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Talent I.D. - Are we getting it right?

Does this sound familiar? All of you will have heard or been a part of the Talent I.D. process and the following example will not be new to you.

A leader within an NSO, RSO, Club or Secondary School starts to consider how to get more talent into their environment. They start with the mentality of “we need to have a talent pipeline that identifies talent at the ages of 12, 13, and 14 and place them into formal structures for their development". This ultimately creates a talent ID/academy.

A 14 year old ‘gifted’ athlete then gets invited to be part of an “academy” at their school. One of the ”benefits” of being involved with this high performance group is they get to miss out on one period a week of maths, english or science in order to free up time to undertake additional work on technical skill development for their sport. They are part of this academy for the next 3 years and by the time they leave school at the end of year 13 they have received a significant amount of development for their chosen sport.

Over the next month or so I will explore this scenario, in the coaches corner blog and highlight the reasons why I believe it is flawed on a number of levels. I will use the term academy and TID programme interchangebly.

The first blog will focus on the issue of talent identification (TID) within these academies and high performance groups. The second and third will then look at what Talent ID/academies could do more of to develop better all-round athletes; developing the growth mindset in these athletes and developing awareness and game understanding in these athletes.

The first issue with talent ID programmes/academies is there is a lack of understanding around the purpose of academies. It could be argued the majority of academies are put together for player development, when in reality they are there to create short term success for a certain team, whether it be a school 1st XI, representative side etc. This means there is a lack of alignment and congruence around the communicated goals of the academy and their real objectives.

Recently I read a South African study that measured the number of Rugby Union players who progressed through their development pathway. South Africa Rugby Union’s pathway includes their national U13 tournament, the national U16 tournament and lastly the national U18 tournament. The results of the study found that in 2005, 349 players participated in the U13 tournament. From that group only 110 went on to play at the 2006-2008 U16 tournaments and the number dropped again to only 84 players who participated at the 2008 and 2009 U18 Tournaments.

69% of the original players didn’t represent their province at U16 level and 74% of players didn’t represent their province at U18 level. I would guess that this percentage wouldn’t be that dissimilar across a number of sports in New Zealand. If the under 13, 16, and 18 programmes are supposed to be preparing South African Rugby Players for future international performance, it is quite clear this is not happening.

So where does that leave coaches and selectors? Based on these figures (for more examples of similar findings on other sports click on the following links: Goldmine effect, The flaws of football academies, Talent identification, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing), we as a sporting structure are not very good at identifying talent at a young age.

I believe one of the reasons we struggle to identify talent is because the entire process and methology around TID is messy. It is not straightforward or easy to do and the sooner we understand this, the better we will be. A recent editorial from Middle Tennessee State University stated that ‘The prediction of long term success (in early adolescents) is extremely difficult and successful adult athletes are not necessarily the ones who performed best in youth competitions’.

Think about your sport and every skill or action that takes place in it. No doubt your list would contain areas like strength (pushing or pulling an object for example), speed (in one direction or multi-directional), decision-making, communication, passing, catching, defending, flexibility, game awareness, running, jumping, hopping etc. That list is probably only the tip of the iceberg, and that’s not even taking into account factors like athlete’s personalities, motivations, values, beliefs and backgrounds. Taking into account all these factors, to then look at a 14 year old and say based on x, y, z he needs to be in our high performance group because he could potentially be a star is a very big ask.

Another study, this time out of the US from Indiana University on TID stated "athletes should not be excluded or identified based solely upon one attribute, such as height. Abbott and Collins maintained that other factors like speed and agility may compensate for a weakness. Further, these researchers found that key psychological behaviours such as motivation and learning strategies are essential to the talent development process both in sport and other performance areas”. However, it could be argued that this is exactly what is happening in talent ID/academies around New Zealand. Athletes are selected because they are the tallest, the strongest, the fatest etc. Players aren’t picked because of their work ethic, their motivation to improve and develop or their ability to learn. Consequently, it could be argued that academies are actually talent exclusion programmes if they are selecting athletes based on one set of attributes.

It takes a significant number of skills and competencies to become a quality elite athlete and all aspects need to be taken into consideration before tagging an athlete as gifted. I don’t know whether we will ever be able to truly identify potential talent and all that comes under that umbrella, but we can start to understand why 74% of U13 Rugby players don’t transfer through to U18 Rugby let alone into elite adult sport. 

Going back to the scenario at the top of the page, it is highly unlikely the 14 year old selected to the high performance group will be successful in playing elite sport. Of more concern is if the majority of sports are picking their players from these types of groups (academies, talent ID groups etc) how many players are missing out on selection because they do not fit that early model of a “good” player or athlete. As we’ve seen there are a number of reasons why players at a younger age may not fit the bill regarding performance in their sport. The South African Rugby study alluded to an alternative interpretation, that the U13 players had characteristics associated with success in rugby, but these characteristics changed as the players got older, so as the characteristics changed so too did the players getting picked. 

In summary, these types of academies popping up around New Zealand need to be clear around what their purpose is. If it is to transfer more talented adolescent athletes through to high performance sport then:

a)      They need to understand what it takes to compete at a high performance level. This goes back to the earlier point which said it takes a significant number of skills and competencies to become an elite athlete. Academies need to be developing the physical and technical/tactical capabilities in their athletes, as well as cognitive skills like resilience, decision making, creating a growth mindset and emotional/social skills like self-awareness, emotional control, how to deal with pressure, how to deal with media plus a number of others. Look at how many high profile sport protége’s in sport around the world struggle when they hit the ‘big time’, because they haven’t received the right kind of training; and

b)      They need to be honest with the athletes they are picking on what it takes to be a high performance athlete, and how likely it is that they will transfer through to a high performance environment. Too often I think players in New Zealand are told they are the next best thing when they make a regional academy, when in the wider scheme of things a regional academy in New Zealand is few rungs below quality international high performance sport. Greater honesty with the athletes in these academies/high performance groups should start to create higher standards of training as these athletes seek to be the best they can be. 

In the next coaches corner blog, I will discuss in more detail one of the vital skills I believe young athletes need to develop, developing a growth mindset, and why this skill should be the foundation element of every school, club, RSO and NSO Talent ID/academy. 

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This publicly listed blog entry, reference# 959, was added by Dave Keelty on July 12, 2013 into the [General]sports category for public group GACU :: Auckland Coaches

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