhaul of academy development in the early 2000’s and now 10 years later have shown its success reaching the 2010 world cup semi-final and winners of the 2014 world cup. After introducing academies for all Bundesliga 1 and 2 clubs as of 2001 in 2013, 275 of the 525 players in the leagues came from one of the 36 club academies. This is a phenomenal stat and shows how a long-term investment in talent development can influence the future of football. Another team on the rise is the Belgium national team. Having developed many world class players in recent years they are performing well on the international stage. After researching participation in youth football they found that they needed to change the national focus away from results and into player development at a young age. By adapting training and education to help players be more involved and immersed in development they have helped players develop better physical skills as well as building the vital psycho-behavioural skills necessary so that the whole nation can play the same way.
Talent Development has a huge part to play in clubs trying to sustain performance at the highest level by bringing through talented players. Focussing on developing the fundamental movement skills from which we can build excellent players as well as creating a mind-set with psychological skills tailored to improving performance can help mould the players of the future.