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Talent in sports. Some reflections about the search for future champions

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The goal of this paper is to look into the issue of talent identification in sports. Over the last decade researchers tried to get a better insight into how future elite athletes can be selected at young age. The findings reported in this review reveal that elite athletes originate from an optimal combination of intrinsic competences (e.g., physical, technical, psychological) and extrinsic, contextual factors (e.g., training, parents). The identification process that focuses on measuring intrinsic competences should be multidimensional in nature. Moreover, valid interpretations of the potential of the youngsters require longitudinal testing. Finally, the best talent detection program will be useless unless a high quality follow-up is guaranteed through well-designed training programmes in which coaches and PE-teachers play a crucial role. Therefore, the interaction and cooperation of coaches and scientists offer great opportunities to advance the knowledge in the area of talent identification.
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Movement & Sport Sciences – Science & Motricit´e
c
ACAPS, EDP Sciences, 2014
DOI: 10.1051/sm/2014002
Talent in sports. Some reflections about the search for future
champions
Martinus Buekers1, Pascal Borry2and Paul Rowe3
1Faculty of Kinesiology and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Leuven, Belgium
2Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law, Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Leuven, Belgium
3BLOSO, Brussels, Belgium
Received 30 April 2013 – Accepted 13 February 2014
Abstract. The goal of this paper is to look into the issue of talent identification in sports. Over the
last decade researchers tried to get a better insight into how future elite athletes can be selected at
young age. The findings reported in this review reveal that elite athletes originate from an optimal
combination of intrinsic competences (e.g ., physical, technical, psychological) and extrinsic, contex-
tual factors (e.g ., training, parents). The identification process that focuses on measuring intrinsic
competences should be multidimensional in nature. Moreover, valid interpretations of the potential
of the youngsters require longitudinal testing. Finally, the best talent detection program will be
useless unless a high quality follow-up is guaranteed through well-designed training programmes
in which coaches and PE-teachers play a crucial role. Therefore, the interaction and cooperation
of coaches and scientists offer great opportunities to advance the knowledge in the area of talent
identification.
Key words: Talent detection, talent development, sports
esum´e. Talent dans le sport. Quelques r´eflexions sur la recherche de futurs champions.
Le but de ce papier est de se pencher sur la question de l’identification de talent dans le domaine
du sport. Au cours de la derni`ere d´ecennie les chercheurs ont essay´e d’obtenir un meilleur aper¸cu de
la fa¸con dont les futurs athl`etes d’´elite peuvent ˆetre s´electionn´es. Les r´esultats pr´esent´es dans cette
´etude r´ev`elent que les athl`etes d’´elite proviennent d’une combinaison optimale des comp´etences in-
trins`eques (par exemple, g´en´etique, physique, technique, psychologique) et extrins`eque (les facteurs
contextuels comme par exemple, l’entraˆınement, le coaching, le support des parents). Le processus
d’identification qui se concentre sur la mesure des comp´etences intrins`eques doit ˆetre de nature
multidimensionnelle. En outre, des interpr´etations valides du potentiel des jeunes exigent une ap-
proche longitudinale. Enfin, le meilleur programme de d´etection de talent sera inutile, sauf si une
qualit´e de suivi est garantie grˆace `a des programmes de formation bien con¸cusdanslesquelsles
entraˆıneurs et les professeurs d’´education physique jouent un rˆole crucial. Par cons´equent, l’inter-
action et la coop´eration des entraˆıneurs et des scientifiques sont essentielles pour faire progresser
les connaissances dans le domaine de l’identification des talents.
Mots cl´es : etection des talents, d´eveloppement des talents, sport
1 Introduction
It goes without saying that talent identification attracted
a considerable amount of attention in the last decade. One
of the principal reasons for this increased interest is cer-
tainly the pressure coming from the field itself. Coaches
and clubs are eager to spot the talented athletes as soon
as possible to incorporate them in their teams and provide
the proper support and training to develop their talent
(Abbott & Collins 2002). This early search for high poten-
tials can even provoke a hefty competition, as Martindale,
Collins and Abraham (2007, p. 187) suggested when com-
paring talent identification and development to big busi-
ness. Be it as it may, we can fairly state that the global
race for talent has been lifted to a higher level of ac-
celeration. This global search for talent has intensified
Article published by EDP Sciences
2 Movement & Sport Sciences – Science & Motricit´e
not only in the business world, but also in the field of
artistic culture where creativity rules (Goldstein & Win-
ner, 2009; Livingstone, Lafer-Sousa, & Conway, 2011;
Rostan, 2010; Sommerlund & Strandvad, 2012), in ed-
ucation (Matthews & McBee, 2007; Schroth & Helfer,
2009; Trustee & Niles, 2004) and in academia (Wildavsky,
2010). Even though the identification of cognitive abili-
ties (e.g., verbal and analytical skills) has been around
for many decades (Renzulli, 1978), the world of sports fol-
lowed these front-runners in adopting strategies to locate
the best players. The question is to what degree scouting
systems, test sessions and psychological profiling can be
awarded the label of valid and proficient search engines.
Before entering the core of this paper, we want to
follow the trail of the anecdote and refer to an interest-
ing TV commercial promoting a French car. Actually the
commercial1shows a number of famous stars (Salvador
Dali, Steffi Graf, Carl Lewis and Bruce Lee) at young
age, followed by the clear message that “when one is born
with certain qualities”–“becoming the best is on ly a mat-
ter of time”. It is tempting to misuse this statement and
consider the whole issue of talent identification as a su-
perficial and redundant process. The message then would
be: ‘Those who have the potential will prevail’. Without
any doubt, the advocates of the quest for high poten-
tials will argue against such non-strategy and legitimately
claim that numerous scientific data have been collected
strengthening the identification and selection case. In this
paper we will take a closer look at a number of these ex-
periments and discuss the variables that are believed to
somehow predict future excellence.
