In searching for future elite players, coaches are looking for young players who have the potential or talent and present the highest probability to become elite players in the future.
Don't stay on current performance
According to many studies in talents selection, coaches and other experts tend to focus on current performance. Indeed, it has been shown that players born early in the selection year are likely to be recognized as talented, transferred to higher level teams and consequently to receive higher quality coaching. The advantage of these young players, however, might be due to their advanced maturation level and not to their true potential. This kind of selection does not guarantee that these players will develop to elite performers since the current advantage will disappear at the age of 17-18 years. It seems that methods of selecting adolescent soccer players may not fulfill the intention to develop “talented future players”.
Biological vs chronological age
Biological age is one of the key factors in talents selection. Children with similar chronological age might differ in their biological age. Thus, children with early maturation and higher biological than chronological age will be stronger, faster and with higher endurance than their teammates of similar chronological age who are late maturers. Players that mature later may not lag behind their peers in maturation in the future. Thus coaches should be encouraged to consider not only present but also future performance.
To improve talent identification, sports science may contribute a lot. At first, current performance must be evaluated taking into consideration the biological age. One valid method of maturity assessment is the examination of the wrist-hand x-ray. By evaluating the bone age, sports scientists can calculate the skeletal and biological age. In addition, using appropriate models the height at 18 years of age can be estimated. Adult height prediction is an important part of talents selection since height is crucial for certain playing positions in modern football. A more simplistic approach for maturity level estimation is based on anthropometric measurements. Besides selection, talent development should be evaluated bearing in mind the maturity stage of the player. For instance, at the period when the abrupt change in body height occurs performance will be negatively affected and this should be kept in mind in assessing players’ potential.
From this discussion, it appears that more attention should be given to individual biological maturation in the selection and development of young football players in order to avoid excluding players with delayed biological maturation who might have the potential to become elite players in the future.
How we treat early maturers?
It depends on his maturity stage. If let say he is 15 years old but his development has almost been completed we can apply more advanced training like strength training with external loads and anaerobic lactic acid training. One key aspect is his mental and “psychological” maturity. Early biological maturers may not present an advanced "psychological" maturity and thus may not be able to cope with more stress. To read a comment on this please visit British Medical Journal (Nassis G. Do talented boys become elite adults? http://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/11/02/do-talented-young-football-players-become-elite-adults).
George P Nassis, BSc, Dipl, MSc, PhD is a Sports Scientist-Exercise Physiologist, Head of Panathinaikos F.C Performance Lab and Lecturer of Applied Sports Physiology at the University of Athens, Greece. Part of his post-graduate studies has been conducted at Loughborough University, UK. He has published 20 papers in peer-reviewed international journals on basic and applied research. He is also working with elite athletes on physical conditioning.