New study recommends that kids should specialise early, do 10,000 hours and be genetically tested to
OK so I might have slightly over reached here...but there are some very interesting recommendations being proposed in this paper which has some really strong challenges for the talent development community.
The paper presents a consensus position based on a 'meta-analysis' of the available research into talent development in sport that has a number of wide ranging implications for the sporting landscape including some interesting conclusions that may raise a few eyebrows.
Below I have lifted the headline recomendations and added some thoughts and field notes under each one.
“We therefore recommend that policy makers and practitioners consider the possibility of using genetic profiling to help athletes make more informed and appropriate decisions about sport type and discipline during their development years”.
This is something new and it is the first time I have seen an academic paper make a recommendation if this type. It suggests that the genetic research has now reached a point where there are certain elements that can be reliably tested for which could assist practitioners, children and parents to make informed decisions about sports to persue.
The concept of sport selection based on some genetic markers starts to move away from the idea of the 'mixed sport diet' advocated by supporters of the late specialisation model. This represents a potential paradigm shift in sports development where we move away from a broad participation model where the child selects the sport that the enjoy the most towards a concept where the 'sport selects the child' based on their genetic propensity to succeed.
“We therefore recommend that practitioners make use of physiological testing for purposes of informing the training process, and make use of anthropometric profiling and physiological tests for both talent selection and development purposes, but policy makers and practitioners should ensure that such action is accompanied by appropriate procedures (considering biological maturation) to ‘re-capture’ lost/missed late maturers”.
Dr Sean Cumming from the University of Bath is leading a global team of specialists in assessing growth and maturation of players to assist in providing competitive opportunities that are based on biological age rather than chronological age. Some early findings provide some interesting support for this recommendation. I did a vlog on this a few posts back.
It is important to stress that, as the authors point out, this is very dependent on the sport. For example, Dr Ben Jones and Kevin Till at Leeds Beckett University have some interesting research in Rugby League that shows physical size to be a less reliable predictor of elite prowess than agility and power. Sir Steve Redgrave was famously deselected from the GB rowing programme at the age of 14 based on his lack of hieght.
Sports will need to have some relaiable and clear ideas of which measures offer reliable predictions of elite success. My concern is that the tape measure will replace the coach as the mechanism to identify those with potential.
“We therefore recommend that practitioners make use of psychological profiling for talent development purposes. Key questions for future research include examining the causes of exceptional levels of motivation, resilience and mental toughness, including assessing whether and how psychological skills at junior level influence long-term adult elite/super-elite performance. How do exceptional performers use their anxiety in a positive way? How do the world’s best performers maintain focus and concentration, while avoiding lapses into conscious control? How can these skills be trained?”.
My observation is that we seem under resourced here across the landscape! I see very little provision for psychologocal support for the talented athlete and even in the elite space the provision feels like an after though in comparison to the resources allocated for other more 'hard science' domains. It seems that everyone wants physically robust players but they are less interested in mentally robust players!
Having spent several years working in the talent field with a range of sports organisations I see the lack of dedicated resources to support young athletes develop the behaviours and mental skills
Surely this needs to be addressed if we are going to really produce athletes with the qualities required to reach elite levels?
“We therefore recommend that practitioners might make use of personality profiling for talent development but not talent selection purposes. Future research could focus on whether there are other important (combinations of) personality characteristics that are necessary for the development of a strong competitive personality and how these characteristics might be best developed”.
I have often felt that if coaches are to truly be player centred and begin to understand how players respond to various environmental influences or coaching methodologies then these tools become crucial to supporting this process. At the moment I think that many coaches do this intuitively but if this can be supplemented by insights then we can refine and improve our ability to engage with an audience of players.
Nick Levett (@nlevett) wrote about this in his blog recently when talking about how so many academies invest heavily in analytics to track visible performance metrics but don't invest the same in insights that will help to enhance the learning process and drive performance.
“We therefore recommend that policy makers and practitioners at least take consideration of birthplace when designing talent search initiatives as well as profiling athletes during talent selection and development. Understanding more about the physical and social environment, organisation of resources and the number of participants competing for available places in sports are key areas for research—i.e. understanding more about the environments and neighbourhoods that potential sporting talents are exposed to, and less about birthplace population size.”
I have been campaigning for talent coaching to become more mobile for a long time. At the moment we tend to be very facility driven and we then require the players to come to us when in actual fact we should be looking for ways to take our best coaches to the players. In my mind this would offset many of these location specific disadvantages and challenges.
