Talent Identification and Recruitment in GAA Youth Academies Part 1
Understanding talent identification practices is very important as it has been painted negatively in recent decades (Calvin, 2017). Some systems and models have been designed and implemented without the best interests of the holistic development of the athlete in mind (Rothwell et al., 2018). The importance of investigating this area cannot be understated. Currently, there is some debate over the structuring of talent academies in the GAA after the extensive 2019 review and the subsequent implementation of the new GAA athletic pathway. In this 2-part blog, we’re going to look at talent identification and detection practices along with the relationship they play in the GAA. Starting in part 1 by looking at coaches’ perceptions of the attributes they assess when selecting players for youth academies.
Current research on talent identification
There has been some research looking at players transitioning from minor level to senior but nothing from U14. There are very limited resources that have looked at this transfer rate, but an excellent piece of unpublished research recently highlighted that within Tipperary GAA of the 2,600 players between the years 1889 and 2021, only 187 (7%) played minor, U20/21, and senior. 437 played senior but never minor while 1,125 played minor but not senior (McDonnell, 2022).
There has also been no research investigating the key recruiters responsible for the identification of players selected to U14 development squads and the processes they utilise. Research conducted through the Football Association (FA) “Football talent spotting: Are clubs getting it wrong with kids” (Magowan, 2015) revealed that less than 0.5% who began at U9 professional academies go all the way to play for the first team at some point. Essentially, 1 in 200 players will make it from U9 to senior.
The selection process has become more and more refined whereby scouts are valuing many areas such as technical ability, physicality, mentality, speed, and if there is potentiality a role for the player in the future at the club (Morris 2010). Looking at the physical attributes of early maturing and the stature of these players only identifies current performances and not future potential (Unnithan et al., 2011). Coaches from Bayern Munich use many of these areas but for the most part, coaches still use their eyes to assess players. This has been identified as a considerable problem because two or more scouts can watch a game and have a very different perception of how the player performed or the key intangibles needed to make a future successful player.
Key perceptions of recruiters
First, we’ll take a look at the involvement of recruiters/coaches in the identification of youth players coming into academy settings. Within the research, the processes involve varied from study to study. There is a combination of objective attributes, subjective measures, intuitive preconceived notions of what potential is, and how to delineate elite from non-elite (Tabacchi et al., 2019).
A key theme from much of the research is that most coaches use a combination of key attributes and game-based performances to decide on a player’s potential but often still decide based on a feeling of what a talented player appears to be at an early juncture in their career (Larkin and O Connor, 2017). This process does not correlate highly with future performance in some studies (Williams and Reilly, 2000).
In “An eye for talent: The recruiters’ role in the Australian Football talent pathway” (Larkin et al., 2020), the aim of the article was to identify the recruiter’s role in the talent identification process in Australian Rules Football (AFL) academies. This study looked at the practices of 12 full-time (AFL) recruiters and how they came to their talent identification decisions.
The results and discussion provide insights and an occupational ‘road map’ into the important role recruiters perform in sporting organisations. This study offers a lot of practical information for recruiters to use when looking at selection criteria as opposed to the conventional selection of players based on a sense of what a good or bad player is, such as:
- The need for recruiters to have a strong understanding of the team’s needs when making informed talent selection decisions
- The importance of assessing an athlete’s in-game performance as part of the talent identification process
- A focus on intrinsic qualities, such as gameplay intelligence and attitude, rather than isolated exercises where players exhibit physical qualities
- The consideration of psychological attributes and making psychological assessments, psychometric testing, and the involvement of sport psychologists an integral component of the overall talent pathway and selection process
In a similar theme, the following research looked at the coach’s role in talent identification. “Talent identification and recruitment in youth soccer: Recruiter’s perceptions of the key attributes for player recruitment” (Larkin and O’Connor, 2017). The focus of this study was to understand the attributes youth recruiters valued when identifying U13 soccer players in Australia, this is incredibly comparable to talent identification at the development squad level.
Results indicate a hierarchy of attributes recruiters perceive as important for U13 soccer performance, including technical, tactical, and psychological attributes (i.e., coachability and positive attitude). It is suggested talent recruiters apply a holistic multidisciplinary approach to talent identification, with the current findings potentially providing initial evidence to suggest recruiters do consider numerous attributes when selecting and identifying youth players. This is a very relevant source as it deals with the same area and age grade as incoming development squad players; it also looks at a field-based sport and how recruiters identified talented individuals.
Identifying future potential
A very interesting dynamic in the talent identification process is the concept that coaches are selecting players based on future potential. The following study explored that. “Can coaches predict long-term career attainment outcomes in adolescent athletes?” (Cripps et al., 2019). The primary aim of the study was to assess coaches’ predictive ability at identifying adolescents’ long-term potential within Australian Rules Football.
Adolescent athletes (n=264) and coaches (n=9) participated in the study whereby they asked coaches which players possessed the most potential. This was a worthwhile longitudinal study with a follow-up observational component after four years, this retrospective data was compared to the initial data collected. Firstly, coaches were asked to identify the most talented players in the group. The follow-up analysis was then performed to identify the level of predictive analysis performed by the coaches.
From the questionnaire the coaches took part in a level of predictiveness was identified. Coaches accurately predicted the correct level of achievement for 63% of the athletes who took part in the study. This type of study shows the importance of coaches and recruiters in the talent identification process but without a clear outline of the objective and subjective measures used to specify why they felt certain players would achieve a high level of success, it is difficult to ascertain if their process could be repeated with another group. It would be worthwhile to re-examine what factors lead to the coaches’ decisions. This is a very relevant source as it is the exact type of process used by GAA academies whereby coaches identify players’ potential simply based on a subjective sense of what a high-potential player is at U13.
