This purpose of this article is to help you gain a deeper understanding of why 99% of children in academies don’t make it to a professional level, why players don’t live up to the hype and why the concept of ‘full potential’ is complete nonsense.

Talent development is non-linear. Linear means sequential or straightforward, therefore non-linear refers to things not arranged in a straight line. In terms of football, Linear development would mean that everyone steadily improves until they reach their peak performance at 26-28 depending on the position. Due to physical demands, full-backs may peak earlier compared to a centre back or goalkeeper. Traditional approaches suggest development occurs as athletes move from one stage to another in sequential order.
Linear development would look like this curve:

Starting at the bottom then progressively improving before reaching a peak and then declining. As mentioned in football the peak would be between 26-28 as that is when players are physically at their best.

Non-Linear development could look like this:

Starting at the bottom but progressing at different rates and at different times. It is crucial to point out that part of the concept of non-linear is that it is individualistic. For one person it may look like this but for another, the curves and peaks will be different.
There are complex many complex reasons why players don’t develop straightforwardly. Some consideration must go into the other aspects of a player’s life. The physical, emotional and psych-social. Physical referring to injuries which can damage or even end careers, emotional referring to the general mental well being of an athlete which can be very fragile at elite level especially and psych-social which is how social factors such as personal relationships affect a person’s psychological capability, impacting confidence and motivation.
Academies select and de-select players regularly from early ages sometimes as young as 6! Children who don’t perform as well can be de-selected as the prediction is that they aren’t going to develop as well as the children who are perceived as performing better. If a player is excellent compared to their peers at the age of 9 it doesn’t mean they’ll go onto be better than them by the age of 15. But players can be de-selected at a young age to be replaced by someone perceived to have more potential. But if we go back to curves it could just be that an individual was replaced by someone in a peak but that doesn’t mean that one individual will be better than the other in the future. Because talent development is non-linear.
This impacts transfers as the notion of potential are skewed.
If someone performs brilliantly at 18 years of age that doesn’t mean they’ll be guaranteed to continue developing. Some peak at 21, others at 31. It’s all about getting players at the right moment in their careers. Ilicic (32) at Atalanta and Filipe (30) with Athletico Madrid are good examples of this.
This impacts young players especially, Klose nearly didn’t get a contract at German fourth division side FC 08 Homburg at the age of 20 and didn’t make it to the Bundesliga until 26. An even more contemporary example is Vardy, at 24 he was playing in the 7th tier of English football and won the league at 30 and could lead Leicester City into the champions league at the age of 33. If talent development was linear this wouldn’t happen.
Take Bellingham at Birmingham City who we’ve been linked who’s been performing at a high level in the Championship at 16 years of age. A linear approach would say that this player is certain to develop steadily until reaching his peak at 27-28 and as his current level is higher than most at his age his potential at his peak is higher than most. However, as talent development is non-linear this isn’t a certainty. ’
The entire concept of a players’ ‘full potential’ is bull****.
Importantly, players can reach achieve more success in their peaks due to the specific physical makeup of themselves as an individual. For instance, a 6 foot 6 goalkeeper could reach higher performance levels due to their size than a 5 foot 7 goalkeeper.

I think part of the issue is due to games like Fifa were potential is prescribed feeds into the discourse that players should always reach their ‘full potential’. This discourse is then intensified due to social media and the press who buy into it. This discourse has been turned into knowledge despite being incorrect. This doesn’t get challenged enough as the few players who do improve throughout their career and then decline as they get older, are shown to the world that this is how talent is developed. Everyone else gets swept under the rug as they fail to live up to the hype. Now we’ve got a very bumpy rug and it is time we addressed this.

This is especially pertinent to our current squad with lots of young players. Mount, James, Abraham, Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic, Tomori and Gilmour are performing at a high level but this doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to be much better in a few seasons. Alternatively, just because they have a bad run of form where their level drops don’t mean that they won’t develop into a top player in the future. What will define our success will be how many of them reach a high level simultaneously. But also, how many of them can avoid big drop-offs due to injury and other aspects of their lives.

Written by – @BenBell98
Edit by – @KristenPulisic