Talent Identification

My first organized sport was soccer. In kindergarten, I joined a soccer club sponsored by my church. My teammates were mostly 1st graders. With a late September birthday, I was old for my class. However, youth soccer had a January 1 cut-off date, so I played with the children in the grade ahead of me.

I always felt an advantage playing with the older kids. I played on a good team and was an average player. Initially, I played the midfield, usually on the right side, but I fought to play as a central midfielder in junior high school. I liked to control the action and cover the whole field.

Ken, a friend in my class, played competitive/club soccer. He tried out and made the big club team in our area and traveled to big tournaments throughout the west. With a February birthday, he made an under-10 team while I played in the u12s. When Ken joined the competitive team, we were comparable soccer players. However, after several years of competitive soccer, he was a better player. While I played soccer from August – November, he played year-round, and he played against better competition. He had soccer coaches, while we had parent volunteers.

When we got to high school, Ken made the high school team, and every player who made the high school team played competitive youth soccer.

Effects of Skill-Groupings

A 1994 study led by Aaron Pallas compared the standardized test scores of first graders to their reading-group placement. One would expect that the test scores for the advanced reading group would be the highest, followed by the normal ability group, followed by the remedial reading group. Instead, Pallas found that the test scores of all three reading groups were virtually identical.

These “groupings” create a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you put two first graders with identical test scores in different groupings – one in the advanced and one in the remedial – the one placed in the advanced class will outperform the one placed in the remedial in the future.

“We found that first-grade ability-group placement can have persistent effects on children’s achievement in school over a period of several years and may shape the expectations of children’s performance held by significant others, such as parents and teachers. Whether these effects are instructional, social, or institutional, they are real, and they have implications for children’s future schooling trajectories.”

Students who started off at exactly the same level of measured ability in first grade will have vastly different levels of ability by the end of high school. The “ability groupings” did not identify talent – they determined it.

As one of the oldest kids in my class, I had the advantage of age and physical maturity during elementary school. In basketball, a sport which I played with school teams, I was one of the taller players throughout elementary and middle school. However, in soccer, I faced an age disadvantage, as I competed with and against children who were eight or nine months older.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study by a Canadian psychologist which found that “in any elite group of Canadian hockey players, 40-percent will have been born in January, February and March.” Canada uses a January 1 cut-off date for junior hockey. Coaches identify talent at young ages and shepherd the talented players onto the elite teams.

On my soccer team, I did not stand out. Ken, however, was bigger, faster and stronger than the players who he played against. With a February birth date, he was older than the other players and at 10-years-old, five to six months is a big age advantage. When coaches choose the select or all-star teams, “they are more likely to view as talented the bigger and more coordinated players who have the benefit of critical extra months of maturity,” (Gladwell).

In the beginning, the differences are small. Ken and I were similar as 10 and 11-year-olds. However, as the inherent age advantages decreased, the differences on the pitch grew more pronounced. Barnsley [the Canadian psychologist] argues that these kinds of skewed age distributions exist whenever three things happen: selection, streaming and differentiated experience. If you make a decision about who is good and who is not good at an early age; if you separate the “talented” from the “untalented;” and if you provide the “talented” with superior experience, then you’re going to end up giving a huge advantage to the small group of people born closest to the cut-off date (Gladwell).

On the competitive team, Ken received better coaching, practiced more frequently and played better competition. Even though I was older, and had the age advantage when we reached high school, his competitive experience gave him a greater advantage when we were 14 and high school freshmen.

When we identify talent at an early age and then provide the talented with a better training experience, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy, which sociologist Robert Merton defines as a situation where “a false definition, in the beginning…evokes a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true.” At 10-years-old, Ken was not more talented. By making the team and receiving years of better training, he became a better player. Rather than credit the different experience which helped him develop into a better player, we credit his natural talent.

Because I was an average soccer player, but a pretty good basketball player, I spent more time playing and practicing my basketball skills, while Ken trained for soccer. I chose the sport where I had an age advantage, while he chose the sport where he had the age advantage. Neither of us made a conscious choice to pursue an activity where we had a slight advantage; instead, we gravitated to the sports where we found early success.

