Inspired by EURO stars: Talent detection in football

When watching the EURO 2012 and observing stars like Gomez (Germany), Ronaldo (Portugal), Lewandowski (Poland), or van Persie (Netherlands) perform, one cannot but ask oneself, who detected these talents in their youth? Who offered these players contracts early on in anticipation of them becoming valuable and highly-paid star players?

Recently, football organizations started to approach Sport Psychology consultants with the request to assist them in their talent selection process for adolescent elite football teams. Often, organizations ask for opinions whether promising adolescents have the “right mental state” to be successful in elite football teams. But how can we, as Sport Psychology consultants, be of help in the talent detection and selection process? This venture is quite difficult, as there is no systematic approach proposing which characteristics one should aim for when singling out potential future football stars. It is no secret that talented football players need to possess certain physical attributes such as being fast, agile and having a precise and hard shot, and research indeed underlined the importance of physical characteristics (e.g. body weight, high aerobic power and the ability to dribble).  Naturally, these physical characteristics are always dependent on the position the player occupies. Psychological factors have only recently been considered in the talent detection process in sports, and research results suggest that psychological characteristics are just as crucial for success at high competitive levels as physical attributes.

Despite a growing body of research on this matter, there is no single psychological characteristic that can distinguish promising from average football players. Athletic success is based on an entire battery of physical and mental abilities that will be very difficult to uncover.  Therefore, we have to be aware that we will not be able to predict which athletes will be future stars, only based on a single psychological variable. The only thing we have are research results about favorable psychological attributes that are related to a successful athletic career.

So far, in the talent detection process, organizations and coaches have tended to choose adolescents that are older in biological age, which means choosing players that are born in the first quarter of the selection year, as these adolescents are further advanced in their physical development in comparison to their “younger” peers. However, “younger” peers can still develop and catch up to the biologically older peers in physical terms. The focus on biological age and physical growth leads to the neglect of important psychological characteristics when choosing athletes for talent teams. Just imagine if a coach had told Lionel Messi as an adolescent that he did not have the necessary physical attributes to be a successful football player, as he was only 1.40m tall at the age of 13. I would thus recommend not to put the emphasis on the children`s biological age and physical development and to enhance the selection process with other criteria that I will mention in the following.

With regard to psychological competencies, Elbe and colleagues (2005) suggested that young elite athletes need to have high volitional skills in order to endure long and intense training loads during the course of their athletic career. The authors define volitional skills as the mechanisms of self-regulation that are needed for initiating action and maintaining it despite resistance until a goal has been reached. Therefore it could be helpful to observe the adolescents` will power, potentially gaining an insight into their ability to endure intense training loads and to be able to cope with distractions and obstacles. These skills are indispensable for athletes that are about to compete on high competitive levels, as they will be confronted with critical media coverage, the pressure of intense training hours, and exhausting travels. Further, it has been acknowledged that favorable environmental factors, such as social support, are an important resource in the demanding life of elite athletes. Are the young players supported by their family? Does the school adapt to the high training demands of the player? The evaluation of perceived social supports of the athletes would be an invaluable resource for a successful elite athlete career.

All in all, success within football depends on so many variables: certain physical skills, motivation, social resources, and the willingness to exert effort and invest time into the sport.  I would therefore put emphasis on the thought that if coaches and organizations solely aim at identifying physically talented athletes, they inevitably disregard a wide field of “mediocre” athletes, who might have a great potential to thrive within a supporting and skill-developing environment. I would thus refer to the work of Morris (2000) who states that it is favorable to develop talent in a broader group of adolescents by equipping them with useful psychological coping skills and by practicing crucial physical skills for football. After all, without favorable environmental conditions, social support, the willingness to adhere to many hours of practice, and motivation to overcome obstacles, the most favorable inborn characteristics will not have the possibility to shine. Thus, it is worth considering that talent development is a necessary addition to talent detection.

Summing up, I would encourage that coaches, physiotherapists, conditioning trainers and sport psychologists work together when detecting and developing promising youth football players. With interdisciplinary teamwork, we can hope to detect the next Ibrahimovic, Casillas, or Terry for the EUROs and world championships in years to come.

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