Talent identification in soccer is a difficult process. At times it seems that it is more of an art than a science. Coaches consider a wide number of factors when assessing a player’s talent and potential for success. Physical characteristics, technical abilities and an understating of tactical concepts are all components of a talented player. A group of researchers from the University of Groningen (Groningen, The Netherlands) has examined this last characteristic as part of player’s development and as a predictor of future success. They found that advancement from the youth to professional level is heavily dependant on the player’s ability to understand tactical concepts AND put them into practice.
Researchers administered a self-assessed, tactical skills inventory test to a group of elite youth players. All of the players were members of various Dutch premier league developmental programs. At the time the test was administered, the players ranged in age from 16-18 years. Several years later, after they had reached at least 21 years of age, they were categorized into two groups – those who were playing professionally for a premier- or national-level team and those who were playing with an amateur club.
The tactical skills inventory test examined four tactical characteristics 1) knowing about ball actions, 2) knowing about others on the field, 3) positioning and deciding and 4) acting on changing situations.
The primary finding of the study was a large difference in test scores between the players who attained professional and amateur status. The professional players scored significantly higher on the positioning and deciding characteristic. In fact, those players who had the highest scores in this characteristic were nearly 7 times more likely to have reached the professional level than those who scored lowest.
Thus, the ability to be in the right place at the right time and to make correct decisions is the most important factor in determining future success.
At the time the test was administered, all players had a considerable amount of experience and had trained and competed at a high level. Based on their test scores, they all know the rules of the game and understand their teammate’s responsibilities, their opponent’s strategies and movements of the ball. However, it is “procedural knowledge” or translating knowledge into action that separates potential success. That is, successful players both comprehend tactical issues AND carry out the correct actions.
On the downside, this study focused on elite youth players who were nearing the transition from youth to adult amateur and professional programs (U18). The investigators point out that generalizing the results to younger or less skilled players may be difficult. However, it is reasonable to suggest that coaches of younger players (e.g. U16) foster the ability to understand AND apply tactical concepts. Developing both tactical knowledge and decision making can lead to future success.
The results of this study suggests that positioning and deciding is that tactical skill that best predicts future success to youth players. They also suggest that coaches pay attention to this aspect of each player’s games. It should be taken into account with identifying talented players. It is also a characteristic that should be developed during the adolescent years.
Kannekens R, Elferink-Gemser MT, Visscher C (2010) Positioning and deciding: Key factors for talent develpment in soccer. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01104.x