As a society, we believe that if you have ability, the vast network of scouts and talent spotters will find you, and if you are willing to work to develop that ability, the system will reward you (Gladwell). However, as Barnsley’s study illustrates, those born in the last half of the year have all been discouraged, or overlooked, or pushed out of the sport. The talent of essentially half of the athletic population has been squandered (Gladwell).

We have a poor understanding of the road to success or excellence, and without a better understanding, our ability to evaluate and identify talent diminishes. We believe that we see talent at young ages, but we typically see age and maturity. When ranking players, choosing teams or identifying prospects, we need to look deeper than size, speed and strength, as those advantages balance out as players develop and go through puberty.

Curse of Knowledge

When I attended a recent tournament, I was unaware of the respective player rankings. Just before half time, a college coach informed me that one player was a top-20 recruit. To that point I had not noticed the player, while I thought three or four other players were very good and potential high Division I players.

However, after hearing about the player’s ranking, I watched her more closely. Now I rationalized her mistakes. When she missed an off-balance shot and pursued her rebound, I paid more attention to the athleticism that she displayed while pursuing the ball than the lack of skill and game awareness that she displayed when missing the shot initially.

In How We Learn, Jonah Lehrer writes that too much information can be a negative. He cites a study in which taste testers chose a more expensive wine over a cheaper wine even though it was the same wine. The higher price created an expectation of a better wine and the expectation colored the tasters’ judgment. While I tried to remain unbiased, knowing that a certain player was ranked highly changed my impressions of the player if for no other reason than I paid more attention to her.

“We don’t realize how powerful our expectations are,” says Antonio Rangel, the neuroeconomist at Cal Tech who led the study. “They can really modulate every aspect of our experience. And if our expectations are based on false assumptions” – like the assumption that more expensive wine tastes better – “they can be very misleading.”

Parents and players complain about these false assumptions frequently. When players try out for a high school team, the coach seems to have his team pre-selected. On one coaching site, a high school coach said that he could tell who would make the varsity when the players were in 7th grade. However, talent development is a process, and early detection is rare because the players who excel typically have greater motivation, opportunity and encouragement and practice more deliberately which is not easy to evaluate or predict. If the coach believes that he knows the best players already, he likely gives these players more attention and instruction, which enhances their motivation to work harder and creates the self-fulfilling prophesy which ultimately makes his original judgments correct.

When a teacher (coach) is told that one child is smart (talented), his behavior and expectations for that child change, even though the child was picked at random. Because of the teacher’s behavior and the extra attention and higher expectations, the student performs better and meets the expectations (Gladwell, Outliers).

Talent Identification and Obesity

Many people do not see a problem with the self-fulfilling prophecy. Sports teach kids about life, and life is unfair. Therefore, why shouldn’t sports be unfair? Enough with the politically correct, everything has to be fair and equal, socialist agenda affecting youth sports.

The problem is one’s outlook. If one views youth sports as a vehicle to develop professional athletes, maybe there is nothing wrong with identifying talent based on birthdays and early maturity. Society is not harmed by misdiagnosed athletic talent, and the next coach just recruits a new player.

However, if one views youth sports as an introduction to a healthy, active lifestyle, the implications of early talent identification have a broader impact.

A Los Angeles Times article cites a study published in the December 2008 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise which found a link between “object-control skills in childhood and fitness in adolescence.”

Those with better motor skills are encouraged to play sports, are picked for teams, are pushed to pursue more competitive sports, and are signed up for sports leagues. Those who are not as good are often discouraged from sports participation – actively or passively. Parents protect their child’s self-esteem by not signing up their son for Little League if he is not as good as his peers at catching and throwing.

Sports teams are the primary environment for youth fitness. When parents remove their child from organized sports or if the child quits or is cut from a team, his recreational opportunities are limited, and he picks up video games or immerses himself in his studies or takes up an instrument: anything to define himself and create an identity. While band, drama and schoolwork are noble pursuits, they are not as active as playing sports. If one does not learn these sports skills as a youth, he is less likely to pursue recreational sporting activities as an adult.

