Talent Identification

The following is based on a report I wrote a few years ago on talent identification for a regional football association. This was to look at how players are identified and selected for a development squad, with players being aged between 11 and 15. I have removed information specific to the target organisation and tried to allow the generic principles for talent identification to come through. 

The following report will discuss some of the issues surrounding player identification and selection to regional development programmes. Some of the components of talent identification will be outlined, the criteria for selection, and the selection processes and procedures. Recommendations are made regarding the procedures that should be implemented for player selection into development programmes.


This information is intended to help with the design of selection processes for development programmes. To ensure that the appropriate players are being selected, selectors need to be educated to ensure that they are assessing the correct qualities and attributes, and to ensure consistency in selection. It is important that parents understand how selection is related to the development process, and to see that it is done fairly and equitably. This requires an understanding of player identification and the adoption of a suitable selection policy. Hopefully some of the following information can help organisations to develop these policies.

Talent Identification Concepts

Athlete selection has been divided into four stages, these being detection, identification, selection and development (Reilly & Williams, 2003). Detection involves identifying suitable players that are not currently playing the sport. This is less relevant to football due to the large number of players already involved in the game. Development is a separate issue which will be discussed in future articles. The two components that are of interest here are identification and selection.

Talent identification is the process of recognising current players that have the potential to excel within football (Vaeyens, Lenoir, Williams, & Philippaerts, 2008), while talent selection is the acceptance of individuals into representative teams and development programmes. Talent identification involves an attempt to predict the future capacity of performance of an individual (Abbott & Collins, 2002).

In football, talent identification is usually based around a number of areas, these being physical attributes, physiological skills, technical skills, psychological skills, cognitive skills and social skills (Williams & Reilly, 2000).

A distinction has been drawn between giftedness and talent. Talent is identified as a superior mastery of systematically developed abilities, which places a player in the top 10% for their age (Vaeyens, et al., 2008). Giftedness by contrast is described as the possession of high levels of natural abilities in at least one of four ability domains, these being intellectual, creative, socio-affective and sensori-motor. Giftedness can be recognised by the rate of learning rather than the level of ability, with the development process being designed to transform giftedness into talent. This has implications for selection into a development programme, as talent identification involves determining if a player has the potential to benefit from a systematic programme of support and training (Williams & Reilly, 2000).

It has been shown that expertise is less dependent upon natural ability, and is more a response to the time spent in a highly structured, effortful activity, with the specific goal of improving (Williams & Reilly, 2000). This suggests that identifying the correct players to enter into a development programme is important, meaning that the characteristics that entry is based on must be correct.

Purpose of Talent Identification

The first stage of talent identification is to determine why you are identifying and selecting players. Many development programmes are tied to regional and national competitions, with the result that winning becomes a greater focus than development. A development programme should be designed to give them an opportunity to develop to their potential, and to prepare them to play at higher levels for their sport. This makes it important that the programme has a clear focus that places the emphasis on identifying players with long-term potential rather than current, tournament winning ability.

Issues Regarding Talent Identification

A number of issues are raised when looking at identifying players for a development program, which need to be understood and addressed if the process is to be successful. In addressing each of these issues, it is important that we constantly return to the overall purpose of the identification process: to identify players with long-term potential.

A common problem with player selection is that coaches and selectors identify players based on their potential to help them to win games rather than focusing on identifying players with a long-term development focus. At the initial identification stage, selectors should be assessing based on development potential, as opposed to potential inclusion in the competitive squads. By doing this, all the appropriate players will be included in the development programme, and exposed to the training required for their development, regardless of whether they are likely to make the tournament squad. This requires selectors to focus on the capacity of individuals to develop, rather than their performance at the trials (Abbott & Collins, 2002).

Growth and Maturation

Identifying future potential is difficult, as we are trying to make predictions regarding how well a player may develop, rather than just assessing their current ability. Growth and maturation have a marked effect on a player’s ability at a given time, and need to be taken into consideration.  Selecting players prior to the onset of puberty based on favourable physical attributes is problematic, as these differences may even out after puberty, meaning that late developers risk being overlooked if an emphasis is placed on physical attributes early in a player’s development. This makes physical testing of players as screening for identification inappropriate for young players (Williams & Reilly, 2000). Further, children with desirable characteristics, such as size or speed, may not maintain these through maturation (Vaeyens, et al., 2008).

The performance advantages of early maturation will be short lived, as late bloomers will eventually catch up. The issue here is that the late bloomers need to have still been exposed to the same development opportunities in order to have continued developing to their potential, and to ensure that they are still in the game (Malina, et al., 2005).

Selection Variables

As noted earlier, there are various aspects of performance and player characteristics that can be assessed in order to make selection determinations. An issue here is that players are not excluded on the basis of a ‘weakness’ in one area, especially if isolated testing is used (e.g. speed, skill tests, height or body type etc). Some of these weaknesses may be balanced out through maturation or training, and some players can compensate for a weakness through modifying the way they play (Abbott & Collins, 2004). The risk here again is that we exclude players who may actually have the potential to develop much further, despite their current perceived weaknesses.

Different components are necessary for success at different ages (Vaeyens, et al., 2006). The implications of this is that in identifying potential, selectors need to be able to look beyond the immediate success and characteristics, and look at the aspects which are have better predictive power. Due to the effect of maturation, physical and physiological components are not recommended as selection criteria (Williams & Reilly, 2000). Rather, players should be selected based on skills and ability.

Ability can include a number of characteristics. Psycho-behavioural characteristics are believed to be more important than physical and skill components (Abbott & Collins, 2002). These characteristics are required for optimising the development opportunities that they are afforded, by adopting an appropriate focus within and between training and competition. Therefore, a player’s attitude will be of greater benefit to them, especially over the course of a development programme, in order to reach their potential than the physical and skill attributes at a young age (when first being identified).

