Official Publication of NAK and AKA
Kinesiology Review, 2013, 2, 248-259
© 2013 by Human Kinetics, Inc.
The Standard Model of Talent Development
and Its Discontents
Richard Bailey and David Collins
Despite evident differences between approaches to talent development, many share a set of common charac-
teristics and presumptions. We call this the Standard Model of Talent Development (SMTD). This model is
articulated and the relevant literature drawn out to highlight the model’s strengths and weaknesses. The SMTD
has been enormously inuential, in terms of both policy documentation and practice, and it retains an obvious
common sense appeal. However, we will argue that not only is its attractiveness illusionary and inconsistent to
the emerging evidence base from research, but it is also undesirable from a variety of perspectives and desired
outcomes. In short, we suggest that the most common system for identifying talent is unsubstantiated from
both a process and an outcome perspective.
Keywords: pyramid model, physical activity participation, sport performance, talent pathway
Bailey is with the Dept. of Sport, Dance, and Outdoor Educa-
tion, Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom.
Collins is with the Institute of Coaching and Performance,
University of Central Lancashire, United Kingdom.
Optimizing the trajectory from talent detection, to
identication, through development to selection is a core
construct in any sporting system (Williams & Reilly,
2000). Sometimes referred to as the performance path-
way, this construct is a key concern for funding agencies
and internal management alike. In some cases, such as
former Eastern Bloc countries, this trajectory has been
tightly managed and regulated. In most systems, however,
the process is less autocratic, implicitly allowing the locus
of control to shift to the invisible hand of individual and
A number of authors have raised doubts over the
scientic foundations of most talent identication pro-
grams (Abbott, Collins, Martindale et al., 2002; Bartmus,
Neumann, & de Marées, 1987; Durand-Bush & Salmela,
2001; Vaeyens, Lenoir, Williams et al., 2008). From the
perspective of optimally effective performance pathways,
the most powerful criticisms relate to their low predictive
value and lack of validity (Durand-Bush & Salmela, 2001;
Régnier, Salmela, & Russell, 1993). In other words, talent
identication strategies are rarely very effective ways of
detecting and identifying talent.
Some of these problems will be discussed later in
this paper. However, it is interesting to note that, despite
the doubts raised by researchers, national governing
bodies of sport and key partner agencies continue to
invest considerable amounts into “talent spotting” of
young children who are subsequently directed toward
carefully bespoke and presumably effective accelerated
talent development programs (Abbott & Collins, 2004;
Bailey, Collins, Ford et al., 2010).
The Standard Model
of Talent Development
There is always a danger of using the language of
“standard,” “tradition,” or “convention” simply as a
straw man to knock down, rather than a genuine stance.
However, there do seem to be working principles that
have historically characterized discussions about talent
development that are often entrenched or accepted as
self-evident. The central working assumptions of the
Standard Model of Talent Development (SMTD) can be
represented in numerous ways, for example as trickle-
down or foundation stones (Kirk & Gorely, 2000), but
by far the most common metaphor is a pyramid (see
Figure 1). Simply put, the model operates as follows:
a broad base of foundation skills participation, with
increasingly higher levels of performance, engaged in by
fewer and fewer people. According to Prescott (1999),
the pyramid metaphor represents the established way
of thinking about talent development among capital-
ist countries (Klentrou, 1993; Régnier et al., 1993). In
similar fashion, Fisher and Borms’ (1990) international
review found that “the pyramidal system of development
[is] favored by most countries” (p. 15). Subsequently,
Houlihan (2000) has suggested that versions of the
pyramid model characterize many sports development
policy statements, while Kirk, Brettschneider, and Auld
(2005) argue that its inuence can be seen in numerous
international sports participation models and that “the
assumptions underpinning the pyramid model continue
to have a powerful residual inuence on thinking about
Standard Model of Talent Development 249
junior sport participation and sport development in
sport policy” (p. 2). Moreover, the language of a UK
government-sponsored research report into elite dance
development is interesting in part because of its explicit-
ness: “Constructing a Pyramid of Progression for Talent
in Dance” (Schmidt, 2006). It seems that, in the West at
least, the pyramid model is entrenched in thinking about
talent and its development.
