Is talent identification even possible?

    The dream of being able to identify sport talent in youngsters has been around for quite a while. Finding future stars based on various performance tests, mysterious algorithms, or biometric measurements seems like a dark art practiced by those who 'know' something the rest of us don't. The truth is that no real scientist thinks that future talent can be identified at an early age; there are simply too many variables involved to predict such an outcome.

    Talent identification is the process of identifying future ability on an individual basis rather than a statistical one. In other words, from a group of, say twenty 11-year-olds, talent ID gurus would be able to identify the one or two individuals who will eventually become high performers.

    Statistically we can say with high certainty that at least one elite athlete would emerge from this group. The difference between talent identification and relying on math is that we wouldn't know which 11-year-old this would be until it happened.

    The talent ID path is based on testing, identifying the one or two superstars, and then training them for future fame and fortune. The statistical path involves training the entire group and hoping for the best. The statistical path may not sound promising but I've written several articles explaining why it is the best strategy.

    So one has to ask, is talent identification as it is defined here even possible?

    The simple answer is no, at least not in any practical sense. Measurement and testing are not really predictive of anything. Formulas that project growth rates or full grown size, for example, give ballpark results at best, and testing that fails to consider growth rates or relative age effect in the case of selection strategies is not much more than scientific illusion.

    Some may ask, so what? Who really cares if it's possible or not? If all that sport officials were doing was trying to identify future top performers 'so what?' would be a good response. Unfortunately the way the whole process plays out is that those identified as future talents are selected for further, more advanced training with better facilities, more opportunities to compete, and working with more experienced coaches.

    Those not selected receive none of these benefits. Their programs are dropped or the young athletes themselves are eliminated because the perception is that they lack talent.

    The technical problem with talent identification schemes is that they only consider part of the talent equation. In sport the physical component is so obvious that it's usually the only thing we see. We rarely consider the psychosocial aspects of participation and how most athletes are engaging in sports they enjoy and, most importantly, ones that are available to them.

    Large talent identification programs rely on a noninvasive battery of performance tests. But the only performance attribute unlikely to change over time is speed since it's directly related to the number of fast-twitch muscle fibers one has. Other performance attributes are trainable (endurance, strength, etc.), which makes their testing for predictive purposes essentially meaningless. Making talent ID judgements at an early age based on trainable attributes is foolish.

    Anthropomorphic measurements are predictive but not of anything to do with talent. Their value lies in determining growth rates and adjusting training appropriately based on changing growth velocities.

    Another use for physical measurement is to calculate ratios between body parts. In The Sports Gene, David Epstein describes how the ratio between wingspan and height is an important measurement in basketball. However, a 'good' ratio does not indicate basketball talent, merely an advantage one player may have over another. Just like a taller player might have an advantage over a shorter one.

    On the true scientific front research is getting closer and closer to identifying what we think may be genetic indicators of future physical ability. But this testing will be expensive and invasive; and so far its effectiveness lies on the "maybe" side of the equation.

    But even if we crack the genetic code of physical performance it will be many years before it can be implemented in any meaningful way in sports. If that happens we will then be faced with a much larger question about the future of sport and its role in society. For now the dream of talent ID is still a dream.

    --------
    Bill Price (price@sportkid.asia) is the owner and Chief Data Scientist at Sportkid Metrics.

     

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    Fear of missing out is hurting youth sports - 23 October 2018


    Deliberate practice vs. late specialization - 24 September 2018


    Is talent identification even possible? - 17 September 2018


    Who won the Asian Games? - 10 September 2018


    Re-thinking the mission of Malaysia's sport associations - 03 September 2018


    Using maturity offsets to determine age at peak height velocity - 27 August 2018


    The youth sport talent illusion: How we confuse early-maturers with good athletes - 13 August 2018


    The tip of the iceberg: What are we seeing when we watch elite sport performances? - 30 July 2018


    7 things youth sport coaches should know - 25 June 2018


    Who is responsible for athlete performance: Athletes, coaches, or committees? - 18 June 2018


    Creating a culture of achievement in sport - 05 June 2018


    Sport development in the headlines (sort of): Is Malaysia really serious about revamping their sports system? - 28 May 2018


