How To Assess Soccer Players Without Skill Tests

By Tom Turner

Evaluating soccer players can be a challenging process, particularly when the criteria used for evaluation are not based on the demands of the game. Soccer is a very fluid game when it is performed well; to play at speed, players must have skill and vision and tactical insight. However, with novice and experienced coaches alike, there is a tendency to look at soccer as a series of discrete skills or actions, separate from the game as a whole. This can lead to the development of evaluation criteria that are based more on “scores” than “performance.”  While a deep knowledge of the discrete components that comprise the game of soccer is important, and, in fact, serves as one marker that separates the more experienced coach fr om the novice, there is an inherent danger in thinking about the game in discrete terms when evaluating players. This is particularly true in try-out situations when “skill tests” are seen as more objective and often utilized to protect inexperienced coaches from unpopular decisions. Let’s take a look at passing as an example of the folly and futility of individual skill testing for the purpose of selecting players for teams.

A common skill test for passing is to count how many times the ball is exchanged between two players in 60 seconds using the inside of the foot. In soccer games, the purpose of passing is to score goals, to take opponents out of the game, or to keep possession of the ball. There are six surf aces of the foot that can be used to pass the ball (inside, outside, heel, toe, instep and sole) and the ball can be passed using a variety of spins, speeds and trajectories. If we separate the tactical aspects of play ( when and why do I pass there?) from the technical aspects (what surface and texture is required?), the basic elements of the game are decoupled and we are left with activities that involve technical repetition without tactical context. In addition, when we choose to test passing skills with a particular surface, it is of ten at the expense of the others. This can send the message to players that the other surfaces are either less important, not recommended, or not to be considered. Think about coaches who discourage, and would certainly never test for, passing with the toe, and then consider  all the ways the toe can be used as a viable option in problem solving!  To take this to the extreme, if we decide to be fair and test all six surfaces, how long will this process take and what time will be left for assessing all the other technical, tactical and physical aspects that constitute the elements of play?

Looking from a different perspective, think of practicing passing with one surface as similar to learning to strike just one key on a keyboard. We may become good at striking “G,” but it doesn’t make us think about how to find “G” in the context of creating a complete sentence, or  how “G” is situated in relation to the other keys. Ironically, practicing only one technique in isolation is actually reinforcing for coaches because players do improve their ability to perform that particular action. However, the downside to predictable technical repetition in young players is that those who learn the game in less predictable ways are more likely to develop a deeper understanding of how to adapt their range of techniques to solve novel tactical problems; in short, they become more skillful! While street soccer may be a thing of the past, think no further than the upbringing of the average NBA player to form an appreciation of  its lost value. Creative, skillful players develop in response to an environment where techniques and tactical awareness develop in unpredictable ways “together” though hours of unstructured free play.

So how does this relate to try-outs? My premise is that quantitative (numerical) measures of ability do not work very well in evaluating soccer players. Timed sprints, kicks against a wall, kicking for distance, number of Coerver’s in a minute, and various competitions, such as 1v1 Combat, are all examples of activities that have been used to assess whether players can play soccer or not. However, knowing that Suzie can sprint 50 yards in 8 seconds, juggle 5 times with her right foot, kick 25.5 yards with her left foot, and run through a line of cones in 12 seconds tells us very little about Suzie’s ability as a problem-solver  under pressure. For that, we need to watch her play soccer and evaluate how her technique impacts her decision-making.

While the task of watching and assessing decision-making within a live game can be quite difficult for the average parent-coach, the following criteria form the basis of a realistic playing evaluation. Assessing players’ strengths and weaknesses in an authentic setting not only provides information on which players can actually “play” soccer, but also allows coaches the opportunity to target for remediation those areas that are observed to be absent or a hindrance to good performance. Consider how realistic it would be to tell a parent that their child is on the “B” or “C” team because they don’t yet understand how to create space, or they can’t keep possession of the ball when under pressure, or their tactical understanding does not allow them to play in combination with others, or that they simply take too many touches and play too slowly. Contrast that message with the information that their child is on the “B” or “C” team because they can’t run fast enough, juggle well enough, dribble through a line of cones under control, or because they finished bottom of a competitive heading ladder. In reality, the differences between the scores of young players may be one or two juggles or one or two seconds, or one or two feet. We must ask if those differences really tell us anything of substance about that person as a soccer player?  (Next: What to look for in players)

Tom Turner is a U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Region II Boys ODP Coach, Ohio North State Director of Coaching. He can be reached at coaching@oysan.org.

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