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  • Dr. Oleksandr Krasilshchikov

Talent Identification and Development: Major Misconceptions & Impracticalities

In this article, our guest columnist, Dr. Oleksandr Krasilshchikov, Professor of Exercise & Sports Science at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and High Performance Sports Consultant with ELMS Sports Foundation, sheds light on some of the most common misconceptions prevalent in the process of Talent Identification and Development. He also offers suggestions to help coaches and performance staff to avoid falling for these misconceptions so that they secure the best interests of the athletes.

Dr. Oleksandr was one of the eminent speakers at the inaugural High Performance Leadership Program, and conducted a webinar on the topic Long Term Athlete Development: Evolution, Blind Spots and Challenges.

When Indian coaches submit their annual reports to the administration in sports schools and academies, the two most popular formulations appearing in front of the athletes’ names are: a) Talented athlete/player; and b) Hard working athlete/player.

In a way, by dividing their athletes into these two groups, the coaches are subconsciously marking some of them as talented and giving an excuse for the others for not being talented enough but trying their level best to achieve the higher performance level.

If you add to this a simple observation (however, a true observation most of the time) that talented kids are often not hard working (read lazy), then the division becomes obvious -- hard working versus not hard working. This seemingly confusing statement is, in real life, very easily explained.

  1. Talented kids don’t need to be hardworking, because they master skills easily and effortlessly due to their talent, and they effortlessly excel to the higher performance level;

  2. The ones who don’t have obvious talents (or their talents are not critical to the chosen sport) need to be hard working in order to excel further and to compete with the talented ones.

The fundamental nature of these two groups' existence is that only when a talented athlete is also hard working at the same time, only then he/she is destined to achieve the elite performance level.

Therefore, the equation that is needed: A+B=C (champion)

If this merger doesn’t happen, talented and easy-going athletes quit early, unable to cope with the tremendous training load. On the other hand, hard working athletes can’t compensate for the lack of talent even after the very heavy training load.

This seemingly simple logic actually explains a lot in the Talent Identification (Talent Recognition) and Talent Development continuums, both of which unfold in a parallel manner, interacting, but not as a single process termed by many as Talent Identification & Development.

Due to this, there are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings in these two critical-for-top-performance processes. Let me share a few examples and then offer some suggestions to help coaches and performance staff avoid falling for them and securing the best interests of their athletes.

The ‘traditional wording’ and the entire concept logic

Existing Models. The traditional approach is typically to present the ‘Talent Identification and Development (TID & D)’ process as some continuum in which Talent Identification opens the way to Talent Development, during which the only process to happen is Talent Selection.

The reality. In some publications and discussions (not always systematized), more elements are suggested, such as Talent Detection (pre-talent identification among non-athletes), Talent Confirmation (sort of verification of the original assessment), Talent Orientation (narrowing down the choice to the event, style, game position) after which the specialized training is supposed to begin.

Talent selection as such happens on multiple occasions to pick the best trained athlete for an upcoming tournament/ competition.

Suggestion. Talent Identification is not a process but a part of the bigger puzzle. In fact, TID & D should be given a much wider term, such as “Talent Recognition”, which is inclusive of the TID & D phases mentioned above (I have also suggested this in one of my publications in 2011 and later). This talent recognition continuum should include the following aspects.

Talent Detection – noticing the talent among the non-athletic population, e.g. school children who are quick, agile, endurable or just happen to have a large stature (even massive or overweight).

Talent Identification – inviting / identifying the talented children to actually join a particular sport and figuring out if they stand a chance to become specialized and successful in this particular sport.

Talent Conformation – validating that the identified children do have the qualities that are being sought, are trainable, show good improvement, and there are no sudden deviations in growth and development pattern (e.g. a child selected for gymnastics suddenly experiences a growth spurt, or a kid selected for basketball stops growing).

Talent Orientation – identifying the event for narrow specialization (e.g. 100m or 800m run/swim; road or track cycling; breast stroke or back in swimming; midfielder or striker in football).

Talent Selection – this goes on from the moment an athlete starts competing and helps in selecting the best from the available pool to take part in a particular tournament/ competition.

