The youth soccer coach might ‘hear’ the prodigy before actually laying eyes on the player with special skills. There will be a thump! of the ball off the child’s foot, a plainly different sound than the modest “slap” when another, less-skilled child kicks the ball. When the coach hears that thump, they should pay attention. When they see the same child dribbling the ball through a maze of players with short flicks of the foot and with ease of movement, they should pay even closer attention.
If this boy or girl plays the game with a different level of energy and they are gleeful runners the next reaction can be the laconic phrase of dazzled youth soccer coaches everywhere.
“What do I do now with this kid?”
The myth is that the caliber of player who just competed for the U.S. in the World Cup comes automatically bouncing out of a premier youth club with a halo over their heads. It’s not true. Somebody had to first lay eyes -- or ears – on the player and start them on an upward arc. It could be the lawyer, doc, cop or accountant who is the after-5 coach for a recreational team or volunteers for a Boys & Girls Club.
But before the player is put on the path toward an elite team, evaluation is vital.
“The first thing to look for, and you can’t teach it, is if they are energized and run, if they are active and aggressive and want to be out there, that’s one of the best things we can work with,” said Warren van der Westhuizen, the director of player development for Gol Soccer Academy and the director of soccer programs for the Boys & Girls Club of America in Metro Atlanta.
“We can train anybody if they have the passion and the desire. We can’t teach the will to work and the will to win. If it is not in them, we can’t put it in them.
“I can tell them to run and they might do it for five minutes and then they’ll stop. If they want to fight for everything that’s the first part of it in the young age group.”
Bruno Kalonji, the head women’s coach at Georgia Perimeter College and the director of Kalonji Soccer, a youth academy, said it is imperative that when a soccer coach comes face to face with a player with physically superior skill that the coach gets acquainted with the family. Too many times, Kalonji said, players with skill simply disappear into the streets because of financial issues or other emotional issues tied to their families.
“Many of the players I have found on the street, the family has struggled, the electricity has been turned off, transportation is an issue,” Kalonji said.
“You try and help them with school and some parents will make sure I have access to their academics so I can help them. The little things a recreational coach can do keeping up with a kid, even just as a coach at night time, can make a difference.
“There are some talented kids out there and if they don’t end up with the type of mentor they need they end up doing nothing. It is a waste of talent.”
Rodney Thomas is an assistant principal at a public school for fourth and fifth graders and a veteran high school girls’ soccer coach. Thomas says he does not calculate on how to handle a special player because it is dangerous to devise a plan for one player.
Girls have a deeper fairness quotient than boys, he says, and they can sniff out a scheme to put a teammate on that pedestal of extra attention. If the coach is not careful, the elite player feels some coolness from teammates and it is the coach’s fault.
“Everybody will be watching how you handle that player,” Thomas said. “You better be fair.”
Thomas, the coach at Grady High School in Atlanta, says to keep it simple by treating the prodigy, one who makes the ball a rocket off their foot, the same as the player with humdrum skills. If the player is advanced, someone has to assess if the player has true enthusiasm for the game and whether they need to play with higher caliber teammates in club soccer.
“I try and assess players between 10 and 12 years old to see where they are,” Thomas said. “If they are out in the yard juggling the ball by themselves, glued to the World Cup, and show some passion for the game, that’s the first thing that will jump out.”
The youth coach is also looking for the child who plays the game with ease, but also with a physical superiority. When they kick the ball at the top of the box toward the goal does it have a back-spin flow to it, said van der Westhuizen. Is it a straight and true power shot, or does it drift left or right?
What is vital, any coach will say, is that the player not plateau. You only have to watch a team to sort talent. If one player is scoring all the goals, if his team sags when he or she is not in the lineup, it is time to bump that player up to another level in the club game.
“One player doing everything is not good for the player and it is not good for the team,” Kalonji said.
There is perhaps something even more vital than recognizing talent and nurturing it. It is telling some children they are good enough to dream.
“The kids may have a dream, so allow them to dream, inspire them,” Kalonji said. “Sure, very few players become elite. I know all those numbers and odds, but we develop this blockage in the minds of the kids that the odds are against them. Don’t get caught up in that. Inspire them.”