The previous reflections are a clear indication of the
different opinions and views that are still present in the
talent detection arena. They also provoke some interest-
ing considerations. First, they raise the question to what
extent the scientific process of data collection and analy-
sis can be used for talent identification. We believe it is
a legitimate expectation that experiments based on solid
designs can help to explain the mechanisms bearing a
facilitating or impeding effect on performance. Second,
they call into question the issue of complexity and con-
textualisation. Scientific findings cannot shine in splendid
isolation, as valid interpretations can only be found in
the interaction of many different elements spinning in the
contextual web of final performance. Moreover, the need
for contextualisation was strongly endorsed in the forma-
tive paper of Vaeyens, Lenoir, Williams & Philippaerts
(2008). These authors correctly state that talent identifi-
cation is not just a question of extrapolation from present
to future performance. Not only maturation but also the
dynamics of the development process interfere with the
simple linearity of the prediction curve. It should not be
surprising then that, from a methodologically point of
view, they stress the importance of longitudinal designs.
1http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player
detailpage&v=pRR7FK5lIqkAccessed13February2013.
The latter observations emphasize the central role of
methodology in performance prediction. In the first sec-
tion of the present paper we will extend this methodolog-
ical issue and briefly focus on two approaches. On the one
hand the scientific method of systematic and meticulous
measurement and one the other hand the intuition mode
of the expert coach. The second section will concentrate
on a number of studies covering the different competences
(e.g. physical, technical, tactical, psychological, genetic)
that affect future performance. In the third section these
competences will be put into a broader perspective, fo-
cussing on their dynamic and interactive nature and
on the impact of environmental elements (e.g. parents,
training).
Note that we also want to enlarge the scope of this
paper and put it into a broader perspective by referring
where appropriate to the talent identification issue in the
field of artistic culture. Since talent identification is a ma-
jor concern in the world of the creative minds, it can be
very informative to learn how the high potentials of art
are recognized and escorted in their pursuit to conquer
famous museums, music halls or theatres.
2 Two individuals, two approaches
Even though the experience versus experiment conflict
has a generic touch, it is certainly overrepresented in the
world of sports. Coaches consider themselves as the ex-
perts by experience whereas the sport scientists stick to
the strong conviction that only measurements can rightly
represent reality (for a more extensive elaboration of this
topic see Buekers, 2002). The advantage of the intuitive
approach used by the coaches lies in its holistic character.
Their judgment focuses on the person as a whole and in
doing so integrates the variety of critical elements that
determine future performance. The weakness of this ap-
praisal appears to be its subjective nature, even though
we have to be conscious that this intuitive judgement is
also based on an internal frame of reference build on rel-
evant knowledge.
The scientist then again tends to use what could be
labelled partition glasses, dividing the person in a num-
ber of quantifiable units. These units are to a large ex-
tent based on the specific requirements of the respective
sport disciplines and mostly encompass physical, techni-
cal, tactical and psychological qualities or competences.
Since these competences need to be assessable, tests or
test batteries are designed and administered to groups of
young athletes and players. The results of these tests are
then converted into predictions of the future performance
level of these same youngsters. Without any doubt, this
approach is drenched with the advantage of its objectiv-
ity and as such produces figures carrying a genuine touch
of reality. The major problem with these data lies in the
fact that they are every so often obtained in their ‘splen-
did’ isolation. Since these competences and qualities are
frequently tested as separate entities, the predictive value
Talent in sports. Some reflections about the search for future champions 3
of these data can be lost in the negligence of their contex-
tual nature. In fact a player can very well compensate for
specific shortcomings in one of the competences by being
extremely well in another characteristic that is crucial for
successful performance (e.g., Tahara et al., 2006).
Until now, comparing the usefulness of both ap-
proaches is rather challenging and in itself strongly af-
fected by intuition, as specific studies delving into this
topic are almost completely lacking. In this respect the
study by Rogulj, Papic, and Cavala (2009) is very instruc-
tive as the authors reveal similar results for an approach
based on expert opinion and an approach based on mor-
phological characteristics of top athletes. Even though
the scope of their paper is limited as only morphological
characteristics are used, the data have the merit to open
the debate. It is interesting to notice that the authors
eventually prefer the approach based on the morphologi-
cal characteristics of the top athletes, despite the obvious
equivalence of both methods.
Perhaps this latter observation, i.e.,thechoicein
favour of quantification when the science vs.intuition
game is undecided, reveals a tendency to assign higher
value to measurable results. For a scientist, this thought
is reassuring. However, based on the experience of the
long coaching careers of two of the authors, we are con-
vinced that the intuition of coaches should not be con-
sidered as meaningless. In contrast, the interaction and
cooperation of coaches and scientists offer great opportu-
nities to combine the strength of both actors and advance
the knowledge in the area of talent identification.
3 The current understanding
Claiming that the field of talent identification has been
the primary focus of investigation in sport sciences is
somewhat exaggerated. Yet, the number of scientific pa-
pers published in the last decades reveals a sound interest
in this topic. This concern is understandable given the
huge benefits that can be triggered by an adequate pre-
diction of future sport performance. It has already been
mentioned that the formulation of reliable predictions is
far from easy, in particular since the ultimate performance
level is not defined by the competences as such, but by
the combination of these competences. Or, stated differ-
ently, on how these different competences and qualities
interact, not only between themselves, but also with the
dynamics of environment and time. To further put this
into perspective, we want to note that predictions will al-
ways carry a risky load as sporting results (the ultimate
goal) not only depend on the own competence level but
also on the competence level of the opponents.
