Talent Identification is an essential component of youth football; in order to help players develop, we must identify both their potential and the environment(s) in which they can receive an appropriate variety of challenges. But is our current approach to Talent ID giving kids the best opportunities to enjoy the game and thrive? Below, Nick Levett, former Head of Talent ID at the English FA, discusses competing perceptions of talent, the potential pitfalls of assessing talent in younger age groups, and how we could improve the Talent ID process in order to enhance the experiences of young players.

In This Article

What Is Talent ID?

According to Levett, before refining our approach to Talent Identification in youth football, it’s important to understand the difference between Talent ID and Talent Development. “Talent ID is recognising players who have the potential to go on and play at a more advanced level,” he explains. “Talent Development is about creating the most appropriate environment for them to accelerate their learning and performance.”

As coaches, our priorities should always be to help players enjoy the game, develop, and participate for as long as possible. Talent ID can be a useful part of that process — provided it isn’t accorded undue importance in the youth coaching space.

Defining Talent

The lack of an agreed definition for talent can make establishing best practices for Talent ID difficult. For example, while some coaches and scouts consider talent to be a dynamic quality, based upon a player’s interactions with their environment, others place greater significance on the genetic or ‘natural’ traits of individuals. Levett emphasises the importance of players’ psychological attributes when considering their potential: “Elite sport is incredibly hard, and the journey is challenging,” he explains. “So the mindset and mental characteristics of players have a big impact on how far they will go.

“Having the resilience to deal with setbacks like injuries, bad runs of form, or not being picked is essential in elite sport. You can possess a range of physical, technical, and tactical skills that will get you so far — but character probably determines who goes the distance in the long-term.”

Further to this, Levett calls for coaches to pay more attention to the ways that individuals learn; instead of simply seeking the players who are the best behaved, or most ‘coachable’, we should value those who are adaptable — players who can take on new information effectively, and put it into practice.

“Kids with the appropriate ‘learning skill’ are the ones who can recognise a mistake and then adapt and make it better,” says Levett. “They’re the kids who can say ‘I’ve done this in training; now I’m going to do it in the game, and I’m going to tell you that I’ve done it.’

“Those types of learners are definitely the ones we want to highlight.”

Reconsidering Trials and Selection Processes

So how does this approach fit with scouting and selection processes? As Levett explains, the compressed window of assessment afforded by trials often prevents us getting a fair indication of a player’s characteristics and attributes. “If you‘re a kid, what does the word ‘trial’ mean to you?” he asks. “I believe that, as soon as you tell a kid they’re going to a trial, the level of pressure is ramped up.

“And what if they have something going on in their personal life on that particular day? In these settings, you’re unlikely to see the best of a kid; you’ll just see a version of them. That’s why I choose to frame trials as simply another football session. Kids can come and play, and it just so happens that they’re in an environment with lots of other kids who are also playing.”

With this in mind, Levett advocates observing players over longer periods of time. “I’d be intrigued to know how much benefit clubs actually get from one-day trials,” he says. “They already have large networks — for instance, local grassroots clubs, and Foundation coaches going into schools — where they can see kids every week in their own environments. And I think we might learn more about kids in these settings.”

Keeping Pathways Open

Consequently, Levett is a proponent of keeping potential development and recruitment pathways open to young players for as long as possible: “A lot of evidence shows that the longer you leave Talent ID, the better,” he says. “Things like relative age effect, birth bias, and physical maturation differences — which can distort our perceptions of players’ abilities at various points in time — start to level out more.

“I’m not going to criticise elite-level clubs for recruiting at younger age groups — it may be the product of the system they operate in — but I would hope that they make informed decisions. Because the earlier you start with Talent ID, the more mistakes you’ll make; the more you’ll get wrong.

“Ultimately, we’re looking for players who possess something that gets them through the pathway and to the elite stage. So we should consider how we can give ourselves the best opportunities to learn about them — and give the players the best opportunities to present a true version of themselves.”

Talent ID in Youth Football: The Key Points

  • Talent ID is the process of recognising individuals who have the potential to play at a higher level; Talent Development means creating the best environments for them to learn and improve.
  • Psychological attributes like resilience are essential to progressing through youth pathways to elite environments.
  • One-off trials can place considerable additional pressure on young players, and may not provide a fair reflection of their true ability or characteristics.
  • By observing players over longer periods of time, we can give ourselves a more accurate perception of their potential.
  • By leaving Talent ID later, we can make better predictions about players at the end of their developmental journeys.

Image Source: Photo by Omar Ram on Unsplash

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