Differences in the way talented youth soccer players develop determine whether or not they will ultimately make the grade as professional footballers. Future professionals display better technical skills even at the age of 14. The most significant differences relate to the combination of speed and accuracy in performing moves. These are the findings from a study of talent development among talented youth soccer players carried out by movement scientist Barbara Huijgen from the University Medical Center Groningen. She thinks that youth training programmes should periodically test the technical skills of young players in order to identify talented players and help them to develop. Huijgen will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 29 May 2013.
These days, talent development is an important aspect of football. Up until now, there has been very little objective data about how talented players make their way to the top. This thesis provides insight into how talented youth soccer players develop. The main question being asked by researcher Barbara Huijgen is: what are the differences between the talented players who ultimately make the grade in professional football and those that remain amateurs? Huijgen concentrated on the technical skills in relation to football performance.
Huijgen’s research involved monitoring more than 500 talented youth soccer players between the ages of 10 to 21. They all played at the highest level for their age category. She applied various field tests, whereby the players were asked to sprint a distance of 30 metres in a straight line and slaloming, with and without the ball. The tests were repeated several times interspersed with short breaks in order to analyze sprinting and dribbling performance as the players became more tired. Other tests were used to measure passing skills and ball control.
The factor that made the biggest difference in whether a talented player eventually became a professional footballer or remained an amateur turned out to be speed on the ball. The results show that as youths, future professionals were on average 0.3 seconds faster over 30 metres. Between the ages of 14 and 18, future professionals were on average 1 second faster over 3 x 30 metres with the ball than future amateurs.
But Huijgen did not only test speed; she also examined the accuracy of the players’ technical skills regarding passing and ball control. She monitored the players between the ages of 10 to 18. The young footballers asked to stay in youth training programmes at professional clubs (who therefore had a better chance of becoming professionals) made fewer mistakes at high speed than those who quit the youth training programmes.
Huijgen advises youth trainers to test their youth soccer players at regular intervals. The information they glean could help both the trainers and the players to check that a player is fulfilling his potential. More specific training can then be given where necessary in order to improve particular aspects. According to Huijgen, the results of the tests could be of use in the selection process. Players who appear to be on the right track should be retained in the youth training programmes, as they have the best chance of ultimately making the grade as professional footballers.
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Barbara Huijgen (Goor, 1980) graduated in movement sciences at the University of Groningen. She conducted her research in the Center for Human Movement Sciences of UMCG/University of Groningen, where she was supervised by Prof. Chris Visscher and Dr Marije Elferink-Gemser in association with the youth training programmes at FC Groningen, SC Heerenveen and AZ. Her research is part of the Groningen Talent Research in Sports project, and her thesis is entitled ‘Technical skills, the key to success? A study on talent development and selection of youth soccer players’. Huijgen will continue to work as a researcher (and lecturer) in the Center for Human Movement Sciences after obtaining her PhD.
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