In the remainder of this section, we will touch upon
the most important experiments related to talent identi-
fication. To classify these studies, we adopted the rather
obvious idea that performance in sports, and most cer-
tainly in ball sports, is defined by specific competences
and qualities. Many tests have been developed for mea-
suring these competences and the vast amount of studies
illustrates the urge for finding valid tools for predictions.
However, before entering into the description mode and
presenting a synopsis of the relevant literature, I want to
bring a very crucial element into the equation, that is to
say, the multi-dimensional nature of elite performance.
This view is corroborated by Collins and MacNamara
(2011) as they articulate that “It is always g ood to see
reviews, ..., which challenge the extant, simplistic, mono-
disciplinary approaches to talent identification and devel-
opment that are still common in the literature”.
It is very well true that the different competences
carry an individual load of determination. Strength, for
example, is an extremely important physical quality in
practically all sports. Yet, on its own right it will not
guarantee elite performance. Players also need, among
others, technical skill and the right mental state to reach
the elite status. But there is even more, as particular flaws
in one or more competences can be compensated for by
abundant strengths in other pieces of the performance
puzzle (Vaeyens et al.,2008). An excellent tactical insight
leading to a perfect position play can still put a slower
player in a favourable situation. The data presented in
the following paragraphs should therefore be interpreted
through the goggles of this understanding. In what follows
we will provide an overview of different competences and
illustrate with some examples how the given competences
are believed to predict future performance. In contrast,
the genetic determinants will be more comprehensively
elaborated, as this factor is still somewhat underrepre-
sented in the literature regarding performance prediction
in sports.
3.1 The physical competences
Most probably the physical qualities of the athletes and
players are among the most frequently studied contribut-
ing factors of performance (e.g., Falk, Lidor, Lander, &
Lang, 2004). Yet, the data were not completely convinc-
ing as suggested in the title of a paper by Lidor, Falk,
Arnon, Cohen, and Lang (2005) “Measurement of Tal-
ent in team handball: The questionable use of motor
and physical tests”. Actually, the authors had to con-
clude that, except for the slalom dribble test, none of
the physical or motor tests was sensitive enough to dis-
tinguish between the selected and nonselected handball
players. Similar results, showing a lack of discriminative
power, were found for volleyball (Gabbett, Georgieff, &
Domrow, 2007; Lidor, Hershko, Bilkevitz, Arnon, & Falk,
2007). A final case pleading for reticence is presented in a
study by Re, Correa, and Bohme (2010) as they stipulate
that anthropometric characteristics and physical capaci-
ties should not be overvalued during early development.
In contrast to these findings support for the predic-
tive value of physical qualities was found in other studies.
For example, based on better scores for speed, agility and
4 Movement & Sport Sciences – Science & Motricit´e
strength for elite youth handball players, Mohamed et al.
(2009) argued that anthropometric, in addition to perfor-
mance measures were useful tools for talent identification
in youth handball. This finding was supported in a study
by Debanne and Lafayye (2011),whofoundapositive
relation between general anthropometric measures and
throwing velocity.
Another, at first sight paradoxical example is de-
scribed in a paper revealing the benefits of a deficit
(Livingstone et al., 2011). While painters are confronted
with poorer stereopsis than the normal population, this
deficit turns into a benefit for painters because it guar-
antees a more prominent role for the monocular depth
cues such as shading, overlap and perspective. This phe-
nomenon of turning so-called disadvantage into specific
assets is also present in sports. Just think about the body
weight of jockeys, or the ectomorph body composition of
marathon runners. The body dimensions of these athletes
makes them poorly suited for ball games or decathlon,
yet makes them fit perfectly well for horse riding or long
distance running. As Vaeyens et al. (2008) argued, the
nature of the sport discipline itself defines to what ex-
tent the uni-dimensional components intervene. For in-
stance, for rock climbing Magiera et al. (2013) found that
the physiological and anthropometric characteristics ex-
plained 38% of the climber’s performance capacity. For
elite snowboarders, the predictive value of the results on
a test battery comprising physical tests (e.g., aerobic ca-
pacity, balance, isokinetic power) was even higher as it
explained more than 60% of the variance of snowboard
performance (Platzer, Raschner, Patterson, & Lembert,
2009).
Moreover, even within specific sport disciplines, the
physical requirements will vary strongly, depending on
the position of the players on the field; This position-
specific adaptation has been observed for various sports,
including volleyball (Sheppard, Gabbe, & Raebery, 2009),
handball (Zapartidis, Kororos, Christodoulidis, Skoufas,
&Bayios,2011), and rugby (Delahunt et al.,2013).
Till et al.(2011) also turned to the game of rugby
to examine the anthropometric and performance charac-
teristics influencing the selection of players for the re-
gional and national teams. Original in this study was the
fact that possible differences for anthropometric and per-
formance characteristics were controlled for chronological
age and maturation. Although the data showed better
results for the national players, the authors sticked to
the conclusion that given the small differences, the phys-
ical attributes only partially contribute toward national
selection.
To conclude this section, the least to say is that the
findings are equivocal and do not permit an outspoken
conclusion, except for the statement that although phys-
ical qualities can make a difference they need to be con-
sideredinrelationtotherequirements of the particular
sport discipline.
