Optimal sport performance is the successful expression of ability, which consists of physical and psychological capacities. Each of these factors can be teachable (such as tactics), trainable (such as physiology), or uncontrolled (such as genetics). We all know that, to become successful, an athlete requires many ingredients (including luck), but there isn’t always a consensus as to what those characteristics are. Even if we have two athletes with an identical characteristic, such as the same training program, one may become a World Champion, while the other may fade into obscurity.
The ability to correctly identify talent at a young age is an attractive proposition, as it allows for the correct funneling of resources towards those athletes most likely to benefit, which in a sports performance world represents the biggest chance for a worthwhile return on investment. Similarly, the concept of talent identification allows for the “weeding out” of athletes who are unlikely to be successful, so that money, time, and resources are not wasted on them. In this article, I’ll discuss whether we can test for talent, and what lessons we can take from the research that has attempted to answer this question.
What Is Talent?
Talent is “a special ability that allows someone to reach excellence in some activity in a given domain.” Within the constraints of sport, a talented athlete is one with the ability to become elite, where the definition of elite depends on many factors. For a PE teacher at school, elite likely refers to being successful at a local level. At an athletics club, elite perhaps refers to success at a national level. And for a small group of athletes, elite means competing at the World Championships or Olympic Games.
Because the definition of elite can change from situation to situation, so too does the level of “special ability” required—It takes a different amount of talent to be successful at the Olympics than it does to be successful at a local athletics competition. In this article, I’ll typically be referring to elite athletes as those with the ability to compete at international championships.
It has been proposed that talent has five properties:
- It is genetically based in origin, and so is at least partially innate.
- There will be early indications of its effect, but these will improve with training.
- Early indication of talent allows for a prediction of who will excel.
- Only a small number of people have talent.
- Talents are relatively domain-specific—i.e., someone isn’t globally talented.
The Factors That Impact Talent
The importance of talent within the pursuit of excellence has been the subject of several popular science books. Some authors believe that talent is irrelevant, or at least overrated, and that undertaking purposeful training for an arbitrary amount of time (say, 10,000 hours) can lead to elite status in whatever domain you wish. Let’s call this the “Bounce” rule, after Matthew Syed’s book on this subject, Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. (The book has more nuances than this. It’s an oversimplification on my part, and I could have chosen a number of other books that have taken this standpoint).
On the other hand, we have far fewer books that detail the innate aspect of talent; the standout for this is The Sports Gene by David Epstein. There are often debates about which is more important, which we can sum up as “The Sports Gene” vs. “Bounce.” It’s easy to take one side or the other, but as we will see, talent is complex and subject to influences from both spheres.
Many different factors impact sporting talent. Some of these are well outside of the athlete’s control, while the athlete and coach directly influence others. One of these uncontrollable factors is birthdate. This refers to something called the relative age effect (RAE), which underlies the fact that there is an over-representation of individuals born at the start of the academic year within groups of elite athletes. In the UK, this would mean that elite sports people are more likely born in September than in August.
This effect is more prevalent at younger ages, and more so in some sports than others. If we look at athletics, it is perhaps obvious how this can take effect. In the UK, athletics age groups at all levels up to and including under-17 correspond to school years. For example, u-17 athletes for the athletics season in 2017 have birthdates between September 2000 and August 2002. Because each age group spans two years, you get “top-year” u-17s (born September 2000 to August 2001), and “bottom-year” u-17s (born September 2001 to August 2002). For a competition at the end of July, those top year u-17s born in September will be almost 17, while those born in August won’t yet be 16.
Given that maturation plays a big role in athletic achievement in junior athletes, it’s hardly surprising that those who are older than their peers will be successful. The RAE is likely a bigger factor at youth level than at senior level, where the developmental advantages are lost as the younger athletes catch up. What this illustrates, however, is the importance of maturation-matched competitions, to ensure that the older athletes don’t dominate, and that younger athletes don’t drop from the sport due to loss of enjoyment and motivation.