We also need to make sure that we get the right amount of provision according to the number of potential players in a given locatuon rather than using historical geographic boundaries.
“Evidence from non-elite, junior elite, elite, and super-elite athletes attests to the influence of support networks (including family, coaches, other athletes/ peers and support staff). In addition to their key role in the provision of expert coaching and training, coaches can help to enhance the development of psychological skills and mental toughness in athletes during their developmental years. Non-elite data suggest that the supportiveness and feedback effectiveness of coaches is dependent on a unique fit (and common identity) between the characteristics of the coach and the personality of the athlete.”
I have written previously about how well equipped our youth and talent coaches are to develop these psychological skills in players? Current coach education hardly touches on these areas and the vast majority of coach education course do not allow enough guided learning time to truly explore these concepts.
In so much of my work as a talent coach I find myself working to try and help young athletes overcome mental challenges that are holding back their development. I have had zero formal training provided by any NGB coach education system in this area but have spent my own money to develop the capabilities having recognised the need.
In most cases psychology support comes in once a player reaches the elite ranks but this is a 'retrofit' model of development where we are 'back filling' definiciencies in the athlete once they get selected. In my view this both is enefficient and inneffective. If the development of mental skills are important to futire performance then shouldn't these be core to our development curriculum in the same way that technical and tactical abilities are?
Should we be advocating for 'mental literacy' as well as 'physical literacy'?
Deliberate Practice - 10,000 hours?
“Despite wide variation across sports, most junior elite, elite and super-elite athletes have accumulated enormous volumes of organized practice and training [149, 230, 241– 260]. Extensive sport-specific deliberate practice (DP) is thus a pre-requisite to world-class performance in sports with a large participant base”.
“We therefore recommend that policy makers and practitioners continue to promote deliberate practice, but consider the present evidence before routinely increasing practice volumes with junior athletes, and acknowledge the potential benefits of automaticity, implicit learning and also enjoyment in practice and play”.
“Future research should also further explore the roles of explicit and implicit/incidental learning in the development of expert performance. This implies scrutiny of the intentions and specific activities performed during practice/training and play, their combinations, variability, potential interactions and relative influence through different developmental age ranges”.
The paper expressed support for the idea of practicing deliberately but is not supportive of the existing definition of ‘Deliberate Practice’ proposed by Ericsson, et al. Instead it is suggesting that the practice construct should move towards a more exploratory 'implicit learning' approach which I would suggest would require highly skilled coaches capable of using constraints led / game sense approaches. This may necessittate a radical overhaul of the coach education and coach development system in many sports. I would question whether the current linear, 'competency based' approach is producing coaches that are able to use these methods confidently.
“Both early specialization and sampling (and play) may be routes to expertise under optimal conditions. However, the probability of attaining elite or super-elite level may be enhanced by the coupling of a large volume of intensive, organized specific training/practice in the main sport with appreciable amounts of organized training/practice and competitions in other sports and/or non-organized play in the main or other sports.”
“We thus recommend policy makers and practitioners to draw on this evidence, bearing in mind the need to minimize the potential hazards of early specialization when such specialization is necessary, and with regard to promoting opportunities for young athletes to experience non-organized play and sampling in a variety of sports”.
“Future research is needed to understand how participation in various sports benefits super-elite performance in one main sport. Further, how does the process of late specialization following prior diversification or ‘talent transfer’ proceed? Are there certain sports or clusters that lay the best foundation for super-elite success in a final sport”?
This message chimes well with a post a wrote on the subject recently and is is a shift away from the rigidity of ‘early specialisation is bad and late specialisation is good’ message towards a more nuanced position around ‘it depends on the individual and the sport (with caveats)’ position.
It is also saying that we might start looking at complementary sports and start to recommend them to support a 'main sport' which I think is a very dangerous recommendation as it presupposes that kids would have a 'main sport' which leads to the early specialisation model that many have been fighting to avoid.
I welcome the idea that 'one size doesn't fit all' in this area but I want to urge caution here. There are strong correlations between later specialisation and better performance as well as reduced drop out rates. We definitely don't want to throw out the late specialising baby with the potentially early specialising bathwater'!
The upshot of all this is that the paper has some pretty strong recommendations that will present a challenge for a number of sports that will need to respond with some fairly significant system changes if they are going to act on many of these recomendations.
It won't surprise readers of this blog to know that I am pleased to see so many of the recomendations having such heavy emphasis of the role of the talent coach and the need to develop and support this army of unsung heroes far better than at present!