Born with it or built to win? Talent identification vs Talent development

Born with it or built to win? Talent identification vs Talent development

With the A-League and European Football leagues in full swing now, there is always talk of the next Messi, the next Ronaldo or even, more domestically for Australia, the next Tim Cahill.

Football around the world is synonymous with talent identification, with famed academies and stories of children being signed as young as 4 and 5 years of age.

Other sports, of course, do the same, perhaps not the extremes of the Global Game, but with professional sport such a huge business in its own right, sourcing, securing and developing talent as early is possible is becoming the norm.

General business has operated this way for many years, with the biggest and best companies always seeking the newest and brightest talent.

But does identifying talent now guarantee future success or even future elite performance? What about the late bloomers, the late developers or even the many that slip through the net? We see videos of 12-year olds in rugby, running over entire teams of kids half their size but what happens when everyone else catches up? Are we missing a trick? We only need to look at Messi himself, underdeveloped as a child with a growth hormone deficiency. We could have been robbed of arguably the greatest ever football player.

Optimal age

A combination, or integrated model, is perhaps best in finding balance. This is a process of trying to determine an optimal age, where athletes are still identified young enough to help with significant technical development and have gone through significant physical maturation, but are not beyond critical points of skill acquisition. It’s undoubtedly a tough task, with elements of luck and an acquired skill for those with the most expert of eyes.

As can be seen, talent identification is a complex issue, one which Dr Ralph Richards from the Australian Sports Commission explored in 2015. He points out, rightly in my opinion, that current performance is by no means the most important consideration in a vast array of talent identification criteria and takes on less significance the younger the athlete (or employee!) is.


Dr Richards argues that while trying to identify talent as young as possible certainly has its advantages, earlier detection restricts the option for young athletes to have a diverse range of sporting experience.

Without trying to go too far into statistics and boring you all, Dr Richards highlighted that the evidence “shows that a diversity of activities (including variations of play and practice) during the foundation stage is a good indicator of continued involvement in more intense activities later in life, leading (in some cases) to elite performance in one, or a few, selected sport(s).”

This philosophy is one we are very much looking to advocate as part of athlete career development at The Final Whistle.

Adding to this, former Socceroo, Dean Heffernan, said this week that it may be as much the fault of the  process, where young players have their confidence destroyed, being knocked down within complex systems and not being allowed to flourish, play creatively and experience different sports. He also said that “talent identification is a piece of s**t” and that the Socceroos’ two most senior players, Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak, had to do it the hard way and weren’t “identified.”

Development pathways

Talent identification is often abbreviated to TID. Should this not actually mean Talent Identification and Development? Shouldn’t the responsibility of those “expert eyes” previously mentioned not just be to tell a 13-year old whether they are good enough or not?

Once identified, talent naturally needs to be developed and talent development pathways need to be clearly defined. This is essential. Athletes can have access to the best coaches, facilities and support staff, but if there is no obvious progression in place, true development will not be possible.

Talent development can relate to skill, progressions, representations or even competition and must take into account individual preferences such as motivations and the ability and desire to simply put in the hard work.

The same applies to the business world, perhaps even more so. Any young employee may be brilliant on paper and has impressed through the recruitment process, but without proper development and without clear pathways for progression, talent will be left stifled and stagnant, leading to frustration from all parties involved.

Inevitably, this will lead to poor staff morale and retention and just like a how a player would look for a new club, employees will look for fulfilment elsewhere.

Talent development can take a number of pathways, but it is the belief here at The Final Whistle that ultimately better people, make better athletes. Therefore, the more rounded and complete these pathways are, including both on and off the pitch, the better outcomes there are going to be for athletes.

Competitive advantage

You only need to look at Saracens Rugby Club, who prioritise personal development as an important component to elite performance from within the club, with a dedicated program that started back in 2009/10.

Since then, they have been crowned the National Champions 3 times and last year won the European Championship for the first time. Saracens, perhaps very intelligently, by having a focus on personal development, do not see it as a necessary evil, as some clubs and organisations in the past may have, but as a way to help with player retention and to gain a competitive advantage.

Saracens' 2016 double triumph in England and Europe is a testimony to their off-field talent development

In fact, in an independent and anonymous survey conducted with Saracens players in 2013, 90% believed that engaging in non-rugby personal development activities adds to Saracens’ overall competitive advantage. These statistics were detailed in a 2013 report compiled on the Saracens Player Development Program.

Whilst we still wait for the next Messi, the one thing that appears certain: talent identification and talent development are neither simple nor exclusive of each other. Identifying talent is an art in itself and is no guarantee of future elite performance. Talent development requires some initial talent identification and can then itself take on many and varied forms. Certainly no easy job!

Patrick Wright

Patrick (Paddy) is the Head of Partner Relations at The Final Whistle. A Sydney boy through-and-through, he has spent close to 9 years living in London from two different stints. He has a background in Financial Markets, but is now a student of Nutrition and Strength & Conditioning.

Interests: career transition, nutrition, strength & conditioning, surfing, most sports, education, travel, connecting with people, talking.

First article: September 2016


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