Flashback: It’s toward the end of the 2008–2009 Premier League season, and my favorite team, Manchester United, are chasing their third consecutive League title. They have an unbelievable squad—a high-scoring forward line of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov, and Wayne Rooney backed by a solid defensive spine, with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand bringing muscle to the back line. But while playing Aston Villa, a strong team they need to beat in order to retain their EPL title, Man U fall behind 2–1. In the second half, scrambling for the two goals needed for the win, longtime manager Sir Alex Ferguson takes a huge gamble and subs in Federico Macheda, a 17-year-old phenom making his Manchester United debut at striker.
Macheda gets involved in the game. He has a claim for a penalty turned down and then makes some good runs into the box. Manchester United continue to apply pressure, knowing they need two goals, but the clock continues to wind down. Finally, in the 80th minute, Cristiano Ronaldo, in his last season for the club, scores from the edge of the box to draw the sides level.
United need one more goal and have 10 minutes to find it. They pour forward, throwing everything they have, but as the clock clicks toward the full-time whistle, they look destined to fall short. Then, there’s a break. Midfield stalwart Ryan Giggs wins a loose ball in the final third and plays it in to Macheda; with his back to the goal, Macheda carries out a first-time flick across his marker and shoots a curling shot that evades the outstretched hand of goalkeeper Brad Friedel, landing in the back of the net. (You can watch the highlights of the match on YouTube, with the sequence for Macheda’s goal starting at 2:55.)
Macheda can’t quite believe it. He runs, celebrating, toward the corner flag. The camera cuts to a man in the crowd celebrating, overcome by emotion, tears running down his face. It’s Macheda’s father, who moved with his son to Manchester when United offered him a professional contract; the man who worked night shifts as a security guard so that he could take his son training during the day. You can see how much it means to him. The Sky TV commentator, Andy Gray, pronounces that “a star is born.” Manchester United, with their rich history of finding and developing youngsters, have found their next star, with the world at his feet.
But sadly, it didn’t turn out like that.
Federico Macheda scored again—once—for United in the 2008–2009 season and was a bit-part player the following season. He then went on a series of loans; first to Sampdoria back in his home country of Italy (16 games, 1 goal), then to Queens Park Rangers (6 games, no goals), Germany’s Stuttgart (18 games, 0 goals), my hometown club of Doncaster Rovers (15 games, 3 goals), and Birmingham City, where he experienced some success, scoring 10 goals in 18 games. At the end of the 2013–2014 season, Macheda’s Manchester United contract expired, and he left the club on a free transfer, dropping down a division to play for Cardiff City in the Championship (33 games, 8 goals) before moving to Novara in Italy’s second division (52 games, 11 goals). Macheda—still only 28—now plays for Panathinaikos in Greece’s Premier Division, where he enjoys the form of his career, having made 53 appearances over the last two seasons, scoring 24 goals.
Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that Macheda didn’t make the impact as a professional player that many hoped he would, given both his explosive debut and United’s history of youth development. This where The Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Get Left Behind comes in. Authored by Ryan Baldi, the book tells the stories of 15 football (soccer) players who seemed to have the world at their feet, but for a range of reasons, didn’t quite make it.Challenging the notion that talent is somewhat linear—we expect good youngsters to progress to being good seniors, but what if this isn’t the case, asks @craig100m. Click To Tweet
With individual chapters dedicated to each player, Baldi teases out the reasons behind the player’s lack of transition to elite senior, and there are some key trends and themes that emerge. Primarily, these are injuries, lack of opportunity for development, and external distractions. Within this story, however, is also a challenge to the notion that talent is somewhat linear—we expect good youngsters to progress to being good seniors. But what if this isn’t the case?
The Dynamics of Talent
Talent development is nonlinear; at the point of their initial success, some players might be much more physically or technically developed, giving the illusion of high levels of “talent” relative to their peers, who soon catch up to them. In football, talent is also somewhat subjective; while sports such as track and field use objective measures that can be employed to compare athletes, in football certain players might not suit a particular formation or just might not be preferred by a given manager.
