Athletic talent identification is approached from many different angles, depending on which country you are looking at and the sport for which athletes are being recognised and recruited. This article looks at two things; the first being innate talent identification and prediction of future success. Secondly we will look at athletic development and the changeable aspects of young athletes throughout various stages of an athlete’s life.
How Much Athletic Ability is Innate?
It is always popular to believe that great athletes are born and not made. This comes from those that train hard for many years but can’t reach the heights of the champions. That is why these types of people need a back up plan in athleticism. The truth is that when an athlete is young, he/she is more pliable. Meaning that a child’s physiology can change many more aspects through training than is possible for an adult. Also worth noting is that training a child is vastly more different than training an adult athlete. Specificity is less important and a child can excel in a wider range of domains than a fully mature person can.
Lets look at this from an another angle. Certain characteristics in physical and mental development have been shown to be genetic to a certain degree. For instance west Africans are generally great sprinters, east Africans are generally great distance runners, Asians have been shown to have faster reaction time and Caucasians have been shown to be naturally superior swimmers. This side of athletic talent identification is easy to work with. There are certain genetic and environmental factors surrounding entire races of people that identifying talent is a broad activity, therefore making it a lot simpler.
But what about people of the same nationality? Athletic talent identification needs to work within the confines of specific races of people. Without scientific testing and muscle biopsies for instance, how are talent scouts able to assess future ability in an athlete? It has long been thought that things such as muscle fibre type distribution is genetically determined. This would make it hard in identifying potential at a young age because the athlete has not yet had time to develop. But maybe the answer is a simple one. It may come down to what the child athlete is interested in and spends the most time on. Several studies have shown that muscle fibre type and other physiological characteristics related to athletic performance are determined by a number of factors. Genetics is only part of it. During childhood muscle fibre type has been shown to actually change in response to the stimulus it gets during the younger years of childhood and adolescence. So the activities participated in during childhood may actually be a huge contributing factor to the percentage of fast and slow twitch muscle fibres and other aspects related to athletic performance.
How to Develop a Young Athlete
When I was in primary school I was into several sports but never seemed to excel at one. I was just kind of average at all of them. But then there were kids I can remember that were great runners or great swimmers etc. One guy would consistently win all running events from the cross-country down to the 100 metres. This led me to researching the reasons behind this type of versatility. It turns out that he was simply biomechanically effective at running. He had a good stride, perfect posture, rhythmic breathing, long legs etc. Some of these things were simply a result of him being interested in running.
So why is it that if a sprinter goes jogging he will lose his speed and power in time but as a child not as much will change? It’s due to muscle plasticity. Muscles are adaptable and pliable all throughout life, more so in children. Rather than the commonly held notion of three distinct fibre types, it is actually more like a sliding scale from aerobic/oxidative to glycolytic and everything in between. Children’s muscles respond to any stimulus and their bodies are sensitive to most stressors. This is why a great middle distance runner at school might also be a great sprinter or long distance cyclist.
Taking the above into account, this also means that the muscles in pre-teens are easily adaptable. If a child rides his/her bike for 90 minutes continuously everyday he/she will begin to adapt to the long-duration activity. There will be a higher percentage of slow twitch muscle fibres over time. As the athlete ages the muscle fibres and other factors begin to lose plasticity. When he/she reaches full maturity muscle fibre types are not easily manipulated.
A young athlete should first be established as being interested in sports. It is also important to let them make their own choice. This will provide a lot of information down the track for future athletic talent identification. Once they are playing sports they should be encouraged and nurtured to engage in a variety of activities. This helps to see where a person naturally excels. This is also the method used by eastern bloc countries. They simply let kids go off and play whatever sport they wish. The scouts, parents etc, begin to narrow down the selection of sports over time, steering them into a group of sports where they naturally excel. By about age 13 the athlete is ready to get specific and begin training for a certain sport. At this stage the athletic talent identification has been largely completed. It’s not hard to determine where a person is likely to be a champion when they have been primarily competing in events related to endurance for instance. At this stage the athlete can then be trained more specifically for their chosen sport because they have been steered, encouraged and interested in certain sports and activities that are most likely of a similar or related nature.
Approaches to Athletic Talent Identification
There are many approaches to athletic talent identification. Some sports in certain countries may have a very specific, systemised approach that lasts for years. Other sports in other countries use less formal methods and may simply get as many children involved in the sport as possible and see who excels.
