Sports Talent Pathways: Are we getting it all wrong?

Talent development is a hot topic in sport and many clubs and coaches dream of discovering the next Serena Williams or Lionel Messi. Google ‘talent pathway’ and you’re presented with a set of precise pyramids and simple flowcharts. Every sport from angling to lacrosse to snowboarding places elite sport at the end of a nice neat arrow:

identify promise → invest time / money / resources → success

Simple, right?

Talent pathways are in place for a number of reasons:

  • They are designed to identify and nurture talent, and to provide a framework for developing athletes in a particular way towards specific performance goals.
  • They can create consistency and continuity in the development of an athlete from junior to senior, or from grassroots to elite level.
  • They can help coaches and selectors to make decisions against a set of objective assessment criteria (and as a side effect of this, to an extent they also provide a means of justifying selections).

But talent development systems can also create problems. For example:

  • They tend to suggest the ‘conventional’ route is the only route.
  • They create misconceptions that sporting accomplishments are achieved via a checklist.
  • They generate a sense of pressure about the importance of being identified early and selected young, which can translate to unrealistic expectations or damaging consequences when things don’t go as planned.
  • They make it more difficult for young athletes to avoid early specialisation.
  • They can infer that every individual’s ultimate performance objectives should look the same.
  • They can assume development is linear and often fail to account for individual differences.

I accept that we need some kind of development pathway and that sometimes, the product of a system will go on to become a great success. I also know there are some amazing people who coach within and administrate these systems. What I don’t accept is that we should heavily endorse the concept of a single method as the perfect or the only way to create brilliant, accomplished and fulfilled athletes.

I believe some young sportspeople – and often more so, their parents – are becoming much too concerned with fitting into a system, being picked young and achieving a particular level of play.

I find it really difficult to see kids and parents invest themselves so completely in the belief that ticking off steps in a talent pathway will be the defining factor in their sporting career. I know several players who didn’t play junior international hockey but who can now call themselves Olympic champions. Equally, I know others who spent their teenage years being touted as the next big thing… and didn’t go on to ‘make it’.

Athletes and parents tend to crave certainty in their quest to reach the top and overemphasis of the pathway concept can mislead them to believe that success is a simple case of moving up a pyramid or through a flowchart.

My fear is that we are attempting to rationalise a process that is fundamentally variable and unpredictable.

 “You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure” (Lazarus Lake)

The beauty of a dream is that the outcome is unknown. Being passionate, hardworking, dedicated and talented improve our chances of the dream becoming a reality – but they don’t guarantee it.

There are different routes to the top and the reality is that sportspeople aren’t all going to the same destination (and that’s okay). This is not a reason to shy away from hard work, or a suggestion that ambition is a bad thing. It’s more concerned with accepting that as in life, sport is neither predictable nor fair.

The truth is the greatest chance you have of ‘succeeding’ and getting the most out of yourself in sport is being motivated by trying your best, working hard and loving what you do. Being the best version of yourself is not the same thing as playing at the Olympics or winning a trophy, and it doesn’t look the same for every athlete.

Don’t misunderstand me: I feel as inspired and emotional as the next person when I learn about a team who has prevailed against the odds or an athlete who fights against adversity. But here’s the thing. For every one person who succeeds in these circumstances and has a book written or a movie made about them, there are hundreds more who have the same attitude, the same work ethic, the same talent… and things just don’t work out.

Sporting fairytales can teach us a lot about the value of resilience and determination, but it’s important we differentiate between the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. Do these people inspire us because they win, or because they keep trying when it looks like they won’t? Is it the happy ending that we have an emotional connection with, or is it because we empathise and relate to the journey itself?

So if you’re a young athlete or a sporting parent, remember that accomplishments should be celebrated, but they are all relative. The same goes for setbacks.

Even the greatest sporting champions are humans who have grown and developed through experiences, not flawless robots built on a conveyor belt.

It can be good to follow the path. But sometimes it’s better to leave your own trail of footprints.

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8 thoughts on “Sports Talent Pathways: Are we getting it all wrong?

  1. Often the pathway route seems to take away individuality or character. Every body has to fit the same mould, play the same way have the same attributes based on whatever is the latest thinking and play the same system. There is not a plan B. The door should always be truly open and there should not be just one pathway to become part of the elite of whatever sport you choose.

    • That’s certainly one of the issues with creating and promoting a specific development pathway. For me, one of the biggest challenges is simply in the perceived importance of the pathway – acknowledging (and allowing) athletes more than one route to elite sport is vital to prevent someone slipping the net because they don’t fit the mould.
      Thanks for your comment!

  2. In my work environment any successful business person who does not acknowledge that a large slice of luck played a significant part in what they achieved isn’t capable of replicating it.

    When talking about talent pathways we fail to factor in luck, good or bad. Think of how many International sportsmen and women miss major competitions.

    Another phase often used by my first boss was that a map was just a plan of what might be about you but a path does not have to be followed to get from point A to B.

    • Great points and always interesting to see the parallels between sport and other industries/careers. Your second paragraph about senior international players is also a really interesting point I hadn’t really thought about before. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Sadly the financial rewards available now for the elite sportsperson has meant an almost industrial process. Do you agree Beckie that a late developer has little chance of becoming part of elite sport these days?

    I’m rather sad to be late in discovering your excellent blog. Must read your earlier stuff.

  4. Parents need to be more kind when their child does not come up to their expectations…sometimes I think they are living their dreams through their child

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