This is the first part of a short series on talent identification and development in sports. We’ll discuss some of the challenges and issues involved and how we might go about putting a program in place to benefit everyone who chooses to participate in the sport.
This first post will focus on talent identification, discussing why it seems to always be the main focus of the pathway and how it is commonly done. The second post will discuss the talent development pathway (arguably the much more important part) and the third post will summarise and give some practical recommendations to sporting clubs who deal with junior athletes.
So firstly, what is Talent ID and why does it get some much attention?
If you look anywhere in sports, you’ll find countless examples of people running Talent ID programs. Numerous teams and clubs will have a ‘Talent Squad’ or similar, and plenty will claim that they can spot a potentially excellent athlete or player at a young age. Professional clubs around the world in many sports will have scouts watching young players in an attempt to find the next superstar.
Let’s be clear what we mean by Talent ID. Talent identification can be defined as ‘the process of recognising current players who have the potential to excel’. No doubt some professional scouts who are relatively skilled at this will know what kind of attributes to look for in assessing a player. However, more often than not, we’re just picking the players who are the best now – this is Talent Selection. Although the distinction between the two may appear small, think about it for a minute and what it might mean to your club. It could be argued that talent identification in it’s true sense doesn’t really exist, since we have no idea of how a young player will develop over the next few months, let alone the 10+ years it might take to get to the top of their sport.
Generally in youth sports, the earlier developing children will stand out, and later developers will struggle to make an impact. Not only will the early developers be physically dominant, but they may also have developed skills earlier and could be psychologically more mature (although the last point is open to some debate). So, if you’re assessing players early in their career then do you know what you’re really watching? Can you be sure that the two 10-year old’s that you need to assess for the Talent Development Group that you’ve started are competing on a level playing field?
Taking Rugby Union in Australia as an example, ‘representative’ teams are run from the under 10 age-group upwards, with players from clubs aiming to be selected into their district rep team. As discussed, those early maturing players will hold a natural advantage over those relatively ‘younger’ players, and so usually the more physically developed kids will get a chance.
This isn’t a problem, until you stop to think about how it must feel for the kid who wasn’t selected. We need to remember that children aren’t mini-adults and don’t always see things in a rational way. While we might think that non-selection for the late developer might be a good thing to give them time to catch up, and perhaps contribute to development of grit, determination and the will to succeed in future, how does the child feel? Maybe they just think they aren’t good enough and never will be. Even a talented kid who can’t compete physically with players of their own age who are physically more mature will doubt their own ability to compete and is likely to feel inadequate in comparison.
In a sport such as Rugby Union which is struggling for player numbers, this situation leads to real problems. As children get older, those who don’t get selected for representative teams or higher teams within their own clubs feel they can’t compete and begin to drop out. Then the ones left are the early maturing players who maybe weren’t challenged as much as they needed to be as a youngster because they were always physically capable (more on this in the next post).
So maybe we need to reduce our emphasis on talent identification (and talent selection). As such an imprecise science even for the professionals, it’s unrealistic to expect volunteer coaches to have an appreciation of the details and issues surrounding it.
I would argue that sports clubs and organising bodies should put a much greater emphasis on the development pathway, and attempt to keep their pool of players as big as possible for as long as possible, as larger playing numbers are the one thing which consistently correlates with success in the short and long term.
In the next part of this series I’ll discuss talent development and offer some practical solutions for your junior club.
Posted By: Rob Fowkes
Posted: 07 May 2018