3.2 The technical competences
At first sight it appears evident that youngsters showing
superior technical skill would prevail and are designated
to become part of the elite circle. The study by Gabbett
et al. (2007) adds some support to this assumption as it
revealed the discriminating power of passing and serving
skills for junior volleyball players competing for selection
in a talent identification programme. Note that these au-
thors did not find any differences for the physical compe-
tence (see section 3.1). Similar results are found in other
studies (e.g.; Ali, 2011) placing the technical skills upfront
in the talent detection process. However, not all techni-
cal skill test were able to discriminate between elite and
sub-elite players (e.g., Reilly, Bangsbo, & Franks, 2000),
indicating that a careful selection of tests is needed.
As we mentioned in the introduction, we also want to
strengthen our case by referring to talent identification in
the field of artistic culture. As far as the technical compo-
nent is concerned, a paper by Rostan, Pariser, and Gr¨uber
(2002) is very instructive. In their study the authors com-
pared the artworks (drawings) of children with a strong
training in the visual arts and children without such a
training with the juvenile artwork of acclaimed Western
artists (e.g., Klee, Miro, Picasso, ...). The results of this
expert appraisal showed that the juvenile artwork of the
acclaimed artists clearly differed from the work of the con-
temporary children. Actually the juvenilia had a higher
score on technical skill than art students, while this latter
group outperformed the non-art students. These observa-
tions illustrate a rather generic trend namely that initial
technical skill defines (to an important degree) final qual-
ity. It is important to note here that one needs to take
into account the possible confounding influence of the
“Matthew effect”. Young athletes who demonstrate high
skill levels at young age, will more likely be selected for
skill development programs, thus self-fulfilling the proph-
esy that they will maintain a higher skill level at later
age.
3.3 The tactical competences
“When the brain starts moving, tactics define the game”.
This statement is helpful to highlight the vital role of
tactical decisions and strategic behaviour for successful
results. Elite performers, in particular in ball games, are
obviously able to take split second decisions to favourably
solve the most complex situations. Note however that tac-
tical behaviour depends to a large extent on the technical
proficiency of the players, showing once again that the
different competences can only materialize on the field
through their mutual interaction. Instructive in this re-
spect is the study of Nevett and French (1997), revealing
an impact of skill level on tactical decisions, as young
baseball players did not mention tactical solutions for
which the required motor action was not available in their
Talent in sports. Some reflections about the search for future champions 5
movement repertoire. Even though this notion was chal-
lenged in a recent paper by Bruce, Farrow, Rainer and
Mann (2012), it remains clear that technical limitations
will narrow the tactical execution range of the players,
even if they are capable to perfectly read and conceptu-
ally solve the game situation.
Even though this introductory remark is sufficiently
explicit, the talent detection studies focussing on tac-
tics are rather limited as compared to their physical and
technical counterparts. Despite this narrow tactical play-
ing field, the study of Kannekens, Elferink-Gemser and
Visscher (2011) can be used here to illustrate the sig-
nificance of tactics in the talent detection process. The
method used by the authors can be portrayed as inge-
nious as they assessed the tactical skills of elite soccer
players when they were young and then used these data to
compare the players who finally reached the professional
performance level in adulthood with those who became
amateurs. The most prevailing finding was that players
who excelled in the tactical elements positioning and de-
ciding had a significant higher chance to reach the profes-
sional soccer level. It is worth mentioning here the study
of Savelsberghs, Haansa, Kooijmana, and van Kampen
(2010) who found differences between the visual search
patterns of selected young soccer players, showing that
tactical tests can be valid instruments to increase the va-
lidity of the selection process.
3.4 The psychological competences
In the last decade the awareness gained ground that psy-
chological competences represent a critical hurdle that
needs to be crossed by the athlete to become a high level
competitor. An attractive illustration of the impact of
psychological characteristics on top level performance is
presented in the study of Gould, Dieffenbach and Moffett
(2002). Interviews with Olympic champions, their coaches
and some significant others revealed that these athletes
were able to take advantage of a number of specific psy-
chological qualities, including confidence, optimism, men-
tal toughness and coachability.
Illustrative in this regard is the study of
Weissensteiner, Abernethy, Farrow, and Gross (2012)
on the characteristics of expert batsmen. The results
of their study indicated mental toughness as the only
discriminating psychological attribute between skilled
and less-skilled batsmen, provoking a rather cautious
comment from the authors that if mental toughness
can be reliably predicted at an earlier age it would be
useful to integrate this attribute in talent detection tests
(Weissensteiner et al., 2012, p. 74). The fact that this
study illustrates how relevant psychological attributes
are for elite performance is an important finding as it
adds an element in the matrix of talent identification.
Since a mix of attributes, skills and competences are
required for high performance, testing should leave the
one-dimensional arena and focus on a multidimensional
playing field. The next paragraph will briefly focus on
this concern.
3.5 The multidimensional approach
The examples given in the previous sections were in
essence conceived as one-dimensional studies, or at best
as studies implying only two or three competences. Even
though these types of studies expand the body of knowl-
edge on talent identification, their actual practical use-
fulness is lessened by the limits of their deliberately pur-
sued segmentation. For this reason a multidimensional
approach is more appropriate to fulfil the task of find-
ing future talent, since it represents more accurately the
different underlying factors that define elite performance.
As we mentioned before, a strong case against the
uni-dimensional approach can be found in the paper
of Vaeyens et al. (2008). Following up on their proper
argument, Matthys et al.(2013) used a multidimen-
sional approach to study performance characteristics in
youth handball. A combination of good skill and excel-
lent endurance appeared to be crucial factors. Apparently
Elferink-Gemser, Visscher, Lemmink, & Mulder (2004)
were sighted in this matter, as they studied the re-
lation between performance characteristics and perfor-
mance level in talented hockey players. Elite and sub-
elite players were tested on anthropometric, physiologi-
cal, technical, tactical and psychological characteristics.