Some of the same issues harm the development of athletes in track and field. There are a number of age-group championships that athletes can compete in. For example, in the U.K. an athlete can compete at indoor and outdoor age group championships (from under-15 to under-20), as well as Nationals Schools Championships (also under-15 to under-20). Additionally, athletes can compete at the World and European Under-20 Championships, along with the Commonwealth Youth (under-18) Games. Until 2017, athletes could also compete at the World Youth (under-18) Championships. Success at these championships and the expected linear development of athletes—i.e., this athlete is good at age 13 and so therefore will be good at age 25—quite possibly increase expectations and pressure on the young competitors.
What predisposes an athlete to success in the junior ranks, however, is not always what drives success at the senior level. For example, the “relative age effect” increases the chances of success for relatively older athletes—i.e., those born in the first quarter of the year—compared to younger athletes. But, this effect essentially disappears in adulthood. Similarly, as an under-20, you compete against athletes in a narrow age band; as a senior, you’re conceivably competing against athletes aged 18 to 35.What predisposes an athlete to success in the junior ranks is not always what drives success at the senior level, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Finally, issues such as maturation and time in the sport can drive success at the younger levels, but their influence disappears as athletes transition into the senior ranks. As a result, it’s perhaps not surprising that research suggests the vast majority of top-ranked under-13 and under-15 athletes don’t become elite seniors, and that more than half the athletes who compete at the World Under-20 Championships don’t compete for their country as a senior.
‘Next Big Things’ Meet Injuries, Roadblocks, and Off-Field Issues
Alongside this, we know that injuries rob athletes of their potential. Overuse injuries are a major driver of youth athlete dropout rates, with research in Australian track and field athletes demonstrating that missed training time due to injury or illness is a leading cause of athlete underperformance (a trend that holds true across sports). Just as in football, where a lack of playing time hampers development, exposure to the right level of competition is required to drive development within track and field. In order to progress, athletes have to be challenged just the right amount—enough that it’s tough, driving learning and development, but not so much that the challenge overwhelms the athlete. This means that the athlete is matched to the level of competition.
To me, the dangers of sending an athlete to, say, the World Under-20 Championships if they only just achieve the qualification standard are:
- The experience of being eliminated in the first round will be an overwhelmingly negative experience for them.
- It doesn’t represent the right level of challenge.
- The experience could potentially stagnate their growth.
Conversely, by making things too easy and straightforward for athletes, we prevent them from building the required levels of resilience to support their future success—meaning, we can’t just hand them everything on a plate.
Let’s take a closer look at the influence of injuries on talent development, with an example from Baldi’s book. Fifteen years before Macheda’s debut, Manchester United were in the process of developing a generation of players from their youth academy that would underpin their success for decades. Most famously, this included David Beckham (future England captain), Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville, and Nicky Butt—a group of players now commonly termed “The Class of ’92,” based on the year they won the 1992 FA Youth Cup.
One player from that class you probably won’t have heard of is Ben Thornley. Numerous people, including Gary Neville, have stated that Thornley was probably the star of that 1992 Youth team. In 1994, as part of his transition to first-team football, an 18-year old Thornley was playing in a reserve team game against the Blackburn Rovers. Thornley was playing a blinder, having scored two and gotten an assist on another, and United were winning 3-0. The coach wanted to take him off; Thornley, however, was in search of his hat trick and so stayed on.
In the second half, Thornley beat an opposing defender who then made a dangerous, high tackle. His foot made contact with Thornley’s knee, basically destroying it—Thornley tore his cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, along with his hamstring. After surgery and a year of rehabilitation, Thornley made a comeback but was plagued with doubts about how well his knee would hold up to tackles from the opposition. After previously relying on his searing pace, Thornley struggled to regain his pre-injury speed.
Unable to break into the Manchester United first team, he dropped down a division to play for Huddersfield Town, suffering relegation with them in 2001. He then moved to Scotland for a season to play for Aberdeen, before going on to make a small number of appearances for lower league clubs Blackpool and Bury. Just before his 29th birthday, Thornley dropped out of league football for good, ending his career playing for a handful of non-league clubs: a far cry from his much-touted early potential.
Thornley’s experience with injuries is not uncommon among the players profiled in The Next Big Thing. Matt Murray, a former goalkeeper with the Wolverhampton Wanderers, was offered a five-year contract at age 17, a record for the Midlands side. His breakthrough season, 2002–2003, was a huge success, with Murray playing 48 games and being awarded the Man of the Match award in the playoff final, in which the Wolves were promoted to the Premier League.
