The youth sport talent illusion

How we confuse early-maturers with good athletes

Which of the young footballers running up and down the field every Saturday morning will become future stars? No one can tell. But it's a good bet that some of them are already performing well above the level of their peers and are considered as top prospects for future stardom. These athletes already seem to have what it takes to move up in the sport and in the current youth sport culture these precocious youngsters are the ones who will receive more coaching, more encouragement, and more family support than others who seem less talented.

Physical maturity usually brings natural increases in strength, speed, and size--essential qualities for sport success--but the only thing early sport precocity tells us is that some youngsters are maturing faster than others. At the youth level being bigger, stronger, and faster are often all that is needed to stand out in a crowd of less mature young athletes. But it doesn't tell us anything at all about talent.

At older ages talent and success are closely linked, but at the youth sport level such a connection is premature since performance gains are dependent on little more than changing physical attributes. Success in youth sport is relative to whoever is on the team or field, thus successful youngsters are judged in relation to others they are playing with and not against some universal standard. Some of these athletes may be more successful among their slower maturing peers but it doesn't follow that they are also more talented. Nevertheless, we tend to explain a young athlete's success by labeling him as talented when the real reason is that he's simply growing faster.

In The Talent Code, Dan Coyle defines sport talent as "the possession of repeatable skills not dependent on physical size." If we adopt this definition many "talented" young athletes would no longer be described that way, which can be a good thing since youngsters are treated differently in most youth programs based on whether or not others judge them as talented.

Differences in how early-maturing vs. late-maturing athletes are treated

The terms early-maturing and late-maturing are used to describe the rate at which children follow typical growth patterns. In any peer group of youngsters early-maturers will be bigger than others in the group. They may also possess other athletically advantageous characteristics related to their growth but size is the easiest to identify. Late-maturers, on the other hand, appear smaller than their peers, but as any parent knows these distinctions don't last. Sometimes it's only a matter of months before those identified as late-maturers catch up with the early birds.

Being identified as talented can have a significant effect on a youngster's sport experience. Since talent identification is tied to physical growth at young ages it is the early-maturers who get the attention of coaches, praise from teammates and parents, and generally enjoy the sport more. They're viewed as future stars and the bit of extra coaching and encouragement will prepare them for higher levels of competition and loftier achievement in the sport that is sure to come (because they're talented!).

Late-maturers get less attention from coaches, and less praise from teammates. Enjoyment they experience is hard to gauge but they dropout of sport more frequently than early-maturers perhaps because they are enjoying it less. Late-maturers lack talent in the eyes of coaches and others involved, thus they receive little coaching attention which only compounds their inability to perform when compared to the early-maturer.

The result is that early in the youth sport experience some athletes receive the lion's share of attention, coaching, and praise while others get only half-hearted attempts at providing these same benefits. Although it may not be by design, many see it as the normal way for sport to operate. There are always going to be athletes who are better than others. That's why we like collegiate and professional sports, why we like to watch the Olympics. We want to see who's the best. But it's inappropriate in youth sports and knowing that it happens is the first step to fixing it.

The tables get turned

Circumstances are often reversed when the late-maturers begin catching up with their early-maturing counterparts though. Late-maturers dropout of sport more frequently because of the lack of enjoyment they experience early in their sport participation but for those who stick with it long enough for their bodies to catch up with the early-maturers the reversal of fortune can be dramatic. Indeed, there is evidence that the best athletes in elite sport are those who mature later than others.

There are at least two possible reasons for this:

  • Late-maturers have more time to learn and practice fundamentals. Early-maturers tend to move onto more advanced teams or training situations sooner because of their perceived talent. Not late-maturers; they spend much more time on novice teams or lower training levels. Result: they have a better command of fundamental skills when they actually start to mature.
  • Late-maturers become more knowledgeable about their sport because they spend more time learning the basics. Late-maturers listen to the coach more because they have to, it's their path to improvement. Early-maturers seem to just 'get it' and perform well naturally, they don't need a lot of instruction. For late-maturers listening, practicing, and repeating movements and skills are the only way they have to learn them. When they finally hit peak height velocity (PHV) they have a much better background of movements and a deeper understanding of the sport.

The trick for late-maturers is to stick with the sport long enough for the maturation process to occur. When youngsters have reached a certain level of physical maturity, probably somewhere around PHV, then tentative judgements about talent can be made. It doesn't make sense to look for talent prior to that. At this point Coyles definition of sport talent can be used effectively.

While late-maturers have to play a waiting game of sorts before the growth process kicks in for them, some early-maturers may be in for an unwelcome surprise. Once the late-maturers catch up with them the early-maturing athletes will no longer have such an easy time performing at the top of the heap. The top of the heap begins to get a lot more crowded. This is a time when youngsters who are used to being the best in their cohort find that they are now challenged by those they easily beat just a few months earlier.

Create the environment for success

The differences between early- and late-maturing athletes and the way the youth sport culture deals with them have significant consequences for long-term sport success. Creating an environment where athletes receive proper instruction and encouragement from coaches and sound developmental design of sport training and competition schemes from national governing bodies (NGB) can go a long way in minimizing detrimental though temporary effects that arise from the growth process.

Here are some suggestions on how this can be done:

  • Understanding the growth process as it relates to sport development should be included in all coaching education programs. The more coaches know about how young athletes grow and the changes caused by the growth process the more they will be able to address possible problems within their programs.
  • Emphasize that all youth programs are fun (achievable challenges). An NGB's #1 goal should be to get children involved in their sport programs and then keep them involved long enough to make a difference. Late-maturers tend to leave sport before we really know if they are good athletes or not; not having fun or experiencing little early success show up as reasons for this in many studies. Early-maturers also sometimes leave too soon due to burnout and the sport not being fun for them anymore.
  • Recognize that the purpose of youth sport is not to weed out athletes but rather to prepare as many of them as possible for the point where they can realize their full potential in the activity, which occurs much later than the typical youth sport time span.
  • Coaches can create practice and competition environments that youngsters enjoy and will look forward to returning to. Being able to do this for both early- and late-maturers is not an easy task but it can be done and it is the signature of youth sport programs in which we want our children enrolled.
  • NGBs should drive the evolution of their youth sport system away from the adult model of training and competition. This represents a cultural change and can only happen with long-term effort by the NGBs involved.

Everyone likes attention and success and an early-maturing young athlete seems to have hit the lottery in this area. As noted though, these times last only as long as it takes for their later maturing teammates to catch up with them; when speed, strength, and size will begin to even out again amongst the players. Likewise, late-maturers who stick with the sport are usually rewarded by increased success when their physical maturity level catches up with their peers. Understanding how children grow and how this affects the youth sport experience can help in designing youth sport programs that promote not only good long-term athlete development but also a lifelong love of physical activity.