Perils of the 'Talent' Label

Athletic talent and sporting potential are hard to define and harder still to capture. Such ambiguity presents a major obstacle for 'talent identification' and 'talent development' programmes in sport. Marking out a youngster as 'talented' is not only fraught with uncertainty, doing so can also carry negative consequences for their development moving forward. In this post we will explore the topic of 'talent' and discuss the challenges inherent in the processes of talent identification and development. In light of these issues we will examine how we might best nurture and develop young athletes whilst avoiding the pitfalls that can result from labeling them as 'talented'.

In a recent conversation with a colleague who works in the realm of talent development the central theme of our discussion and the single issue that most preoccupied her was how she might avoid the term 'talent'. My colleague is not alone in this: coaches who work in development pathways in different sports often speak about paradoxical negative consequences for those selected to squads and identified as 'talented'.

GIFTS OF PARENTAGE...

An alternative description of talent is 'giftedness'. This term perhaps better captures the essence of what we are describing when we say a youngster is talented athletically. Often we are referring to gifts bestowed at birth; in coaching parlance they chose their parents well.

As we will explore later in the post, lauding a young athlete for such gifts of parentage is a problem. By definition they have done nothing to earn these gifts or the plaudits that accompany them.

Nevertheless in certain sports and athletic events we must recognise that there are inherited traits which are essentially prerequisites for attaining elite level. Selection and success in these sports require certain minima with respect to height, limb length, or size. A male discus thrower who is not tall and does not have a large wing-span will struggle to throw world class distances. If your parents are both short (less than six foot) you are unlikely to play center in the NBA.

These examples illustrate that in certain sports and athletic events there is essentially a 'natural selection' process. Despite these considerations, @@inherited traits alone are not sufficient for success at elite level@@. This is the case even in sports that favour 'outliers' from the extremes of the 'normal' population curve.

Those caveats aside, we must recognise that the genetic 'gifts' of anthropometry, physical size, and physiological capacities (cardiac function, muscle fibre-type distribution) are factors that can allow youngsters to rise to prominence in many sports. Inherited traits lead to natural affinity for certain activities; examples include jumping, running fast or running far.

Inherited traits also extend to an athlete's responsiveness to different types of training, such as strength training or endurance training, and also the ceiling for training adaptations. In his book The Sports Gene, David Epstein describes this phenomenon as the 'Talent of Trainability'. Broadly, individuals can be stratified into 'responders', 'non-responders', and 'super-responders'.

Genotype can be important to varying degrees according to the sport. Even so, the extent to which these genetic gifts are expressed - what we term 'phenotype' - depends upon the athlete's environment and activities undertaken during critical phases in growth and development. The term 'epigenetics' describes such environmental or non-genetic factors with respect to gene expression. @@Epigenetics are clearly critical from a 'talent development' viewpoint@@.

Moreover, the majority of sports are more 'complex' in that they are reliant upon technical, tactical and decision-making elements. Clearly this makes these sports considerably less bound by gross physical and physiological capacities. In these sports, inherited traits are far less a prerequisite for success.

TRUE 'TALENT' IS HARD TO IDENTIFY...

Given the complexity that is inherent in most sports, evaluating the propensity to progress to elite level is far less straightforward than simply picking out the giants among the group. Identifying 'talent' in these sports defies simple measurement.

It is more difficult still to discriminate potential champion performers from an immature group of athletes. Even within an age-group this is a heterogenous population; particularly prior to late adolescence young athletes will possess differing and highly individual growth, maturation and development curves.

Often those identified as 'gifted' at age-group level are simply at a more advanced stage in their growth and maturation. The child might be an early maturer. Or it might simply amount to a happy coincidence of birth date in relation to the eligibility window for age-group selection within the sport.

The phenomenon of the relative age effect can be observed across sports in different parts of the world. Essentially those who are born at a more advantageous time within the selection window so that they are relatively older and more developed than their peers are consistently favoured in recruitment to squads.

Talent ID systems in sport are notoriously flawed and protocols employed typically demonstrate very poor predictive value. It is true that there is a self-fulfilling element whereby being selected to talent squads affords opportunities and exposure to coaching not available to peers. However, despite such advantages the conversion from age-grade squads to senior level is very poor. In fact, talent ID and selection at junior-level is remarkable in its failure to capture the true essence that allows athletes to succeed long term - or even in the short term in many cases.

HAZARDS OF LABELING...

