How do you identify an elite football player?

Football was an integral part of my life. I played on travel teams, competitively throughout high school and even in Europe as part of a stint in Germany, the UK and Denmark. In the Dana Cup final, the German U14 team we stayed with consisted of smaller players with exceptional passing skills and pitch vision, while the Brazilian team had the looked 21 and had a much more physical and dynamic style of play. Both teams were quite good but were different and were filled with many unique and talented players who worked well together.

Now I play in a recreational league mainly for exercise and I also watch one of my kids play football at an early age where the use of space on the pitch is almost entirely a foreign concept. And since I see some children who seem to have relatively exceptional skills so early on, I wonder how anyone would know if someone has talent for the game? For example, some math prodigies were identified early on because of their outstanding performance on math tests. And for soccer?

In a highly cited article on talent identification in football edited by Triston Reilly and published in sports science journal, the authors explain that “many factors predispose to a successful career in professional football. The most important of these is excellence in playing skills and cognitive abilities to make good decisions in the game…players should possess moderate to high aerobic and anaerobic power, have good agility, joint flexibility and muscle development, and be able to generate high torques during fast phases. movements.”

According to Kevin Till and Joseph Baker in Frontiers in Psychology, there is always a debate about whether it is better to specialize early in a particular sport or not. The authors note that the talent identification and development system for professional football has grown dramatically over the past two decades. 100 million per year to identify and develop sports talents.

Now a new article published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport by Kathleen M. Paulsen, Brendon P. McDermott, Aaron J. Myers, Michelle Gray, Wen-Juo Lo, and Matthew S. Ganio at the University of Arkansas examines and seeks to develop a talent identification measure used in elite football, the 30-15 Intermittent Field Test (IFT) (here’s a live video of it). Lead author Kathleen Paulsen, now at John Brown University, explained to me that:

“I played football at the University of Arkansas and when I was a player we had to pass 10 preseason ‘tests.’ , timed mile, high jump, dribbling and passing test. I have always had major problems with this method of assessment as all of them were disconnected from each other. Football performance requires that you were managing all of those elements at the same time, under pressure.One of the biggest and most important elements of performance in football (in my opinion as a coach) is the ability to be tired and to be able to be elite in a technical component (dribble at maximum speed) and performance under pressure (psychological pressure) both I have not seen a multifaceted test/tool ​​in his approach to talent identification. »

To help remedy this, Kathleen and her colleagues added a dribbling component to the IFT 30-15, which Kathleen says is a fitness test used at the highest levels of women’s football: “This fitness test physics was ideal for adding a dribbling component for several reasons. 1) There was enough distance between turns to allow players to reach higher speeds. 2) There were 3 meter areas that the player had to be in (taking into account some realistic measure of error when dribbling). 3) It is a test used more and more by footballers.

As the authors conclude in their new paper: “The IFT 30-15 achieved while dribbling a soccer ball can be a useful tool for the assessment and identification of talent in elite women’s football and has proven to be reliable.”

This study was conducted on people of college age. So, for further thought on whether the prior tools can be used in talent identification in football and other sports in general, a good discussion comes from The sports gene by David Epstein and this TED video on the importance of a sampling period for trying new things and developing a range of skills. Moreover, Till and Baker, in their article “Challenges and [possible] solutions to optimize talent identification and development in sport”, note that early identification practices in football, for example, have been debated due to their potential lack of precision, and that “the aim of a talent identification decision is to correctly identify a developing athlete with the potential to become a successful elite athlete in their respective sport.