Is talent identification possible?

By | April 15, 2021

The dream of being able to identify sport talent in youngsters is heating up around the globe. Disappointing results in recent major Games has prompted Malaysia to begin testing all 7-year-olds in several performance aspects, and Sri Lanka recently announced a new ‘algorithm’ that can determine the best sport choices for a youngster based on performance testing and biometric measurements.

In addition to these two examples talent ID programs are active or are being discussed in several other countries.

Let’s get the definition straight before proceeding. In sport, talent identification is the process of identifying future ability on an individual basis rather than a statistical one. In other words, from a group of twenty 11-year-olds talent ID gurus should be able to identify the one who will become the best in whatever they are testing for.

If we did this statistically with the same group of 20 youngsters we could predict with high certainty that at least one elite athlete would emerge from this group; the difference is that we wouldn’t know which 11-year-old this would be until it happened.

The talent ID path includes testing, identifying the one or two superstars, and then training them for future fame and fortune. The statistical path involves training the entire group and hoping for the best. The statistical path may not sound promising but I’ve written several aritcles on this site explaining why it is the best strategy.

So one has to ask, is talent identification possible?

The simple answer is no, at least not in any practical sense. Measurement and testing are not really predictive of anything. Formulas that project a youngster’s full grown size give ballpark results at best, and testing that fails to consider growth rates or relative age effect in the case of selection strategies is not much more than scientific illusion.

But the real problem with talent identification schemes is that they only consider part of the talent equation. In sport the physical component is so obvious that it’s usually the only thing we see. We rarely consider the psychosocial aspects of participation in sport and how most athletes are engaging in sports they enjoy and, most importantly, ones that are available to them.

Large talent identification programs rely on a noninvasive battery of performance tests and physical measurements. But the only performance attribute unlikely to change over time is speed since it’s directly related to the number of fast-twitch muscle fibers in the body. Other performance attributes are trainable (endurance, strength, etc.), which makes their testing essentially meaningless. Making talent ID judgements based on trainable attributes is foolish.

Physical measurements serve no predictive purpose. Their value lies in determining growth rates and adjusting training appropriately based on changing growth velocities. Another use for physical measurement is to calculate ratios between body parts. In The Sports Gene, David Epstein describes how the ratio between wingspan and height is an important measurement in basketball. However, a ‘good’ ratio does not indicate basketball talent, merely an advantage one player may have over another. Just like a taller player might have an advantage over a shorter one.

On the true scientific front research is getting closer and closer to identifying what we think may be genetic indicators of future physical ability. But this testing will be expensive and invasive; and so far its effectiveness lies on the “maybe” side of the equation.

But even if we crack the genetic code of physical performance it will be many years before it can be implemented in any meaningful way in sports. If that happens we will then be faced with a much larger question about the future of sport and its role in society. For now the dream of talent ID is still a dream.

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