@@You do not reward ‘potential’; you reward achievement@@

There are unforeseen negative consequences that can arise from identifying a young athlete as 'talented'. Often when a young athlete is told they have natural talent, you are describing physical attributes or inherited traits. This amounts to rewarding what has not been earned. In many instances the 'athletic talent' they are being congratulated for simply represents an accident of genetics. This has been more colourfully described as 'winning the sperm lottery'.

Whatever the origin of their talent, young athletes who are lauded as talented from an early stage in their development are often fawned over and granted privileged status. As discussed in a previous post, privilege is not conducive to elite behaviours. Selection to a talent squad can inadvertently send a message that the young athlete has made it, which in turn can lead to them becoming unfocussed and complacent.

Such complacency is not conducive to mobilising the mental resources necessary for skill development. @@Young athletes who are heralded as talented can become sloppy@@. As we will discuss later in the post, for practice to be effective the athlete must be attentive and intensely focussed. If an athlete is going through the motions or mindless in their practice this will serve to retard their development.

Being identified as 'talented' can also have negative implications in a different way. For some @@the mantle of 'talented athlete' can hang heavy@@. For many young performers, their self concept is closely entwined to their status as a sporting 'talent'. Ultimately this can be oppressive.

Naturally in such cases there will be a tendency for the immature athlete to seek to guard their 'talented' status. As a result, young athletes may become averse to challenge or situations in which they do not feel proficient or deem that there is a risk of failing. In particular, talented youngsters may develop an aversion to failing publicly. This is a problem; error is integral to learning and acquiring new skills. In essence, @@to develop you must be prepared to fail@@.

ASCENDING THE SUMMIT REQUIRES HERCULEAN APPLICATION...

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle makes a compelling case that 'greatness isn't born, it's grown'. As we have discussed, for certain sports it is irrefutable that genetic traits represent important determinants for participation at elite level. The points made by Coyle nevertheless remain valid; biological constraints aside, ultimately success in any sport is built upon particular behaviours and other qualities such as tenacity. 

Whatever natural talent or gifts the athlete brings, ultimately there are no shortcuts. Development is built upon quality actions repeated over time. Quality action is in turn dependent on the level of attention, specific intent and effort invested. Efficacious practice might therefore be best described as repetition of desired behaviours.

The aforementioned behaviours concern what effort and will the athlete brings to their practice. Not only does this require considerable investment of time, they must also be systematic in the process and completely invested in the pursuit. As we will see, for practice to be effective the athlete must be fully engaged.

What we are describing has been termed deep practice in Daniel Coyle's book. This is analogous to the concept of 'deliberate practice' proposed by Anders Ericsson. The distinction between simple repetition and deliberate practice whereby the performer is engaged with specific purpose and intent is an important one. Ericsson has proposed deliberate practice as the factor that differentiates the path to expert performance in relation to the hotly debated 10-year or 10,000-hour rule.

There is a neurological or biological basis for these governing principles of deep or deliberate practice. Essentially, there are certain conditions which must be fulfilled in order to lay down white matter (myelin). Myelination is the process of adaptation that comes from training the neural circuitry for a movement so that it adapts by adding layer upon layer of myelin like insulating tape around a wire. This is the infrastructure of well-practiced skilled movement.

Sport represents a series of problem-solving tasks. To improve and develop the athlete must be directed in their efforts to resolve the problem and willing to attempt different solutions, make mistakes and learn from them. They must be mindful and aware of errors as they occur, and use this awareness to come up with new solutions and refine subsequent attempts to eliminate those errors.

@@Skilled movement that appears effortless is the product of countless hours of effortful and mindful endeavour@@. An athlete who wishes to achieve mastery must be willing to invest themselves fully in the struggle. They must be prepared to grapple with the complexity of the task and commit to the pursuit over the long term. There are clear parallels here with the recent post on the differentiating factors of elite practice and behaviours in sport. The time and effort invested will ultimately brings its rewards with the adaptation of the neural circuitry that supports well-honed and skilled movement.

DEVELOPMENTAL 'WINDOWS' AND TALENT HOTBEDS...

There are phases of normal growth and development where youngsters are particularly receptive to learning. It is erroneous to view these developmental windows as a temporary 'one-off' opportunity. The window does not close if you miss the respective critical period; it is still possible to acquire skills later in life, albeit the learning process does tend to prove more difficult.

