Understanding sport talent pathways

Most people have heard the term talent identification, it's commonly used to describe strategies to spot sport talent in youngsters. But while the term is ubiquitous in sport circles most people are unaware that it has a specific meaning. When we talk about talent identification we are talking about finding youngsters who will become elite performers later on. They may show ability at a young age that gets the attention of a coach or teacher who encourages their continued participation and training in the sport. Identification is but one pathway for dealing with sport talent. There are actually three specific ways of dealing with talent in sport which will be described in this article.

Talent identification

As already mentioned talent identification is the term that most people are familiar with. We hear it all the time when Malaysian officials talk about improving sport performance. It involves spotting talent in youngsters--those who show 'promise' in a certain sport--and then exposing them to further training and additional competitive opportunities.

This strategy simply doesn't work. It is the worst of the methods of dealing with sport talent for two reasons. First, there is no scientific way to predict who will be good at a skill in the future. Showing early ability has minimal correlation to later ability. Second, the result of using this method for picking who will be an athlete and who won't has devastating effects on potential athletes by de facto elimination from the athlete pool at an early age. Youngsters should be encouraged to participate in sports regardless of their ability. Talent identification is a means of artificial elimination that has no place in sports.

Malaysia will have fewer athletes to begin with simply because it has a smaller population than many other countries so it doesn't make any sense at all to eliminate youngsters from sport. While this is not the only reason Malaysia has fewer athletes it is one that officials have direct control over, so when it comes to the next talent identification scheme let's just learn to say 'No'. Consider Einstein's definition of insanity--Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result-- and move on from talent identification. There are other, better ways.

Talent development

Developing talent is the best way to produce high performance athletes and to produce a lot of them. The process is not quick, it takes years, but the payoff is substantial on two levels.

First, youngsters who grow up in a talent development model and reach the national level in their country have a complete repertoire of skills that most recognize as athleticism. This helps skilled athletes perform even better by providing a deep well of movement skills to employ as needed. Elite athletes operate on the very edge of their ability and a long-term developmental program helps them learn how to do this consistently. We're not talking about the accidental great play or lucky shot, we're talking about a true competitor who can access advanced, almost magical, skills when they need them.

Second, the developmental pathway helps athletes who may not seem so elite to begin with and who wouldn't make the cut in the identification pathway. Keeping these athletes around is not only healthy for them but it makes it more likely that late bloomers will eventually rise to upper levels of performance, something they would not be able to do in the identification pathway since it is likely they would have been eliminated before they had the opportunity to learn sport skills and demonstrate their abilities.

Because it addresses the two main issues in sport development--creating higher performing athletes and encouraging a more active and fitter population--the talent development pathway is the best choice for improving overall sport performance.

The downside of the development pathway is that it takes a long time to produce results. But if the goal truly is to improve performance for the long-term then there is no better solution. Talent development is not easy, but it's worth it.

Talent selection

The third talent pathway is through selection of athletes for specific short-term purposes such as participation in the SEA Games or the Olympics. Dates of the competitions are known well in advance so the goal of talent selection is to simply pick the athletes who are performing the best shortly before.

The selection process is usually done through some sort of trials competition or by having set selection criteria several months prior. Both methods let athletes know what it will take to 'make the team' in their sport.

The key idea of talent selection is that athletes are selected for a specific event that is close to the selection date. Exactly when the selection occurs depends on the sport. Individual sports could select a national team through a trials competition 3 to 4 weeks out from the target competition. Team sports would select players several months out to let team members learn how to perform with the personnel involved and build the necessary team atmosphere.

Of the three pathways the selection pathway is the shortest because the athletes selected for competitions already meet set criteria so there is no mention of training or coaching in the sense that there would be in the identification or development pathway.

For selection to work however the criteria have to be widely known by all athletes and coaches so that they know what they are working for and what it will take to be selected for the team. This helps reduce the problem of favoritism in sport circles. Selecting the same athletes over and over again is the lazy man's way of picking a national team and it discourages athletes not selected from serious preparation for competition. By setting criteria and sticking to them those not selected will know why they weren't selected and will, perhaps, be motivated to renew their efforts for the next selection period.

In summary, the development pathway is the best way to deal with talent in sport. Selection works very well but it is the most utilitarian of the three; used for specific events and over very short periods of time. Identification, though popular and certainly the most well known of the three, is ineffective since there is currently no known way to identify future talent.