Soccer success is about skill according to new university research

This comes as no surprise to many of you that already ‘get this’ intuitively from having played and watched this beautiful game your entire life. And you’ll also understand why I used the above image for this blog post.

Without an appreciation of and commitment to the artistry of soccer we won’t be able to credibly compete at the international level and the growth of soccer here will stall.

Some day the majority of coaches, players, and parents in our country will hold this truth to be self-evident. We still have some way to go, unfortunately, but we have to keep chipping away at this folks. Keep the faith!

The peer-reviewed study, conducted by researchers from Australia and the U.S. in collaboration with elite soccer academies in Brazil, was published last week in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

This new study used analytic techniques developed in evolutionary biology to determine the impact of a player’s skill, athletic ability, and balance on their success during a game.

The researchers found it was their skill — not speed, strength, or fitness — that was the most important factor.

“Higher skill allows players to have a greater impact on the game”, Professor Wilson said.

“Accurate passing and greater ball control are more important for success than high speed, strength and fitness.

“It may be obvious to soccer fans and coaches that players like Lionel Messi and Neymar are the best due to their skill.

“However, 90 per cent of research on soccer players is based on how to improve their speed, strength, and agility — not their skill.”

Professor Wilson is collaborating with elite soccer academies in Brazil, where he is testing new protocols for skill development in junior players.

“Our research shows that skill is fundamental to player success in soccer,” he said.

“Skill is complex and multidimensional — and we need to measure all aspects of it — with the next step to work out how to improve these aspects in developing players.

“Brazilian football academies understand the importance of developing skill in young players, which gives us a great opportunity to test our ideas and find new ways to improve youth training.

“Professor Wilson hopes to bring his knowledge back to Australia to improve the nation’s international standing and World Cup potential.

“Australia will only become a successful footballing nation if we innovate rather than replicate,” he said.

“There are kids with an incredible amount of skill who aren’t being selected for teams and training programs because they can’t run as fast at nine, 10, or 11 years old.

“These kids need to be given a chance and the science of skill is on their side.”

Author: James

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

3 thoughts on “Soccer success is about skill according to new university research”

  1. BINGO!!! My son fell into this North America stereotype of not being the biggest and fastest kid. But, we never gave up and continue to work on his technical skills. Its amazing to watch some of the boys he has grown with playing that were always bigger and faster start to hiccup now as the game becomes more tactical requiring the technical aspects and just keeping it simple. Taking your first touch where you have to chase down what is now a 50/50 ball is silly.


  2. “There are kids with an incredible amount of skill who aren’t being selected for teams and training programs because they can’t run as fast at nine, 10, or 11 years old.”

    This is so true. I’ve witnessed this in the bay area with my own 10-year old. I’ve been to enough tournaments and league (Premier and Gold) level games at the U11 level to know that he can trap the ball better than most premier players, can pass more accurately, have better vision. On his own team, he’s not even considered the best player because he makes all the passes to the forward that is a full ten inches taller than him. Most of the coaches are trained to recognize speed and power shots from 18 yards out. Therefore, even if my son wanted to try PDP, ODP, or any prestigious try-outs, he won’t get the recommendation from the DOC. I don’t blame the DOC because he doesn’t want to put his reputation on the line.

    We also recently went to a Bigger Club try-out (most likely for recruitment purposes to fill the lower tiered teams with kids from AYSO or CalNorth). The coaches were impressed enough by him that they allowed us to have my son come back on another day to do a practice session with their premier U11 players. As it turns out, because he’s the new player, he would make the passes accurately in 3v3 scrimmage, but when he was opened, they didn’t pass to him often. It seems that it’s a vicious cycle, the one who score gets the attention, but the assist guy doesn’t get noticed. Therefore, the kid that scores has more incentive to practice scoring rather than develop passing.

    A great example would be the MLS players that can’t trap and have balls flying 5-ft in front of them— how did they get selected when they were young? … size and speed!

    It’s easy for coaches to evaluate size and speed. So the questions is: what metrics and how can youth soccer coaches evaluate “skill” in such a short 60 minute session with 20 kids? And is there even an incentive for them to evaluate skills, because they can still win their premier or PDP games by getting the kid with best speed, strength, and fitness.

    One of the problem of developing “skills” falls back onto the parents. At the youth level, kids jump from team to team so often that I wonder if the coaches would invest in the child when they know the parent might take that kid to another club. If the coach is willing to plant the seed with the skills kid, he may or may not get the flower; whereas the strength and speed gets them instantly rewarded with wins and more kids to their club.


    1. “what metrics and how can youth soccer coaches evaluate “skill” in such a short 60 minute session with 20 kids?” The easy answer is, if you’re a good coach you can tell if you run a practice that observes critical things like touch, movement, spacial awareness. If you’re a crappy coach, like 80% of them out there, you run them around like headless chickens as you have obviously seen. Here is my anecdote: Our daughter was accepted (and attended) a UC school, but hadn’t done any advanced marketing of her skills ahead of the open tryout in the spring before she started. She shows up to this 2 hour tryout and the first thing the coach wants them to do is run run run. lots of running. once they started scrimmaging, our daughter, who is a sprinter with ball-handling skills, was too gassed. All the 440 middle distance-running girls looked great. No skill on the ball, but lots of impressive running. She ended up playing club for that university for 4 years (which also had crappy coaching), but at least they didn’t run her into the ground with 4 or 5 hours of training per day. The problem in our country is that 80% of the coaches are complete morons. We as a country haven’t figured out how to weed out the 80% while preserving the 20% that are good. More licensing does not equal better coaching. The best you can hope for is that your kid continues to love and play the game, and their offspring will have a better chance 25 years from now.


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