Still, it is absolutely true that within these receptive phases of development children are particularly responsive to acquiring sports skills and athletic abilities. Once again, this can be linked to biological mechanisms. For instance, during these fertile times for skill-learning children possess greater resources for laying down white matter (myelin), which as we have spoken about is the scaffolding that skill is built upon. It follows that it is critical for long-term development that young athletes are exposed to rich environments for learning and appropriate coaching during these developmental phases in order to take full advantage.

Talent hotbeds describe such environments that consistently produce an inordinate number of athletes who ascend to the top level in their sport. The sites of talent hotbeds around the world are typically unremarkable places at first glance. Often they do not boast great facilities and are not generally blessed with significant financial support. Indeed in most instances the lavish facilities, resources and extensive support staff of a 'high performance' or institute of sport set up are conspicuously absent.

From such humble beginnings, talent hotbeds have nevertheless captured the alchemy of culture, environment and coaching that fosters intensive and consistent development. In short, they have somehow created the conditions which ultimately produce champion athletes year on year.

I am presently fortunate to be able to observe a talent hotbed first-hand. I currently reside in New Zealand, a small country in every sense, and the talent hotbed in question comes from track and field athletics, which is a minority sport in the country. Nevertheless, at one shared facility in the suburbs of the North Shore of Auckland a young coach named Jeremy McColl has largely single-handedly built a talent hotbed that is becoming a conveyor belt of world class junior pole vaulters ascending to the senior ranks. The breakthrough performance to date was the Olympic bronze medal won at the recent Rio Olympics by 19-year old Eliza McCartney, competing at her first major outdoor championships as a senior.

The pole vault school that Jeremy has built shares the humble beginnings of most talent hotbeds; without any foundations of history or established success in the sport he has had to overcome shortcomings in facilities and equipment by building it himself. Another hallmark that is common to talent hotbeds is of course exceptional coaching, and this is also very much in evidence.

When spending time with the growing squads of youngsters that Jeremy coaches what is perhaps most striking however is their frame of reference concerning performance. Essentially the young athletes' collective perception of what is 'normal' is warped in the best way. Extraordinary performances have become viewed as an everyday event. Against this background, accelerated development and the meteoric ascent of youngsters who only recently took up the sport is accepted as normal and everyday. This is perhaps why all the members of the squad are so strikingly well-adjusted - it is hard to develop an over-inflated opinion of yourself when everybody else around you is assiduously going about their business of doing extraordinary things.

IN SUMMARY...

The elusive nature of talent in sport defies most attempts to measure it. Whatever the physical capabilities required by the sport, objective assessments alone fail to capture the less tangible traits that ultimately allow athletes to progress to elite level. To date we have yet to find a more sensitive or specific instrument to detect the potential to excel in the sport than an experienced coach with an eye for 'talent' in the context of that sport.

Clearly it is important that youngsters who demonstrate potential are provided opportunities to develop. From this viewpoint, we must aim to create and maintain a rich learning environment that supports the ongoing process of acquiring and honing skills and athletic abilities. @@An essential element is for young athletes who show potential to be exposed to high-calibre coaching@@.

Beyond offering opportunities and coaching input, it is also critical to impose and reinforce standards of behaviour in order to support continued development. @@So-called gifted athletes need to be in an environment in which they are held accountable@@. @@Being indulged does not foster growth@@. On account of their gifts, it is also natural that elite young performers should be held to higher standards. Moreover self-awareness and unflinching reflection are critical elements that must be fostered if athletes are to progress.

Ongoing development is incumbent upon constant challenge. It is not enough to merely attend practice and perform repetitions of the movement. For an athlete to improve they must invest their full mental resources. They must be switched on and be fully dialed into the process. And they must have clear and specific intent.

@@Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly@@
— Robert F. Kennedy

Continuous improvement is contingent upon the athlete retaining a willingness to explore the limits of their capabilities. Young people can be reticent when it comes to standing out from their peer group, particularly in a public forum. Therefore it is critical to @@create an environment in which immature athletes feel sufficiently secure to dare to to be exceptional@@.

Rewarding early success with privileged status risks making the athlete conservative and unwilling to jeopardise this status. Young developing athletes must be directed to remain forwards-looking, and constantly encouraged to relish the challenge of improving further. Fundamentally, athletes must also learn to accept that mistakes are integral to the process of learning and improving.

From this viewpoint, a fertile environment for development fosters a readiness to essentially fail; fail better...(repeat); ultimately conquer. This is the essence of the process of achieving mastery and virtuosity whatever the athletic or sports skill.

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