“He’s not big enough” has to be one of the most dangerous statements a coach can make when evaluating a young player.
Taking this blinkered view when assessing a player ignores the factors that dictate whether or not a talented junior could make the grade as a footballer. Mindset, attitude, skill level, desire to learn, intelligence and determination are all pointers to future success.
However, this attitude is not just part of football in New Zealand. It takes place all over the world, including countries that should know a lot better.
The Guardian recently ran an excellent profile on the new Liverpool signing, Brazilian Roberto Firmino.
Firmino came from a background that did not have many privileges – his father made his living selling water to commuters waiting in queues. However, he was encouraged to play and was ultimately invited to a trial at Brazilian club giants Sao Paulo FC, Brazil’s most successful club with 12 international titles.
Unfortunately the trial was a non-event.
The young Roberto was rejected without even kicking a ball on the basis that he did not pass the physical assessment.
Instead he signed with the second division side Figueirense FC who accepted him on the first day of his trial.
It was a decision that would ultimately prove a valuable investment when, as a 19 year old, Firmino was signed by the Bundesliga club Hoffenheim.
The German club’s sporting director Ernst Tanner admitted that he was not overwhelmed when he watched Firmino at training sessions in Brazil. However, he was impressed by Firmino’s ability to listen to his coach during training sessions and act on feedback immediately.
This ability to listen resulted in a 4 million euro transfer fee to Figueirense.
Yet this pales in comparison to the 29 million pounds that Liverpool paid to take Firmino to the Premier League.
Again, the factors that impressed Liverpool were not directly related to physical size. While Firmino has now grown into his body and bulked up it was his ability to read the game, work hard and create opportunities that mattered to the Reds.
Sao Paulo must be regretting its decision. Now also a regular for the Brazilian National Team the kid they decided wasn’t an athlete has certainly proved more than capable in the world’s elite leagues.
Midtjlland FC, the club that turned an 11-year-old Winston Reid into a Premier League star, has also evolved its approach to talent selection.
The talent scouts of the Danish champions watch very few games live. The first reason for this is that tape allows for more time watching players. Also, as Midtjlland FC uses data analytics to determine the technical attributes of players, scouts focus on the character of players more so than technical skills.
With stringent nutrition guidelines (no sweets or alcohol) during the course of the season the club needs to know that its recruits are disciplined. Further, how players respond to adversity and openness to learning are essential considerations.
That successful European clubs are so flexible in their thinking is to be applauded.
Height, strength and speed are not necessarily indicators of future success, particularly when athletes are young and still growing.
From a Top Flight Football Academy perspective, commitment, discipline and work rate are important attributes in the assessment process of new and existing players.
Focusing on size or athleticism at junior levels ignores the potential of learning and development. If you have any doubts, just ask Sao Paulo.
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