Talent Identification is an important part of youth sport. But how, and when, we begin the Talent ID process can have a profound impact on the sporting experiences we give young people — and increasingly, research supports the case for delaying the IDing of talent.
Below, we consider the role of representative teams and competitions in youth sports, and how we can adjust Talent ID processes to ensure that ‘high-performance’ attitudes and practices are introduced at appropriate, and developmentally beneficial, times for young athletes.
Before establishing best practices for identifying talent, it helps to form clear and consistent ideas of what talent really is. For instance, is talent an innate quality that people are born with, or something that can be developed? Does it refer solely to technical or tactical skills, or does it also encompass characteristics and psychological qualities, such as resilience and determination?
Many sport scientists define talent as a combination of genetic, physiological, psychological, and behavioral factors that contribute to an individual’s potential for success in a specific sport or physical activity. Importantly, training, practice and the wider development context have an interplay with each athlete’s talent.
As such, talent is a quality that can be developed with effort, over time. Consequently, factors like an individual’s mindset can be as (or more) important to their long-term development as their physical or technical attributes — particularly when the physical advantages enjoyed by some early maturers are ‘levelled out’ as their peers grow and catch up; given that children develop at different rates, the ‘best’ athletes in a cohort at age 14, for example, may not be the best at the end of their developmental journey.
Thus, the earlier we attempt to identify talent ( with the reference point being future long term success), the harder it is to be accurate in our predictions. Increasing research shows that early Talent ID is unlikely to lead to long-term athletic success for individuals who are identified young; can cause children with long-term potential to be overlooked; and subsequently result in more young people dropping out of youth sports.
As youth sport practitioners, our aim should be to facilitate great sporting experiences for as many young people as possible — giving every individual opportunities to receive appropriate challenges, develop, and enjoy participating. This naturally allows us to keep the net wide for as long as possible when it comes to identifying and developing talent. We undermine this opportunity when we attempt to identify talent prematurely.
Recognising that talent is a complex phenomenon
So how can we improve our approach to Talent ID? Understanding that it is complex is a good starting point. Below, we outline some best practices for thinking about Talent and Talent ID in youth sport:
- Be clear on what you are IDing talent for: Be clear not to confuse short term performance outcomes with long term development outcomes.
- Be objective: perceptions of talent often vary from one person to another. Set criteria for identifying talent, so that coaches and assessors within your programme can be as objective and consistent as possible.
- Review representative selection processes: does your sport introduce representative teams and competitions (for example, at regional or national level) at an appropriate age? And do selection processes afford later-developers opportunities to be seen further along the sporting pathway?
- Develop clear Talent ID policies: create age- and stage-appropriate Talent ID guidelines, and educate stakeholders, such as parents, whānau, and athletes, about pathway opportunities and the rationale behind Talent ID policies.
- Use broad assessment processes: where possible, assess individuals over longer periods, and endeavour to evaluate their full range of technical, tactical, physical, and psycho-social attributes. Read: A Guide to Running Good Trials and Selection Processes
- Prioritise development: don’t measure the success of coaches in terms of results or competition outcomes, and ensure that all participants can access quality coaching, in environments where they feel free to experiment, make mistakes, and learn.
- Create enjoyable environments: if athletes do not enjoy participating, they are less likely to remain in our sport, develop, and be available when we’re ready to identify talent. No matter what our Talent ID process, youth sport must always be fun.
Image Source: matimix from Canva