By Dr Job Fransen, UTS:Health lecturer
Matt Ryan is the Australian national goalkeeper and currently plays for Valencia CF in Spain.
He started playing football when he was just four years old. But what is it that makes Matt Ryan so special?
And why does he, despite his relatively small stature (180cm), play for one of the best teams in arguably the best football competition in the world?
Photo: Instagram @matyryan
I’m sure everyone can think of a talented athlete just like Matt Ryan. But what exactly makes them talented? The term ‘talent’ is commonly used in conversations among sports fans and spectators.
“Did you see that young striker play last week? He is so talented” they might say. Or fans might discuss the physical talent displayed by a 12 year old defender.
As the sport scientist listening in to these conversations I would love to jump in by saying that the young striker is more likely to be “gifted” rather than “talented”.
Talent results from an innate giftedness that’s nurtured into talent, thanks to
excellent coaching and a supportive environment.
And I would love to yell over the top of the stadium noise that the young defender is very likely to be more physically mature than his opponents and that his physical superiority is but temporary.
These conversations are everywhere, on every grandstand and around every footy field. They fuel discussions about YouTube clips of young children showing exceptional skill and even of future market values.
But can we really base our understanding of how gifted or talented someone is on a YouTube video or on a one-off measurement?
Imagine one of those street artists that can juggle a ball with exceptional composure. As an objective spectator we might attribute a certain talent to this artist. We might even imagine this artist using his skills to take on all Barcelona players one on one. But does exceptional juggling skill really make this individual a talented football player?
What I’m getting at is that football performance is multidimensional. Modern players are agile, fast, powerful, fit, skilful and mentally strong. Therefore, assessing talent should be multidimensional.
So, let’s take a look at Matt Ryan. I was lucky to be one of the people involved in scouting Matt Ryan for Club Brugge FC, a Belgian first division football club while he was 20 years old and still playing at the Mariners.
As a sport scientist with a background in talent identification, I wasn’t particularly interested in how he performed that day in what was an absolute howler of a game at Allianz Stadium.
I was interested in Ryan’s potential rather than his performance.
Straight away I could notice his physical appearance – he looked
very fit. I also saw his excellent explosive power when jumping
vertically and sprinting for 5 or 10 meters.
Finally, I could see his skill was exceptional, with both feet, and he consistently made well thought out and rational decisions.
After making a few phone calls I also found out he was coachable and ambitious. And it’s exactly this mix of characteristics that modern goalkeepers need.
Because why would you sign a tall goalkeeper that’s slow and lacks skill, if you can sign an all-round athlete who makes up for his smaller stature with ample vertical jumping ability?
And the other assessors must have given Matt Ryan an excellent report as well, because Club Brugge signed him a few months later and he won the ‘goalkeeper of the year’ award in Belgium the year after.
Club Brugge was not the only club to recognise his potential. Eventually Matt Ryan signed a six year contract deal with Valencia CF, with a transfer fee of approximately $11 million.
Photo: Instagram @matyryan
I guess I’m trying to help you understand that there is more to talent identification than meets the eye.
All over Australia and at UTS in particular, sport scientists are working hard to develop objective measures that identify the ideal combination of characteristics that could identify potential.
And who knows, one of the young players involved in one of the talent identification projects around the country might just be the next Matt Ryan.