Multivariate analyses showed that the elite players out-
classed their peers for the technical, tactical and psy-
chological variables being better in the slalom dribble,
the possession of the ball, and motivation. Apparently it
is the combination of these factors that defines the po-
tential of the player. Similar observations were made by
Burgess and Naughton (2010, p. 103) as they state: “un-
derstanding the multidimensional differences among the
requirements of adolescent and elite adult athletes could
provide more realistic goals for potential talented play-
ers.” According to these authors the investment in talent
identification and development is worthwhile as long as
the talent development models incorporate a large num-
ber of variables (e.g., physical, psychological, relative age,
game sense) that relate to the different requirements of
the final game.
3.6 The genetic determinants
Even though for many of us genetic prediction of sport
performance seems to be part of the world of science fic-
tion, recent findings in the field of genetic research have
shown interesting new developments. In fact, some stud-
ies are suggesting that genetics have a direct impact on
athletic performance (Yang et al.,2003;MacArthur&
North, 2005;Brayet al., 2009). For example, the ACTN3
gene – the fast-twitch muscle function gene that is found
6 Movement & Sport Sciences – Science & Motricit´e
in leading sprinters – may help to predict if a person
would be better in power/sprint or endurance sports.
It is not difficult to understand that genetic sport
performance tests could be of interest for professional
sport teams to know if their players have the “perfor-
mance gene” they need to become a successful athlete.
In 2008, a soccer team was considering asking its play-
ers to have a genetic sport performance test “to discover
whether they have a genetic predisposition to athletic ex-
cellence” (Scott & Kelso, 2008). It has to be noted that
professional sport teams are not the only ones to have an
interest in the genetic potential of their players. Parents
often have an even stronger desire to know if their child
is blessed with the “performance gene” (Neame, 2009).
By knowing if their child is better suited for power or
endurance sports, parents believe that will be able to
guide their child to choose “the sports they were born to
play”2. It would lead us too far to discuss in this paper
all potential ethical issues related to this type of testing
minors, but it raises important issues regarding to what
extent parents should have access to the genomic infor-
mation of their children and whether the ‘right not to
know’ should apply to this type of information. (Borry,
Shabani, & Howard, 2014). Moreover, it raises issues with
regard to appropriate information concerning the test, in-
cluding its limitations, and the potential impact and use
of the test results.
In addition, given these observations one wonders to
what extent the use of genetic testing has the potential to
accurately predict future performance. Tucker and Collins
(2012, p. 555) state that “individual performance thresh-
olds are determined by our genetic make-up, and training
can be defined as the process by which genetic potential is
realised ”. So, a major and logical element in the discus-
sion is that genetic predisposition is not the only deter-
minant of future success. Some of the companies (Genetic
Technologies and CyGene Direct) offering genetic perfor-
mance tests correctly mention that performance depends
on other key elements in the environment such as, train-
ing, nutrition and motivation3. So even if one is able to
select a child on the basis of genetic tests, the end result is
not guaranteed, as the way the potential develops cannot
be read (yet) from the chromosomes. This would require
a complete understanding of all the genes that interfere
with elite performance as well as their interaction between
themselves and the environment. At the time being this
endeavour still carries a high futuristic load.
This takes us back to the nature-nurture issue show-
ing that the environment is also a crucial player on the
field of elite performance. In other words, the context
2Baby Olympian? DNA Test Screens Sports Ability.
MSNBC 2008 Mar 4. Available from URL: http://www.
msnbc.msn.com/id/29496350/print/1/displaymode/1098.
3Genetic test may be able to predict the sport your
child should play. City News 2009 Jun 8. Available from
URL: http://www.citytv.com/toronto/citynews/life/health/
Article/print/11149.
is as steering as the content. This steering effect of the
environment has been nicely illustrated in a paper by
Mudrak (2011) who interviewed a number of parents of
gifted youngsters. Even though the parental support is
a vital element for developing the potential of the child,
the results of this study revealed a number of negative
effects caused by nurturing practices such as excessive ex-
pectations, parental perfectionism or authoritarian style
that are less than optimal (Mudrak, 2011, p. 200). Appar-
ently high potential and failure can be intimately linked
when contextual factors do not meet the necessary qual-
ity standards. We will elaborate this issue in the next few
paragraphs.
4 The context
The first impression that comes to mind after completing
the overview in the previous sections is its ambivalence.
One the one hand the available evidence revealing the
relation between specific competences and future perfor-
mance and on the other hand the absence of an integrated
perspective on the problem. As we noted previously, the
multidimensional approach (e.g., Elferink-Gemser et al.,
2004; Burgess and Naugthon, 2010)isbestsuitedtoas-
semble the required pieces of the puzzle. However, even
though the puzzle might be showing a very nice represen-
tation of the talented youngster, we should not overlook
its static nature. Many different capricious experiences
can interfere during a career, making the final success
less obvious. For this reason, we want to put the data
into a broader perspective.
A suitable starting point for this reflection relates to
the issue of the relative age effect (RAE), as it gives
a good feeling of the complexity of the identification
process.
