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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Junior sport (2): selection trials - do they work?

Selecting your junior team by a skills assessment. A friend was struggling with his innate reluctance to agree with a coaching colleague that some of the school teams could be selected off the back of a skills assessment – a battery of tests. He asked me what I thought.

My answer began with a question. “What is the coaches’ objective?” In my last post, I pointed out there is no reliable way to predict future performance. But furthermore, the art of selecting for today has to be framed against a backdrop of your role as a protector and developer of talent for tomorrow.

So I guess it’s possible to design a perfect selection testing tool, not that I’ve seen one. But let’s walk through some of the things that a school coach might look at as part of selection trials. “OK coach: most important technical skill in the game?” In the following order; soccer, basketball, volleyball? Spoiler alert, cover the next sentence, answer the question; then check my answers.

  • Soccer: trapping the ball. Can’t do much else if you haven’t got the ball at your feet.

  • Basketball: catching the ball. Can’t shoot baskets, pass or dribble without the ball.

  • Volleyball: serving. If you aren’t serving, you aren’t scoring.

So when I’m looking at young players trying out, sure we might run some of those skill drills, mostly to see how the players react to the drill. Do they focus on the technical goal in the drill or simply getting it overand done with so they can go play a game? But I’m mostly interested how they execute those basic skills in various open skill situations. For instance, in a set piece drill, how do they set up the opportunity to catch or stop the ball? Do they try and deliver what you asked? In other words, are they coachable?

Now, coachability – that’s a real asset. That means we have a chance to make progress with each other. US Olympian and athletics coach, Bo Hanson, puts it nicely. “Starting with the ‘right’ athletes is a fundamental component of eventual success.” But he didn’t mean all that technical and physical stuff. He meant the behaviours that are likely to produce player development in response to the coach.

So let’s get to the science. Sport psychology has a rich history of cautioning against being too reliant on tests that rely on coach observation and judgment. In US sports, scouting is an industry all of its own. And the best coaches do work with the scouts to clarify what ‘talent looks like’. But for the every-day volunteer coach, judgement is not as impartial as we like to think. Famously, gymnastics judges would score the fifth team member best (usually a spot taken by the best gymnast) even when the best gymnast actually started first. In other words, our biases play out in all sorts of ways.

A more reliable approach to using trials, is to apply a weighting to certain criteria a form of ‘actuarial judgment’. This is likely to improve decision-making. But to be clear, high performance coaches often disagree quite vigorously. A number of research projects have asked coaches to rank players based on watching video clips and find that even expert do not consistently integrate information sources to make their final judgments. If it’s so hard for the professional coach, what makes us think that volunteer or lower-level coaches will be any better.

In my next post, we’ll look at the specifics of assessing skill performance.

(photo source: Mike Rogers)

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