David Alaba, Marcel Sabitzer, Christoph Baumgartner and Konrad Laimer are just four of several well-known players Austria has produced in recent years. They have matured into model professionals not only thanks to their clubs, but also with the help of the Austrian Football Association’s (ÖFB) promotion of young talent. In 2009, the ÖFB created its own program for the best of the best in the form of Project 12. It followed the “Challenge08” program, which was designed to give players the best possible preparation for their home European Championship in 2008.
In “Project 12,” the country’s most talented young football players receive individual support and comprehensive assistance in their development. While the program originally focused on purely athletic aspects of football, a new approach has been taken since a reorientation four years ago. “Previously, the project was strongly defined by individual coaches who worked with the players on the pitch as football coaches. We have expanded this role considerably and therefore now speak of talent coaches. They should not only be coaches, but also mentors, advisors and, above all, communicators,” says Günter Kreissl, head of “Project 12” at the ÖFB.
In order to be able to respond to the needs of its youngsters on a daily basis as an association, the ÖFB relies on close cooperation with all Austrian academies in the ÖFB Youth League. At each training location, a talent coach works with the biggest talents. There are six to seven Project 12 players per academy on whom the coach can focus his activities. Which youngsters qualify for “Project 12” is decided by the coaches of the junior national teams together with the talent coaches and the project management.
The talent coaches themselves are proposed by the respective academy and have to be confirmed by the federation, whereby the ÖFB explicitly does not only rely on coaches with football experience. “It does require a minimum qualification as a football coach, but we are primarily concerned with personal skills. That’s why we have talent coaches working for us who come from very different backgrounds. They include former players as well as specialists from the fields of athletics or sports psychology,” says “Project 12” director Kreissl.
The range of offers for the talented players is as varied as the individual coaches. In the fields of sports medicine, sports science as well as sports psychology, the players undergo ongoing tests as part of “Project 12”. The results of these tests are incorporated into specially created profiles in which the talents are assessed on the basis of their strengths and weaknesses. Every six months, the talent coach analyzes their progress with the players and defines new measures and goals.
In order to track the football-specific development of talents in detail, the ÖFB has also been working with skills.lab since 2022 as part of “Project 12”. “The idea behind the cooperation was to consider whether the skills.lab Arena could be a tool that would make talent forecasting more accurate,” Kreissl describes.
In the first year of the cooperation, selected talents from each year group therefore completed two assessments in the skills.lab in Wundschuh. “By allowing a certain period of time between the tests, we were able to check whether the results in the skills.lab matched the coaches’ observations regarding the development of their talents,” explains Kreissl. That was often exactly the case. “The truth in evaluating players is always a mixture of objective numbers and what you feel and see. For the talent coaches, the results from the skills.lab were very valuable in that respect. You can see from the results exactly in which areas a player has become stronger and weaker.”
For the former goalkeeper, who after his active career in Austria worked for clubs as a coach and sports director, the assessments in the skills.lab Arena are also special because they are conducted close to the game: “In football, everything is always connected. You can’t separate technique from tactics, because behind every technical execution of an exercise there is a decision-making process – also in the skills.lab Arena. The execution itself depends on athletic and cognitive parameters, i.e. how quickly can a player implement an idea at all and how precisely or with how much force does he succeed? That’s why the testing in the skills.lab Arena offers added value in all areas equally.”
In the future, the ÖFB will intensify its cooperation with skills.lab in order to create more comparative values of its own talents. In addition, the performances of the young talents can also be compared with those of professional clubs that have already completed tests in a skills.lab Arena. This will bring us one step closer to the idea of accurate talent prediction.
Photos: (c) ÖFB/Tugrul Karacam