    Who won the Commonwealth Games? A points analysis of the Gold Coast games - 23 April 2018


    Kaizen: Improving sport administration will improve performance - 02 April 2018


    What can Malaysia learn from Norway about sport development? - 05 March 2018


    More efficiency tips for coaches: Dealing with more than one email address and other communication ideas - 26 February 2018


    Efficiency tips for coaches: What can you do to work more efficiently? - 19 February 2018


    LTAD: Training to compete - 22 January 2018


    Sport clubs are the lifeblood of national sport development. They need help from sport associations to do their job. - 15 January 2018


    Sometimes taking risks is the only way to improve: Take a chance! - 18 December 2017


    How we calculate age in youth sports can have benefits and consequences - 11 December 2017


    What is bio-banding? Can it help reduce the relative age effect in sport? - 04 December 2017


    Understanding the role that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation play in the athlete development process - 20 November 2017


    Great expectations: Expect more, get more! What we learn from raising the bar in sport performance - 14 November 2017


    Why process is far more important than outcome in a learning environment - 25 September 2017


    Sport associations are embracing physical literacy training - 18 September 2017


    Creating a true sport development system in Malaysia - 11 September 2017


    Who won the SEA Games? - 04 September 2017


    KL2017: Reporting individual sport results deserved better planning - 29 August 2017


    Can we please forget about ways to identify talent and just work on getting more athletes? - 07 August 2017


    Using the team selection process to boost motivation and increase athlete participation - 24 July 2017


    LTAD: The Train to Train stage - 10 July 2017


    LTAD: The Learn-to-Train stage - 26 June 2017


    Athletic training for youngsters - 12 June 2017


    Visualization and imagery in sports - 05 June 2017


    Young, single-sport athletes suffer more injuries and do not reach their full potential - 29 May 2017


    Transformational vs. transactional coaching - 23 May 2017


    Will they come back tomorrow? The most important KPI for youth sport coaches - 08 May 2017


    Advice to parents of young athletes - 01 May 2017


    Is VIP leadership of sport associations a good idea? - 22 March 2017


    What happens after an athlete's initial introduction to sport? - 27 February 2017


    "Where do athletes come from?" A paper presented at the Kuching sport psychology conference - 16 January 2017


    Understanding sport talent pathways - 09 January 2017


    Make 2017 the year of the growth mindset - 02 January 2017


    Teaching physical literacy skills in youth sport practices - 12 December 2016


    Developing sport from the ground up: How does the process really work? - 06 December 2016


    Pay for what you want: Why less government funding may be the best strategy for sport development - 21 November 2016


    The 10,000 hour rule: "Not for the faint of heart nor for the impatient" - 14 November 2016


    Parent involvement in their child's sport participation sometimes backfires - 07 November 2016


    How to do the measurements for determining peak height velocity (PHV) - 24 October 2016


    A foreign coach is not always the answer - 17 October 2016


    Tips on creating an effective coaching environment - 10 October 2016


    Peak height velocity and aerobic development: Using simple measurement data to inform training decisions - 26 September 2016


    Early sport specialization is still not a good idea - 19 September 2016


    What kind of data do we need to develop sports? - 13 September 2016


    The attrition and transformation models of sport development - 05 September 2016


    Solve for <x> - 29 August 2016


    Artificial elimination of athletes from training and competition hinders sport development in Malaysia - 15 August 2016


    Time is the most important factor in talent development - 01 August 2016


    What if opportunity never knocks? - 13 June 2016


    The long-term athlete development framework offers youngsters a chance at sport success and an active and healthy life - 06 June 2016


    Early sport specialization is not a good development strategy - 30 May 2016


    What does a declining population mean for sport? - 2 February 2016


    Coaching 'flow' - 11 November 2015


    The coach's role in creating a deliberate practice environment - 02 November 2015


    When should athletes specialize in a single sport? - 11 September 2015


    Physical literacy: The Holy Grail of health, wellness, and sport development - 1 September 2015


    Revisiting the 10,000 hour rule: Practical thoughts on talent and practice - 10 August 2015


    The power of 'not yet' - 20 July 2015


    Let's stop trying to identify sport talent and start developing it - 22 June 2015