What does the SMTD look like in practice? Indica-
tive characteristics are as follows:
• The focus is solely on progressing those identied as
talented, and not on the wider group of participants,
even though these may meet the necessary standards
• Progression from one level to the next involves
removal of large numbers of players from the system
(and possibly also from the sport)
• “Formal” threshold measures (e.g., county/state level
representation for some, “ideal” body proportions
for others) are often in place that select or de-select
players for progression
• Once a player has been de-selected from a talent
route, it is difcult or impossible to return to it
• Early specialization in one or a small number of
activities is seen as necessary to achieve high per-
• It is presumed that early ability in an activity (which
enables progression up the pyramid) is indicative of
later success (Bailey, Leigh, Pearce et al., 2011; Kirk,
Brettschneider, and Auld, 2005).
The longevity and widespread acceptance of the
SMTD suggest that it is not without merit. In the words
of a recent book on the success of ideas, it is “sticky.” In
this regard, Heath and Heath (2008) suggest that some
ideas are accepted and repeated because they share certain
basic qualities, including simplicity, concreteness, and
credibility; others wither and die because they lack these
same characteristics. However, whether these ideas stick
or not has nothing to do with their truthfulness, per se.
SMTD is certainly simple and concrete; consequently,
it is passed on, both vertically (from one generation to
the next) and horizontally (within the same generation).
Before long, it has acquired the status of self-evident
The SMTD has one other virtue that might account
for its success: it seems plausible, and—perhaps in the
absence of accessible competitive theories—this plau-
sibility has resulted in its wide dissemination around
the world. Consequently, players’ success in sport has
usually been explained in terms of something like a
pyramid-based model (Kirk et al., 2005; Prescott, 1999).
We suggest that the apparent success of the SMTD
is ultimately an optical illusion, as there is no way of
knowing who might have succeeded through different
systems, and who were de-selected from the system but
might have (under different circumstances) gone on to
achieve high performance. Indeed, since those cut from
systems are rarely if ever the focus of study, it is unlikely
that much evidence for the SMTD’s lack of efcacy will
be available. Furthermore, the equivocal predictive valid-
ity of these models is further compounded by the clearly
demotivating early elimination of young participants (also
Figure 1 — The pyramid model of sports development (adapted from Tinning, Kirk & Evans, 1993).
250 Bailey and Collins
unrecorded) representing a double weakness. Unfortu-
nately, in the absence of examination, the default model
remains unchallenged and passes through systems, with
increasingly strong face validity.
For these reasons, popularity and “stickiness” alone
cannot be taken as sufcient evidence in favor of a
theory. Just because an idea is tenacious does not mean
it is correct. Based on these contentions therefore, the
SMTD needs to be examined critically from a process
standpoint, making use of the emerging body of literature
base available in talent development.
Difficulties With the Standard Model
The Problems with Early Specialization
At the heart of the SMTD is an implicit acceptance that it
takes a considerable amount of time and energy to achieve
high performance in a specic domain. According to
Régnier et al. (1993, p. 308), “the underlying method is
to provide space and equipment for a number of athletes,
let them practice for 10 years, and then skim the cream
from the top.” The allusion here is to the strong associa-
tion found by some researchers between the amount of
practice and the level of achievement (Howe, Davidson,
& Sloboda, 1998). Indeed, in the motor learning litera-
ture, practice is generally seen as the variable having the
greatest inuence on skill acquisition (Vaeyens, Lenoir,
Williams et al., 2008).
The most inuential contemporary statement in
favor of the importance of early and sustained training is
the theory of deliberate practice developed by Ericsson
and colleagues (Ericsson & Charness, 1994; Ericsson,
Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993). This work introduced an
important distinction that had been missing from earlier
models: not all forms of practice differentiate individual
performance. The key was the specic form and volume
Deliberate practice involves activities that are effort-
ful, low in inherent enjoyment, and purposefully designed
to address current areas of weakness. Ericsson et al.
(1993) also argued that it was not simply the accumula-
tion of hours of deliberate practice that lead to superior
levels of performance, but that the accumulation must
coincide with critical periods of biological and cognitive
development (before puberty). On the one hand, they
argued that early specialization is vital for future success
because the earlier one starts adhering to a strict training
regimen, the quicker one will attain the desired level of
skill. On the other hand, someone starting serious training
at a later age would be unable to “catch up” with those
who started earlier.
