Talent Identification Programmes (TIP), Talent Development Programmes (TDP), National Age Group Centres and their iterations are pervasive across all our national sporting bodies. Football of course is no exception, with our own governing body devoting an entire drop-down menu on their website to the subject of “Talent”.
Our love affair with talent also extends to our classrooms where children are routinely tested to determine their talent for certain subjects, whether it be maths, science, reading or art. They are then boxed, categorized and provided with learning opportunities equivalent to their perceived current and future level.
As a society, we are fascinated and transfixed by anecdotes and examples of success due to some perceived, prodigious natural talent. We all love the story of the hero who came through from child prodigy to world superstar in their respective field. Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Michael Jackson, Maradona and Messi are recent examples that are held up as proof of this talent phenomenon.
But what exactly is talent and how do we define it? This is where things start to get a bit murky. The idea of talent means different things to different people. Strength, speed and flexibility are all physical attributes which are measurable, repeatable and comparable. The concept of talent, on the other hand, is subjective. Talent is literally in the eye of the beholder. One (wo)man’s talent is another (wo)man’s mediocrity. We only need to take a casual glance at social media posts, articles and blogs devoted to the great Ronaldo – Messi debate over the past decade to get a sense of this.
With all the confusion, ambiguity and inconsistencies surrounding talent, it’s definition, identification, measurement, and evaluation, is it any wonder our current talent identification systems and programmes are failing the vast majority of young athletes? To argue otherwise, is simply an example of survivorship bias. Whereby, the one exception to the norm who does end up making it to elite level, is held up as proof that the system works. Meanwhile, the carnage of thousands of young athletes, either selected out of the system or dropping out having fallen out of love with their sport due to the pressures and constraints imposed upon them, are swept under the carpet, the accepted price to pay for “doing business”.
For a sense of just how likely the odds are of making it to elite level in some sports are, Joe Baker, PhD in his book “The Tyranny of Talent” writes that, “you are nearly two times more likely to win a prestigious Rhodes scholarship (1 in 37,500) than playing a minute in the NBA.” As an example from football, Michael Calvin in his book “No Hunger in Paradise” estimates that the odds of a developing youth player in England making it to the premier league as just over 1 in 10, 000. Furthermore, a recent article also found that a staggering 97% of players at elite football academies do not play a single minute of Premier League Football.
Despite it’s obvious flaws and failings, the race to the womb continues unabated, with ever younger and younger athletes being the subject of talent identification and selection processes. However, the warning signs are already there, if we care to look. The latest activity survey published on the Sport New Zealand website here, makes for sombre reading. Alarmingly, youth club membership has continued it’s decline to 78 percent in 2022 down from 88 percent in 2018. Our youth are also spending less and less time being active with weekly participation rates falling across numerous sports and activities. This is not just significant from a sporting perspective, but a societal one as well, with health impacts for this generation and future generations to come. This steady dwindling of participation rates also affects the size and fitness of the pool of athletes left for future sporting development, further reducing chances of elite international success for those left. It is clear then that what we are doing is not working. We are driving more and more kids away from sport when what we should be focused on, is keeping as many involved for as long as possible.
In support of the need for change, research in the field of talent identification, development and early specialization continues to highlight the futility and wasted resources behind these programmes. Just last month, a systematic review and meta-analysis was published by Michael Barth et. al in the journal of Sports Medicine. The findings were yet another wake-up call for parents, coaches and adminstrators alike, with junior performance found to have very little predictive value for later senior performance. Another study by the same authors, published in 2022, “Predictors of Junior Versus Senior Elite Performance are Opposite” also highlighted the differences between junior and senior elite level success. Of the key findings, the study highlighted that long term adult age success is facilitated not by early specialization in the main sport, but by extensive childhood/adolescent multi-sport practice, a relative late start in the main sport with gradual initial progress and only a moderate amount of childhood/adolescent specialised main sport practice.
One of the collaborating authors on these two studies, Arne Gullich, also has several publications looking at the merits of talent identification and it’s ability to predict future elite senior performance, early specialization and talent promotion, and talent development,. These publications, and many others of their ilk, are screaming the same message to those who dare to listen. That message is, junior performance and “talent” identification is a poor predictor of senior elite performance.
Thus, it is high time coaches, parents and administrators across our beautiful game embrace a new way of approaching athlete nurture and development. We must have the courage to shun failed or failing talent-based mythologies and methodologies from abroad, instead making bold, research-based decisions concerning the future development of our all our young players, within the context of our own unique cultural and social landscape.
New Zealand has for decades, punched above its weight in sports like rugby, rowing, kayaking and athletics. With a change in approach to athlete development and care, based on the learnings of leading research in the fields of education, sport and athlete development, there is absolutely no reason why the same cannot be achieved in the world’s game for the betterment and enjoyment of the entire New Zealand football community.
References: Baker, J (2022) The Tyranny of Talent, How it Compels and Limits Athletic Achievement and Why You Should Ignore It. Aberrant Press.  Calvin, M. (2017). No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream. Penguin  https://inews.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league-academy-players-figures-appearances-numbers-1387302  Barth, M., Güllich, A., Macnamara, B.N. et al. Quantifying the Extent to Which Junior Performance Predicts Senior Performance in Olympic Sports: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports Med (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-023-01906-0  Barth, M., Güllich, A., Macnamara, B.N. et al. Predictors of Junior Versus Senior Elite Performance are Opposite: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Participation Patterns. Sports Med 52, 1399–1416 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01625-4  Güllich, A., Barth, M. Effects of Early Talent Promotion on Junior and Senior Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-023-01957-3  Güllich, A., Barth, M., Macnamara, B.N. et al. Quantifying the Extent to Which Successful Juniors and Successful Seniors are Two Disparate Populations: A Systematic Review and Synthesis of Findings. Sports Med 53, 1201–1217 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-023-01840-1
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