Sports Science: Week in Review, Sep 12-18

Developing young athletes with elite potential in the U.S. is a never ending discussion, often just below the surface of a sports daily news. Youth development in U.S. soccer has grown side-by-side with the sport and has become a rich subject for writers. Every American sport has its pathways for surfacing talented young players and giving opportunities to flourish to those athletes. Science has something to say about how talent reaches its potential.

The emergence of Christian Pulisic, a world class 17-year old soccer player from Hershey, Pennsylvania, prompted Will Parchman to ask if we should expect more like him. How can it occur, Parchman asks a few coaches, which are, in most cases, the least likely to give a realistic answer.

One coach, Brad Friedel, who leads the US U19 Men’s team, called out MLS coaches to play a bigger role in developing young American players by playing their deserving teenagers. Coaches, especially youth, coaches tend to overemphasize their own importance in developing players and then understate their crucial role in creating situations for young players to play at the professional level.

In reality peers have far greater influence on young players development than coaches (or parents). Heather O’Reilly credits her teammates for launching her lengthy career with the U.S. Women’s National team.

The available pathways for young athletes to reach their next highest levels in sports are not necessarily defined top-down by authorities. In soccer the sheer number of kids who play mean that new paths forward are opening up via development academies, MLS teams, NCAA universities, Europe and U.S. Youth National Teams. And technology should enable exciting things for local grassroots soccer as the Texas company Blue Star Sports creates tools for organizing local children’s sports leagues.

The ongoing evolution of soccer development pathways, both the successes and the issues are more clearly defined with American women. U.S. Soccer can point to improvements in technical skills in the current group of rising players. Off the pitch, U.S. Soccer has struggled to diversify the player pool beyond a core group of suburban, middle- and upper-class demographic.

There was a recent SoccerAmerica essay by Christopher Pepe that outlined youth soccer in Italy, and how it’s woven into the culture in a way that encourages enables lifelong participation. The enjoyment of the game of is what matters most, something that gets lost among American soccer priorities where attention goes to wins or scholarships or individual player performances.

Player development comes down to numbers. More U.S. youth soccer for more young players still doesn’t make a dent in the overall global demand for talent (in the men’s game). As a result new pathways are bound to emerge for players to reach elite levels. The key benefit in a player like Pulisic is the cascade of impacts it has on his teenage peers who can see how to progress from where they are to where they want to get.

More things that I read and liked last week:


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