Another factor the athlete has no control over is genetics. We know that genes play a role in the development of elite athletes. At the last count, over 155 genes were linked to being an elite athlete. However, what is interesting is that elite athletes appear not to have all of them, even when just looking at an unrealistically low number of them. It’s clear that individual genes tend not to discriminate between elite athletes and non-elites.
For example, one gene that gets a lot of attention is ACTN3, known as the “speed gene.” Almost all Olympic sprinters have at least one R version of this gene, which makes it seem as if having this version is crucial if you want to be a sprinter. However, there are reports of elite power athletes being successful despite not having an R version of this gene. Add to this the fact that over 80% of the world’s population has at least one R version of this gene, and fewer than 0.0001% are elite sprinters, and it’s clear that it has no predictive ability.There are many inherent intangibles in the journey to elite athlete, and a huge helping of luck. Click To Tweet
I’ve written about this previously, and at the end of 2015 a number of leading researchers in this field published a consensus statement regarding their belief that genetic testing had no predictive ability for talent. However, the future of this field could possibly head in this direction. It’s likely that there are perhaps 1,000 gene variants strongly associated with being an elite athlete. What we might find is that, on average, elite athletes have around 700 of them—but not always the same 700. As such, there becomes a threshold above which your chances of being an elite athlete are higher; still, there will be no guarantees that if you have these 700 variants you will be an elite athlete, and if you don’t have them you could still be elite.
Of potential interest is the ability to screen for genetic variants linked to injury, which could help keep talented youngsters injury-free. In addition, gene variants can increase susceptibility to serious conditions such as repeated concussion, as well as alter the recovery from such trauma. At present, this is an ethical minefield, but over time evidence-based guidelines should be produced. Finally, epigenetic modifications can alter gene expression, and almost certainly play a role in exercise adaptation. The only problem is that they’re currently hard to test for, and it’s not entirely clear how they affect training response.
A very common and low-cost test for talent is anthropometrics. For example, if you know that almost all basketball centers are well over 2 meters in height, you’re unlikely to focus on someone who is much shorter than that. Soccer clubs in the UK often use various anthropometrics in order to predict a child’s adult height—e.g., the Khamis-Roche method— which they sometimes use to discard youth players. For example, if you want a goalkeeper who is over 1.9m in height, and your u-13 keeper is only predicted to be 1.6m, then you might release him.
In open sports such as soccer, this is potentially dangerous: Iker Casillas, the former Spain goalie, is “only” 1.85m in height. Leo Messi, possibly the best footballer ever, is a “short” 1.7m tall. I wonder how many clubs would have released these players due to the shortsightedness of relying heavily on height prediction? So, while anthropometric data might be useful, changes that happen during puberty and through maturation can alter the results. Because these processes happen at different times with different individuals, there is no optimal time to collect data.
Some psychological factors and personality traits also correspond to elite performance. The ability to perform well under pressure is crucial for elite athletes, and so discovering whether an individual has this trait is no doubt useful. However, the ability to perform under pressure is trainable, and so identifying athletes who are naturally able to do this might not be all that useful. Alongside this, how the athlete motivates themselves can also be an important difference between elite and non-elite athletes, so in theory being able to measure and test this may be of use.
Another factor the athlete can’t control when it comes to talent is that of birthplace. Research from the UK suggests that slightly smaller settlements are more advantageous than large cities. Athletes in the World Class Program were twice as likely to have been born in a medium-sized town (50,000–100,000 residents), over 10 times more likely to have attended a primary school, and three times more likely to have attended a secondary school in very small villages (fewer than 2,000 residents). This is perhaps unexpected.
It’s important to note that birthplace is likely a proxy measure for development place; most people grow up in the area they are born in. This may suggest that it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond when it comes to development, although there are many exceptions. Added to this is that smaller towns and villages are perhaps less likely to have the requisite facilities for developing sports people, and we have the potential that this finding is a statistical anomaly.
Indeed, the city I mostly grew up in (but wasn’t born in) has had at least one track and field Olympian for Great Britain at the last five Olympics, including one who won. This city has a population of well over 200,000, and the schools that all of these Olympians went to were either in the city itself, or in surrounding towns with larger populations (in my case, a town with a population of 12,000). In our cases, the birthplace effect didn’t hold true.
