Football has become such a big business that top clubs are under great pressure to ensure they recruit the next Cristiano Ronaldo before their nearest rival. As a result, they are taking on players very young.
British clubs commonly take advantage of the fact that they can sign players on schoolboy terms from the age of nine. And the clubs invite even younger children to their development centres and have been known to scout five-year-olds.
When a youngster signs for a big club, they and their parents sometimes have to agree not to play other sports or play for other football teams for fear of injury. This helps explain why British players who go on to become professionals tend not to participate in other sports. Yet the average age of World Cup winning teams is as old as 27.5 years. So is this early specialisation necessary?
Many specialists like myself would say it looks more like a by-product of the current talent development system rather than the most effective route to expertise. Research suggests that in sports like football where players reach their peak well into adulthood, you needn’t specialise before the age of 13; and you’re more likely to keep playing and to become an elite performer if you take part in a range of activities between the ages of six and 12.
One of the main arguments in favour of early specialisation is the hypothetical positive relationship between the amounts of time you spend practising a sport and the level of achievement you go on to attain – the idea that 10,000 hours of practice makes perfect. But this has been widely contested within sports research – and, even if this is true, it’s not necessarily an argument for concentrating on one sport.
For example the Stoke City and England goalkeeper Jack Butland, who is missing Euro 2016 through injury, played rugby alongside football until he was 16. He strongly believes the rugby helped him develop as a goalkeeper. The research evidence suggests that related team sports with similar rules, movement, dimensions and strategies to football have the most transferable benefits. Playing darts may not be quite as beneficial, in other words.
The impact of specialising early
At top UK football clubs, only one in 200 of those under nine make it to the senior team. There are obvious psychological effects on young footballers having to cope with not only the time demands and pressure of being part of a professional club but often the brutal rejection following years of commitment.
It also takes its toll on the body by subjecting young players to more frequent and intensive loads. Between 10% and 40% of football injuries among children and adolescents are from playing too much. Players under 14 incur more training injuries than older players and they develop growth-related disorders linked to overplaying because their skeletons and tissue are still growing. The evidence indicates that children are better off not training intensively, yet the UK has recently adopted an Elite Player Performance Plan that focuses on early specialisation and increases the number of on-pitch hours for youngsters per week.
For all these reasons, the compromise for numerous continental European football clubs is to engage players at a young age but not to make them overspecialise. For example FC Barcelona is Europe’s largest multi-sports club. It has four professional sections besides football – basketball, handball, roller hockey and futsal (a variant of five-a-side football). There are also six amateur sections – athletics, rugby, volleyball, field hockey, ice hockey and figure skating. Another example of this approach is Sporting Clube de Portugal, home to Sporting Lisbon.
Then there are clubs such as Belgium’s Standard Liége, which are not multi-sports clubs but do provide coaching support that develops general skills and abilities, such as agility and coordination, that can be transferable to numerous sports.
These clubs approach youth football in these ways because the reality is that early specialisation is not the most effective route to the top. Countries whose clubs operate in this way are surely more likely to end up with the better players in the long run. The UK has long had a reputation for producing very few top players from club academies. If Euro 2016 ends up being another campaign where England falls short, it needs to take this into account.