Tryout time has arrived. Players are coming out for your team with hopes of earning a spot for next season, and as a coach, you are eager to add to improve the squad.
Players change as they age. Sometimes the changes will improve a player rapidly, and sometimes they may signal a period during which the player will perform below what may have previously been expected. As you pick your teams, there are some things you should consider with respect to how the children develop over time. Doing so will benefit the players, the team, and your club.
As we’ve pointed out already, all players are going through a prolonged development process, both on and off the soccer field. While we can generalize about what is happening with the players in terms of their growth, we also need to recognize that each individual develops at a different rate. It is worth considering where your prospective players are in that process as you evaluate them based on their physical (athleticism), technical (ball skill), mental (emotional), and tactical (understanding) skill sets.
Players who are most dominant and most athletic at age 10 might not be the best at age 15 when their peers have matured, and players who are a bit clumsy and struggle with their coordination in early adolescence might grow to be tremendous athletes by the time they are young adults.
Dennis Bergkamp at Ajax
Several years ago I attended the NSCAA Convention and sat in on a lecture presented by coaches from the KNVB, the Dutch national soccer federation. One of the stories they related was about Dennis Bergkamp as a young player. If you are unfamiliar with him, Bergkamp spent his youth at Ajax in Amsterdam and went on to have an incredible career with the Dutch national team and with Arsenal in England where he is a legend.
Bergkamp joined Ajax Amsterdam’s youth system at age 12. According to the presenters, Bergkamp was always a very good player in the youth system at Ajax, but he was a big boy and somewhat awkward compared to others his age. He was never selected in the top teams in his age category until he earned a spot in the first team at Ajax as a full professional five years later at age 17.
Early on, his physical and technical tools were inhibited by his growth rate. He was relatively uncoordinated and a little bit slower than his peers because he was going to be a big adult (6 ft. 2 in.), and his nervous system was having trouble keeping up with his growth rate. The Ajax technical staff recognized the issues in his growth and his potential because they understood the development process. They continued to work with him, and he became and incredible player for club and country.
The point, of course, is that the players you see now are not necessarily the players you will see in a couple of years. When you are selecting players for your team, you should not only be looking at who is the best now. You must look for the best players with the most potential for growth. Giving consideration to what is likely in their growth is worthwhile for the player, the team, and the club.
Stage 1: Ages 7-11
At the youngest ages, players are essentially a “blank slate” waiting to be written on by the soccer training process. If they are put in a well thought out training process they will learn quickly, and you will see noticeable improvement in their coordination and ball skills in a relatively short period of time (6-8 weeks). Athleticism, coordination and personality are the best early indicators of whether a player has potential to grow. The most athletic, coordinated players will tend to be the most dominant, but smaller players with good agility, balance and coordination will develop technique quickly. Players who are clearly enjoying themselves, want the ball, look to take on defenders and who are hard-working will be very likely to make progress quickly given the correct environment in which to do so.
Key Indicators of Future Success at Age 7-11:
Remember: At these early ages you are looking for quality that can already be seen in the player as well as "development potential."
Stage 2: Ages 12-14
Ages 12-14 are a critical period during which major physical differences will emerge between players who are growing at different rates. Those differences can drastically change the player in the short and long term. Some players who were less athletically dominant will catch up to those who were ahead of them. Some who are going to be very tall will become clumsy and struggle to do things they could do easily just a year before as their growth rate temporarily accelerates.
When players reach this age, there is still potential to build technique, but there is not as much of this potential as there was early on in the process. So, existing skill level is more important in the selection process than in the first stage. Players should also exhibit some level of understanding of the game in terms of their positioning and basic decision-making with and without the ball.
It’s very important to consider the physical growth rate of players at this age and how it might temporarily affect their coordination and other physical skill sets.
Key Indicators of Future Success at Age 12-14:
When you’re picking your team, it’s reasonably easy to look at the group and pick the players who are currently the best, but the real challenge is to have the ability to pick players who will respond well to coaching over time and become top players in the future. Make sure you are looking at the little things that make it all come together (balance, confidence, agility, creativity, etc.) when you are looking at the group you have to choose from.