The issue of talent detection in soccer is of a complex nature, since future success is dependent on a host of factors, including opportunities to practise, coaching and mentorship, as well as personal, cultural, and social factors (Reilly, Williams, Nevill, & Franks, 2000). Moreover, it appears that most talent detection is based on a process of finding ‘diamonds in the sand’, rather than creating a system of talent development. It seems as though most professional clubs lean to the more short-term based thinking of identifying talent instead of producing it, and therefore it is evident that there must be a shift to a more long-term based plan where clubs produce better players on a consistent basis, which is not only more cost effective, but encourages a greater enjoyment of sport and creates a more well-rounded athlete. This paper will attempt to highlight the importance of looking at internal and external factors affecting performance, and how understanding the relationship between them is key to developing talent. Furthermore, examples of how a multidisciplinary approach is actively producing quality talent will be taken from organizations that have perfected it, most notably Ajax Amsterdam F.C.
Predicting talent in soccer has been for a long time determined by soccer-specific attributes that overlook the complexity of individual athletes. This way of talent detection fails to take into account the variety of factors outside of soccer that affect an individual’s performance. In terms of determining success in sports, Vealey (1992) has recognized that psychological factors often distinguish successful athletes from less successful athletes (as cited in Morris, 2000). This challenges older views on talent which claim that individuals are born gifted and little can be done to change or nurture this type of ‘gift’. However, we now know that talent is not an all or none phenomenon, and that is both a nature and nurture process (Durand-Bush & Salemla, 2001). When looking at developing talent, we must understand that it requires years of commitment to learning from the individual, and a good quality of support and instruction (Durand-Bush, & Salmela, 2001). In addition, performance in soccer has been found to be most significantly influenced by environmental factors (Helsen, Stawkes, & Hayes, 1998, as cited in Durand-Bush, 2001). Since we cannot change our genetic make-up, it is promising to understand that we are able to control or change the environment in which an athlete is fostered in. Therefore, coaches must begin to understand that they can manipulate an environment so that it targets and develops all factors relating to performance success, and not just focus on technical skills. Nurturing a mastery environment is necessary for athletes to enjoy themselves while learning the necessary attributes, and enjoyment has been shown to be an important determinant of talent development (Durand-Bush et. al., 2001). Enjoyment is also a by-product of the concept of being in flow, where flow is defined as a mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993). Furthermore, Csikszentmihalyi et al. have also shown that individuals who experience flow are more likely to continue in their sport and to develop their talent (1993).
Fostering an environment that makes training and performing more complex by having individuals seek new challenges and perfect skills is a way to experience a state of flow. To incorporate flow, coaches must implement a more nurturing and task-oriented environment that avoids over-specializing too early. Athletes in the Ajax F.C youth academy (which is world renowned for developing world class talent) train less than the older players, and are regularly given time off to play different sports and unstructured activities. This type of environment supports the notion of the compensation phenomenon, where mastery of a specific sport can be achieved through the creative combination of playing different sports and activities. Ajax have found the value of not having anyone telling athletes what to do with the ball outside of the training ground to be essential for future development. Ajax knows that they must first develop the athlete, before they can develop the soccer star. For example, using a multidisciplinary approach they work on athletes’ improper running technique, and movement patterns before incorporating technical skills. This model is consistent with talent development which incorporates much broader concepts than talent identification such as social, environmental, physical, physiological, psychological, and motor competence domains (Stratton et al., 2004).
The Ajax model is something other professional clubs should be incorporating in their youth academies because it challenges the old systematic view of the 10,000 hour rule. Instead of focusing on the quantity of these hours, a more qualitative approach should be taken that looks at not only the number of hours spent performing a specific skill, but how the surrounding factors such as motivation, emotions, enjoyment, and confidence influence the successful development of these specific skills. However, currently there is no clear psychological tool for assessing and detecting athlete strengths and weaknesses in terms of mental skills. Furthermore, psychological characteristics have been shown to remain unstable from adolescence into adulthood (Reigner, Samela, & Russel 1993, as cited in Morris, T., 2000), which poses a challenge in detecting which individuals will be deemed as mentally fit for future success. Therefore, it is evident that creating a system of talent detection early on in youth sport is lacking in scientifically based methods, and a talent development process should be incorporated so that the athletes will have the greatest amount of opportunity to meet the criteria of elite performance later in their careers. By incorporating a multidimensional approach that focuses on the process, and not the outcome, clubs and organizations in soccer can be better able to develop a more healthier (both physically and mentally) individual first, that can be later trained into a successful professional.
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Durand-Bush, N. & Salmela, J.H. (2001). The development of talent in sport. In R.N. Singer, H.A. Hausenblas & C.M. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (2nd ed. pp. 269-289). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Morris, T. (2000). Psychological characteristics and talent identification in soccer. Journal of Sport Science, 9, 715-726.
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Stratton, G., Reilly, T., Williams, M.A., & Richardson D. (2004). Youth Soccer: From science to performance. New York: Psychology Press.