Sep 30

Long-term Athlete Development: The Solution or The Problem? – Part III

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Talent Identification versus Talent Selection

Coaches often claim to be great talent identifiers when they point to the success of their young athletes 10 and 11 years of age. However, they are really talent selectors, not talent identifiers; and this assumption could be more detrimental to the development of youth athletes in many sports. Talent selection is picking those athletes who demonstrate their present ability early to participate successfully in future events. Talent identification, on the other hand, is the prediction of future athletic performance based upon an evaluation of current physical, technical, tactical and psychological qualities, genetics  – and foremost – collecting anthropometric measurements. The latter includes a systematic measurement of the physical properties of the human body, primarily dimensional descriptors of body size and shape. Anthropometry involves the assessment of the following:

  • Height or length
  • Weight
  • Mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC)
  • Demi-span or arm span
  • Hand size
  • Foot size
  • Knee height
  • Sitting height
  • Skinfold thickness
  • Head circumference

Talent selection is pretty simple… recruit the best of athletes for the respective group or team while talent identification (TI) is a learned art. One yields great results today; the other builds elite athletes and winning teams for the future.

The present youth sports culture presents an overriding emphasis on winning at all costs to promote talent selection, not talent identification. When coaches feel pressure to win by parents, the club, or the personal need to boost their own ego, they become talent selectors. Lesser talented athletes are cut rather than developed to reach their potential because coaches concentrate on athletes’ current athleticism, technical ability, and traits to help achieve short-term success. The biggest, strongest, and fastest young athletes are selected to make the team and play extensive minutes or compete at the higher level of competitive events. Children with lesser talent are therefore not provided a fair chance or the opportunity to develop their skills. Their playing time is limited or they are demoted to recreational activities like in gymnastics and swimming. They are termed as not working hard enough or tough enough. They are yelled at, often humiliated, and labeled as unable to handle pressure. “Better get used to this type of pressure because you will face more of it when you get older!” No wonder that 73% of young athlete quit organized sports by the age of 13, according to the latest statistics!

Talent identifying means searching for young athletes, who may not yet be at the elite level but possess the physical and psychological attributes to eventually become one. Perhaps, these children or youth have not yet grown or have been exposed to high-level coaching. Conceivably, they are not as skilled but reveal a high level of coach-ability, sensitivity to training, and motivation to learn. Identifying talent requires the trained skill of an expert to weigh physical, physiological, psychological, and technical components of the athlete but also relying on some personal and natural instinct about the athlete, i.e., who does possess what it takes and who may not. Talent identification takes a long-term approach to athlete development and emphases on training larger numbers of children instead of cutting all but the elite. It recognizes that many factors affect whether an athlete will make it or not but rarely are childhood results the main factor.

In a longitudinal study of Junior tennis players, 1994-2002, 1,000 players, ages 12-13 in 50 different countries were evaluated, including future stars Roger Federer, Kim Clisters, and others. It was found that players who eventually made it into the Top 100 Professional Rankings were:

  • 3-4 months younger than the mean age for their group
  • Slimmer and less powerful than their age group
  • Usually faster and more agile than average
  • Played less than the average number of matches that the top players
  • Average practice hours per week were 2-4 hours less than elite players in their age group
  • Parents were supportive but not overly involved

If we project this data onto current elite youth athletes, questions arise such as do present-day players, who are young for their age, thinner and weaker, practice and play less than their peers, and have parents who are not overly involved? Not so! It is even worse in ice hockey where some Peewee and Bantam teams in Michigan have a travel schedule with as many as 120 games while the NHL only suits out for 82 games! Parents live vicariously through the success of their child athletes and their goal is for their offspring to reach the NHL level.

Coaches and parents are committed to winning now, getting on ESPN, or attaining some hypothetical pre-pubescent national ranking although some sport clubs have B and C teams. Others have the same but players are often trained with less experienced coaches, less committed teammates in an overall lesser positive learning experience. We say we are developing them for the future but all too often they serve the purpose to balance the budget (higher numbers of recreational athletes). Current talent has to help clubs win now because if they do not, another club will grab them to win, and the best players may leave. We are not identifying and developing athletes, who are most likely to become elite competitors after puberty, rather select those who already are elite but often do not have the characteristics needed for long-term elite performance.

This is the reason that the emphasis on winning prior to High school is destroying youth sports (O’Sullivan, 2013). This is the reason nations that 1/100th of our population can compete with the US on a world stage in many sports. They actually identify and develop future talent, instead of selection based upon current results (Norway, #1 in gold medals at the last Winter Olympics). Our wealth and sheer numbers allow us to succeed internationally, but other nations are slowly and surely closing the gap in nearly every sport because, quite frankly, they identify and develop talent far better than we do (O’Sullivan, 2013).

How can we fix this? Here are some thoughts that could be implemented:

  • Stop cutting players at young ages, and develop large numbers of players instead of just the elite ones. Sweden, for example, produces more NHL players per capita than any other country, and they do not cut players until age 17. They do (Schloder, 2018)!
  • Focus on developing all athletes at a young age with particular attention given to helping less skilled ones to ‘catch up’ technically to the stronger ones. Thus, when they finish their growth spurt, there is a much larger pool of adequately skilled individuals to select from.
  • End the persisting ‘win at all costs’ driving nature pre-pubescent sports, especially state and national championships prior to Middle- or High school, and televised events like Little League World Series.
  • Implement a better education for coaches to understand the difference between selecting and identifying talent; teach and encourage them to develop it rather than try and win immediately.

Unless we start making some drastic changes to our youth sports system, we will see smaller nations continuing to close the gap and eventually surpass the United States in many sports (O’Sullivan, 2013). We are not elite in soccer yet because of the North American culture. We are also falling behind in baseball. Even in basketball, the gap has been significantly reduced because our competitors are not relying on a player development system that is often based upon a large population and luck.

Clubs and schools need to make changes so we have access to a larger number of skilled athletes as well as additional healthier and well-rounded children (physically literate). We need families less stressed both financially and mentally by letting their children just be children! Rather than burden parents by having them feel pressured to send their 10-year-old 2,000 miles away to play a game. We have to create a sporting environment wherein coaches actually feel free to coach and to develop better people and better athletes.


O’Sullivan, J. (2013, December 9). Our Biggest Mistake: Talent Selection Instead of Talent Identification. Changing the Game Project. Posted. Retrieved, September 20, 2018, from https://changingthegameproject.com/our-biggest-mistake-talent-selection-instead-of-talent-identification/

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