Talent Development

How do talented children become elite adult athletes? Many young people start on the road toward becoming  professional  athletes,  but  few  achieve this  level  of  performance.  The  development  of talent  across  a  range  of  achievement  domains, such  as  music,  art,  science,  and  sport,  is  a  classic  area  of  psychological  research.  Over  the  past 20  years  or  so,  a  robust  body  of  talent  development research has been published in the sport psychology literature.

Talent  development  reflects  the  classic  nature– nurture  debate  in  that  there  are  some  strong genetic  components  of  talent  development  (e.g., height,  body  composition)  and  also  strong  environmental  aspects  (e.g.,  training,  social  support). From this perspective, the term talent can be used to refer to innate abilities, whereas the word development  refers  to  how  abilities  are  nurtured  and enhanced.  Given  neither  extreme  environmental nor extreme genetic approaches may ever be conclusively  supported,  many  researchers  adopt  the middle ground and, rather than view talent development as a nature versus nurture issue, consider talent  development  as  the  interaction  of  genetic and environmental factors.

It  is  generally  accepted  that  athletes  move through a number of stages of talent development, with  each  stage  being  characterized  by  distinct types  of  activities  and  different  types  of  involvement and support from parents and coaches. Two important models are reviewed here. Although the terminology varies between these different models, the general principles are quite similar.

Bloom’s Stages of Talent Development

In   1985,   psychologist   Benjamin   Bloom   published  a  book  based  on  interviews  with  120  talented musicians, artists, scientists, and athletes (of whom 21 were Olympic swimmers and 18 tennis players who had been ranked among the world’s top  10).  Bloom  proposed  talent  development occurred through three stages. The first stage, the stage  of  initiation,  was  characterized  by  children engaging in fun and playful activities. They relied heavily  on  their  teacher  or  coach  for  guidance and support, and at some point parents, teachers, or  coaches  noticed  the  children  were  apparently talented  in  some  way.  Parents  played  a  key  role, and  they  were  often  responsible  for  stimulating their child’s interest in their own personal areas of activity.

During  the  stage  of  development,  children became  hooked  on  a  particular  activity.  Their pursuits  became  more  serious,  and  their  teachers and coaches were more technically skilled than at the previous level. Coaches took a strong personal interest  in  their  prodigies  and  expected  results through  discipline  and  hard  work.  Practice  time increased  significantly  and  competition  was  used as  a  measure  of  progress.  Crucially,  parents  provided both moral and financial support and helped to  restrict  their  child’s  engagement  in  distracting activities such as paid employment and social outings with friends.

The  stage  of  perfection  represents  the  time when  performers  become  experts  in  their  chosen activity, which now tended to dominate their lives. Performers  were  willing  to  invest  the  time  and effort  required  to  meet  their  performance  goals. Responsibility for training and competition shifted from  coaches  to  the  individual.  Simultaneously, performers   were   required   to   be   autonomous and  be  able  to  deal  with  enormous  demands from  their  coaches.  Parents  played  a  lesser  role as  individuals  became  completely  absorbed  in their actions and assumed total responsibility for them. Bloom emphasized that precocious children need a long-term commitment and increasing passion  for  their  field  if  their  talent  is  to  develop  in later life.

Developmental Model of Sport Participation

One  of  the  most  well-known  models  of  talent development in sport was introduced by Canadian researcher Jean Côté, originally based on his 1999 study of elite adolescent athletes and their family members.  Similar  to  Bloom’s  model,  Côté  proposed three stages of talent development but used different terminology that reflected a more explicit focus on sport and the involvement of the family.

The  sampling  years  (ages  6–13  years)  were characterized  by  parents  providing  opportunities for  their  children  to  enjoy  sport  with  an  emphasis  on  fun  rather  than  intense  training.  Typically, all  the  children  within  a  family  participated  in various  extracurricular  activities,  but  at  some point,  parents  recognized  that  a  particular  child had a gift for sport. During the specializing years (ages  13–15  years),  athletes  gradually  decreased their  involvement  in  extracurricular  activities and focused on one or two sport events. Fun and enjoyment  remained  as  central  elements  of  the sporting  experience,  but  sport-specific  development emerged as an important characteristic of the participants’ athletic involvement. Parents emphasized  school  and  sport  achievement,  made  financial and time commitments to their child–athlete, and  developed  a  personal  interest  in  the  child’s sport  involvement,  while  other  siblings  acted  as role  models  of  work  ethic.  The  investment  years (age  15  years  and  over)  reflected  increased  commitment  by  the  athlete  to  one  sport  and  parents showed  even  greater  interest  in  this  sport.  Play activities were replaced by an enormous amount of practice. At this point, parents helped the athlete fight setbacks, such as injury, fatigue, or pressure, and demonstrated different behaviors toward each of their children, which sometimes caused younger siblings to show bitterness toward their older sibling’s  achievement.  Côté  also  suggested  this  talent  development  process  was  characterized  by  a move  from  deliberate  play  to  deliberate  practice (discussed below).

