Scouts are a fixture of the football landscape, and play a key role in talent identification. However, very little is known about how they actually assess young players. In this Research Brief, Dr Tom Bergkamp presents the results of a survey of 125 scouts to discover how they go about spotting stars of the future. Their responses were illuminating, and highlighted some fundamental questions for future researchers and practitioners to address.
- Many scouts (including some working with teams at U12 level or below) believe you cannot judge a player's potential until they are in their mid-to-late teens. This raises questions as to whether they are being asked to scout players too early in their development.
- They also frequently struggle to define concepts like "technical ability" beyond a general categorisation, which suggests we should be looking to develop more explicit assessment criteria.
- Scouts often use a mixture of structured selection criteria and a holistic assessment based on their gut feeling or football instinct.
Part 1: Introduction, aims and methodology
The main job of a football scout is to predict players' future performance, but there is almost no scientific research about how they assess young talent in practice. Indeed, as previous studies have shown, many scouts actually struggle to articulate what they are looking for in a young player. In this study, Dr Bergkamp surveyed 125 scouts based in the Netherlands to find out more about their approaches, and specifically to see whether they relied more on structured criteria or their professional instinct.
Part 2: Results
The results of the survey revealed a number of striking trends. Firstly, Dr Bergkamp noted that many of the scouts surveyed were asked to scout players below the minimum age at which they themselves felt it was sensible to assess a youngster's potential. Moreover, while most scouts had a set of criteria for judging performance, the definitions of those criteria were often less than clear, and their final assessments often mixed those criteria with the scout's subjective impression of the player concerned.
Part 3: Discussion
These results give rise to some fundamental questions. For instance, given that a lot of the scouts surveyed said they could not make any reliable judgements of a young player's prospects until they were 14 or 15 years old, are we asking scouts to assess players too early? There are also question marks as to the reliability of commonly-used assessment methodology, with "gut feeling" playing a significant role. This approach can give rise to cognitive biases, and ultimately to selection biases, too. Minimising that risk may require more detailed, structured assessment techniques.
Part 4: Practical applications and conclusion
Talent identification needs to be reliable and based on valid criteria, so scouts may need to think about whether they are in a position to judge players at a given age. The research also suggests they should be wary of placing too much emphasis on physical attributes, and do all they can ensure that their assessment criteria are as clear and as structured as possible. With that aim in mind, there is an urgent need for more research on improving the reliability and validity of scouting assessments.
Bergkamp, T. L. G., Frencken, W. G. P., Niessen, A. S. M., Meijer, R. R., & den Hartigh, Ruud. J. R. (2022). How soccer scouts identify talented players. European Journal of Sport Science, 22(7), 994-1004.
Read full paper here.