Manchester United played Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup this week and managed a 3-0 victory, but the most interesting thing about the match might have been Stuart James’ article in the Guardian about Mat Sadler, the Shrewsbury defender who played alongside Wayne Rooney on the England U17 team 14 years ago. The “reunion” between Rooney and Sadler was forestalled by Rooney’s injury, but it seemed at first like the fleeting interaction would be a fitting metaphor for the vicissitudes of the two men’s careers, with Sadler’s, it was pointed out, having not quite panned out. After being tapped for the England national side and sure success early, he’d appeared briefly in the Premier League, but only briefly, and then began a “disappointing” career as a player in the lower leagues.
Ironically, though, Sadler isn’t really an underachiever. Playing in the third tier made him a success by youth national team standards. As the article noted, “Only five of the 18 members of the [U17] England squad who finished third in that tournament in Denmark are still playing professional football.”
“Madness,” Sadler says in the article. “We all thought we were going to be big hitters then, I tell you. We really did.” And of course they weren’t. The members of the U17 national team are as likely now to work for the gas company as a Premier League side. But even more interesting than those players overestimating their own talent was the professional coaches overestimating, or miss-estimating their talent. Or more precisely, it was the professionals overestimating their own ability to evaluate their talent.
Consider this data point from an article in the Telegraph in 2007.
In 2003, [David] Platt and other senior members of the FA’s technical department organised a ‘Player Audit’ in which they rated uncapped youngsters as “certainties” for full England honours, “on course” or “having no chance”. Platt maintains that “the audit severely over-estimated the quality of the player within the system”.
…[Players] considered “certainties” included Justin Hoyte, David Bentley, Luke Moore, Steven Taylor, Gary O’Neil, Michael Tonge, Wayne Routledge, Mat Sadler, John Welsh, Lee Croft, Ross Gardner, Dean Bowditch, Billy Jones, Eddie Johnson, David Fox, Ryan Garry, Michael Mancienne and Phil Ifil. “Out of 25 players graded as becoming certain senior internationals, four have achieved this status to date [16 per cent],” Platt reports.
What to make of this? Even at the elite levels, present skill is easier to spot than ‘talent’–i.e. future skill. We think we see the future but we don’t. Learning curves, physiological growth curves, attitudes, health, commitment, psychology- they are all too unpredictable. The mistake isn’t not guessing right. It’s betting too heavily on the guess.
For the FA, the data means one thing, but for youth coaches and clubs who are interested in long term development, the issues are different: the data tells us we need to coach and select differently.
Here are some thoughts on the ramifications for coaches and clubs:
It means that youth soccer is way too early to permanently sort players. In the classroom grouping by achievement level only works if it is fluid–constantly changing and responding to progress of students–rather than fixed: here is the top group; here is the bottom group. So, sure, there should be an A team and a B team in your club, but HOW you structure that dynamic is critical.
Here are some questions that I think clubs and coaches should ask when sorting:
- What is my timeline on assessment and resorting? How often do I look at my player pool and say: this player is advancing rapidly and needs a new challenge. This player needs more confidence and playing time at a lower level. Two of the best players on the A team in my son’s club this year were on the B team very recently. What a message to the players to see them come up and teach everyone a lesson or two–in hunger, in skill etc. It’s great for all the B team players to know that if they work hard the door will be open for them and for the A players to know that this is not necessarily a permanent and god given thing. Read the Mat Sadler article. You’ll hear him saying that being anointed is what did more than one of the lads on that U17 team in. And how often do players move? Tournament to tournament? Month to month? Practice to practice? Or just every year? Hint: a year in the mind of a kid is a very very long time.
- Is the curriculum the same throughout the club at a given age group? If you really believe in the potential of all players to succeed, shouldn’t they be learning the same things? This not only signals your expectations for the potential of all players but allows for fluid movement up and down as merit and development change the equation.
- What’s the messaging like? Do you say: “You’re on the A team,” or do you say “You’re in the club and you’ll be on the team that best suits you within it at any given time. Either way, work hard and learn as much as you can.” Do you prepare kids for the psychology of moving up or moving down. Both for the naturalness and the inevitability of it. The only thing worse than telling a kid “you are a B team player” is telling them “you are an A team player.” You are a player. Give your best; love the game and learn it. We will endeavor to teach you as much as we can no matter which.
- Are expectations and resources the same? Do coaches practice as hard with the B team? Are they as focused? As intentional? Do they expect as much? Do they take the players seriously? Do they assume that half of the U12 B team will be on the U17 A team? If not there is something very wrong. What about resources? Does your B team split a field with another team while your A team has their own pitch? Do they practice as often? Are there the same opportunities to grow?
- Are there constant fluid opportunities to show growth and progress? Opportunities to play in other settings? One reason talent is hard to spot is because context changes performance and it changes it differently for different players. Put Andres Iniesta on Sunderland and you would likely misunderstand his potential. He’d be waiting for the pass that didn’t come: because it went 30 yards in the air instead or because X player couldn’t play the game with him they way Xavi would. Players show different skills or more skill with different better teammates and if what they do depends a lot on the setting around them you will never know who can do what until you watch and see? Somewhere in your club there is a Riyad Mahrez, waiting to explode with talent when placed in a different (and more challenging) setting.
- How much do you (over)value athleticism? Maturation and growth are asymmetrical. There’s a kid on your team who’s struggling right now. He’s half the size of the other kids. But he’s one of the best players out there in terms of skills and knowledge. And he’ll be twice as good as the kid who’s got size (but won’t in two years) and speed (but teams will figure out how to defend it soon enough). When it evens out that kid’s going to be a killer. So: are you investing as much in him as in your super-athlete?