It is true at the biggest clubs in the professional game. There is birth bias in the birthdays of the players in the Barcelona youth set up – it has just moved according to start date of their age-group. Barcelona have few players born between September to December in their set up, as these are the youngest children.
So how do we know if the players who were left behind would not have turned out to be better footballers than those who were selected and taken to a professional club? The problem with the short-term model, which looks for talent which is already developed, is that it does nothing to provide for the talents that whisper: those players whose ability is under developed or late in revealing itself.
The overwhelming evidence is that over the course of three to five years it is notoriously difficult to anticipate which players will flourish and who will fade away. Talent spotters of any kind continually over estimate their ability to detect potential.
There is a danger that the randomly selected individuals who are treated as ‘special’ tend to achieve better than expected simply because of the amount of time the coach invests in them. If others were given the same chance the outcomes may be interesting.
If we check our birthdays and find a birth bias exists to such an extent that players with talent and potential are being excluded; we’ll look elsewhere. We’ll look in the lower local kids leagues not just the top teams that are populated by the oldest and biggest. We’ll look for the younger birthdays; divide the second half of the year in two – March, April, May and June, July, August and devise strategies to look for the most promising players there.
A player is often considered too small, unable of getting around the pitch or poor at influencing the game. But great discoveries can happen if we are willing to suspend our scepticism so that the underdogs get a chance to show a spark of promise. If a small or young player with talent emerges we should look away from the flaws and ask ‘What can go right here?’
Include, rather than exclude, them from our development programmes. Look at our programme as an audition. Every field has its share of comets that shine bright and then fade-away, others are slow burners and late developers whose abilities just take time to emerge. Auditions can bring both aspects to light.
So once we have made a step towards creating an unbiased recruitment policy, what should we be looking for? Good footballers certainly. But should our search involve game related issues or character? Or both?
If we look at the world of talent spotting and the worlds of commerce, industry, science, the arts, theatre, commercial airline pilots, special and police forces as well as sports, each domain’s underlying quests are strikingly similar:
- Who tries hard?
- Who is a good learner?
- Who prepares well?
- Who recovers quickly and calmly from setbacks?
- Who can size up a turbulent situation and make good decisions?
- Who works well with others?
Or, on the other hand:
- Who cuts corners?
- Who turns brittle under pressure?
- Who is clueless about group dynamics?
- Who ultimately doesn’t care?
The elements that have to combine, mingle and come together to create an elite person in any domain are so rare that those endowed with talent cannot be wasted just because they have the wrong birthday. We have to be better at getting the players with potential into development programmes so at the least they can throw their hat in the ring with the rest. We need to be on the lookout for the ‘talents that whisper’.
John Allpress currently works with young players at Tottenham Hotspur academy.