What talent developers can learn from farmers...
This is Jason Williams, he plays in the NBA for the Miami Heat. I saw this video on YouTube and was blown away. Not just because of the techniques he displays and his obvious ability but also because of the tremendous awareness he shows to be able to make some of the passes that he makes. People would look at this stuff and call it flashy and unnecessary, I would argue that they just don't understand the skill that is involved and they don't understand how this kind of unique mind works and how they see the world.
I decided to look into his backstory a little and discovered that he has the sort of story that we have come to expect from this kind of prodigious player. he came from humble beginnings, had a problem with authority, made a lot of bad choices and has probably underachieved as a result.
As the blog 'Jockbio' tells us...
"A combustible mix of high-maintenance personality and hi-test talent, he went through schools, teams and coaches faster than halfcourt traps—until he found love and success in Miami. For most of his hoops career, Jason embodied one of basketball’s most perplexing questions: Why make the easy play when you can spin 360 degrees and throw a behind-the-back no-look pass? Why indeed?"
It resonates with so many stories that I hear about talented players and it brings me back to a recurring theme that I talk about all of the time.
How often do we see players with amazing ability, struggle because they are unable to cope with the challenges presented by their environment off the court? What if we could give them the tools to manage themselves in that environment earlier? Could we then turbo charge their abilities?
The irony is that kids from more privileged backgrounds grow up surrounded by the sort of guidance that is necessary to thrive as an elite sportsperson but often they don't have the ability or the hunger to do what it takes to make it. While those with the ability and the drive don't get that kind of support and as a result they are ill equipped for this kind of life and can behave in ways that restrict their development and they don't become as good as their ability.
As my good friend Jamie Edwards from 'Trained Brain' will often say, "it's like asking these kids to climb Everest wearing nothing but a pack-a-mac...they just aren't equipped for the journey".
So many of these amazing athletes fall by the way side...that might be OK if you have enough talent coming through the system...the cream rises to the top as they say.
But if you have a small talent pool, you can't afford to lose players with ability like this. You have to find a way to support them and guide them. You have to give them access to people with the ability to create environments that are going to allow these types players to become their best...and as Mark O'Sullivan has written about on his excellent blog...you have to give it to as many as possible for as long as possible.
This is a resourcing issue for some, they assume that they have to have loads more athletes in various stages of the talent pathway and it will cost a lot.
This is limited thinking, it is based on the flawed assumption that more will equal better... like a farmer who thinks that if they buy a load more seeds then the quality of the crops will be better (or at least some of the crops will be good enough and the ones that are will make up for the ones that are lost).
But what if they invested in the farmer?
Invest in the farmer that can nurture the crops and create the environment for more of them to thrive and protect them from bugs and parasites so that some of the ones who would otherwise perish are able to become strong and productive.
If we provide the right support and training to the people at the centre of the developmental journey then for a relatively small investment we can see this returned to us multiple times through the athletes that they guide and produce.
But when I look at many talent systems and pathways I just don't see this. I see most of the resources going into funding the activity and a relatively small amount going into investing in the people at the centre of the activity.
And the further down the pathway you go...the more acute the issue becomes.
This is why talented athletes often refer to themselves as 'lucky' that they met someone who guided them on the journey who had the skill to give them the tools....
If only there were more of these people out there...then it would be less about luck and more about inspired planning and well thought out talent development investment.
Maybe one day people will understand that investing in the talent coach is a far better long term investment than investing in more of the same activity for a chosen few.