The importance of nurturing athletic talent

talented boy drawing with brush and paints on ease
(Photos: Envato Elements)
“There is some sort of connection between the kid and the sport," "they are really good and love the sport," or "this kid is really talented!” are all phrases that have been said frequently about many young athletes. But what is talent? Who can identify talent? And at what age can we determine if a child is talented?اضافة اعلان

Baker et al. identified talent as an innate characteristic and something that exists and can be identified early in an athlete's career. If identified, this talent can predict later success and expertise.

This definition implies that talent cannot be “forced,” nor can someone be trained or learn how to be talented. If it can be identified early and developed, it can predict future success — it is considered a talent.

Talent is not considered sport-specific because abilities developed at a young age can reflect the child’s motor skills. It is widely accepted that children should be exposed to multiple sports throughout their childhood to develop lifelong athletic activities, avoid athlete burnout, and maximize athlete potential.

Additionally, children should work on developing their motor skills and physical literacy. The Canadian Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model states that before the age of 12 for boys and 11 for girls, there is no need for sport-specific skills and fitness (except for a few early specialization sports such as figure skating).

With that in mind, coaches specializing in talent identification have extensive knowledge and expertise in the “superior” level of agility, balance, coordination, flexibility, and cognitive and mental benchmarks. Unfortunately, talent alone is not enough; with talent identification comes talent development.

Bill Beswick, a leading sports psychologist, explains that there are three types of players. Player A is technically and physically superior as a player but weak mentally. Player B is mentally superior but is weak technically and physically. Player C is superior technically, physically, and mentally.

Beswick contended that players similar to Player C should be trained differently, confirming that talent identification is not the final step but the first step before targeting the right development plan.

Another factor that is examined concerning talent identification is relative age. A group of researchers highlighted the difficulty of accurately predicting future performance abilities, coupled with the complexities of the athlete development process. This can result in biases during the recruitment process into talent development pathways (Baker et al., 2018; Till and Baker, 2020). One such selection bias that has been consistently highlighted in the literature is relative age effects (RAEs; Barnsley et al., 1985; Smith et al., 2018).

Relative age effects illustrate that when athletes are banded according to (bi)annual-age groups, those who are born near the beginning of the selection year (i.e., September 1 in the UK) are often overrepresented compared with those who are born toward the end (i.e., August 31; Cobley et al., 2009). Possible explanations that have been offered for this effect include enhanced physiological and cognitive maturity of relatively older athletes, which allows them to outperform their younger age-matched peers (Doncaster et al., 2020).

An important milestone for athletes is their Peak Height Velocity and puberty. Literature suggests that PHV can occur during different stages of puberty, and therefore, PHV and puberty are considered different milestones.

The Canadian LTAD suggests that strength, endurance, and sport-specific training should occur at the age of 12 for boys and 11 for girls, showing that young athletes should begin sport-specific training and fitness at puberty.

The LTAD also suggested that the optimal age to develop skills is 9–12 for boys and 8–11 for girls. This is also supported by a study published by K. Janacsek, J Fiser, and D. Nemeth titled “The Best Time to Acquire New Skills: Age-related Differences in Implicit Sequence Learning across Human Life Span”.

The study investigated implicit skill learning in subjects between 4–85 years of age. This learning underlies motor, cognitive, and social skills across the life span. Subjects were presented with an implicit probabilistic sequence learning task measured by raw reaction time (RT). The study found that the difference in implicitly learning high versus low probability events exhibited a rapid decrement around the age of 12.

Athletes can rapidly develop physical strength and endurance during puberty while having a lower learning curve for skills during the same period. This also reflects that young athletes considered to be “late bloomers” actually have a bigger “window” to develop skills. Conversely, young athletes considered to be “early bloomers” within their community can have a physical advantage in terms of strength and endurance compared to their peers. Such differences can confuse people into thinking someone is talented physically while they are only early bloomers. With the right strength and endurance plan, others might consider someone to be a sport-specific or technically “gifted” player, while they might only be a late bloomer.

Ultimately, it is always best for everyone to give children the chance to play and enjoy sports. Before judging a player, their future, and their decisions, it is important to consider the biosocial perspective and understand the science behind sports, talent identification, and talent development.

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