What do I look for in a player?

It wasn't very long ago that I was asked to observe tryouts for a U18 team of a club. I have known the coach of the team for a long time.  We are friendly rivals on the pitch and friends in real life.  The facts of the matter are, my team has gotten the best of his team more often than not and he wanted to learn more about what I look for in players. Before I agreed to observe his tryouts I felt it necessary to make two points; 1) what works for me might not work for him and 2) I don't always get it right.  With that being understood I agreed to observe their tryouts.

When I arrived at the site there were cones everywhere I looked and I know I rolled my eyes.  I wondered if "cone boy" was here for the tryouts too?  Let me explain.  The club I had been associated with for years had hired a trainer to work with some of its teams. I never met the gentleman, but would see him on occasion at the pitches. He really liked to use cones in his training. One day we counted how many he had placed out in preparation for that days training - nearly 300!  He was instantly crowned "cone boy" by some of our players.  Nothing derisive or negative intended. It was just an observation of a lot of cones being used.

A first glance at the tryout area saw 4 or 5 different spaces with cones laid out for the evaluation of technical and physical abilities. By now I was at least inwardly shaking my head.  We greeted one another and introductions were made with other coaches in attendance.  My role was defined as an observer of the tryouts.  When I asked for clarification on what I was there to observe there was a moment of hesitation. I jumped in and asked if I were to watch the tryout process or was I there to watch the athletes trying out?  It came about that I was there to do both in the sense I could watch the process and perhaps help make personnel decisions on the last few spots. 

Well, alright then.

There were 6 stations set up for the tryout process

1) 40 yard dash
2) 20 meter shuttle
3) Running with the ball over a course of 50 yards
4) Cuts and Turns over a 40 yard slalom course
5) Juggling
6) Striking the ball on goal

I dutifully watched the players perform at each station while carrying around a clipboard with a pen tucked in my pocket.  An hour and a half later the tryout was apparently done as they called the young men in for a final chat. After the athletes were dismissed the coaches gathered and began comparing notes.  I listened as timed results were rattled off, number of successfully consecutive juggles completed were accounted for and consistency of strikes on net were discussed.  There were a few athletes that stood out as the "best" and a few others that were quickly eliminated from consideration for having the worst times.  It came down to making a decision from amongst 7 boys for the final 3 spots on the team.  This is when they turned to me.

I told the group of 6 coaches there that I had nothing to add and handed in my devoid of any notes clipboard.  The looks among that group of men were priceless. They ran the gamut - shocked, snickering, angry, disbelief, curious.  I knew someone would inquire about my reply and when they did my response was simple.

"You tested for technical ability and athleticism. You have those results on your clip boards. You did not test for tactical understanding or psychology, unless observing how the athletes handled your dog and pony show qualifies as a measure of their mental toughness."

After things calmed down a bit I explained there are four areas that should be evaluated.


These experienced coaches knew this. What they didn't know was how to run a proper tryout. Eventually I was asked how I conduct tryouts. They wanted to know what activities I used and what I looked for in a soccer player.  I referred them back to the 4 areas listed directly above this paragraph and commented that while all are inter-related the one I prioritize is the Tactical consideration.  This is the one area their tryout completely failed to address.  The players never played the game during the tryout.

The tryouts I observed that day identified the Big, Strong, Fast athletes present. 

What a tryout like this misses entirely is the fact pace of play is far more about decision making ability on and off the ball than it is about pure physical speed. Soccer is a thinking man's game.

At my suggestion, everyone who had tried out that day was invited back to a second tryout session held a few days later. This time dynamic stretching was performed in groups and then sides were chosen for small-sided play before we ended with full 11 v 11 play.  I asked the coaches (5 of the original 6 were present at the second tryout session) to observe who was leading dynamic stretching. Which players were cutting corners or not finishing a stretch completely.  In small sided play we watched the order players were chosen for teams in. Then we watched for the players who most consistently lost possession of the ball. When teams were selected once again, we observed where the players who constantly lost possession of the ball were chosen.  We looked for how a player prepared to play the ball. We looked for players who played with an economy and efficiency of touches. Did a player receive with hips open to the field whenever possible?  Was a pass made to the proper foot or proper space? Was a player capable of playing 1 touch or 2 touch soccer? Did a player take multiple touches when 1 or 2 touches would have sufficed?  Is the player a disciplined 1 v 1 defender or do they constantly stab at or dive in on the ball? As a defender did they work to make the attack predictable.

The above paragraph is all about on-the-ball abilities.  How a player combines mental decision-making abilities with technical abilities. 

Here's a secret that's really not a secret at all.  A typical player will have possession of the ball for approximately 3% of a match. What is the player doing the other 97% of the time? 

So we also watched players when they did not have the ball. Were they ball watchers or were the game watchers?  A ball watcher typically plays one-decision soccer. They tend to be focused on the ball and oblivious to the greater game at large.  When they obtain possession of the ball is when they begin to decide what they will do with it next. Maybe. They might be so focused on being first to the ball that even gaining possession of the ball is a secondary consideration.

Game watchers tend to be "ahead of the game" and capable of playing one-touch or two-touch soccer in most instances because they play "multiple-decision" soccer.  They know their next play before their first touch on the ball. A game-watchers successful pace of play readily stands out. They appear faster in a physical sense than perhaps they tested to be. 

And movement off the ball or support is not relegated to attacking play. When attacking does a player move to create numbers up situations in his teams favor? Does the player without the ball move to create space for a teammate or recognize and move into available space?  Defensively does a player move into proper support position in relation to the on-the-ball defender?  Does the off-the-ball defender seek to balance the defensive shape? We looked for quality of communication both of the verbal sense and physically. Who directed traffic and did they do so from a ball watchers perspective or that of a game watcher?

We also observed mental toughness.  When a player encountered adversity on the pitch, how did he respond?  I do not want to see a kid hang his head and call out "my bad."  I want the kid who stays in the game and when next he encounters a similar situation has a different solution ready to handle it.  I want the kid, who when he loses possession of the ball immediately assesses the situation and deploys himself in the best possible manner to help his team regain possession. Perhaps that is immediately contesting the ball to win it back or perhaps it entails getting back behind the ball and into a support position as quickly as possible. Either way, I want immediate and decisive action over hanging heads and jogging.  The quality of the decision will expose whether the player was ball watching or game watching in deciding how to act.

The second session concluded after nearly 2 hours of playing the game.  The players were dismissed and the coaches gathered to discuss what they had observed.  Not surprisingly a couple of the better athletes did not grade out nearly as highly as they did after the first session while a couple of the "worst" athletes received surprisingly high grades on their tactical abilities.  In the end, when the coaches asked my opinion on filling the last few roster spots I was able to comment on individual players and communicate to them my opinions based on having seen players actually playing the game they were trying out to play. 

What do I look for in a player?

I want game watchers who place the team above themselves and demonstrate mental toughness in overcoming adversity.

Then I look to technique and physical ability.

All the technique in the world is rendered inadequate if the decision-making process is shoddy. Skill without tactical understanding of how to apply it slows the pace of the game to a crawl and results in self-inflicted pressure.  I want speed!  I want pace of play!  And that starts with communicative game watchers and multiple-decision players. 

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