Talent Development

The word “talent” gets thrown around quite often in youth sports circles, but what exactly does it mean? And do we really know what talent looks like, what its components are, how to properly develop it, and how labeling kids talented at a young age can actually limit their achievement? These are the questions we recently explored with Dr. Joe Baker on our most recent podcast, questions he ponders in his newest book The Tyranny of Talent: How it Compels and Limits Athletic Achievement…and Why You Should Ignore it . Baker is no hack; in fact, he is one of the world’s leading experts in skill acquisition, the relative age effect, and talent development. His lab at York University has pondered these types of questions for decades, which is why I find his new book so compelling. Especially the part about labeling kids “talented.” 

Trust me, I get it as a parent nothing feels better than when someone points our your child as doing something special. it makes you feel good about your DNA, and your parenting. But what do these early labels do? Well, Baker has found that many kids who are labeled talented are labeled that becasue of their ability, often which is greatly effected by relative age (when were they born compared to the arbitrary age cutoff date). Sometimes they are an early developer. Yet what happens to the child labeled as gifted who does not have to work as hard becasue he/she is bigger, faster and stronger than their opponents? Do they develop resilience? Do they cope well with adversity as the game gets harder? Do they develop the technical and tactical skills to solve problems that their athleticism can no longer solve? The talent label can be a detriment. 

On the other hand, the child labeled as “untalented” at a very young age is often shifted out fo the development system, given a poor coach and lesser facilities and opportunities. The early selection becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Often this early segregation is again due to relative age (being born 6 or more months after cutoff date) or being a late developer. One thing that Baker’s lab has shown is that these early selections are more often than not wrong in spite of all the advantages baked into those identified at a young age. After puberty (which happens earlier in girls) the age effect tends to disappear, as do the advantages early physical maturers have. Heck, if the NFL and their billions of dollars cannot figure it out with 23 year olds, why are we even trying with younger kids? We are doomed to fail.

The book does not provide a single solution to this conundrum, but it does caution us to make sure that we develop as many kids as possible, for as long as possible, in the best environment possible. Let them grow, then start selecting. The longer we can wait the better. It advocates for a broader definition of talent encompassing not just the ability we see but the psychological characteristics that allow for long term development, coupled with an understanding that their is a nature AND a nurture component to talent development. For example, scientists have discovered that some people are genetically predisposed to a willingness to practice longer and harder, doing the monotonous work others are less willing to do. 

Our entire list of great books this year can be found here, but in the meantime check out our podcast with Joe Baker and if you are intrigues, grab a copy of The Tyranny of Talent: How it Compels and Limits Athletic Achievement…and Why You Should Ignore it . You won’t regret it. 


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