Selection policy in amateur football: labelling (youth) players is dangerous

Blogs by Erik van Blits

In my previous publication I presented some results with regards to my research about selection policy. Football clubs want to perform at the highest level with their first team, which is why they start selecting youth players from a young age to guarantee a flow of talented players. Research shows however that having an ‘early selection policy’ is highly complex and unreliable, which is how I came to think that a large group of youth players gets excluded (without any justification) from development chances. In this publication I will delve more into the youth players’ experiences. How do they experience selection policy at amateur clubs?

Amateur clubs make team selections based on the level of play. This means that the best players from the U9 play in the U9-1, and the least talented players play in the U9-5 for example. General rule of thumb; the higher the number the lower the level. The justification behind this way of selecting teams is the thought that when players are surrounded by other players with the same level of play or ‘talent’ they have more fun. Besides this division, clubs also distinguish between selection and non-selection teams. This stems from the idea that clubs believe that players experience the game differently, competitive vs. non-competitive for example. I will delve deeper into this subject and finally give some recommendations.

Even in the youngest age categories, league matches are already organised based on age and level of play. Amateur clubs put together a team of players that seems suitable for that specific age and level of competition. Youth players think it is important and more enjoyable to play against a team with a similar level. “Rather a last-minute defeat than a 10-0 win”, as described by a youth player. This means youth players think it is important to play thrilling and close games. This is an important argument for clubs to make team divisions based on level and therefore compete with a ‘strong’ team.

Every youth player I spoke with throughout my research has the ambition to play on the highest possible level. When a player gets the chance to play for a selection team (U9-1 for example) it boosts their status and self-confidence. Youth players attach great value to the ranking of teams. One of the youth players from the U13-4 (non-selection) was thinking about transferring to another club because there he would get selected for the U13-1. Most important reason? “The U13-4 does not sound like a good team”.

Selection teams are a certain norm which players identify themselves with. A player assesses his own performances by using the level of a selection team as a reference; Am I good enough to play in the U13-1 next season? In order to find out what non-selection players think of the selection policy implemented by clubs I asked a player from the U13-3 whether he would like to play in a selection team. His answer: “I would love to, but I am not good enough […].”
I only asked him whether he would like to play in a selection team or not. Without me explicitly asking, he mentions his own level of play and how he thinks he is not good enough. Another example down below, from a parent’s perspective:

“I: Would [Ralf] like to play in a selection team?
R: Absolutely not!
I: Why not?
R: Because he is not good enough.”

The way a non-selection player assesses his own performances compared to a selection team influences the way a player looks at himself. The fact that he is playing in a lower ranked team influences his self-image; “I am just not good enough”. For none of the non-selection players included in my research this aspect was a stimulant to get better. Their negative self-image as a player slows down the desire to play in a selection team. In other words: Once a player gets ‘labelled’ a non-selection player, the possibility exists that the player’s self-image gets influenced in such a way that the motivation to play for a selection team disappears partially or entirely.

“Once they realise they will not be able to play in a selection team, I think, the desire to reach that level decreases as well”. Parent non-selection player

The above stated, the negative influence on a player’s motivation to become a better player, is worrying. If you link this to the theory of the ‘growth mindset’ you could argue that selection policy stimulates a static mindset. What this means, is that we (clubs, parents, etc.) carry out, and confirm youth players’ belief that talent and skills are innate and fixed. The placement in a non-selection team is the confirmation that you are just not good enough.

Everyone who has ever read a youth amateur club’s policy plan will be familiar with the following sentence:

“[The youth academy is] a place where talented players are able to develop, but also where the less talented players can enjoy the sport in their own way.”

This means we are talking about two different groups: talented and less talented football players. In addition, we believe that both groups have different needs in terms of experiencing the game of football. The one group focuses on development and the other plays football just for fun. A reason for clubs to make a distinction between talented (selection) and less talented (non-selection) players is the thought that not every member wants to have ‘serious’ training sessions. There are also members who play football ‘just for fun’ and think the social aspect of the game is more important. Youth players experience the sport of football in a variety of ways which makes it important to create a distinction between selection and non-selection teams.

This subsequently means that teams are formed based on how players experience the game. I have asked both players and parents to name characteristics that fit with selection and non-selection players. Selection players are: competitive, tough and serious about football. Non-selection players are: less competitive, ‘thinking’ about football and attach more value to the social aspect of the game. It is this image we have of selection and non-selection players that is dangerous!

