The Matrix

Having been a more than casual observer of youth soccer (boys) for a number of years now, I never cease to be amazed by the complex matrix of elements required to become a good soccer player, let alone one who excels at the sport.

Along the way, I've also come to gain a glimmer of appreciation for how truly rare it is to identify a youth player who gets top marks across the full range of key attributes, relative to their peers in their respective age group.

While accomplished scientists around the globe toil away on the Human Genome Project, which aims to map out the entire human gentic code, youth soccer coaches the world over are faced with the no less daunting job of identifying and developing young players. While their soccer DNA may show promise, more often than not it's still not much clearer than the fuzzy dark bar-code-like sequences we've come to know and love on CSI.

I'll be the first to admit that my math skills are rudimentary at best, but the sheer number of permutations arising from the soccer talent matrix is so large, that I've stopped counting. Suffice it to say, that the variety of potential outcomes approaches some big number to the power of another big number.

There are, of course, the numerous technical skills that come into play: receiving, turning with, passing, dribbling, trapping, developing touch, and especially good first touch with the ball, and of course striking techniques. These are the foundation skills, and no player can aspire to become proficient without devoting a great deal of time to developing them.

But good players need much more than technical flair. They need to have the fitness, strength, speed, balance, and a number of other qualities to achieve what a multitude of game situations will demand. Size remains deceptive in this regard, and cannot be considered in isolation as a necessary nor a sufficient condition for soccer success. For every smaller player who is too easily muscled off the ball, there is a bigger, stronger player who runs out of gas before halftime, or who lacks agility or quickness. Strength, especially core body strength, is essential to virtually every aspect of the game, and particularly crucial for maintaining balance and quick directional change. Speed, again, is not the alpha and omega that some coaches might believe. Two of the fastest players I've ever seen have enough deficiencies throughout the rest of their game that I find it unlikely that they will advance to become top among their peers down the road. That said, speed IS a vital differentiater -- if many of the other prerequisites are in place.

There's soccer IQ: knowing where and when to move the ball, where and when to position yourself when off the ball, the understanding that possession is absolutely vital and shouldn't be wasted with low-to-zero percentage plays. It's this understanding of the game that sees attackers get behind their markers on throw-ins, as they understand that they can't be offside when receiving the ball off a throw. You see soccer IQ at work in the defender who simply shields the ball that's rolling off the end line after an opponent's touch instead of trying to play the ball and ending up in trouble. It's this "feel" for the game that brings out the perfectly executed wall pass at a U10 match, even though that particular tactic hasn't even come up in the club's curriculum. It's almost always the academy players who stand out in this particular aspect of the game.

Closely connected to having the smarts for the game, is having the eyes for the game. It's all well and good for a player to know what they're supposed to do in situation X, but if they're not able to see (and even more importantly) anticipate that particular situation in its developing stages, they'll react far too late to either exploit or prevent the opportunity that arises. A player who isn't able to anticipate well, or to "play in the future" as some have called it, struggle to involve themselves in the play, and find themselves unable to contribute effectively either on or off the ball. Those players with good recognition capabilities are often the "field general" types who can see the chance for a through ball developing, or recognize early on that the wiser choice might be to go out wide with the ball -- or even to play back for the reload.

Then there's patience on the ball, or confidence with it. From my observations, this is one of the rarest qualities at the 10-12 year-old range. All too often, a player in possession feels the urge to rush their decision-making -- either trying to go too north-south too quickly, or making hasty passes that end up intercepted, or going to nowhere in particular. Some of the most skillful dribblers have the confidence to slow the game down mentally when going 1 v 1, but the vast majority of players at that age persist in trying to force something that it simply isn't there. The classic case here is the boy who speeds down the wing with ball, while shadowed closely by a defender. The "attacker" lacking confidence/patience doesn't attempt to cut inside or to feign doing so, nor will he attempt a sudden stop or other escape move to try to have the defender overrun the ball. As a result, the winger finds himself penned in the corner with nowhere to maneuver, and is typically dispossessed there.

Other less tangible elements all contribute toward the soccer DNA of any young player -- coachability, self / team orientation, and level of commitment, to name a few. The young player who understands and embraces the fact that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts will more often find himself on the track to success than not.

It's pretty common to find young selects players with high ratings in three to four of these different facets, but exceedingly rare to find one who excels at six, seven, or more of these aspects within the age range that I've been discussing. In fact, over the years there's maybe one player who I've seen play and who seems to meet that criteria. Generally, like for most of us, high-calibre youth players exhibit a broad range of both strengths and weaknesses. Some stand out due to particular aspects of their game, while others might not be conspicuously adept at any single element, but still score relatively well across a broader palette of coaches' checkboxes.

Perhaps the most perplexing, if not vexing, characteristic of the 10-12 year-old age bracket is the massive swings in performance from week to week. As one local coach put it to me recently "Inconsistency is the hallmark of U11." Only by observing players across an extended sampling period over several months is it possible for youth coaches and club TDs to begin to assess emerging youth players with some degree of accuracy.

There's no magic algorithm for sorting through the maze that is the matrix. Player selections seem to rest as much on potential as they do on current performance. Sometimes it's all a numbers game, with selection down to a player filling a specific need more than anything else. Some coaches relish a project, or a challenge, and some appear to prefer known quantities.

Decoding the matrix remains largely a mystery, particularly when it comes to establishing weightings of one skill set or level of prowess against another, and then, in turn, evaluating one player against another. Technical, tactical, physical, intellectual, emotional. There's the objective and the subjective; the science of the sport, and the artistry of the game -- and the massive space in between where those opposing elements both pretty much overlap. Thank god for geneticists and soccer coaches.

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