Last week we ran a conference on talent development. I opened the day by giving a short presentation on talent, and how it’s effecting youth sport today.
But here’s the thing.
The information I shared wasn’t mine. It wasn’t the latest science, or what I’ve come to believe from working in the industry over the past 6 years.
Instead, everything I presented came from you. Stories from athletes, coaches, parents, and teachers who live it every day.
And it was intriguing.
So, for everyone who couldn’t be there with us, here it is. The 3 things I recently learnt about talent from talking with the people who matter most.
1. Talent creates status
The first thing I learnt, is that talent creates status.
When you select a kid into a talented programme, team, academy or institute, you send them a message.
A message that says, “you’re better than the rest”. One that says, “you’ve got something that most other kids your age don’t”.
And in doing so, you create status.
Whether you like it or not, talent selection ranks a kid against her peers. It signifies importance.
So, the question is… is status a good thing?
It can develop confidence.
Here’s what a 13-year-old swimmer I heard from said:
“Talent makes people want to know you. It makes you confident. I have a trainer who helps me with speed work and core strength. I have another trainer who helps me with skill-specific work for swimming. I know why I have these people helping me, it is because I have talent”.
But status can also breed laziness, which can lead to an athlete falling short of their potential.
When you give a young athlete status, before they’ve worked hard enough to deserve it, you fail to teach effort. Something that’s hugely important in sport. And in life.
And here’s the thing.
Kids knows this to be true too.
A 15-year-old basketballer I spoke to said:
“Talent is natural ability (physical and mental) to play a sport. But young talented people may not train as hard, works as hard, or be as dedicated to improving themselves because they’re naturally better than others”.
I think we all know an athlete who fits this category
And Gary, a coach of young footballers, said:
“Many athletes rely on talent, rather than determination and hard work”.
This fascinates me. I know what Gary means, I’ve seen it many times before.
But I wonder who’s fault it is?
And there’s one more thing about status I believe is affecting youth sport more than laziness.
It’s the effect of status on participation in the first place.
One talented young lad I heard from said this:
“If I don’t think I’ve got talent, I won’t do the sport”.
And a 15-year-old who plays at premier level for her school in netball, touch, league and 7’s rugby, said:
“Too many young athletes at a young age are disheartened by coaches, teachers, selectors and parents because they are not superstars straight away. It affects youth where they feel like they are not good enough, or won’t be as good as someone else, and then they stop playing sport and sometimes have big self-confidence issues”.
This worries me a lot.
2. Talent brings expectation
The second thing I learnt is that talent brings expectation.
A ‘winning at all costs’ attitude in youth sport is widespread. I don’t think we can deny it. And it’s effecting youth sport in many different ways.
When you use the word ‘talent’ to describe a young athlete, or label them as such by selecting them into a restricted programme, you build expectation.
An expectation that because you are good now, you’re going to keep getting better. An expectation to commit – often to hours of additional training – and, ultimately, an expectation to win. And to win often.
But what happens when these expectations are not met? What happens when an athlete doesn’t excel, or improve at the same rate of his peers, or isn’t selected to continue?
Do they suddenly ‘lose’ their talent?
How does this affect a young athlete’s identity? What does it do to their self-esteem?
Here’s our 13-year-old-swimmer again:
“[With talent] there is pressure to do well, especially if you play in a team sport. If you are doing an individual sport, there is added pressure to stay at the top because of what other people expect. If you don’t come first you get mocked, or people tend to talk negatively about you”.
A parent I heard from backed this view up:
“Those who do show talent early on can feel pressured to perform and excel in their chosen field. This pressure can come from parents, teachers and peers”.
Interestingly, for one young girl I heard from, it seems that just having a talent is the most important thing. She said:
“Talent means you are good at something. If you don’t have a talent, you get bullied”.
Do we now live in a world in which kids need a clearly labelled talent to avoid ridicule from their peers?
And there’s one more thing I found intriguing. It’s how kids and parents perceive talent even before it’s officially labelled.
Ethan, a 7 year old boy I heard from, had this to say on talent:
“Jayden and Cooper are the fast ones”.
I wonder if Jayden and Cooper had been specifically training their speed? Or did they just inherit the ‘fast’ genes?
Nevertheless, if we select based on speed alone, what message does this send to Ethan?
And here’s more on this from a parent of an 11-year-old girl:
“The kids know who’s ‘good’ at sport and who isn’t at a certain age”.
It seems that there’s not only expectations of an athlete after they’ve been given the talented label, but also about who’s going to be given it in the first place.
If you’re in a position of identifying athletes, it might be worthwhile asking yourself two questions:
• “What do my athletes and parents believe about talent? And,
• “How will their beliefs impact on my team
3. Talent is opportunity
The last thing I learnt is that talent provides opportunity.
Youth sport has changed. A generation ago, a few rep teams existed, but that was it in terms of ‘talented’ or ‘gifted’ programmes. Now, they’re everywhere. For every sport. And at every age level.
Should they all exist? Well, that’s certainly debatable.
But the fact is, they do. And they’re not going away.
However, talent does provide opportunity. An opportunity for kids to get involved and work towards something great.
That’s why we need to do everything we can to help kids get there, wherever it is they want to head.
We need to look at the evidence and make informed decisions about our action. And, ultimately, we need to help athletes reach their potential, while providing an enjoyable experience along the way.
Here’s something interesting from a premier level coach of netball I heard from:
“Talent for some players can be a gift and a curse. As a youth player, I don’t remember any Achilles Tendon ruptures or ACL injuries, and this year I’ve heard of three”.
And this, from 10-year-old Grace:
“Talent is having the physical and mental power to believe you can do something. It affects sport today because many people do not think they have talent, but I think talent is more a mental thing than physical…. You have to think about what you do with skill, and that is not always easy on sport”.
One last I thing from an aspiring young footballer:
“Talent is someone who has the ability to play with us or is better than us. He can make our team stronger. But they have to be a team player. We have to like them”.
Thanks for sticking around to the end.
I’d love to hear what you think?