Numerous studies have offered broad support for
the importance of deliberate practice in the develop-
ment of expertise, and the core thesis that a volume of
structured, high quality, and well-focused practice is a
necessary condition for the development of elite perfor-
mance seems unarguable (Ericsson, Charness, Feltovich,
& Hoffman, 2006; Starkes & Ericsson, 2006). However,
research has raised serious questions regarding the detail
of the theory, and especially its universal application
(Abernethy, Farrow, & Berry, 2003). For example, some
studies have empirically refuted the ‘10,000 hour rule’
(van Rossum, 2000; Baker, Côté, & Abernethy, 2003). In
fact, relatively few studies have shown 10,000 hours of
deliberate practice to be a prerequisite for expert perfor-
mance in sport. On the contrary, expert performance in
sports where peak performance generally occurs after the
age of 20 has often been achieved with 3,000–4,000 hours
of sport-specic training (i.e., deliberate practice; Côté,
Baker, & Abernethy, 2007). In some sports, the gure may
be even lower, as was reported by Australian researchers
whose training program for the skeleton event turned
“Ice novice to Winter Olympian in 14 months” (Bullock,
Gulbin, Martin, Ross, Holland, & Marino, 2009).
Côté and Fraser-Thomas (2007, p. 18) identify three
testable tenets that they claim are at the foundation of
the deliberate practice framework, which apply equally
to the SMTD:
1. Elite athletes specialize in their main sport at a
younger age than sub-elite athletes
2. Elite athletes start deliberate practice at a younger
age than sub-elite athletes
3. Elite athletes accumulate more deliberate practice
hours than sub-elite athletes throughout their career.
Evidence in support of Tenet 1 comes primarily
from so-called “early specialization” sports (e.g., female
gymnastics and gure skating). However, this relationship
is tautologous because the competition framework also
occurs very early in the performer’s life. Outside this
narrow scope, evidence does not support this tenet. Stud-
ies have demonstrated that elite performers from many
sports actually participated in a wide range of activities
throughout their childhood (MacNamara, Collins, Bailey,
Ford, Toms, & Pearce, 2011). The sorts of early sporting
experiences associated with later expertise are those that
involve a variety of sports, often characterized by playful
engagement, with little emphasis on skill development
and competition (Baker, 2003). In Côté’s phrasing, these
players ‘sampled’ a wide range of sports before gradu-
ally ‘specializing’ on a small number, before focusing or
‘investing’ in one activity during mid- to late-adolescence
(Côté & Hay, 2002). As such, there seems little direct evi-
dence for the uncritical or universal acceptance of Tenet 1.
Evidence in favor of Tenet 2 also comes primarily
from early specialization sports. Studies of women’s gym-
nastics and women’s gure skating indicate differences in
sport-specic training between elite and sub-elite athletes
as early as seven years of age. It has been hypothesized
that this difference is due to biologically determined
“critical periods” (Balyi & Hamilton, 2003). However,
there have been few studies that specically address
appropriate training prescriptions to enhance the perfor-
mance outcome in accordance with physical development
(Naughton, Farpour-Lambert, Carlson, Bradney, & Van
Praagh, 2000). Indeed, a recent comprehensive review
Standard Model of Talent Development 251
concluded that the case for the existence of such critical
periods was, at best, unconvincing (Bailey et al., 2010;
cf. Ford, De Ste Croix, Lloyd et al., 2011). Notably, no
studies of later specialization sports (i.e., all other sports)
have supported Tenet 2.
The strongest case seems to be with regard to Tenet
3, where “by and large, retrospective studies that compare
elite and sub-elite athletes in various sports have shown
support for this tenet” (Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2007, p.
18). However, recorded differences in deliberate practice
usually refer to players’ total career investment: differ-
ences between groups of elite and sub-elite players do
not occur until later in development (Strachan, Côté, &
Deakin, 2009). Furthermore, the employment of chrono-
logical age as a grouping variable in many of these stud-
ies is problematic, especially as more recent work has
suggested that the ages at which performers progress to
be socioculturally specic, based on factors like school
system transitions. Finally, it seems rather obvious to
state that that elite players will be more motivated, more
externally driven and more able to accumulate more train-
ing hours than the general population. So, the argument
does seem to be somewhat self-fullling.
It seems unarguable that practice is a necessary
feature of talent development. The notion of deliberate
practice provides a valuable advance on earlier accounts
by specifying the conditions necessary for practice to
result in expert performance. Numerous studies have
demonstrated that deliberate practice in a narrowly pre-
scribed range of activities is one route to developing elite
performers (Deakin & Cobley, 2003; Helsen, Starkes, &
Hodges, 1998; Hodges & Starkes, 1996). However, other
studies have raised serious questions about the universal-
ity of deliberate practice in the careers of expert players
(Bullock, Gulbin, Martin et al., 2009). To be explicit,
the ndings from this research do not suggest that elite
players do not practice for extensive periods of time, but
they do seem to falsify the claim that early, specialized
deliberate practice is the only way to achieve excellence.