Testing Flaws: Specificity and Sensitivity
I’ve introduced a few factors thought to impact the development of talent, and in many cases, used to identify talented individuals for targeted training aimed at developing champions. In all cases, I’ve also shown how the tests themselves, while potentially useful, don’t necessarily predict talent, as there are many cases of a successful athlete not meeting the criteria.
This brings us nicely to the issue of specificity vs. sensitivity. Sensitivity refers to the ability of a test to correctly identify the variable of interest. For talent identification purposes, this would mean that a sensitive test would identify all future elite athletes. Specificity refers to the ability of a test to correctly identify negative findings. In talent ID, a specific test wouldn’t falsely identify someone without elite potential as a future athlete.There are many cases of a successful athlete not meeting testing criteria. Click To Tweet
And herein lies the problem; none of the tests of talent have the required specificity and sensitivity to allow us to be certain. Every time a test is used, a potential elite athlete won’t make the grade (false negative), and many people who won’t go on to be elite athletes will pass the test (false positive). On a population level, this arguably doesn’t matter. In athletics, you only need one athlete per event to be successful, so if you lose 99 others through incorrect identification perhaps it doesn’t matter. But how do you know that one of those 99 discarded individuals couldn’t have been better than the individual you took forward?
Talent Identification: An Alluring Idea That’s Impossible to Execute
So, what is the answer? First, if you want to test for talent, you probably want to utilize several tests, and view the results as a whole. Some of these tests should be specific to the sport, and perhaps hold more weight than others. I once went to talent testing day for athletics when I was 15, where I was in the lowest 50% in terms of score on just about every test (e.g., standing long jump, vertical jump, flexibility), but the fastest in the sprint tests. It just so happened that three months prior, I had won the national under-15 title in the second fastest time ever for a 14-year-old in the UK, so arguably such a test wasn’t necessary in my case.
However, there are many athletes who develop much later. Great Britain hasn’t had many sub-10-second 100m sprinters, and James Dasaolu and Joel Fearon didn’t break 10.2 until they were 22 and 25 respectively; relying solely on junior performance in these cases would have been misleading. If you do test for talent, repeat the tests at different time periods to correct for differences in maturation and development.
Instead, perhaps we can use the information gleaned from tests to nurture natural talent. If an athlete is born later in the age group, allow them to compete in developmentally matched competitions. This doesn’t happen so much in athletics, but is big in the UK for soccer, where athletes are bio-banded in order to compete against similarly developed peers. The same is true for genetics; while there is so much more to learn, early research suggests that we might be able to tailor training programs to a person’s DNA, although genetic testing under-18s is an ethically grey area.
Genetic variation means some people need less practice to reach the elite level than others, and some lack the genetic ability to ever be elite, regardless of the amount of training they do.
There are many other aspects that seem related to the development of talent in athletes. This includes taking part in a wide range of sports and late specialization, thought to develop essential movement skills and robustness. Deliberate practice is another one; while the evidence is now clear that deliberate practice training time doesn’t really differentiate between elite and non-elite athletes in terms of predicting success, it is still true that to be elite, you must do the right training. The modern twist on this is that genetic variation means some people need less practice to reach the elite level than others, and some lack the genetic ability to ever be elite, regardless of the amount of training they do. It is also important not to neglect the psychological development of athletes, and you should take care to ensure they develop the mental traits associated with elite performance.
Summing up, while the idea of talent identification is an alluring one, there are many practical stumbling blocks to its execution. Alongside this, the use of a variety of tests traditionally thought of as a talent screen may be better utilized to personalize training and individualize the development process for athletes in their journey from promising youngster to elite athlete. Inherent within this journey are a number of intangibles—factors that increase the chance of being an elite athlete, but either aren’t known or can’t be measured—along with a huge helping of luck. The worst thing a coach could do is incorrectly discard an athlete because they score poorly on a single test of “talent.”