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.


Playing the Waiting Game: Why Patience is a Vital Skill in Sport

Patience might be a virtue, but I believe it’s also a skill. In sport, all sorts of psychological skills can be key factors in performance, but over the longer term patience can be a key difference between success, failure and the bit in between. 

When Gary Lineker asked him about Arsene Wenger’s greatest quality as a coach recently, Cesc Fabregas replied very simply, “Patience.” He wasn’t referring to Wenger’s incredible capacity to cope with the weekly ‘Wenger Out’ banners, but his approach in recognising potential and giving it time to develop.

Of course, in modern day football most managers aren’t given the luxury of patience (by fans or club chairmen). If you don’t deliver results, trophies and excitement quickly enough it’s seen as bad for business and you’re unlikely to keep your job for long.

This lack of patience isn’t confined to professional football though. We have become used to living in a world of immediacy – it’s all about fast food, speed dating apps and “I want it now!”. In short, we’re starting to think like Veruca Salt.

In sport, this need for immediate gratification (and sometimes, the sense of entitlement that comes with it) can influence both our emphasis on end results and our attitude towards learning and development.

Going back to Monsieur Wenger, patience is undoubtedly important as a coach. However, our role is also about transmitting the importance of patience to our players and I always feel that one of my challenges as a coach is finding a balance in this. I must help my players to understand that developing technique or decision-making will take time and persistence, while also maintaining their interest and confidence through conveying a gradual sense of mastery.

Patience is also important – and I believe underrated – by many junior players (and their parents) on the elite pathway. Getting selected for an adult first team or a junior rep team doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve ’made it’. Not getting picked might just mean you’re not quite ready yet and there can be a whole array of reasons for this. If you play one game but don’t get selected for the next, that’s not the end of the world either… and it doesn’t mean you’ve been ‘dropped’. It’s called a ‘pathway’ for a reason – and there are different routes to the top.

There are other contexts where impatience is more understandable, but patience is vitally important. The injured athlete often requires as much mental toughness, resilience and tolerance for slow progress as they need physical endurance. Being injured can be the most frustrating and challenging thing a player faces, but a patient and persistent attitude to rehab is what usually makes the difference to coming back stronger (and often sooner!).

In the shorter term, patience can also be a key skill in dealing with difficult or frustrating situations. Whether reacting to a questionable umpiring decision or provocation from an opponent, a bit of patience can help you remain focused on the task and make good decisions under pressure. Having said that, the red mist can sometimes be difficult to control! As long as it doesn’t result in completely losing the plot or getting sent off, I’m very happy to concede that there’s room for some emotional reaction in sport too.

Sustainability and resilience are qualities I seem to refer to a lot when talking about sport. Patience can certainly help develop both, because it’s related to time, persistence and an acceptance that as sportspeople we often have to deal with situations that aren’t perfect. It can also help us to be empathetic and look at something from someone else’s point of view.

The reason I believe that patience is a skill is that it is something you can work on. It might be as simple as counting to ten or taking a few deep breaths. It might mean challenging yourself to consider a situation from a different perspective, or asking yourself a difficult question about why something might have happened.

The tricky thing is that while patience might be a valuable sporting skill, it still doesn’t guarantee long-term success. For every Cesc Fabregas that Arsene Wenger has worked with, there’s a Nicholas Bendtner.

Sport remains unpredictable – that’s part of both the attraction and the challenge as an athlete, coach or fan. Patience can just make all the unpredictability a little bit easier to handle.