Several years ago I got to watch U.S. Soccer Director of Scouting Tony Lepore run a training and identification session for promising U14 boys near Boston. The session was impeccably well-designed, and I have often reflected on how much I learned. At the end of the session, though, the boys were scrimmaging and Tony graciously spent a few minutes chatting with me while we watched. Once, long ago, I was a center back, and so I try to watch the backs–they are, from my possibly-slightly-defensive-about-it-perspective, under-appreciated and under-heralded. Anyway, there was one center back I’d noticed make a series of strong plays and as Tony and I stood watching, the player stepped up to intercept a cross coming to the feet of an offensive player, stretching almost horizontally to take the ball on the bounce and play it directly to the #6. “He’s really strong,” I noted. “Yes,” said Tony, “But I wonder sometimes if a lot of what we’re seeing is the result of early physical development. You know, relative age.”
I had just read Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of the relative age effect in Outliers and was struck by how plausible Tony’s interpretation was. He was asking whether we were seeing long term skill or short term physical development. I thought back over the what had caught my eye. In each case the player had shone by being a little stronger, a little bigger, a little faster. The flip side of it was that somewhere a center back with the best long-term skills but who was three inches shorter and wouldn’t catch up in growth for a few years was laboring in obscurity–an obscurity that might prove permanent.
Tony’s disciplined reflection has stayed with me, and I remembered it today when I read this article in SoccerAmerica about the Boys National Team Futures camp for players who “appear to be on a later physical development growth path and/or are born in the second half of the year, to reduce the impact of physical maturity and relative age effect on identification and evaluation of talent.”
Brilliant–both from an equity and a performance standpoint. And the guy behind it, fittingly, is Tony Lepore, who’s quoted as follows:
The Futures Camp recognizes that players in these younger age groups who can typically have the biggest impact and make a difference are the ones who are physically superior and more mature, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the most talented. When scouting young players among the same age group, we see big differences in performance based on birth month and maturity. …
There are so many examples of late mature players who have become the top players because they develop better skills, awareness, and insight into the game, rather than relying on advantages like size, strength, and power. The objective is to help make sure that we are not overlooking any players and more closely following the pathway of players who have the qualities to make a bigger impact later on, by age U-20 to U-23, when there is no longer any difference between early and late developers.
Such a powerful and important idea. I wonder how many top clubs and other selective programs out there are taking steps to think intentionally about long term rather than short term value, to think about making players successful not in five months but in five years. In fact you could argue that this issue is more important at the club level than at the elite level where everything coaches do should be about reinforcing long term mastery rather than focusing on short term wins.
Update: As I think a bit more about this it strikes me that there’s a connection here to other things coaches can be inclined to do that under-develop players for the long run when they focus too much on relative age. Ironically though, often the players who are least well-served are the early developers themselves. Consider: There’s a coach near me who loves fast athletic girls and his approach to coaching them is to encourage them to exploit their speed, augment it with open field dribbling moves, and play straight up and down the field. It looks great because the girls score a ton of goals. But what happens when the rest of the girls catch up with them and the speed premium is not so great? What happens when teams are tactical enough to prevent one-on-one direct play as a sustainable strategy? The answer is that by over-relying on early physical prowess because it works now, the girls risk being under-prepared for how to play a team game that will be successful over the long run–a game that involves making runs off the ball and relying on a definition of skills that prizes quality of first touch more than getting to tenth touch. I can think off hand of two boys who in youth soccer were encouraged to go straight ahead because they were so athletic. They weren’t encouraged to develop other skills. When the game changed and they could no longer sprint up the sideline with unlimited success, they chose lacrosse and basketball.