As previously identified, professional soccer is a useful source to look at as it possesses a lot of research due to the need for professional organisations to investigate the success of their academy programs. However, an interesting statistic is that many successful organisations still go outside their own academies when constructing their first teams.
A 2010 study found that the percentage of club-developed players was very low across many major leagues. The Italian Serie A had only 5.5% of minutes played by club-developed players (Samagaio et al., 2009). There was a similar number in the Premier League with 6.1%. Alternatively in La Liga in Spain, this number was much higher at 21.6%. This can be seen in the excellent Pep Guardiola era in Barcelona, considered one of the best teams of all time which consisted mostly of academy graduates, notably Xavi and Iniesta. Another domestic league with a large proportion of club-developed talent would be the French Ligue 1 where 20.6% accounted for the time played.
The graph below was produced by The Athletic and details the ‘leading European clubs’ who gave the most minutes to academy-developed players in the 2021/22 season.
In “Nurture, nature, and some very dubious social skills: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of talent identification practices in elite English youth soccer” (Miller et al., 2015). Coaches were asked 3 open-ended detailed questions:
- In your experience, what is talent in soccer and how do you recognise it?
- What is a typical talent identification experience for you?
- What is it like to be a coach involved in talent identification at your club?
Three major themes were identified for the data collected:
- A primarily ‘nurtured’ and trainable understanding of the broad concept of talent itself
- The right kind of psychology is important, but the wrong kind is devastating
- Social skills and talent have little interdependence
The idea that talent is trainable was a key takeaway given the correct environment. This would conclude that talent is nurtured more than it is natural. This study is relevant as it in-depth looks at coaches’ perceptions of the nature vs nurture debate. Is talent inherited or is it a trainable quality? This is a conundrum that is commonly crossed within GAA recruitment circles.
There is a lot of relevance to the GAA because this is the same process that goes into the identification of players in the GAA. It is simply based on the coach’s perception of a player’s ability at a very early juncture of their development and has less to do with identifying if there are any key attributes that delineate elite and non-elite performers and whether any of these factors correlate to future performances. The real question is, is it ever possible to identify future performers? And if not, does that change the ethos of a GAA academy as only a very small percentage can make it due to the number of available positions on a senior team?
Much of the research on the identification process of talented individuals coming into academy settings suggests that there is a formalised process of identifying objective traits with lend themselves to the identification of future potential. However, there is still a strong sense that many coaches and recruiters make decisions based on the subjective unquantifiable sense of what a player with potential is. In part 2 we’ll be taking a look at transition rates in elite sports when moving from academies to elite level.
- Calvin, M. (2017). No hunger in paradise: The players. The journey. The dream. Random House.
- Cripps, A. J., Hopper, L. S., & Joyce, C. (2019). Can coaches predict long-term career attainment outcomes in adolescent athletes? International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 14(3), 324-328.
- Larkin, P., & O’Connor, D. (2017). Talent identification and recruitment in youth soccer: Recruiter’s perceptions of the key attributes for player recruitment. PLOS one, 12(4), e0175716.
- Larkin, P., Marchant, D., Syder, A., & Farrow, D. (2020). An eye for talent: The recruiters’ role in the Australian Football talent pathway. PloS one, 15(11), e0241307.
- Miller, P. K., Cronin, C., & Baker, G. (2015). Nurture, nature, and some very dubious social skills: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of talent identification practices in elite English youth soccer. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 7(5), 642-662.
- Magowan, A. (2015). Football talent spotting: Are clubs getting it wrong with kids. BBC Sport.
- Morris, P. H., & Lewis, D. (2010). Tackling diving: The perception of deceptive intentions in association football (soccer). Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 34(1), 1-13.
- Rothwell, M., Davids, K., & Stone, J. (2018). Harnessing socio-cultural constraints on athlete development to create a form of life. Journal of Expertise, 1(1).
- Unnithan, V., White, J., Georgiou, A., Iga, J., & Drust, B. (2012). Talent identification in youth soccer. Journal of sports sciences, 30(15), 1719-1726.
- Tabacchi, G., Lopez Sanchez, G. F., Nese Sahin, F., Kizilyalli, M., Genchi, R., Basile, M., … & Bianco, A. (2019). Field-based tests for the assessment of physical fitness in children and adolescents practicing sport: A systematic review within the ESA program. Sustainability, 11(24), 7187.
- Samagaio, A., Couto, E., & Caiado, J. (2009). Sporting, financial and stock market performance in English football: an empirical analysis of structural relationships. Centre for Applied Mathematics and Economics (CEMAPRE) working papers, 906.
- Williams AM, Reilly T. Talent identification and development in soccer. J Sports Sci. 2000; 18: 657– 667. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640410050120041 PMID: 11043892
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About the author
Rob Mulcahy is the current Head of Youth Athletic Development at Clare GAA where he is responsible for all aspects of sports science and S&C from U14-U20 in both Hurling and Football. He is also completing a doctorate at the University of Limerick where he is looking at talent identification and detection in the GAA along with player routes to senior intercounty teams. He has previously worked in several different areas including senior inter county GAA, Olympic and commonwealth athletes across a multitude of sports and professional basketball. He completed his Master’s degree at the St Marys University Twickenham and his undergraduate degree at the University of Limerick.
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