Time is the most important factor in talent development

In the retail world the secret to making a sale is to keep a potential customer in your store as long as possible. The longer the customer is able to see and feel an item and imagine that he already owns it the more likely it is that he will buy it. One of the most valuable skills that a salesman possesses is his ability to keep a customer in the store long enough to make a difference. Obviously there are other skills needed by retailers but if the customer isn't there then any other skills a salesman may have are irrelevant.

Likewise, good coaches know that keeping youngsters involved in sport activity is the secret to developing athletes. My swim coaching career taught me that the longer I could keep youngsters interested in swimming the more likely it was that they would eventually excel. With young athletes this meant conducting practice sessions in such a way that youngsters wanted to return the next day. This meant that I had to make the practice sessions interesting, fun, and challenging. It meant that I had to show interest in each athlete, not just the so-called good ones. I know that if every child on my team left the pool with a smile on their face and looking forward to their next practice session then I had done my job.

Coaches cannot spot early talent, no one can

Popular wisdom says that coaches can spot talent but if you were to ask me which of the dozen or so chubby little 10-year-olds I trained would later become elite level performers I simply wouldn't know. No one would. But I did know that the odds favored at least some of them reaching the elite level if only I could keep them interested in the sport long enough to make a difference. Expert coaching, great facilities, good equipment -- none of these were important to those 10-year-olds. Later they would be, but in the beginning the only thing that mattered was time and learning to enjoy the sport.

When we talk about developing athletes and coaching we tend to lose sight of the fact that the development process occurs over a long period of time sort of like education. In primary school we don't expect that youngsters will be learning probability statistics in their math classes. Nor do we have to hire Nobel Prize winning mathematicians to teach children how to add and subtract. The skillset of a youth coach is different from that of a high performance coach.

The coaching skillset varies depending on the age of the athlete. As a coach I eventually developed the skills and knowledge I needed to help athletes reach the elite level in the United States but when I was coaching the youngest athletes on my team these elite level skills weren't needed nor were they very useful. The most important skill at the beginning level was being able to make the sport interesting and fun. If I could challenge the young athletes at every practice session and make it fun then they would return the next day. The longer they were involved in the sport the better chance they had of reaching elite levels of performance.

Coaches who train young athletes like they were already at the elite level usually lose those athletes to other sports, or to sports all together. If sport participation isn't enjoyable at young ages why should youngsters do it? Subjecting youngsters to practice regimens better suited to older, more experienced athletes insures that the youngsters will have a miserable experience, and they will quit the sport. The result is that we will never know if they could have reached the elite level or not because we chased them away at a young age.

This is probably the biggest sport development problem in Malaysia. Young athletes simply don't receive the time they need to learn and develop. Coaches are trying to spot talent and recruit these youngsters onto school or state teams while rejecting those who show no obvious ability at young ages.

Choosing young athletes who show better sport ability than their peers for sport training on the assumption that if they're good as a youngster they will be really good when they get older is faulty logic. It's one of those things that sounds like it should be true but isn't. When examined critically research has uncovered the rare case or two where this has actually worked but it is the exception rather than the rule.

Time, not coaching or ability, is the most important factor in creating sport talent

Through research and experience we know that the most important factor in sport talent development is how long an athlete stays engaged with the sport. It's not the training program, strength training, fancy facilities, or how much the coach knows about the sport that matters at this stage. These are important later, after the athlete becomes hooked on the activity.

The organizing principle underlying all sport development must be to create youth programs that offer both time and opportunity for all youngsters to learn a sport and enjoy participating in it. Not just those who show what some might mistakenly call "talent," but for all young athletes.

Coaches training should emphasize that it's not their job to find talented young athletes in ill-advised talent identification schemes. But rather to create sport environments where young Malaysian athletes can learn and enjoy sports, actually get hooked on them. As the years pass some of these athletes will develop remarkable robust skills and eventually develop into elite, high performance athletes. This won't happen though if youngsters don't have the time and opportunity to learn and participate.