We, the adults (parents, coaches, board members) who are in charge of youth football, argue that players in selection teams are more eager to become a better player and experience the game differently than non-selection players, because they play football ‘just for fun’.
Let me flip this around.

We create some sort of expectation pattern for children. By labelling players from a very young age (selection vs non-selection) we determine how both respective categories should experience football.

In order to create this expectancy pattern, we, the adults, use a variety of methods to influence youth player’s behaviour. For example, by giving compliments or substituting players during matches. Below, a couple of examples of how we create these expectancy patterns for children.

Trainers, for example, attach great value to the fact that selection players should train ‘seriously’, that they have a good reason to not show up for a training session and that they do not have too much fun. If you do not meet this expectation pattern, you might get kicked out of the selection.

“Yeah, if you do not train seriously, you get kicked out.” Selection player

“At the U13-4 players sometimes do not show up when their tired, or when they do not feel like training. But our coaches say that when you do not show up for practice you get benched during gameday. You just will not be in the starting eleven.” Selection player

The attitude, behaviour and rules as carried out by the adults creates an expectation pattern for the players. We let selection players know that we do not want them to go on holiday during competition, while at the same time for non-selection players it is okay to cancel a training session because of a birthday party.

The above stated development asks for a careful consideration of how clubs and trainers influence their players. One of the dangers related to this development is that we start to treat children like adults without accounting for their (mental) age.

The truth of the situation is more nuanced than as sketched above. It depends on the context at a club and the individual player. I do, however, want to encourage everyone to be careful with labelling and ranking youth players and teams. There are plenty of non-selection players that are very motivated to succeed and want to develop. All players deserve the best possible environment for development. Even if it is just because we all know that one player from the U13-5 that suddenly outperformed everyone and became a selection player after all.

It is my opinion that amateur football clubs unfairly attach the greatest value to their performance-related ambitions. Building and establishing a lasting connection with youth players should be key for any amateur football club. Early selection and specialisation does not fit in with this vision (Coté & Hancock, 2014). By giving children the freedom to participate in a variety of sports and by offering a playful way of getting to know football, negative effects (termination or injuries) could be prevented at a later age. This is why I stress, especially in the lower-age teams, the importance of offering all youth players equally long, same amount and same quality development chances (training sessions). Eventually, this will also benefit a club’s performance-related ambitions: Preparing youth players for the first team (check out my previous article).

There is not a single model or solution. Making team selections based on level or ambition seems to directly influence how much players enjoy the sport, but at the same time causes exclusion. In that sense, do not see the below presented advises as an ultimate fix, but more of a collection of advises that could lead to a solution:

  • Try to postpone labelling and ranking of teams as long as possible
  • Take advantage of knowledgeable coaches. Connect a licensed coach to multiple teams and/or make him responsible for an entire age category to extend his reach and teach more children how to play football
  • Be more flexible in composing teams. Mix players from different teams and let them play together. Different team compositions lead to a better understanding and analysis of players. In addition, the players themselves would have to adapt to different situations. An example would be to switch from an annual team selection to a quarterly team selection.
  • Make sure that all players from a single age category have similar practice session times. This provides the club with the opportunity to implement the two previous recommendations in a practical situation.
  • Experiment with the team division criteria, by for example composing teams based on birth month or bio-bonding. Another consideration could be to compose ‘average’ teams only. All teams within an age category would have an equal level.
  • Try to assess players based on their development instead of their performances throughout a match. A precocious and strong player who scores a lot and wins a lot of duels stands out compared to a player who does not. This player could, however, still have improved drastically. Find a way to measure youth players’ development. Use a player’s ability to learn as a starting point in the selection of teams.
  • Let go of categorisations. Make as little distinction between selection and non-selection teams when it comes to conditions and facilities. Consideration could be made to let go completely of naming selection and non-selection teams.

If you want to know more do not hesitate to get in touch. I would also like to know what your ideas and opinions are about selection policy in amateur football.

Nick Veenbrink works at NMC Bright as a Consultant Sport. He completed his Sports Policy & Sports Management Masters at the Utrecht University and has worked together with a lot of youth academies through the Quality & Performance Program for youth academies in cooperation with the Royal Dutch Football Federation (KNVB)