In fact, Bloom’s classic ‘Developing Talent in Young
People study’ (1985) found that many elite performers
in a range of elds (including sports) did not specialize
early in their chosen activity, nor did their early experi-
ences reect those of deliberate practice (namely, a high
amount of concentration on tasks that are not inherently
enjoyable, and must be carried out over time). Subsequent
studies of high achieving sports players made similar
ndings: These players often describe their early sporting
experiences as playful and varied (Carlson, 1988; Côté,
1999). Côté went on to label these early experiences as
“deliberate play” (Côté et al., 2007; Soberlak & Côté,
2003) to capture a form of activity that involves early
developmental physical activities that are intrinsically
motivating, provide immediate gratification and are
specically designed to maximize enjoyment. Deliberate
play usually involves a modied version of standard rules,
requires minimal equipment, exible contexts, and chal-
lenges, and allows children the freedom to experiment
with different movements and tactics.
Côté’s work suggests that highly structured practice
may not be essential for early skill acquisition during
childhood: Some athletes who had diversied sport back-
grounds and engaged in deliberate play during childhood
still reached an elite level (Baker et al., 2003; Baker, Côté,
& Deakin, 2005; Soberlak & Côté, 2003). Of course, it
does not follow from this that deliberate practice will not
be needed at a later stage; on the contrary, it becomes
progressively more important as players move into ado-
lescence and adulthood (Côté, Horton, MacDonald et
al., 2009). The Deliberate Play approach also neglects
the importance of an early base of actual and perceived
motor competence, coupled with other altitudinal/behav-
ioral characteristics which seem to facilitate subsequent
involvement and progress. These caveats notwithstand-
ing, however, there seems little or no evidence in support
of the essential need for early specialization which is such
a big part of other approaches.
Judgments about the appropriateness of early spe-
cialization also need to be made with reference to the
specic sport context. There is no convincing evidence
that most sports require an early investment of training
in one activity. In fact, what evidence is available sug-
gests that across a number of eventual elite players, early
specialization is negatively correlated with eventual suc-
cess (Gullich, 2011). Moreover, there are reasons to be
cautious of its application, not least because most models
of sports development recognize that elite performance
is only one among many worthwhile goals of sports par-
ticipation. Positive attitudes to sport and healthy, lifelong
development would seem to be at least as important as
competitive success, even for those on elite pathways
(Collins, Bailey, Ford et al., 2013).
Proposed Importance/Lack of
Evidence Base for the Role
of Fundamental Movement
The exact mechanisms by which deliberate play activities
translate into later performance are unclear, but we can
assume that it is the result of a complex interaction of bio-
psychosocial factors that underpin development (Bailey
et al., 2010). Although there has been limited research
on the causal relationships between playful learning and
expert performance, there is a growing body of literature
that supports the claim that such activities contribute to
the development of what are usually called Fundamental
and Specialized Movement Skills (FMS and SMS; Abbott
et al., 2002; Gallahue, & Ozmun, 2002). It is widely
believed that these basic skills and patterns of physical
activity track from childhood to adolescence and beyond
(Fulton, Burgeson, Perry et al., 2001; Okely, Booth, &
Patterson, 2001). More specically, the conjecture is that
FMS are essential prerequisites for participation in sport
and physical activity because the specialized movements
of different activities are constructed on building blocks
of basic skills (Gallahue & Ozmun, 2002; Payne & Isaacs,
1995). Children who lack these basic skills “are often
relegated to a life of exclusion from organized and free
252 Bailey and Collins
play experiences of their peers, and subsequently, to a
lifetime of inactivity because of their frustration in early
movement behavior” (Seefeldt et al., cited in Abbott et
al., 2002, p. 19). There is limited empirical work in this
area to date, but the logic of the development of progres-
sively more sophisticated movement skills that rene,
combine and extrapolate from earlier skills means that it
is likely that high-level skill acquisition in any formalized
physical activity will be at least highly unlikely without
an adequate foundation of constitutive skills. There is
certainly a growing body of correlational if not fully
understood evidence that supports this stance (Berry,
Abernethy & Côté, 2008). Furthermore, there are strong
links between a paucity of FMS and low levels of activity.
