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I recently had a conversation with two people who I consider to be changemakers in the talent development space. Brett Holland and Sion Kitson, are at the frontline of bringing about a transformation in how we nurture young talent. They are overseeing a shift from the rigid, linear and highly centralised methods of old to a more flexible, decentralised system that recognises the unique journey each athlete embarks upon.

As a parent with a son deeply embedded in the England hockey system - I’ve witnessed first-hand the evolution of the approach to developing talent. This shift towards a non-linear progression model has opened up multiple pathways for young athletes, ensuring that they do not cast a one-size-fits-all net over their growth.

The conversation with Brett and Sion were enlightening, to say the least. We all agreed that it’s imperative to focus on individual player improvement within talent academies rather than merely on team outcomes. It’s about fostering a balanced and organic method that can accommodate the varied growth rates of young athletes and overcome the challenges posed by age profiling.

But what does this look like in practice? It means tailored coaching and deliberate interventions that are finely tuned to the needs of each athlete. It means recognising that the entry points into the talent system must be flexible, especially for those in the post-maturation age groups. We must have talent centres that empower clubs to elevate standards and provide the necessary support.

As we discussed these principles, we touched upon the critical need for inclusive opportunities. This inclusivity extends to enhancing coaching quality and nurturing environments where young athletes can truly flourish.

Our conversations also drilled down into the broader aspects of development, such as the role of competition in sports and the integration of matches into training to gauge progress. Communication and clarity are paramount here, as is the understanding that competition is not just about winning, but about learning, improving, and preparing for the next challenge.

One theme that remained constant in our dialogues was the central placement of young people in various environments—school clubs, junior academies, and hockey talent academies. Each of these settings has its own objectives, and collaboration, along with a clear understanding of these objectives, is crucial.

We referenced the England Hockey 'Talent System Framework' as a guiding tool for all hockey-related activities. This framework is not just a document; it’s a testament to the multifaceted and complex nature of nurturing talent in the sport of hockey. It is a reminder that while the path to excellence is never straightforward, it is a journey well worth embarking upon.

As I reflect on these rich exchanges and the collective wisdom shared, I am hopeful and excited about the future of England Hockey. With such a progressive and thoughtful approach to talent development, the sky is the limit for the next generation of hockey stars. I hope you enjoy the conversation:


In a recent episode of the Talent Equation podcast, host Stuart Armstrong and guest Joe Baker, a professor from York University in Canada, discuss the complex world of helping young people reach their potential in sports. They delve into the tyranny of talent, coaching and athlete development, the pros and cons of long-term athlete development models, and the importance of promoting diversity in youth sports.

The Complicated Reality of Talent

Professor Baker has spent the last 25 years researching athlete development, talent prediction, and modelling. In his recent book, "The Tyranny of Talent," provides coaches, parents, talent developers, system builders and policy makers with a better understanding of the complex concept of talent. Talent is often misunderstood as a fixed, simple, and unidimensional concept, but in reality, it is complicated, noisy, chaotic, and unpredictable. Recognizing the complexity of talent is crucial for coaches, policy-makers, and athletes themselves to improve overall athlete development.

Coaching and Talent Development

One of the challenges in coaching and athlete development is that more complex philosophies struggle to take hold due to humans' preference for simple explanations. To better understand these complicated problems in sports, it is crucial to challenge traditional ideas and approaches in coaching and athlete development. By focusing on the needs of athletes rather than the needs of the sport itself, coaches and policy-makers can create more effective and inclusive systems for athlete development.

Athlete Development Pros/Cons

Long-term athlete development (LTAD) models have gained popularity for their simplicity and science-based approach. However, these models also have limitations and should be viewed as a starting point rather than an endpoint. A more nuanced and evidence-based approach is needed, drawing from various domains such as child development, behavioral, neurological, and physical needs. Additionally, coaches must question traditional coaching methods and frameworks to improve overall athlete development.

The Tyranny of Talent

The challenges of predicting talent in professional sports drafts, the impact of early selections on athletes' long-term development, and the limitations of our current understanding of talent are all discussed in the podcast. Recognizing the unpredictability of development and focusing on marginal gains can help improve decision-making in athlete selection and evaluation. The potential for analytics in the development space and a more nuanced approach to talent identification, considering physical, behavioral, and other factors, are also highlighted.

Diversity in Youth Sport

The podcast also discusses the impact of sports systems on athlete outcomes and how these systems can actively exclude individuals based on factors such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender. Promoting diversity and variability in youth sports is essential, as the current system is becoming increasingly insular due to the rise of private sports schools and the self-fulfilling prophecy they create.

The Complexity of Athlete Development

The concept of coachability and its correlation with likability is explored, highlighting the challenges of developing a model that caters to the unique needs of individuals at different ages. The importance of a more inclusive and adaptable approach to athlete development is emphasized, acknowledging the complexity of the task at hand.

Athlete Maltreatment in Sport

The widespread issue of athlete maltreatment in sports is addressed, ranging from low-level abuse to the most serious forms. The need for change and the importance of acknowledging the nuance between abuse and risk in sports are discussed. The podcast also highlights the significance of athlete agency and the role of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in shaping the future of sports.

Youth Sport Rights of Children

The potential of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to inform and guide ethical decisions in sports coaching, policy-making, and athlete development is explored. The rights enshrined in the convention, such as the right to play, the right to be heard, and the right to be free of discrimination and abuse, can help create a more inclusive and progressive approach to youth sports.


The podcast episode emphasizes the importance of engaging in thoughtful conversations and reflecting on how we can continue to grow together in our understanding of coaching and athlete development. By challenging traditional ideas and approaches and focusing on the needs of athletes, we can create more effective, inclusive, and ethical systems for youth sports development. We hope you enjoy the conversation.


Chris Cushion is Professor of Coaching & Pedagogy at Loughborough University as well as the Head of Coaching at England Netball. Chris is one of the most well known researchers in the world of sports coaching and has published widely. Chris joined me to disuss the nature of 'direct instruction' which is often a contentious subject in the world of sports coaching. Chris and I have disagreed in the past about this subject so we thought it was high time we got together and had a proper discussion about it. Needless to say, we didn't stop there...we also discussed...

  • How poor coach education is as a means to effectively support coaches and develop thier skills

  • Why coach development is so under valued

  • Why technique led coaching is still so prevalent

  • Why the 'toolbox metaphor' limits coaching effectiveness

It was a really interesting and valuable conversation. Hope you enjoy


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