So what is the relative age effect? As demonstrated
by Thompson, Barnsley, and Stebelsky (1991)andan
impressive multitude of followers (e.g., Baker & Logan,
2007;Baxter-Jones,1995), youngsters born early in the
selection year are privileged as compared to those born
later in the same year. Even though this effect resides in
the flaws of organisational decisions, it appears to have
detrimental effects on the prospects of young athletes to
enter the famous hall of elite athletes. Yet, a recent study
by Ford and Williams (2011) challenged the validity of the
RAE effect in award-winning athletes. According to the
authors, the youngsters born later in the given year were
pressed to develop higher skill levels then their “older”
opponents in order to survive the system.
Actually, the impact of relative age effects should
be attributed beyond a dispute between believers and
non-believers, based upon contradictory finding. Figure 1
shows how relative age and training age interact at dif-
ferent points in time and different ages within a highly
relevant age segment of talent development. Take for ex-
ample two individuals born in the same ‘year 0’, 6 months
apart. Both individuals, being born in the same year, will
Talent in sports. Some reflections about the search for future champions 7
Fig. 1. Confounding effects of relative age (ra) and relative training age (TA).
start practicing at the same point in time, e.g.atthestart
of year9.
When evaluated at a given moment in time, both in-
dividuals will have the same training age, as they started
training at the same moment, and a difference in skill
could, among other factors, be caused by age difference,
through physical and neurologic development and all
kinds of “life-experiences”. Their relative age difference
(dRA) at the beginning of year12 is 4.2%, and reduces to
3.8% at the beginning of year15 and further to 2.8% at
the beginning of year18. Through their sporting careers,
the relative age effect will gradually reduce towards zero.
When evaluated at any given age, the younger individ-
ual B will always have a higher training age (TA), thus
causing an effect opposite to the relative age effect, which
in general is considered favourable for individual B. This
effect too, will reduce in time, e.g . 13.1% at age 12, 7.4%
at age 15 and 5 % at age 18. Moreover, in sports where
physical development (growth) has a strong positive ef-
fect (e.g. throwing events athletics, basketball, American
football), the relative age effect will be significant and
positive. In sport, however, where physical development
(growth) can have a negative effect (e.g., female gymnas-
tics), the relative age effect might well be significant and
negative.
Finally, we need to bring a methodological issue into
the equation. The calculations of Delorme, Boich´eand
Raspaud (2010) indicated that the accuracy of the test
performedinmostREAstudies must be questioned, be-
cause the database of the national population was used
as a reference, instead of the database for licenced play-
ers. In comparing this latter database for French soccer
players with the elite soccer players, the authors revealed
that the REA effect was no longer present.
In summary, when evaluating an individual with
talent-identification purposes, relative age (generally in
favour of the older individual) and relative training age
(in favour of the younger individual) need to be consid-
ered with caution, not only relative to age and moment
in time but also to the given sport. In general, (1) as
individuals start training at younger ages, with higher
intensities, the relative training age effect will dominate
the relative age effect, ipso facto as individuals start train-
ing at older ages, with lower intensities, the relative age
effect will dominate the relative training age effect, (2)
both effects will reduce in time, and (3) the impact of
the relative age effect needs to be estimated relative to
the impact of physical development (growth) in the given
sport.
A second point of interest is elaborated in a paper by
Martindale et al., (2007)inwhichthetalentidentica-
tion and selection process is considered against the back-
ground of talent development. Reading their paper had
an interesting effect as it brought to mind the image of
a snake biting its own tail. Actually, the premise of their
thinking is clenched in the following phrase: “.. while it is
clear that talent emerges with the right experience, many
still insist on providing funding and development oppor-
tunities to only a few selected youngsters, based on cor-
rect performance levels (Martindale et al. 2007, p. 188).
This seems to perfectly illustrate the limits surrounding
the golden standard of selection. There are famous ex-
amples (e.g., Michael Jordan) of passed by youngsters
that eventually reach the status of top athlete in spite of
the blockades build by the system. Perhaps this can be
partly related to the earlier mentioned importance of the
psychological concept of mental toughness. Not selecting
a mentally tough young athlete might very well trigger
higher and long lasting determination to finally achieve.
The conclusion of the authors that performance standards
are often a poor measure of potential stabs the sword in
the heart of the problem. Talent identification is not a
question of taking a performance picture at a young age,
in which the future is frozen into the limits of the present.
Talent identification is a starting point for freeing the
potential through welldesigned development programs.
This viewpoint is not only adopted by Henriksen (2010),
but also placed in a holistic perspective. In his doctoral
dissertation The ecology of talent eveloppent in sport,
this author presents a judiciously elaborated framework
8 Movement & Sport Sciences – Science & Motricit´e
for talent development. A framework that strongly vali-
dates the important influence of the environment as the
following quote perfectly expresses: “Athletic talent de-
velopment is the progressive mutual accommodation that
takes place between an aspiring athlete and a compos-
ite and dynamic sporting and non-sporting environment
(Henriksen, 2010, p. 159).
Another elegant elaboration of this talent identifica-
tion and development issue is provided in the study by
Sommerlund and Strandvad (2012). Although this paper
addresses the talent issue in the area of artistic culture
and creativity (Danish film directors and designers), the
reflections of the authors relate very well to our current
debate. In fact, the authors try to escape from the di-
chotomy that defines the reasoning about talent, that is
to say, talent in the form of especially gifted persons (the
nature issue) versus talent as a social construct (the nur-
ture issue). In contrast they put forward the assumption
that talent becomes manifest via specific situations that
encompass the potential of the person and various other
actors. Thus, talent takes place between the individual,
the material and the social (p. 180). More specific the au-
thors discern three distinct phases in the process: identi-
fication,self-technology and materialization.Itiseasyto
see the familiarity of the first two elements to the con-
text of sports as they can be linked to identification of
the individual talent on the one hand and to the deliber-
ate practice needed for skill improvement (mostly under
the supervision of coaches, teachers of parents). The third
element is less familiar as it refers to the ability of the tal-
ented person to make attachments to other persons (e.g.,
fans, teammates, sponsors). While this latter capacity is
not really incorporated in our thinking, it could actually
be a very influential factor for the eventual failure or suc-
cess of an athlete. Athletes and players do not evolve in
splendid isolation but need to function in a world of in-
teraction. Being able to capitalize on these interactions
can place the player in a pole position in this contest for
victory.