For example, children who spend three-quarters of their
time in sedentary behavior have up to nine times poorer
motor coordination than active peers (Lopes, Santos,
Pereira, & Lopes, 2012). Even more positively, FMS
level seems to predict activity level and even be associ-
ated with academic achievement (Syväoja, Kantomaa,
Ahonen et al., 2013). In short, there seems to be a strong
and growing evidence base for the potential contribution
of FMS as an integral feature of any coherent participant
There are, however, a number of issues with FMS
that need investigation if the concept is to be rmly
established and effectively used. For example, sound FMS
patterns are proposed as preventing injury and easing
movement efciency (Giles, 2011), seen as central to
subsequent physical activity participation (Jess, Dewar,
& Fraser, 2004), and as the essential underpinnings of the
widely established and desirable characteristic of physical
literacy (Whitehead, 2001a; 2001b). In all these case how-
ever, and in almost all of the rest of the burgeoning litera-
ture, there is a crucial absence of exactly what constitutes
an acceptable level of fundamental skill, how this can be
measured and, consequently, any causative evidence for
the important roles claimed for FMS. As a consequence
of this weak foundation, fundamental movement courses
and activities have tended to focus on enjoyment rather
than on a consistent and well-justied content.
Measures of physical competence (that is skill in
coordination rather than tness) are often related to the
identication of motor impairment (the bottom 5% of
the population; Van Waelvelde, Peersman, Lenoir et al.,
2007) rather than a diagnostic tool which subsumes an
acceptable standard of physical literacy and which offers
direction to both initial training and remediation. Work
on evaluation of normal motor ability has frequently been
related to checks for age-appropriate development. For
example, the McCarron Assessment of Neuromuscular
Development (MAND; McCarron, 1997) offers a norm-
related marker of coordination on ten broad tasks against
expected averages at six monthly intervals. These coor-
dination measures appear to hold some external validity,
such, scores showing close correlations with performance
on novel but age-appropriate fundamental skills (Miller,
2006). Even here, however, the content and conduct of
Motor Assessment Batteries (MABs) has been questioned
in the literature. For example, with regard to content,
it may be that FMS could be said to represent sport-
specic norms for movement “understandable within
a hegemonic, white, middle-class masculinity matrix”
(Larsson & Quennerstedt, 2012, p. 293). In addition, there
are several procedural issues that need to be considered,
such as the inuence of observation and demonstration
before test execution, which seems to make the MAB as
much a test of imitation as ability (Cools, De Martelaer,
Samaey et al., 2008). Finally, MABs implicitly assume
those optimal movement patterns exist. However, based
on the movement constraints perspective, each individual
has their own optimal way of moving (Davids, Button,
& Bennett, 2007).
In summary, there seems to be some way to go in
the operationalization and measurement of the FMS
construct before we can make clear, causative and de-
nite claims for its importance. Reecting these various
challenges of examination, few studies have examined
the relationship between FMS and physical activity with
sufcient rigor (Fisher, 2008). For this reason, caution
is needed when reading prescriptions like the following:
“If the fundamental and basic sport specic skills are not
established before ages 11 and 12 respectively, athletes
will never reach their optimal or genetic potential” (Balyi
& Hamilton, 2003, p.8). As stated before, the implied
critical window of opportunity is not supported by the
current state of the literature (Bailey, Collins, Ford et al.,
2010). Something like Côté’s (1999) sampling approach
(in which children try out a variety of activities) seems
more plausible, with its focus on intrinsic motivation and
diversity during the early years for the background devel-
opment of capacities for exible maximum responses
in the later years and higher performance categories of
participation” (Rushall, 1998, p. 27). Importantly, recent
research suggests that, while FMS might be easiest to
acquire and develop thanks to the luxury of time during
early childhood, they can also be learned later (even
during adulthood) through participation in focused and
specic programs (Polman, Walsh, Bloomeld et al.,
So, once again, the precepts of the SMTD are
questioned. The idea of a gradual progression up the
performance pyramid, once specialization decisions are
taken is hardly likely if FMS are important, even though
clarifying the exact nature of this input is overdue. If
such inputs can be made at various stages of develop-
ment then the SMTD’s chronological hierarchy based
on early specialization is even less likely (Polman et al.,
2004; Newall, 2011).
