Right now across the globe, talent scouts are rigorously observing and analyzing young athletes with the hope of identifying and selecting the next athletic superstar. Kids as young as 10 years old are on the radars of these talent spotters.
Yet the success of current talent identification programs, especially within team sports, varies wildly. The NCAA reported this year that the percentage of college football players earning major pro contracts was 1.5%. Basketball players fared even worse at 1.1%. So what happened to the other ninety-odd percent of athletes who were identified as potential athletic talent?
This sort of statistic reflects the complex, tacit environment in which talent identification exists. From this a question comes to mind: Just what are we looking for when identifying our next generation of athletes?
Many coaches, scouts, selectors and recruiters have disparaging views on how best to identify, select and develop future sporting talent. But one thing is for sure, selection based on the current performance of young athletes is ill-conceived and mostly leads to limited success in unearthing future elite performers. The realization of potential is a long drawn process which endures many twists and turns before the athlete finally reaches an elite level.
Back in 2002, a 16-year-old striker named Jamie Vardy was being released by his then club Sheffield Wednesday. When no other professional club opted to sign Vardy upon his release, he played semi-professionally for Stocksbridge Park Steels, while holding down a regular job. Fast forward 15 years and Vardy has represented and scored for the England national team on numerous occasions and is an English Premier League winner with Leicester City FC. His early release and late rise to prominence is a longing reminder that early selection (or rejection) in many cases doesn’t work. We can’t fully predict how any athlete will grow and develop. Simply selecting the highest performing athletes at a young age is a short-sighted endeavor. Below are a few points that may help us develop more informed thinking for identifying and selecting potential performers.
“A raw 10.6 may be better than a trained 10.2”
In his book The Goldmine Effect, Rasmussen Ankersen describes how an untrained sprinter who registers 10.6 seconds in the 100 meters may hold more potential than a well-trained sprinter who can complete the distance in 10.2 seconds. Talent scouts who base their selection on current performance would conclude that the 10.2 athlete is better and therefore the more promising individual. However, this type of selection negates other factors such as the number of years each athlete has trained, what level of coaching they have received (if any), access to sports science support and other impacting factors. Astute coaches and talent spotters will understand that talent is multi-faceted and will implement a longer-term approach to base their selection on.
Widen the Talent Pool: Keep more kids playing more sports for as long as possible
Many parents and coaches believe that the best way for kids to reach elite level is to introduce them as early as possible into a single sport and log a lot of practice hours. Research, however, has warned us that this may be a short-sighted approach. Myer (2016) and his research colleagues noted that those children who do choose to specialize in a single sport and engage in periods of intense training should be closely monitored for indicators of burnout, overuse injury, or potential decrements in performance due to overtraining.
Conversely, the research also found that parents and coaches should help provide opportunities for free, unstructured play to improve motor skill development and youngsters should be encouraged to participate in a variety of sports during their growing years to influence the development of diverse motor skills. Esteemed coach Urban Meyer heavily recruits athletes from multi-sport backgrounds as he values the adaptability and other positive qualities that these young players demonstrate. A multi-sport approach may help reduce burnout and drop out, as well as affording youngsters the opportunity to experience a range of learning environments.
Don’t oversimplify your selection policies
When selecting an athlete, we need to consider as much information as possible. The process to find our next star shouldn’t be rushed or oversimplified. In Australia, the FTEM athlete development model has been implemented by the Australian Institute of Sport since its development in 2011. This model looks at the development of athletes in different stages—Foundation, Talent, Elite and Mastery. The Talent stage is also categorized to align to the complexities of identifying our potential performers.
This model looks at Talent in the following phases:
- Talent 1: Demonstration of potential
- Talent 2: Talent verification
- Talent 3: Talent development
- Talent 4: Breakthrough and reward
Such models and frameworks look deeper into talent identification than selecting or deselecting an athlete based on their current performances. Thought must be provided to what it takes to reach the top in any given sport, the athlete themselves and the environment in which they operate.
To summarize, identifying and selecting potential athletes comes down to more than just what we see on the surface. We can’t predict the future but what we can do is realize the complexity of making it to the upper echelons of elite sport, and ensure our identification and selection processes match that complexity.
- Ankersen R. (2012). The Gold Mine Effect. Crack the Secrets of High Performance. Icon books Ltd.
- Australian Sports Commission – FTEM athlete development framework https://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/athlete_pathways_and_development/pathways
- Myer, G. D., Jayanthi, N., DiFiori, J. P., Faigenbaum, A. D., Kiefer, A. W., Logerstedt, D., & Micheli, L. J. (2016). “Sports specialization, part II: Alternative solutions to early sport specialization in youth athletes.” Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 8, 65–73.
- NCAA (2017) Estimated Probability of Competing in Professional Athletics Research