Why talented youngsters rarely make it to the top

Spotting the next major talent is big business in sports, particularly team sports, where youngsters are often scouted and signed to clubs at increasingly young ages. However, the effectiveness of these methods is generally considered to be very poor, with relatively few youngsters thought of as highly talented at a young age progressing through to play at a high level. How can it be that we invest so much into talent identification but have relatively little to show for it?

The failure of talent identification

Examples of how the talent identification process has failed are all over the place in every sport. In football, for example, Sonny Pike was signed by Dutch giants Ajax at the age of seven and then went on to make exactly zero professional appearances. Cherno Samba, well known to players of the Football Manager computer game series, scored 132 goals in 32 games for a youth team when aged 13, and his club, Millwall, once turned down an offer of £2 million from Liverpool for his services. He ended up doing better than Pike, but still only managed 52 professional appearances and 15 goals across a 10-year career. That doesn’t exactly correlate with what was expected at such a young age.

The same is true if we turn to athletics. As I wrote in a 2017 paper, at age 18 I had a faster 100m personal best than any of the 2012 Olympic Games 100-meter finalists did at that age, and yet they progressed to becoming world class, and I didn’t.

Separating the past and the future

The problem with many talent identification programs is that they simply identify who is currently performing well—seeing this as a proxy of future performance—as opposed to those who will be high performing athletes in this future. The difficulty in identifying talent is apparent even at junior level; whilst 80-90% of World or Olympic medalists who had previously competed at the World Junior Championships made the final at those championships, around 50% of all World or Olympic medalists did not compete at the World Junior Championships at all.

» Related content: Martin Bingisser runs the numbers to see exactly how many youth and junior champions in the hammer throw have gone on to adult success.

The reasons why I, and countless other high-performing juniors across all sports, aren’t able to build on our initial success are wide and hugely varied. Luck doubtless plays a part—back surgery tends to harm your career progression in my case—and development is well known to be non-linear and subject to differences in maturation and the relative age effect (i.e. the month of the year you were born in).

Jamie Taylor and Dave Collins attempted to explore these reasons in a bit more detail in a recent paper. To do so, they conducted interviews with coaches based in both football and rugby academies regarding players who they thought had high potential, but then faltered and didn’t reach their potential, aiming to explore why. As expected, whilst the responses were varied, some key themes emerged. The first was a lack of psychological skills, such as a lack of commitment to training and the making of poor lifestyle choices, with the specific example of getting drunk frequently. In one case, over commitment was cited as a reason for a lack of progression, and this corresponds nicely with both my own experiences, and the subject of a recent book. Contained within the psychological skills component was a lack of ability to cope, either with poor performance, errors, or in managing the freedom associated with moving away from home and into the academy.

Another identified reason was that of failures within the talent development system, both in terms of providing insufficient challenge for the developing players, or by not controlling for maturation adequately (and the two are likely linked). Additionally, many coaches felt that the players who “failed” to build on their early promise often didn’t get the required support from their coaches, such as a lack of individualization, or lack of holistic support. Family support was another identified issue, particularly with regards to family members becoming overly involved and invested in their relative’s development. This is something touched on in The Talent Lab: The secret to finding, creating and sustaining success, an excellent book that explores how UK Sport delivered record medal hauls two Olympics in a row; here, various National Governing Bodies are described as waking up to the idea of the need to develop “high performance parents”, and delivering education to them around that.

Improving talent identification

In the latter half of their paper, Taylor and Collins deliver some potential insights on how to improves the process. Clearly physical ability alone is clearly insufficient to predict talent. Talented performers also need to develop their psychological resources. This can be in terms of coping strategies for stress and/or pressure, the ability to make better lifestyle decisions, and the ability to enhance motivation and commitment, which is no doubt linked to the previous point.

A framework for developing these skills, termed Psychological Characteristics of Developing Excellence (PCDEs) has previously been proposed, largely driven by the research work of Dave Collins (an author of this paper), and Aine MacNamara (for example, this paper on the development of a PDCE questionnaire). The exposure to various “challenges”—either real or contrived—within the talent development process is a method which may enhance the development of the individual, giving them the ability to gain the psychological skills necessary to bounce back from failure and be successful in the future.

If you’re a coach working with developing youngsters, this is a useful paper to hopefully enhance your practice. It’s clear that a focus on physical skills is insufficient, and that a multitude of psychological skills also need to be developed. It’s also clear that families have the potential to derail a promising career, and so frequent interaction and boundary setting with families of promising players may be important, as well as discussions with them around the best way for them to approach conversations and expectations with their promising relative.

Finally, exposure to adequate, but not excessive, challenges during the development process is likely an important aspect of optimizing talent, although the skill here is getting the balance just right; the challenge should motivate, and not deflate, the athlete. All in all, a very interesting paper, and something I think everyone involved in player development can take something from.