Even though the interaction capacity of the young-
sters is mostly left out of the talent detection equation,
other contextual factors are recognized and better inte-
grated in the process. This is for example the case for the
role of parents as “gatekeepers” for the gifted children
(Rostan et al., 2002). According to their research parents
appeared to be very objective and valid assessors. This
is an important observation as parents are in most cases
the first adults to assess the possible presence of talent.
However, some caution has to be expressed here as it is
also known that parents have the tendency to project
their own ideals on the shoulders of their offspring, mak-
ing their own judgement all but neutral. An explanation
of the remarkable Rostan et al. findings lies in the proto-
col used for the assessment of the gifted children. Since
the parents were not aware of the origin of the painting
they could not give preference to their own child. So it ap-
pears that parents can readily recognize talent. However
it is far from certain that this capacity guarantees an un-
biased judgment when their own children are involved.
5Conclusion
Talent detection is a very intriguing and inspiring en-
deavour but also one with a considerable responsibility
as those who are involved in this process are shaping the
dreams of many youngsters. How positive a selection pro-
cess may be for those who succeed, the opposite is true
for those who fail. The excerpts of interviews in the study
from Barnett (2006) reveal the devastating effects of non-
selection in a high school dance or cheerleaders team. For
this reason the methods, tests and concepts used to detect
the gifted individuals should be well conceived. In this re-
spect, we support the argument of Vaeyens, et al.(2008,
p. 703) that talent identification programs should aim at
the potential to develop, rather than exclude children at
young age.
The findings reported in this paper reveal three im-
portant issues. First, the importance of multidimensional
testing. It is a false strategy to select young player on
a few competences without taking into account variables
that might play a more important role. Athletic perfor-
mance requires mastering many different skills that are
built on their underlying competences. A wellbalanced
development of these competences is crucial to future
success.
Second, there is a need to test the individual’s ca-
pacity at different moments in time. Or in the words
of Warburton (2002): “For assessment to tell the whole
story, it must get beyond the one-shot-deal administration
of a test. What we need are on-going assessments that al-
low repeated measures over time, so that the development
of the person’s knowledge and skill can be charted”. The
role of coaches and PE-teachers as gatekeepers in this
process should not be overlooked.
This brings us to the final observation, namely that
talent detection is useless without a strong program to
develop the available competences. Only when talent de-
tection and talent development are considered as an in-
separable twin pair the full potential of the young athletes
will eventually blossom.
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... On command, the athlete sprints 9.2 m, turns, and returns to the starting line. After returning to the starting line, he swerves in and out of the 4 markers, completing two 9.20-m sprints to finish the agility course [30]. Performances were recorded using an electronic timing system (TC-System, Brower Timing Systems, Draper, UT, USA). ...
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Talent research has recommended that multidimensional assessments of performance are needed to improve the identification and development of talented young athletes. However, factors such as the relative age effect may cloud our ability to assess factors related to performance. The aim of this study was to determine the extent of any relationship between soccer players' chronological and relative age, and objective and subjective performance assessments. Data for highly talented male soccer players selected into the German Soccer Associations' talent promotion program (N = 16,138) for U12 to U15 age groups (M age = 12.62 ± 1.04 years) were examined. Besides anthropometric assessments, players completed a battery of five motor tests that objectively assessed speed abilities and technical skills (specifically sprint, agility, dribbling, ball control, and juggling). In addition, coaches subjectively rated players on their kicking, tactical, and psychosocial skills, as well as providing holistic evaluations of each player's current and future performance levels. Correlation analyses were used to investigate the extent of any relationships between the chronological and relative age of players and their results for each of the assessments. A strong linear decrease in the frequency of later-born players confirmed the overrepresentation of early-born players in all age groups (0.92 ≤ |r| ≤ 0.95, each p < 0.001). From U12 to U15, significant (each p < 0.001) correlations were found between the chronological age of players and their height (|r| = 0.70), weight (|r| = 0.69), speed abilities (|r| = 0.38), and technical skills (|r| = 0.43). When evaluating each age group separately, small effects were found when correlating relative age with the anthropometric assessments (0.18 ≤ |r| ≤ 0.26), and only trivial effects with speed abilities and technical skills (0.01 ≤ |r| ≤ 0.06). Similarly, low correlations were found for the subjective evaluations of kicking, tactical, and psychosocial skills with chronological age across age groups (0.03 ≤ |r| ≤ 0.07), and with relative age in each age group (0.01 ≤ |r| ≤ 0.11). The results show a skewed distribution toward early-born players and-in reference to their relative age-advanced performance in late-born athletes. However, trends toward a better holistic rating of early-born players for current and future performance levels were found. Coaches should be aware of these effects during talent selection, but also when interpreting results from subjective and objective assessments of performance.
... Thus, although there are many dimensions involved in the selection process of sports talent (psychological, physical, environmental, socioeconomic, etc.), sports professionals usually make empirical use of young athletes' morphological and neuromuscular patterns in these selections and in subsequent guidance and development [12][13][14]. Therefore, it is common for a sports coach to target young people of greater stature and wingspan for sports such as basketball or volleyball, just as it is common for young people with greater muscle strength to be directed to the shot put in athletics or to Olympic weight lifting [15][16][17]. ...