The Risks of Ill-Focused
or Incorrectly Administered Pyramids
Given the lack of evidence for the requirement of early
specialization, it is worthwhile noting concerns raised by
researchers of physical and psycho-social risks associated
with early intensive sports training (Baker, 2003). The
most obvious risks linked to adult-like training at early
Standard Model of Talent Development 253
periods of development are over-use injuries, and studies
have found that intensive training during maturation (i.e.,
childhood) can increase susceptibility to conditions such
as Osgood-Schlatter disease, Sinding-Larson-Johansson
syndrome, and Sever’s disease (Brenner, 2007; Dalton,
The literature also points to psychological risks of
early intensive training (Boyd & Yin, 1996). Some of
these concerns relate directly to the immaturity of the
players, and the subsequent dangers of pressure, frustra-
tion and a sense of failure (Martens, 1993). Further psy-
chosocial concerns linked to early specialization include
compromised social development, sport dropout, burnout,
and eating disorders (Baker, 2003). These concerns are
even more telling when the vital need to encourage
lifelong physical activity participation as well as elite
performance is considered. Early dropout following early
specialization can often inhibit or even prevent adherence
to physical activity in later age (Collins, Bailey, Ford et
al., 2013. Talent transfer (encouraging unsuccessful or
retired performers to try another sporting pathway) is
also blocked by such obstacles. Moreover, some have
questioned the moral justication of entering children into
a process of very serious sports training and performance
when the logical of the SMTD is that the vast majority
are destined to failure (David, 2004).
Competition and failure need not be harmful experi-
ences for children; indeed, they are probably essentially
elements of the sporting experience (Shields and Brede-
meier, 2009). Difculties may only arise when such expe-
riences are located in a context lled with adult-based
concepts and values, and—as is the necessary logic of
the SMTD—the almost inevitable lack of success equates
with exclusion from participation.
The Limits of Unitary Development
Traditionally, researchers have tended to conceptualize
the development of ability as unitary, genetically inher-
ited, and measurable (Abbott & Collins, 2004), and this
assumption lies implicit within the SMTD (Vaeyens
et al., 2008). This presumption is in contradiction to
contemporary theorists who almost universally favor
multidimensional models of high ability, cognizant of a
wide range of factors (Simonton, 1999; Ziegler & Heller,
2000). By contrast, domain-specic theories generally
make distinctions between different, relatively autono-
mous sets of abilities, which frequently relate to specic
areas of achievement.
There is an increasing acceptance among sport
scientists that performance in all forms of sport is mul-
tifactorial, requiring the performer to develop a range of
skills and abilities (such as physical tness, movement
competence, and mental skills; Bartmus et al., 1987;
Vaeyens et al., 2008; Williams & Ericsson, 2005). Indeed,
this may be the case in all domains (Feldman & Gold-
smith, 1986). For example, Simonton (1999) proposed
that multiple components contribute to the development
of ability within any area and that these components
interact in a multiplicative rather than an additive way.
He offered four implications of this multiplicative model:
1. The area in which an individual displays ability
will not be determined by any highly specialized
component, but rather by the “specic weighted
multiplicative integration of the contributing innate
components” (p. 438)
2. Individuals talented in an area will all have some
value of each necessary component, but individual
values within any area will vary (uni-dimensional
models are unable to account for such diversity)
3. Many young people will not have exceptional talent
in an area because of the absence of one of the com-
ponents, even if they excel in another component
(uni-dimensional models are not capable of making
4. The number of innate components necessary for
performance will vary from area to area and some
will be extremely complex (contrast, for example,
open and closed sport skills).
To date, there have been relatively few attempts
to take a multifactorial perspective in the prediction of
high ability in specic activities. Those that have done
so have highlighted the necessity of measuring a number
of dimensions over a period of time (Prescott, 1999;
Régnier & Salmela, 1987), rather than single measures
on a singular occasion.
The complexity of this predicament seems to be writ-
ten large in sporting activities. Success in sports is very
rarely determined by a narrow range of characteristics,
and even those that seem to place particular reliance on a
relatively small number of physical characteristics (such
as rowing or body-building) actually place considerable
demands on psychological and social competence as well
(Abbott, Collins, Martindale et al., 2002). Different roles
within a particular sport mean that the necessary skills
and abilities are not evenly distributed across all positions,
although players at the highest levels presumably possess
a fundamental competence in all areas (Vaeyens et al.,
2008). Moreover, success in most sports is irreducible to
a predetermined set of skills and attributes, as decien-
cies in one area can be compensated for by strengths in
another (Williams & Ericsson, 2005).
