The Evolution of Youth Soccer Talent Development

Young soccer players in training, representing cognitive talent development.

The discussion surrounding the scouting and grooming of young soccer talents has been intensified. There’s a lot intertwined with this debate, but it isn’t necessarily dictated by any one factor. Let’s delve deeper into this, starting with the recent steps taken by clubs like FC Utrecht and their Under-8 team initiative.

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FC Utrecht’s Young Talent Initiative

Last week, an article highlighted FC Utrecht’s new Under-8 team. Big football clubs are eager to mold talent quickly according to their vision. Is it just about capturing raw talent, or is there a fear of missing out? Michiel de Hoog from the Correspondent has elaborated this beautifully. In an interview with Bastiaan Riemersma, significant emphasis was laid on the choices professional clubs make. Willem II’s Head of Youth believes in ‘cognitive talent’. Players with cognitive talent are curious, disciplined, and grasp the purpose of drills swiftly. They’re termed ‘self-regulating’ in scientific parlance. But what exactly is this cognitive talent? How does a child’s brain work?

Deciphering the Child’s Brain

A vital part of a child’s development revolves around control functions, commonly known as ‘executive functions’. Neuropsychology Professor Jelle Jolles notes that these functions begin developing early on but gain more importance during teenage years. These are located at the front of the brain and assist us in executing tasks. A model designed by researchers Peg Dawson and Richard Guare has identified 11 skills vital for a child’s development. These skills include response inhibition, working memory, emotional regulation, sustained attention, task initiation, planning/prioritizing, organization, time management, goal-directed behavior, flexibility, and metacognition (self-reflection). Knowledge of the development sequence of these executive functions allows educators and trainers to set realistic expectations.

Rapidly Growing Trees and Talent Development

Jolles’ book, ‘Ellis and the Brain’ (2011), delves into child and youth talent development. Jolles stresses the importance of personal growth. The title refers to ‘Alice In Wonderland’, emphasizing curiosity and talent expansion. A popular misconception was that the brain stops growing around age twelve. However, recent studies indicate that our brains continue developing way past our twenties. Complex brain systems mature during mid-to-late adolescence. Jolles uses the example of a 16-year-old gifted soccer player who, despite his impressive skills on the field, still needs guidance off the field in terms of self-evaluation and social behavior. Coaches should not only focus on technical and tactical areas of the game. Overemphasis on these areas might lead to a scenario where, as Jolles metaphorically puts it, “A rapidly growing tree might fall prematurely.”

Talent: Beyond Physical Skills

According to Jolles, talent is more than just excellent motor skills. It encompasses how information from various senses is efficiently stored in the working memory, learning capabilities, and drawing connections between different situations. Encouraging multi-positional gameplay can help players unearth potential strengths. Moreover, players aged ten to fourteen cannot be expected to have the same focus and performance level as adults due to brain development phases. Communication and evaluation are key.

Correlation and Causation in Talent Research

It’s important to note that while certain factors might correlate, they don’t necessarily cause one another. The birth-month effect, for instance, suggests early-born children get scouted faster, but it doesn’t mean they have higher potential.


Researching growth potential remains a challenge. With every individual having a uniquely formed brain (Neuroplasticity), it’s crucial to understand that each learns differently. Late bloomers might still reach the pinnacle of success, as seen with Jamie Vardy. Conversely, early bloomers like Martin Ødegaard might not always meet early expectations. As Jolles wisely puts it, “A slow-growing tree might eventually become the tallest” (alluding to Vardy), and “A rapidly growing tree might fall or die young” (referring to Ødegaard).

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