Over the next three seasons, Murray only played five games due to a plethora of injury issues, including a hernia and a broken foot. The young goalkeeper—then still only 25—strung together 47 games in the 2006–2007 season before breaking his shoulder; while rehabbing that injury, he injured his cruciate ligament. After recovering—again—Murray struggled to get back into the first team and so dropped down a division to play for Hereford United on loan; in his third game there, he ruptured his patella tendon.
Murray never played again professionally—at age 29, he announced his retirement from football. Other players have a similar story; Ally Dick never really recovered from the serious knee injury he suffered at 21, and Lionel Morgan retired at 21 due to persistent knee injuries.
Injuries aren’t the only issue that prevents players from reaching their potential. John Curtis, another former Manchester United player profiled in The Next Big Thing, was touted in the press as a future England captain. Following his professional debut in 1997, Curtis made 14 appearances for Manchester United over a three-year period, his road to regular first-team football blocked by the fact that there were better players ahead of him in the playing rotation. Given the pressure to win at a renowned club like Manchester United, the manager is less likely to risk unproven players when victories are needed.
After dropping down a level—first on loan, then on a permanent transfer—Curtis played almost 100 games in four years, accumulating experience and becoming a solid footballer, going on to play for Leicester and Portsmouth in the Premier League. In Curtis’s case, it is possible that a lack of playing time at a crucial point in his development prevented him from reaching the heights most expected of him. Similarly, Jules Maiorana, who signed for Manchester United from a non-league club, didn’t get on with the manager and so missed valuable playing time before succumbing to a serious knee injury.
In other cases, off-field issues have played a role in players struggling to progress. Danny Cadamarteri burst onto the scene as a striker for Everton, before indiscipline led to the cancellation of a loan he was on to gain first team experience. After this, court cases for assault and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and a positive drug test for pseudoephedrine tempered his development. Andy van der Meyde had an affair, which led to the breakdown of his marriage; his daughter with his new girlfriend was then born with a series illness that required months of hospitalization. Other players such as Cherno Samba, John Bostock, and Owen Price were all the subject of increased media interest and big-money moves on the basis of their perceived talent. Samba, for example, is famous for being a future star in the popular computer game Football Manager, despite starting the game at only 14 years of age.
Keeping Your ‘Next Big Things’ on Track
Macheda’s case and those from the football world aren’t unique; notable examples across sports demonstrate the pitfalls in moving from talented youngster to successful senior. In track and field, for example, in most nations fewer than 50% of the representatives on their Under-20 Championships squad continue on to compete internationally for their country as a senior.
In tennis, Jennifer Capriati burst onto the scene at 14 years of age, before personal problems and injuries prevented her from reaching the heights many thought she was destined for. In American football, Marcus Dupree is often heralded as someone who failed to reach the heights expected of him, leading to an ESPN “30 for 30” film of his story, The Best That Never Was. “Talent” falling short of reaching its potential is nothing new, and yet we should try to understand the reasons why it occurs so that we can—hopefully—reduce the chances of it happening in the future.
Baldi’s profiles of these players who did not quite make it, coupled with research from the field of athlete development, help us learn some key lessons that might assist us in our own coaching practice.
- What makes a successful young athlete is potentially not the same thing that makes a successful senior athlete. We can’t assume talented youngsters will automatically become talented seniors.
- Injuries rob athletes of the ability to train and compete at their best. As a result, minimizing injuries through varied practice and adequate loading is crucial.
- Providing suitable opportunities for athletes to compete at the appropriate level is important. This level should be sufficiently challenging to stimulate growth, but not so challenging that the athlete is out of their depth.
- Developing athletes/players need to be supported in their holistic development, with psychological ability an important component of the growth of future elite athletes.
- Given the large role luck plays in the development of athletes, youngsters should be supported in cultivating interests and opportunities outside of the sport, such that if/when they retire, they can more easily transition into normal society.
By addressing the points raised above, we can hopefully better support athletes in their development. Because, as Baldi’s book makes clear, the journey from talented youth to successful senior can be fraught with danger—an important lesson for us all.
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