Exceptional conditions: Let’s stop trying to identify talent and start developing it

By | June 22, 2021

“We were looking for exceptional kids, and what we found were exceptional conditions.”

In 1985 Benjamin Bloom studied young experts in art, sport, and science to find out what made these individuals exceptional and what they did to enhance their talents. Bloom’s purpose was to find out what set talented youth apart from their peers, but his findings changed the way we think about talent, what it is, and where it comes from. Before the Bloom study talent was generally believed to be an innate ability, something one was born with and something that was easy to spot even from an early age. Bloom’s results indicated just the opposite: Talent can be learned.

The assumption was that Bloom’s talented teenagers must have been seen as gifted in some way when they were younger. But the teens Bloom studied didn’t exhibit any skills at younger ages that anyone regarded as exceptional. Instead what set these teens apart from others is that they seemed to practice a lot more. But it wasn’t just the practice that mattered. It was the way they practiced and the conditions under which it took place that combined to produce real talent. Later, in an interview, Bloom noted that “We were looking for exceptional kids, and what we found were exceptional conditions.”

The notion that talent might depend on environmental components has shaped almost all subsequent studies of talent and expertise. Bloom introduced the term deliberate practice which became the basis of Ericsson’s 10,000-hour rule, and a focus on creating environments where talent grows can be found in many popular books such as The Talent Code and Outliers. Creating talent nurturing environments though is not as easy as it sounds. Sport organizations struggle with the idea because, regardless of the evidence, sport talent is still seen as somewhat innate; and because national governing bodies (NGBs) haven’t figured out how to institutionalize the idea of exceptional environments. But then neither has anyone else.

As I wrote in The youth sport talent illusion, early identification of sport talent mainly eliminates youngsters from sport and eventually ends up being counterproductive to good results for NGBs. But talent identification programs persist probably because identifying talent seems easier and more straightforward than the concept of developing it. When we identify youngsters as talented too early we’re really just noticing the difference in growth rates. Real differences in the level of ability in youngsters (not those resulting from different growth rates) become obvious eventually but require a more long-term outlook than “identification” schemes.

The transformation model of sport development includes several components that encourage participation and work to keep youngsters involved with a sport long enough to make a difference i.e. long enough to develop talent and ability. The longer youngsters are involved in youth sport participation and training, the less effect growth rate will have on performance. For a true picture of an athlete’s ability to emerge from a training program NGBs must keep them involved over a long period of time.

Istvan Balyi, one of the architects of the long-term athlete development framework, compares identifying talent to looking for a black cat in a dark, windowless room. We may know the cat is there but we can’t see it, and if we find it we do so only by accident. We know talent exists but so far we have not come up with a way to find it. And numerous programs notwithstanding we don’t even know how to look for it. Developing talent is a much more sensible tactic and one which we know at least a little bit about.

Components of talent development

In The Talent Code, Dan Coyle outlines several elements that create conditions necessary for talent development. They are:

  • Deliberate practice. Coyle calls this ‘deep’ practice but in the talent and expertise research it’s referred to as deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is different from what we typically think of as practice. The goal of deliberate practice is to improve performance over time and although this sounds obvious a look at the components of deliberate practice indicate that it’s not:
    1. The athlete must be motivated and put effort into improving performance.
    2. The athlete must understand what he is trying to accomplish. Deliberate practice sessions should be designed around knowledge and skills the athlete already has so that the new skill being practiced can be understood in context.
    3. Accurate and informative feedback must be available. This includes both knowledge of results and knowledge of performance. In some sports knowledge of results is obvious to the athlete but knowledge of performance must come from a coach or some other type of feedback.
    4. The opportunity to perform the task or skill repeatedly must be present. A handful of repetitions in the course of a normal training session is not nough.
  • Ignition. This is what Coyle calls the process, or perhaps the instant, when athletes are ‘hooked’ in the sport, the moment a youngster decides I am an athlete or I am a gymnast or whatever the sport happens to be. The puzzling thing about ignition is that we don’t really know how it works or even when it happens. It’s possible that youngsters might make the decision that a particular activity is right for them before they ever join a program.Bloom noted something like this when he found that youngsters with parents who worked in scientific or artistic areas were more likely to follow similar pursuits. But the trigger doesn’t have to be parents, it appears that it could be a number of things. Seeing others do it (Coyle uses the 4-minute mile as an example) or knowing that peers are involved in it can also act as a catalyst. Some will see similarities here with Bandura’s self-efficacy theory.But ignition is more than merely attracting youngsters to try a new sport. Coyle is describing an all-encompassing passion with the challenge the activity offers similar to, but not quite the same as, the concept of flow.
  • Master coaching. The term ‘master’ is relative to the athlete’s level of knowledge and experience. Clubs don’t need the Olympic coaching staff working with 7- and 8-year-olds but coaches who do work with youngsters this age need a clear idea of what needs to be done and what it means to the long-term development of the athlete. A master coach holds the framework of deliberate practice and ignition together. Unfortunately, this is an element that doesn’t exist in most youth sport programs.Most coaching in youth sport programs is narrowly focused on the present. The fit by Friday mindset forces coaches, athletes, and parents to focus on the upcoming competition rather than long-term development. A master coach can guide athletes through short-term events while keeping the big picture in view. But like other components of talent development, this kind of coach is rare.A master coach is not just a good coach. A master coach is a person who can convey technical information to an athlete but also knows what technical information the athlete actually needs. A master coach understands the process of development and is able to somehow keep their athletes on the right track.