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Background Artificial neural networks (ANN) are proving to be a useful tool to assist professionals in multiple fields of study. However, the use of ANNs to match sport initiation (SI) standards and to assist during the selection and mentoring of young sports talent has not yet been tested. Objective To use artificial multilayer neural networks (MLPs) to perform a combination of the morphological and neuromuscular patterns of SI youth with those of young athletes. Methods 75 young men (13.3 ± 1.65-years), 87% of whom were athletes from different sports (volleyball, rowing, soccer, tennis, Brazilian-jiu-jitsu (BJJ), swimming) and 13% were SI practitioners were included. Their morphology was verified by anthropometry and dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry. Neuromuscular performance was verified by neuromotor tests (handgrip, vertical jump, countermovement, and medicine-ball throw). MLPs were programmed to verify the percentage of similarity between the morphological and neuromuscular patterns of youngsters in SI with those of young athletes of different sports. Results SI indicated similarity with the morphological patterns of 90% with tennis, 87% with soccer, 80% with swimming and 79% with BJJ. SI indicated similarity with neuromuscular patterns of 87% with soccer, 81% with swimming and 75% with BJJ. When combining the morphological and neuromuscular patterns SI showed similarity of 88% with soccer, 79% with swimming, 77% with BJJ and 70% with tennis. For rowing, there were no significant similarities. Conclusion It was possible to conclude that using MLPs is a strategy that helps direct young people from SI to a specific sport.
... Moreover, the youth national team coaches may have followed a different selection pattern. Thus, players may have been selected who did not perform well in the examined games or even in the tournament, but who the coaches expect to perform best in the long term (Trunić and Mladenović, 2014;Buekers et al., 2015). This could have affected the mean performance indicators compared in this study. ...
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... En el caso de deportes con un alto componente táctico, para identificar el nivel táctico individual se emplean test y también se acostumbra a hacer un seguimiento del deportista en situaciones de competición, tanto para el análisis técnico como para el táctico. Frente a este tipo de prácticas se han alzado algunas voces críticas que cuestionan la pertinencia de estos procedimientos (Buekers, Borry, & Rowe, 2014;Lidor, Côté, & Hackford, 2009;Vaeyens, Lenoir, Williams, & Philippaerts, 2008). Vaeyens y colegas (2008) señalan la baja capacidad predictiva, así como la baja validez y utilidad de muchos modelos de identificación de talentos basados en este tipo de protocolos e instrumentos. ...
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A modo de introducción J. empezó a practicar natación seriamente bastante tarde. De hecho, priorizó los estudios hasta bien avanzada su carrera académica. En la actualidad ha participado en dos Juegos Olímpicos y va camino de los terceros. En su grupo alevín estaba R., que destacaba desde pequeñito. Quedó campeón de su comunidad autónoma varias veces y llegó a tener medalla en algún campeonato de España. A los 17 años había abandonado la natación. A. jugaba muy bien al fútbol, con 8 años era realmente habilidoso, por lo que lo fichó un club grande. Su carrera finalizó en segunda B. Con él jugaban P. y J. Eran también muy buenos con el balón en los pies, y P. tenía una gran visión del juego. Los dos llegaron a Primera División. Con 14 años B. ya tenía un consumo máximo de oxígeno (V02 máx) que llamaba la atención. Fichó por un equipo ciclista profesional. J. también tenía unos consumos muy destacables. De hecho, eran mejores que los de B. a la misma edad. Nunca consiguió grandes resultados. Podríamos extendernos con ejemplos y situaciones como las descritas anteriormente y que ponen de manifiesto las múltiples casuísticas existentes en el desarrollo de trayectorias deportivas que, inicialmente,
... Even more, current research shows that intuitive judgements are valid, which supports subjective assessments of coaches (Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier, 2011;Kruglanski & Gigerenzer, 2011). The weakness of this appraisal appears to be its subjective nature, even though we have to be conscious that this intuitive judgement is also based on an internal frame of reference built on relevant knowledge (Buekers, Borry, & Rowe, 2015). (p. ...
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Talent selection has become an integral part of many nations’ athlete development systems. In this context, a coach often serves as a decision-maker, selecting or deselecting athletes based on their intuition, a phenomenon that has generally come to be referred to as “coach’s eye”. However, there is no consistent operational definition of this term. To this end, we reviewed prior work using the term “coach’s eye” as reflecting the process of coaches assessing and selecting athletes during talent selection scenarios. Based on previous research, four main characteristics of the coaches’ eye were identified: intuitive, subjective, experience-based and holistic. Results emphasize the underlying mechanisms of the coach’s eye are still unknown and links to theoretical models are missing. In the final section of this paper, we describe a model from decision-making research, the iCodes model (integrated coherence-based decision and search model) by Jekel, Glöckner, and Bröder (2018), and apply it to talent selection scenarios. We believe this model provides a useful starting point for investigating the decision process and the underlying mechanisms of the coach’s eye.
... First, in accordance with the vast majority of studies in this research area, the current study focused on assessing performance at a single time point. However, based on the multidimensional and dynamic conceptualization of talent (Buekers et al., 2015) and, in some parts, the inconsistent results in longitudinal studies (e.g., Leyhr et al., 2018;Saward et al., 2020), further empirical studies are needed to examine the progress of players' performance factors longitudinally. However, it should be noted that the present study focused on the simultaneous examination of the validity of subjective and objective assessments in an attempt to address the gap in this field of research. ...
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