Athletic Development Trumps Elite Selection

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, July/August 2016.

As Abby Wambach retired after her record-setting career with the U.S. Soccer Women’s National Team, she criticized Jurgen Klinsmann for his strategy of recruiting dual-national citizens living and developing outside the United States. Whereas many viewed Wambach’s comments as xenophobic, and somewhat disingenuous as she never appeared to have a problem with her teammate Sydney Leroux who was raised in Canada, the comments struck me as less about xenophobia and more about the long-term development of soccer in the United States. 

U.S. Soccer’s Men’s National Team has relied on foreign-born and bred U.S. citizens before Klinsmann was appointed. In the 1990s, as soccer was growing in popularity, this was viewed as a necessity to develop a competitive team quickly to increase exposure and capture more interest. Players such as Ernie Stewart, Thomas Dooley, and Preki played pivotal roles.

Twenty years later, with generations of children who have learned the game in the United States, Wambach questioned whether this strategy should constitute the player development plan for the USMNT. As head coach and technical director, Klinsmann’s talent development strategy appears to be mining Germany for German-American players developed in a more professional system with more prestigious clubs. From a USMNT perspective, where the goal is to win, finding the best available talent is a prudent decision, and players such as Fabian Johnson and Bobby Wood certainly improve the USMNT. However, does acquiring better German-American players help the next generation? Selecting talented U.S. citizens born abroad is not a talent development system; it is talent selection.

Soccer provides a stark contrast to most sports in the U.S. because the U.S. does not dominate men’s soccer. Historically, talent development has not been a problem for the U.S. in sports such as baseball, basketball, football, swimming, tennis, and track & field because the combination of a large, diverse population, sporting culture, and wealth assured enough elite athletes developed from year to year to maintain international success and drive professional sports leagues. The diversity, size, and wealth has not overcome generations of mediocrity in soccer regardless of changes made to the systems and money that has been invested.

A major reason for U.S. Soccer’s stagnation is our understanding of talent development. In the United States, our sporting systems are built on systems of talent selection, not talent identification and development. When I was young, a club soccer team selected the best players in my recreation league. The club was anointed as elite and received more professional coaching, practiced and played more often, and traveled to tournaments to play better competition. In high school, we tried out for teams, and the coach selected the players who made the team competitive. Coaches recruit players to college teams in order to win, and professional teams select players through a draft. At every level, coaches select the players who will lead immediately to the most wins, and the others leave the competitive stream.

This is not a talent development system. This is a talent selection system. This does prevent the selected players from improving, but development is secondary to acquisition. The early selection of the talented creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: The talented remain the talented  because of better coaching, more practice, more games, better competition, and more. Rather than search for players with potential to improve as they mature, coaches choose the biggest, fastest, strongest players. At developmental levels, these are the early maturers, not necessarily the best players or the players with the most potential. The smaller players, or the late maturers, are dismissed.

In an interview with Mark O’Sullivan, a coach and coordinator at Espanyol Nordic in Stockholm, Sweden, Johan Fallby, a sport psychologist with F.C. Copenhagen, said, “Even during the early teenage years, we cannot predict who is going to be the best. Many things start to happen, and it is not until after 20 years of age do we find out who has survived the journey to elite level.” Despite this, many decisions on who is and is not talented are made before players enter their teens.

O’Sullivan and Falby espouse a philosophy of “as many as possible, for as long as possible, in the best environment possible”. Rather than creating a system that cuts players from a young age – I see tryouts for “elite” u8 teams – to concentrate on those who are chosen as talented, the goal should be to put off cuts as long as possible. Keep as many children as possible playing and progressing and allow more time for young children to develop before being anointed as talented or dismissed as not talented.

I spoke to the local girls high-school basketball coach last season. He oversees the middle school program, and the school district sponsors 6th, 7th, and 8th grade teams. With 10-12 players per team, the middle school program kept 30-36 players. Roughly 50 players attended tryouts, which meant that the coach cut between 14 and 20 middle schoolers who showed an interest in girls’ basketball. These cuts were not sufficient for the coach. He said that if it was up to him, he would combine the 6th-8th graders into one team and pick the 10 best players and concentrate on them. He essentially wanted to pick his varsity team 3-5 years in advance! Considering that two spots would be reserved for the coaches’ daughters, he wanted to keep 8 of 48 players who tried out! What do the other 40 middle school girls do after they have been cut? There are few alternatives. Their basketball careers would end at 12 or 13 years of age.

This may help the team’s competitiveness in the short term, as the coach could concentrate on a smaller number of players, but what about the long-term health of the program? What if one or two of the 10 are injured? What if another one quits because she decides that she does not like basketball? What if another one chooses volleyball over basketball in high school? How do you replace these losses when you have cut the other options at 12 years of age? What if a girl who was cut at 12 grows to be 6’ tall, but never played basketball after being cut? What about lifelong physical fitness for the players who miss an opportunity to develop better motor skills through sports participation in high school?

Children grow and develop at different rates. Selecting players on the basis of current talent, especially at young ages, favors the early maturers and those with more experience. When selection process determines the teams, late maturers may have fewer opportunities to play and develop. When decisions are made at 12 or 14 years of age, we ignore vital years for growth and development.

Selecting for talent at the senior level is acceptable because the sole purpose is to win games and qualify for World Cups. However, when that same descends to the youth levels, and an environment of selection overtakes one of development, we lose young athletes, and the talent pool becomes shallow.

A local AAU basketball coach quit this year after years of running a very successful club because he said that there was no talent left. I thought the coach’s job with young, developing players was to nurture and develop the talent.

Klinsmann has taken the same approach, essentially saying that homegrown players are not talented enough, and recruiting dual nationals. Unfortunately, as the technical director, Klinsmann oversees development! In our culture of talent selection and elite youth teams, few coaches want to develop the youth player; instead, coaches, clubs, and teams want immediate success, which means selecting those who have proven their talent already, whether recruiting players from a rival high school or recruiting dual nationals.

We need a better way. We need to embrace O’Sullivan’s and Falby’s philosophy and keep as many children as possible playing for as long as possible. By giving more players an opportunity to remain in the competitive stream through their growth spurt and puberty, we may develop more and better players, and eliminate the need for a coach to look elsewhere for talent.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

2 thoughts on “Athletic Development Trumps Elite Selection

  • Brian,
    The high school girls basketball anecdote strikes a cord.
    We won our school’s first regional title in 15 years this winter. The starting center scored 1.2 points a game as a freshmen on the freshmen team. More: I was with this group their four years of high school, the girl who turned into the best player (by a wide margin) could not have been predicted when they entered high school.
    Wade Gilbert: Measure yourself by participation and retention; the success will follow.
    The defining characteristic in high school girls hoops between the ‘have’s’ and ‘have nots’? The existence of a meaningful freshmen team from year to year.

  • JJ:
    At a higher level, Fran Fraschilla spoke about his disbelief that a country like Argentina really hasn’t developed a next generation behind Manu, Scola, Nocioni, et al.

    Interesting about the freshmen teams, as more and more schools seem not to have frosh teams, and those that do, seem to all but dismiss the players who play on the frosh teams.

    Heck, even when I was in L.A. 15 years ago, the perception was that if you were not on varsity as a freshman, you would never make it. Of course, maybe as a result, many of those schools have seen participation plummet and success drop precipitously.

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