The Conflation of (Future) Potential
With (Current) Performance
One of the most common manifestations of the unitary
conception of development in sport occurs when the
assessment of potential in an area is reduced to levels of
current performance (Neelands, Band, Freakley, & Lind-
say, 2005). It is clear why this reduction takes place, as
current performance seems to be the most obvious indica-
tor of potential (Bailey, Tan, & Morley, 2004). However,
numerous researchers have suggested that this conation
is a fundamental error (Abbott, Collins, Martindale et
al., 2002; Bailey & Morley, 2006; Vaeyens et al., 2008;
254 Bailey and Collins
Walker, Nordin-Bates, & Redding, 2010). It is hardly con-
troversial in the context of recent developmental sciences
to claim that individual development is the result of an
interaction between inherited abilities, social and cultural
learning (Oyama, 2000; Scarr & McCartney, 1983), and it
is this interaction of processes that undermines simplistic
correlations of potential and performance. Unfortunately,
such approaches still characterize many talent pathways
The distinction between potential and performance
in this context is made clear if we consider two young
people: one has wealthy parents who are very supportive
of her participation in physical activities, who pay for
private coaching in a number of sports, who transport her
to training and competitions, and who play sports with
her from an early age, and continue to do so whenever
they get the chance. The other student’s (single) parent
does not have much money, and the little she does have
is not “wasted on games,” especially as her social set
think that girls ought not to get too good at sport, anyway.
Presumably, all readers will accept that the rst player
has a signicantly greater chance of performing best in
assessments of ability, and simple observation will make
it impossible to ascertain whether this is due to superior
potential or simply superior opportunity. This is not just
a theoretical point. For example, Ward and Williams
(2003) concluded that elite soccer players as young as
eight had better skills due to extra opportunities rather
than any genetic advantage.
The relative age effects (RAE) seen across sports,
whereby early birth dates in the competitive year group-
ing are systematically but disproportionately selected,
is another manifestation of this differential opportunity
(Musch, & Grondin, 2001). These effects have been iden-
tied in numerous contexts, including male team selec-
tion, where coaches tend to favor the physical maturity of
relatively older players (Hancock, Ste-Marie, & Young,
2013). Selection advantages in the early competitive
years mans that relatively older players within a cohort
tend to receive better and more coaching, training, and
competition which are important factors associated with
later sporting success and consequent continued selection
to teams further up the performance pyramid (Helsen,
Van Winckel, & Williams, 2005).
Performance in any domain is the result of a complex
choreography between various causal inuences (van
Rossum & Gagné, 2005). Many social and environmen-
tal factors inuence the developing ability of students.
To base a judgment of talent on current performance,
therefore, is to conate those things that are within the
student’s control and those that are not (Bailey, 2007), and
to mistakenly believe that talent development is merely
a probabilistic enterprise (Vaeyens et al., 2008). This is
why it is wise to “to distinguish between determinants of
performance and determinants of potential/skill acquisi-
tion” (Abbott, Collins, Martindale et al., p. 26). Current
performance can be a poor indicator of ability since it
rewards things that have nothing at all to do with talent,
such as parental income and support (Bailey, 2007).
Taken together, these factors demonstrate the rel-
evance of the kind of distinction Gagné (1985) makes
between “gifts” and “talents”; between an above aver-
age level of competence in naturally developed abilities
within one or more domains of human aptitude and the
level of performance in those systematically developed
abilities or skills that constitute expertise in a particular
eld of human activity. Although these aptitudes are
genetically constrained, the emergence of talent is
always mediated by the inuence of intrapersonal and
environmental catalysts, in addition to systematic learn-
ing, considerable practice, and training. It is simply
naïve to overlook the real-world gap between the
abilities an individual brings to an activity and the sports
player, athlete, or dancer who emerges at the end of the
A further difculty with performance-based assess-
ments of ability is that coaches and teachers tend to focus
on narrow measures, primarily physical competence and
tness,, and overlook other contributory aspects, like
interpersonal skills, decision-making, and understand-
ing of the game (Bailey, Morley, & Dismore, 2009;
Bailey et al., 2004; Morley, 2008). Obviously, physical
qualities are extremely important in sport, but not solely
so. Excellence requires the development of a relatively
broad range of abilities, including interpersonal skills
(Holt, 2008), tactical and strategic awareness (Helsen,
Hodges, Van Winckel et al., 2000), and grit (Duckworth,
Kirby, Tsukayama et al., 2011). This suggests that, while
performance-based approaches should have a part to play
in the development of a young person’s emerging talent,
they should not be attributed primary importance during
the formative years because
• they are not accurate measures of the abilities of all
young people and are particularly affected by gender,
ethnicity, or socioeconomic background
• they can overlook other abilities that are also impor-
tant aspects of talent
• until later age, they systematically discriminate
against later birth date individuals
• they ignore individuals who are potentially talented,
but who, due to lack of opportunity or support, are
An Alternative View: Stressing
Development and Inclusion
Ultimately, research ndings support talent develop-
ment frameworks that stress long-term development
(Vaeyens et al., 2008). The journey from novice to elite
performance usually takes many years, and there are
countless challenges and obstacles along the way. This
might explain three peculiar ndings from the literature:
1. extremely talented adults rarely start out identied
as highly able children (Abbott, Collins, Martindale
et al., 2002; Bloom, 1985)
Standard Model of Talent Development 255
2. “those who eventually become expert performers do
not start out in a domain of expertise with an already
exceptional level of performance as compared with
their peers, when the benets from earlier engage-
ment in other related activities are considered”
(Ericsson, 2003, pp. 65–66)
3. a large proportion of those identied as protégés
fail to realize their early promise (Bailey & Morley,
2006). Each of these points undermines the validity
of the SMTD.
