Saturday, December 10, 2011

What Separates the Professionals from the Amateurs?

Talent identification in youth soccer is an ongoing debate among the coaching community. What characteristics separate those players who will succeed at the next level from those who will struggle? Factors such as physical size, speed, fitness and technical ability are all important attributes of success. But how important? Many coaches also consider the ability to “read the game” as a critical trait. That is, “off-the-ball” skills are needed to be successful. Researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands looked at this later concept as a predictor of future success. They found that the tactical ability of “positioning and deciding” is a key factor determining which players will reach the professional level and those who will not.

The study focused on elite youth players from Dutch premier league clubs who trained with their club’s talent development program. The authors note that the players’ level of performance placed them in the top 0.5% of all other players at their age. Bottom line - these were highly talented youth players preparing to play that the professional level.

At 17-18 years of age, the players were given the Tactical Skills Inventory for Sports (TACSIS) survey. This survey asks players about their knowledge of the game as well as their confidence in executing specific tactical actions. The goal is to determine their knowledge, decision-making and execution abilities performed during a match.

The players were later tracked into adulthood. At that point, they were divided into two groups based on their adult performance – those who played on a professional team (Premier or national league) and those who played for an amateur club.

The investigators found that the knowledge of the game did not differ between the players who reached the professional level and those who did not. However, those players who scored highest in the area of “positioning and deciding” as a youth player were almost seven times more likely to reach the professional level that those who scored lowest. This was especially true for the midfielders. Even though all of the players had more than 10 years of training and were some of the most talented players in the Netherlands, half of them did not reach the professional level. What separated the professional from the armatures was the ability to make correct decisions and position themselves correctly on the field.

The authors argue that tactical skills involve both the ability to decide the right action as well as the ability to execute it. That is, being able to make the right decision does not always translate into being able to carry out the right maneuver. This component is what the investigators called “positioning and deciding” and what they found to be highly important for success. For example, players may all understand what to do strategically when shifting from a 4-4-2 to a 3-4-3 system. The may also have the technical skills to execute it. However, it is the ability to put that strategy into play during the course of the match that separates the truly talented players. Positioning oneself in the right place making the right decision is essential. That is, seeing the making the correct run or playing the correct ball separates the professionals from the amateurs. In fact, the authors suggest that it may be impossible for midfielders who lack this ability to ever succeed as a professional player.

This study focused on players in the Dutch youth system that trained at the highest level. So, it is not clear if the results are applicable for identifying success at other levels. For example, does positioning and deciding ability determine which US youth players will be successful at the college level? This study suggests it might but more research is needed. Nevertheless the investigators stress that coaches should pay attention to the concept of positioning and deciding when evaluating and training young players. Given that this characteristic impacts future success, fostering that ability is essential in developing young players into successful adults.

References

Kannekens R, Elfernik-Gemser MT, Visscher C (2011) Positioning and deciding: key factors for talent development in soccer. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 21: 846-852.