Here we will look at three common approaches…
1. Systematic, Governmental Systems: These are methods commonly used by former Soviet countries, China and a limited number of others. These systems use methods over a long period of time such as that mentioned earlier.
2. Systematic, Non-Governmental Systems: This is the most common form of athletic talent identification. It involves sporting bodies, companies and individual teams looking at children in many different contexts and recruiting based on a complex number of issues such as sociology, economic factors, attitude, physical ability, technical proficiency and more.
3. Non-Systematic Approaches: These approaches are far less formal and don’t involve using a specific method across the board. This sort of athletic talent identification occurs in highly popular sports such as soccer, rugby, cricket etc. where there is high enough participation in the sport already that there is no need to recruit fresh from those who don’t currently participate.
Effectiveness of Athletic Talent Identification Methods
I am proud that currently my home country, Australia is utilising some of the most effective athletic talent identification methods in the world. Australia’s approach is not simply the old style method of recruiting based on current athletic ability. Coaches and scouts in Australia use a more long-term approach that involves developing young athletes that show potential and identifying their talent through training camps, competition seasons etc. This allows for a more organic process and provides scouts with a very long look at a young athlete’s development over time.
Contrast this with older methods used throughout the world. The classic approach was to assess youths of various ages in school sport and physical education programmes and administer tests. Children that performed well in certain areas were steered towards certain sports. This did not account for a person’s interest in the sport, potential for development, attitude towards training, psychological capacity etc. Talent identification of this type produced very modest results.
The Point of all This
The point I am trying to make is that talent is a complex issue involving many variables. The potential of an athlete is determined by a wide range of factors such as environment, training, developed ability, psychological predisposition to performance and many other aspects. The future success of an individual cannot be determined simply by their current level of ability. Nor can a basic, rudimentary development process be expected to magically produce champion athletes.
I am guessing that many readers of this article will be coaches and parents and maybe even young athletes themselves. So this needs to narrow down to how athletic talent identification and the development of the athlete comes together. I think that if the mindset of athletes and coaches were changed it would change the potential for many young athletes that would otherwise not be given the chance.
As I mentioned before, I was an average athlete in many sports at school. I never got the blue ribbon but I never got the wooden spoon either. Ability such as this is largely unnoticed because there are no elite, stand-out performances to grab attention. Later I became an elite level sprinter throughout my high school years. I ran a time of 10.72s for the 100 metres at age 16. One of the primary reasons was because I trained hard and knew how to seek out information. I couldn’t afford a coach so I studied until I had the knowledge to be a coach myself. This is a mindset and therefore a contributing factor to my high school sprinting success.
There is a lot to be said for development-based, athletic talent identification methods. Observing how a young athlete performs currently will not always provide an accurate prediction as to what they will do in the future. My advice to parents and coaches of young athletes is to invest time and energy into the young ones that prove they have the ability to be coached, not just the ones with natural ability. A young athlete with a high tolerance for high-level training and the discipline to put in the work is most likely to reach some level of success. The reason that naturally, or genetically gifted young athletes achieve results and actually become champions is because they are nurtured. But there is a high drop-out rate for such athletes because this psychological drive doesn’t enter into the equation. On the flip-side, one reason we don’t see as many non-gifted athletes coming through as champions is because they are ignored to a large extent. These athletes are not as often taken into athletic training camps and are less likely to gain scholarships for athletic performance.
Athletic talent identification is a complex issue. For this reason there are many variables to consider that go beyond the simple assessment of ability and performance. Through my research and my experience working with young athletes, I have discovered that a combined approach tends to prove most effective. It pays for an athlete to show some level of natural performance, however this is a minimal aspect in a very complex set of variables. The athletes that get into development programmes should be the ones with a predisposition to elite training and performance. This includes ambition, rate of improvement, psychology of both performance and training and a baseline level of skill and proficiency. Quite often it is the athletes that perform moderately well in a wide range of sports that have more longevity and development potential. Athletes that are too highly specified at an early age are the ones that peak then drop off well before they have achieved anything great in their sport.
The athlete needs to have a wide range of skills and the mindset to go with it. They also need to show some level of promise. This requires them being given the chance to develop under supervision.
So I’ll leave it at that for now. Look to the systems that are working and the ones that aren’t. Which ones are based almost exclusively on raw ability? Which ones provide a development and monitoring programme?
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Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Unleashed Training, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.