Catch them young: The most popular misconception

The Origin. Roughly once in 15 to 20 years, the ‘Catch them Young’ wave washes away the logic of Talent Recognition and Talent Development before subsiding, leaving behind the wreckage of the proper system ashore along with the wasted opportunities of most of those who were ‘caught young’ during the campaign.

This often happens when the likes of Thorpe or Phelps beat the seniors and reach the glory young. True, but again it typically happens with ‘young’ sports, rarely with the ‘old’ ones, in terms of age of specialization.

The reality. Realistically though, to reach top performance at the optimal age, certain sports require children to begin training at a specific age -- neither earlier, nor later.

Simply put, 7-year-old children are in the sphere of interest of the coaches from only gymnastics (artistic and rhythmic), acrobatics and diving. At this point in time, they are of no interest to coaches from any other game because it is too early for them to begin training.

Similarly, a 10-year-old child could be of interest to the coaches of football, volleyball, hockey, badminton, etc. And, at this particular age, he/she is still of no interest to coaches of boxing, wrestling or weightlifting, but is already a gone case for gymnastics, acrobatics and diving.

Finally, at the age of 14, a kid will still be of interest to rowing, boxing, wrestling or weightlifting coaches. However, this kid will not have even a remote chance of joining gymnastics or diving and just very little chance of joining volleyball, hockey or football.

This is for those with a fresh start (no previous sport experience). In case a kid starts his/her sporting career in one game and then resumes/continues in another one, the scenario can be much different. Other (migration) options are discussed in the next section.

The assumption that an athlete has to achieve excellence in the sport he/she was originally assigned to the existing models. Most of the talent development models are designed as a single track progression of an athlete: from the original Talent Identification to the heights of performance in that very first sport assigned.

The reality. This typically may be the scenario for the sports which do specialize early (in a good meaning). E.g. rhythmic and artistic gymnastics, diving, swimming (to some extent). In those sports, excellence is achieved at a reasonably young age (in gymnastics and diving, peak international performance happens at about 16 to 19 years of age; great swimmers like Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps became world champions at the age of 15 and 16, respectively).

In sports where top performance is typically achieved at 20+ years of age, many elite athletes have begun their journey to stardom from participation in sports other than the sports in which they achieved top performance. Hence, Talent Development models must cater to those chipping in at various phases, not just from phase 1.

It is quite a normal scenario when a girl is identified and starts as artistic gymnast (initial training), then moves to wushu martial arts (where requirements for motor potential and skills are quite similar) and spends basic training in here, and eventually gets into taekwondo or karate (where skills and physique obtained through gymnastics and wushu are highly beneficial) for specialized training, further reaching the international level in either one of those.

Similarly, athletes in ‘older’ sports, such as rowing, boxing, wrestling, and weightlifting, often begin their journey in sports such as cricket, swimming, or athletics, joining the final destination sports much later. The benefits they gained from all previously participated sports and games eventually contribute to their success in the destination sport.

The assumption that an athlete has to achieve excellence in sport only when it is just and right (at the so-called optimal age for top performance)

Existing models. Most (if not all) talent development models place top performance closer to the end of athletic careers, making it look and feel as if it is happening after years and years of training, when the stars perhaps, are positioned right.

The reality. No one pays any attention (rather blame early specialisation, burnout, etc. for early or ‘premature’ performances) to the necessity of performing at an earlier age, at national and international competitions for various age groups, School Games and Youth Olympics.

This, however, isn’t productive. The current level of training methodology, sports medicine and sports science actually allows talented athletes to perform earlier, and it is not a matter of being the best or the fastest at a young age, it is a matter of being better than others at a particular age. Progressing through being best in every age group may be the case with an athlete, but for sure such excellence at an early age isn’t preventing talented athletes from reaching elite levels of performance at the topmost competition like the Olympics.

The trick is to strictly follow the ‘dose – response’ rationale, whereby the best possible (and tallying with growth and development pattern) results are achieved with the least possible effort, while still keeping the door open for further improvements when the time is right and the necessity is there.

Following this rationale helps avoid overexposure, overstraining and burnouts.

International statistics has it as a proven fact that the percentage of junior, and even sub-junior champions, eventually reaching the senior tournaments top standings is on the rise. This can be typically attributed to the advancements in training methodology, coaching science, sports science, and sports management & governance.

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