Identifying talent in sport can be a tough challenge. From grassroots to elite level there are numerous scouts and coaches who attend games to try and uncover the hidden gem, that no one else can spot. What is it they are looking for? This article attempts to shed some light on talent identification and although a multi-dimensional process, it is also a highly unique process which should be carefully nurtured in conjunction with the philosophy of the club in mind.
Talent identification has become increasingly important across a number of different domains (Abbott, Button, Pepping & Collins, 2005). Within sport, it is becoming more important than ever. Teams are desperate to try and recruit the best to help them succeed and this process begins from a young age (Abbott et al., 2005). Talent identification processes start at a young age to ensure the individual receives the 10 years (or 10,000 hours) of deliberate practice that is widely recognised as a necessity on the pathway to elitism (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993; Starkes, 2000). This is completed within a conducive environment. So what are we looking for? It seems obvious to be looking for the obvious! For example if you are looking to recruit a basketball player or a fast bowler in cricket, height would be most likely an essential or extremely desirable performance determinant – as this physical performance determinant is associated with excellence within that sport (Abbott et al., 2005). There are negative implications with this process as physicality is not the only determinant of performance, players and athletes all mature at different ages and rates, therefore the characteristics which are easily seen during this period, may be due to a transitional period (Abbott et al., 2005). One fundamental flaw is the disregard that the talent development environment may impact on the player (Abbott et al., 2005). With physical maturity at an early age does this lead to superior performance at later stages in their development? It may help but it is not a significant determinant. What is often overlooked in these processes are other factors such as psychological and technical aspects which may initially already be apparent and also “the development and monitoring of potential” (Abbott et al., 2005, p.62). In addition this highlights a potential reason for other talented individuals being unnoticed in the talent identification process. Furthermore decisions can be made on just one performance.
So the resounding question…what should we be looking for? This will differ from club to club and a lot will depend on their philosophy as the type of players they will look to attract. Personally, I feel it is essential to remember every individual is unique, therefore each player will bring a different set of traits and skills to their performances. To firstly understand what the player brings, we need to understand what we want from them. This could be a set list of specific criteria (which may well include physical characteristics). A large number of specific skills (both psychological and technical) can be developed over a period of time and even if players don’t exhibit the physical characteristics which are associated with specific sports (i.e. height in basketball), over time puberty and maturity are natural processes that will undoubtedly alter an individual’s physical status. Not all performance determinants are genetically driven like physicality (Abbott et al., 2005). Moreover in the talent identification process (and development stage) physical stature is not a reliable indicator of future success within sport (Abbott et al., 2005) and a number of other aspects such as psychological traits and basic technical skill should be considered which can be developed and monitored over the talent development process. In layman’s terms skills and mental toughness will require constant work. To exaggerate this point, a whole culmination of skills and genetic status must be considered in the identification process alongside awareness of all attributes in the development stage. The main point being that the development environment in which to nurture talent is essential in giving more players the opportunity to develop and practice key skills specific to a sport. If this approach was more commonly adopted from a younger age we may find that more talent is produced. However it is important to note the development environment relies on key factors such as quality of coaching and number of individualised hours of coaching.
Referring back to the identification process, finding that spark of talent can be difficult hence the reason why many decisions on players are made on physical attributes or the success of their performance during that specific time. It is important to understand the fundamentals and foundations in which to build psychological and technical skill so that the players can thrive within the development environment. For example, do players show the willingness to stick to a task knowing skill execution may go wrong before it goes right, do they persevere within a game when things may not be going their way and do they thrive under pressure moments in a game? If they show glimpses of this, this can be developed and therefore these aspects should be considered in the identification process. Coaches and teams will want different things from their talent identification process therefore each process will differ from team to team as they will have specific aspects they will want from their players and to ensure they fit in with the club’s philosophy.
Examples of players that may not have the natural attributes for a required sport or have not developed as early as other adolescents are athletes like Darren Gough, Wayne Gretzky, Allen Iverson & Lionel Messi. Darren Gough endured a great career as a fast bowler in cricket taking over 200 test wickets and nearly 900 first class wickets. He was under 6 foot in height. Allen Iverson in basketball racked up over 24,000 points at a height of 6ft. Wayne Gretzky and Lionel Messi had struggles in terms of their physical size rather than height. Wayne Gretzky was known for his unimpressive size, speed and strength, however what he developed, which other players did not, was an uncanny intelligence and anticipation for the game, making him one of the best Ice Hockey player and arguably one of the greatest athletes in the world. Lionel Messi possesses superior skill to his counterparts. Again an unimpressive physical stature, however what he lacks in this area he makes up for in his ability, game intelligence and anticipation.
Finally, what these athletes all possess is a mindset dedicated to being the best they can be. They are all talented individuals and relentless learners. What us as spectators see is their performance on the day, however they would have had to endure years and years of hard work in order to achieve the heights of success. All four of these players possess quality in terms of their respective sports but what is important for us to understand and attempt to observe are the traits which highlight the players’ capability to develop an un-waivered mindset of motivation, confidence and belief to be the best they can.