Implicit within the SMTD is a conception of develop-
ment and performance in sports as conceptually simple,
linear and predictable. It also presumes that successful
progression from one level to the next is indicative of later
or emergent ability (which is the premise of the pyramid
model). All of these presumptions are mistaken. Some
skills and knowledge that are important for later perfor-
mance success can be trained and improved at early ages,
but do not become fully developed or explicitly appar-
ent until later (Abernethy & Russell, 1987; Tenenbaum,
Sar-El, & Bar-Eli, 2000). Furthermore, the determinants
of performance do not characterize success through the
different age groups (Régnier & Salmela, 1987), and
skills and physical qualities likely to result in short-term
success may become redundant a year later. For example,
hard running and physical maturity may be key to rugby
or American Football success at age 12 but, as players get
older, and size and strength factors balance out, mental
factors such as decision-making and anticipation become
more important for success (Abbott & Easson, 2002). The
danger here is obvious: Short-term talent identication
strategies run the risk of expelling potentially talented
players because their current performance does not match
age-group expectation. Conversely, activities that do seem
to be associated with long-term development and reten-
tion in sport, such as FMS (Morley, 2008; Haywood &
Gretchell, 2001), certain perceptual and cognitive skills
(Ward & Williams, 2003), and learning-orientated moti-
vation to participate (Duda, 2001) might be overlooked
in the short-term.
In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that the
single most signicant characteristic that distinguishes
evidence-related approaches from the SMTD is their pro-
motion of long-term engagement and development, and
their rejection of short-term identication (Abbott, Col-
lins, Martindale et al., 2002; Bailey & Morley, 2006; Côté
& Hay, 2002; van Rossum & Gagné, 2005). A host of
factors undermine the central importance given to talent
identication, as opposed to its development (Vaeyens et
al., 2008), such as relative age effect (Helsen, Hodges,
Van Winckel et al., 2000; Musch & Grondin, 2001), the
unpredictability of childhood-to-adult physical measures
and childhood-to-adult performance standards (Abbott,
Collins, Martindale et al., 2002), and the subjective or
arbitrary nature of most talent assessment procedures
(Burwitz et al., 1994). In fact, some researchers have
suggested that many of the qualities that distinguish elite
adult performers in the physical domain do not appear
until late in adolescence, therefore invalidating the talent
selection methods premised on preadolescent selection
practices altogether (French & McPherson, 1999; Tenen-
baum et al., 2000; Williams & Franks, 1998).
Evidence of this sort implies a radical departure
from standard talent practices. For a start, it stresses the
need for a strict distinction between valid and invalid
identication measures, accompanied by an abandonment
of developmentally inappropriate methods of assessing
young people. More generally, it undermines the heavy
emphasis on identication and selection and replaces it
with a stress on developmentally appropriate activities and
environments (Martindale, Collins, & Daubney, 2005).
What lessons have emerged from this inquiry? Overall,
the literature supports talent development that a) is multi-
factorial, involving the development of different abilities;
b) allows opportunity for playful sampling of a range of
sports during the early stages; c) progressively introduces
time and resources necessary for sustained, deliberate
practice; d) addresses the gap between a child’s potential
and the player (or spectator or couch potato) they turn
out to be as an adult; and e) recognizes that some young
people grow up in environments that make it extremely
difcult for them to realize their talents, unless an external
agent (like a committed coach or teacher) or agency (such
as an nongovernment organization or national governing
body) breaks the pattern of exclusive opportunity that
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