An important implication of this is that players’ attitudes and psycho-behavioural characteristics are difficult to detect in a trial situation, and so these characteristics should be monitored from within the development programme. These characteristics can then be used for selection purposes when the players reach higher age groups, as they will have been within the program for more than one season, allowing assessments regarding their attitude to be made.

Other aspects that have been identified as relevant to expertise in football include speed over 5m to 40m, ball control at speed, using different surfaces and unpredictable conditions, and anticipating play (Vrljic & Mallett, 2008). An important theme in these was that they should be relevant to the game, and not assessed through isolated tests that were not incorporated into the game.

Identifying Players

Given the above discussion, it is necessary to identify what aspects selectors should be assessing in order to place players into a development programme, and then for selection into competitive squads. The key components that have been identified are as follows:

  • Physical characteristics such as size, strength, maturation level
  • Physiological such as speed, agility and fitness
  • Technical skills such as dribbling, passing, control and shooting, along with defensive skills
  • Cognitive such as game understanding and perception
  • Psycho-behavioural such as attitude, desire and effort. 

Physical and physiological aspects should not be tested for or used to screen players at this stage due to the effect of maturation and the risk of deselecting players that have the same or greater potential. Positive psycho-behavioural characteristics are desired, and in fact necessary for a player to apply themselves within the development programme, and to reach their potential. Perceptual-cognitive skills and technical skills have been found to be more likely to discriminate between different overall skill levels of players (Vaeyens, et al., 2008). The question remaining is how much weight is placed on technical skills and game understanding, and if this varies by age. Selectors need to be informed what to look for, how to observe it, and how much weight to give each attribute when determining which players should go into the development programme.

A suggested process for developing this understanding of what to assess is to create a profile of the athlete that is to be identified for the development programme, in terms of their competencies, knowledge, skills and abilities required for participation in the programme, along with the expectations. Competencies include the standards, capabilities and characteristics of the athlete that are expected (Bradbury, n.d.).

Policy Considerations

It is important that selection policies and procedures are developed and put in place, and that these are communicated to the athletes, parents and selectors. A written selection policy should be created, that provides an overview of the selection policies, the criteria on which athletes will be selected, who will decide selection, and the process by which the selections will be decided (Bradbury, n.d.). They should explain the skills, qualities and performance standards that are sought by selectors, and the decision making process used. It is important that players are informed of how the trials will proceed, so that they can be properly prepared for them.

The selection criteria that are contained in the policy should conform to the following requirements:

  • The competencies required by the player
  • The selection criteria in priority order
  • Impartial and non-discriminatory
  • Identifies the methods of selection
  • Regularly updated and communicated to all parties.


Following the discussion above regarding the purpose of talent identification relative to a development programme, and given the issues raised regarding talent identification, especially at the younger age groups, the following recommendations are made:

  • That development remains the focus of a development programme as opposed to performance
  • That the focus of the initial trial phases is to get the players showing the greatest long-term potential (as opposed to short term ability) into the development programme
  • That the role of maturation is acknowledged, along with the fact that players that are effective at a young age will not necessarily be the same ones that are effective in future years
  • That players are not deselected based on effectiveness or physical size early in their playing careers
  • That an overview of desired characteristics is developed to aid selectors with what they are looking for, how they will see these characteristics and the types of players that they should be selecting for inclusion into the development programme
  • That greater emphasis is placed on technical skills and game understanding as opposed to physical characteristics and current effectiveness in games when identifying players for the programme
  • That the selection process is written down in terms of what selectors are to look for, and that this is distributed to selectors and players/parents
  • That small sided games are  used for selection purposes, rather than skill tests or physical testing
  • That a policy regarding the selection of players at each stage is developed, along with guidelines on how to identify these players – from club nominations, acceptance into programme and selection into the competitive squads
  • That psycho-behavioural components are monitored within the programme to aid selections in future years and for ongoing player identification
  • That there is education of selectors and players/parents with regards to the objectives of the selection process and the issues surrounding it (maturation, long-term potential etc)
  • That research is used to back up the development philosophy, and a similar education process is used so that the philosophy is understood throughout the development process, and is adhered to by the programme coaches.


Abbott, A., & Collins, D. (2002). A theoretical and empirical analysis of a ‘state of the art’talent identification model. High Ability Studies, 13(2).

Abbott, A., & Collins, D. (2004). Eliminating the dichotomy between theory and practice in talent identification and development: considering the role of psychology. J Sports Sci, 22(5), 395-408.

Bradbury, T. (n.d.). Athlete selection processes. Massey University.

Malina, R. M., Cumming, S. P., Kontos, A. P., Eisenmann, J. C., Ribeiro, B., & Aroso, J. (2005). Maturity-associated variation in sport-specific skills of youth soccer players aged 13-15 years. J Sports Sci, 23(5), 515-522.

Reilly, T., & Williams, M. (2003). Science and soccer (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Vaeyens, R., Lenoir, M., Williams, A. M., & Philippaerts, R. M. (2008). Talent identification and development programmes in sport : current models and future directions. Sports Med, 38(9), 703-714.

Vaeyens, R., Malina, R. M., Janssens, M., Van Renterghem, B., Bourgois, J., Vrijens, J., et al. (2006). A multidisciplinary selection model for youth soccer: the Ghent Youth Soccer Project. Br J Sports Med, 40(11), 928-934; discussion 934.

Vrljic, K., & Mallett, C. (2008). Coaching knowledge in identifying football talent. International Journal of Coaching Science, 3(1).

Williams, A. M., & Reilly, T. (2000). Talent identification and development in soccer. J Sports Sci, 18(9), 657-667.

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