Getting these components in one place is difficult, and implementing them even more so, thus places where they exist are rare. Implementing them institutionally is even harder because the aspects that make the process effective center around personal circumstance rather than group practices or a team environment.

What this means for sport organizations

Talent identification programs focus on empirical measures of who’s fastest and strongest, or who plays better than others. When children are selected at young ages because of better performances than their peers we’re not really identifying anything unusual. Since children mature at different rates large variations in performance are completely normal and have nothing to do with talent.

Since identification programs are exclusive by nature, sport organizations need to consider if excluding youngsters from training opportunities advances the purpose of the organization. What if those excluded lose interest and dropout of the sport? Are organizations convinced that the athletes they do select will develop as hoped? There’s very little research that supports identification programs per se so organizations that rely on these showy, “Hey, look at us” activities are taking a big risk in terms of wasted effort and resources. Talent identification is based on the belief that early ability predicts later performance which has often been shown to be contrary to reality.

There are three errors NGBs make with talent identification programs:

  1. Mistaking relative ability for talent. To declare an athlete as talented we have to have someone or something to compare him to. Unfortunately many observers don’t realize they’re making a comparison at all but think that it is an absolute judgement. Athletes with lower abilities allow us to see that higher ability athletes actually have higher ability. However, when we make this judgement is important. If the athlete is too young, or has not had the opportunity to really participate long enough, then we are making a mistake when we declare them as less talented than one who has had these opportunities.
  2. Believing that young athletes will always like the activity or sport. Athletes are unlikely to develop any talent if they do not like the activity; and if the ability is never developed then there is no way for us to know if it’s there in the first place.
  3. Applying talent ID schemes at too early an age. Trying to identify talent at early ages runs the risk of overlooking late maturers since they show little ability in relation to early maturers. However, given the opportunity to practice and learn they frequently catch up with, and many times surpass, early maturers.

There is an alternative

Instead of spending time, energy, and money on talent identification schemes organizations could instead adopt a structural approach to keeping youngsters involved in the sport. This will assure that the developmental aspects of the sport are met as well as providing a good experience for all youngsters involved. A good (or fun) experience is primarily why children become involved in youth sport in the first place. Over-organizing youth sport creates a more intense focus on performance and children who don’t measure up almost immediately get the message that they’re not important. Organized youth sport programs tend to cater to early-maturers at the expense of late-maturers.

Early maturers don’t have to work that hard to succeed. At least in the beginning. Their success only lasts as long as it takes their late-maturing friends to catch up with them. At that point the early-maturers who have had quite a coddled existence up to then find out that they are no longer the golden boys, suddenly there are other “talented” athletes who no one ever thought were talented before.

Creating programs that treat all young athletes the same by providing instruction, practice opportunities, good coaching advice, and taking a long-term developmental approach to youth sport is the best way for NGBs to create Bloom’s exceptional conditions.

Attempting to identify young talent early demonstrates a mismatch between what we know and what we do. Instead of looking for exceptional young athletes we should heed Bloom and work at creating exceptional conditions where talent can be developed. Sport organizations and NGBs have a higher responsibility not only to the athletes involved but also to the public who usually fund the organization’s programs either through direct subsidy or by the provision of public facilities.

But perhaps the most important aspect of youth sport development is one Bloom does not mention: Patience. Talent identification conveys a sense of immediacy that gives coaches and administrators a feeling of doing something right now, while developmental programs occur over the long-term. It’s easy to see how identification schemes seem more productive but over time development programs will produce better results.

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