When I first moved to where I currently live, the first job I had at a youth soccer club began in the spring, and after a few months, the club had their annual tryouts. Over the first few months before the tryout period, I had gotten to know most of the coaching staff and had a decent idea of what the coaches believed philosophically as well as their practical ability as coaches. Although I was one of the directors, since I had only started a couple months prior, I delegated the tryout process to the rest of the coaching staff.
Most of the tryout was pretty typical, but at the end of every session, the coaches had all the players line up, in a straight line, and run sprints across the field. I was told that this was to “see how fast everyone is.” I was astonished that some of the otherwise highly knowledgeable and competent coaches were using this as a means to evaluate players.
Since that time, I have worked with various clubs and teams in the area at the youth, high school, and college levels, and it seems that, for some reason, this process of evaluating players by running sprints after playing for two hours to “evaluate speed” is a trend that many coaches in the area do.
I have a huge problem with this process for several reasons. Even if we were to assume that the straight-line sprinting speed of players was essential to the evaluation of a player, I still believe this process is wrong. There are simply more practical ways to assess speed.
However, what is more important is that I believe that speed is not an essential part of a soccer player’s abilities. Speed is a nice to have, not a need to have.
Why Speed Doesn’t Matter
Surely, if I had the impossible scenario of having two players with the same exact technical ability, cognitive ability, psychological make-up, and playing style, yet one player was significantly faster than the other, I would rather have the faster player. But this is only after all those other factors are considered. It is the culmination of those characteristics that are most important to a player’s effectiveness.
As pointed out in a previous post, the ability to position oneself in the correct place and read and anticipate what is going to happen, based on visual cues, makes a far more effective soccer player than straight-line speed. This of course is assuming that the desired style of play is one that is based on controlling the ball and the game. If we want to only play by launching the ball straight forward, as far as we can, then perhaps speed becomes more essential. This style of play, however, has been proven to be vastly unsuccessful.
Over the course of a soccer game, the most influential and most frequent factors that will determine a team’s success are based on the decisions and positioning of players. This, paired with the timing at which they make these decisions and move into those effective positions, requires elite speed of the mind. Overarching physical speed is not as much of a necessity in these situations.
What This Means for Coaches
As coaches, it is important that we try to teach players how to better read the game and make decisions based on what they see happening around them. If we see a situation or scenario in which running speed was a key factor in the outcome of a play, then we should assess what happened in the moments prior to that situation that put us in the disadvantageous position of needing to rely on physical speed: Who was in the wrong position? Who made the technical mistake or poor decision that put us in this situation? How could the player have been in a better position or better timed his/her run?
So, next time you find yourself evaluating players, consider the qualities that you’re prioritizing and remember the words of Andrea Pirlo: “Football is played with the head. Your feet are just the tools.”