Therefore, the early talent identification not only determines future success through the self-fulfilling prophecy, but influences health and wellness as well.

Boys and girls who had good object-control skills (scores of 10 or more out of 15) averaged six more laps than those with poor object-control skills (scores of five or lower out of 15).

The test occurred six years later. Imagine if those with the “poor” scores have the late birthdays, the younger kids. Maybe they tested poorly compared to their peers because they were 8-10 months younger, which is a big discrepancy in elementary school. Not only do these late birthdays have a significantly smaller chance at playing elite sports, now they have a greater chance of being unfit.

The study concludes:

“Our findings suggest that object control skills should be targeted through school and community interventions as a key strategy in promoting subsequent cardio-respiratory fitness. It is important that such skills are taught during the primary or elementary school years as children are at an optimal age in terms of motor skill learning.”

It is not about separating the talented from the lesser talents, but teaching all kids the basic skills to encourage more sports participation throughout childhood and into adulthood.

A New Way to Evaluate

In an interview with Darren Rovell about the NFL Draft, Malcolm Gladwell says:

I see…the beginnings of a really great trend away from trying to figure out in advance what makes a great player. And that means relaxing some of the “rules” we had about what made someone “draftable.” What we care about in a running back is speed and durability and vision: If you have those three things in some combination, why does it matter how tall you are? I think the same is true of our obsession with how strong a quarterback’s arm is. I would actually get rid of the tests at the combine that measure arm strength. It’s not that it’s irrelevant. It’s that it’s a distraction: worrying about how far someone can throw the ball down field takes you away from the far more important issue of how good someone’s judgment is, how good their decision making skills are, how well they see the field, and how willing they are to take the time to learn their own offense and study other defenses. Once you remember that Joe Montana had half the arm of Ryan Leaf, you understand how ridiculous the “standards” we set for different positions really are.

Many times, we focus on what a player cannot do, rather than what a player can do. Is a power forward automatically better because he is 6’10, not 6’9? One article about the 2009 NBA Draft said that Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin was a great pick if he is 6’10, a good pick if he is 6’9 and a bad pick if he is 6’7. The same exact player, with the same skills, the same desire, the same athleticism, but three inches changes him from a great pick to a bad pick. Another article argued that Arizona State’s James Harden is too slow and too short to be an elite NBA player. The article paralleled descriptions about O.J. Mayo, who finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, prior to the 2008 NBA Draft.

At some point, like Gladwell says, we need to focus on what a player can do, rather than what he cannot do, especially in youth basketball where players are developing, growing, and maturing.

A Professional Example

Manchester United is one of the best clubs, regardless of sport, at identifying and developing young players into professional players. Last year, I found an interview with Tony Whelan who is a former pro player who works in the Manchester United youth program.

SI.com: How does the standard of youth development in England compare with other leading soccer nations?

Whelan: The English system is good, but suffers some defects, principally that kids aren’t playing as much spontaneous football anymore — it’s a syndrome John McEnroe described as “affluenza.” The incredible skills many South American players have are typically developed by themselves while playing in the street. The kids at United are only with us 10 hours a week, so they need to be playing and watching a lot of football outside of the club.

SI.com: What’s special about youth development at Manchester United?

Whelan: For the youngsters, it’s an honor to be at such a great club, and they achieve more due to the higher standards set. Plus they know there’s a heritage of bringing young players through to the first team, and they benefit from our world-class facilities. In terms of coaching, we aim to ensure the boys love playing the game and learn to take responsibility for their own development, both on and off the pitch. It’s like being in a maze; the satisfaction you derive is from finding your own way out.

SI.com: Can you spot the stars of the future when they are in their early teens?

Whelan: Rarely, although an exception is Wes Brown, who stood out as a future England player by age 13. Players change so much mentally and physically, and there are so many distractions and diversions these days, that it is very hard to tell.

Is basketball in the USA any different? Former players, elite coaches and sports scientists agree on the importance of spontaneous play, regardless of sport, yet nobody encourages or protects unstructured play. It receives much praise, but almost no follow-through. Is it because nobody has found a way to profit from free play?

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