Côté  expanded  on  his  original  study  in  a  later work,  and  created  the  current  developmental model  of  sport  participation.  Within  this  model three  trajectories  (pathways)  of  development  in sport  are  proposed.  The  first  trajectory,  recreational  participation  through  sampling,  reflects  a process  whereby  children  engage  in  a  variety  of sports  during  the  sampling  years.  By  engaging  in a range of playful games, children gain the building  blocks  for  later  participation  in  recreational (rather than elite) sport. The second trajectory, elite performance through sampling, reflects the classic three stages (sampling, specializing, investment) of the  original  research.  In  the  third  trajectory,  elite performance  through  specialization,  athletes  skip the  sampling  years  and  are  heavily  invested  in practice  and  competition  activities  for  a  specific sport  during  childhood  (i.e.,  they  specialize  in  a sport  early).  While  some  may  achieve  elite  levels of sport through early specialization, this is a perilous  route  and  early  specializers  often  experience overuse injuries, reduced sport enjoyment, and are more likely to drop out of the sport in which they specialized.

Deliberate Practice

An  alternative  approach  to  talent  development was provided by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and  Clemens  Tesch-Römer.  The  original  work was  based  on  data  obtained  via  diaries  of  daily activities  from  talented  musicians  and  has  since been  replicated  and  expanded  by  sport  psychology researchers. Ericsson proposed the concept of deliberate  practice  was  crucial  in  the  attainment of  elite  levels  of  performance.  Deliberate  practice activities are highly structured, require high levels of effort, generate no immediate rewards, and are specifically intended to improve performance.

Experts  reported  higher  levels  of  deliberate practice than amateurs across a range of domains. This   research   ultimately   led   to   the   so-called 10,000-hours  rule,  whereby  the  attainment  of elite  levels  of  performance  is  associated  with  the accruement of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over approximately a 10-year span. This does not mean  that  10,000  hours  of  deliberate  practice produces  elite  athletes,  but  rather  it  provides  an approximation of the number of practice hours in which elite performers have engaged.

Constraints  that  prevent  performers  engaging in optimal levels of deliberate practice are related to resources, motivation, and effort. Resource constraints, including time and access to coaches and training facilities, must be negotiated by individuals  striving  to  excel.  Because  deliberate  practice does  not  lead  to  immediate  social  or  monetary rewards,  individuals  must  overcome  motivational constraints.  In  fact,  individuals  who  engage  in deliberate  practice  are  in  part  motivated  by  the belief  that  deliberate  practice  ultimately  leads  to improved performance. Finally, deliberate practice is mentally and physically demanding, so individuals must overcome effort constraints.

Ericsson proposed that deliberate practice is not inherently  enjoyable,  but  athletes  have  reported that  the  most  relevant  and  practiced  activities  in which  they  engage  are  highly  enjoyable.  More recently,  Côté  put  forward  a  more  sport-specific view that refined our understanding of deliberate practice. That is, Côté suggested, children engage in deliberate play activities. Deliberate play activities in sport are those designed to maximize enjoyment and are activities with flexible rules that are set up and monitored by children. During deliberate play, children are less concerned with outcomes or improving performance, but rather the focus is enjoyment. Hence, during sampling years children should  likely  engage  in  high  amounts  of  deliberate  play  and  low  amounts  of  deliberate  practice. In  fact,  the  early  specialization  trajectory  is  often associated with high amounts of deliberate practice and low amounts of deliberate play, and this may account for the overuse injuries, lack of enjoyment, and drop-out associated with early specialization. Sport  psychologists  should  encourage  a  focus  on sampling a range of sports during childhood with an emphasis on deliberate play. Increasing levels of deliberate practice comes with later specialization and investment in sport.

Other Factors Associated With Talent Development

Although stage models and deliberate play or practice  activities  are  the  most  prominent  aspects  of talent  development  research  in  sport  psychology, several  other  factors  have  been  implicated  in  the attainment  of  high  levels  of  performance.  Three such factors are reviewed below.

Relative Age Effect

Relative age effect refers to the time of year a person  is  born  with  respect  to  the  age-eligibility cut-off for a particular sport. For example, if the age  cut-off  for  a  sport  is  January  1,  2002  (i.e., to  play  on  a  team  a  child  must  be  born  before January 1), a child born on December 31, 2001, would be eligible for this team, but so too would a  child  born  on  January  2,  2001.  The  January-born  athlete  is  nearly  a  full  year  older  than  the December-born  athlete  and  has  advantages  of additional growth, development, and practice. As size,  speed,  and  coordination  (valued  attributes in  many  sports)  are  highly  correlated  with  age, relatively  older  players  often  demonstrate  superior  levels  of  performance  and  are  selected  for elite  teams  ahead  of  relatively  younger  players. Relative age effect is generally a robust finding for elite-level  age-group  sports  during  adolescence. That is, on elite age-group teams, there are often a  greater  proportion  of  athletes  born  earlier  in the age-eligibility year than those born later. The effect of relative age diminishes over time and is less relevant in sports that do not have strict age group boundaries.

Birthplace Effects

The  location  of  an  athlete’s  place  of  birth  can influence  the  likelihood  of  playing  professional sport.  Research  with  male  and  female  athletes from several sports (including golf, baseball, basketball,  and  ice  hockey)  has  shown  that  athletes who  were  born  and  grew  up  in  smaller  cities  are more likely to become elite athletes. Areas of lower population  may  provide  conditions  more  conducive  to  the  development  of  expertise  than  larger city  environments  because  in  smaller  municipalities,  children  have  fewer  opportunities  to  engage in a range of activities and may have quite extensive  support  for  specific  sports;  the  hockey  rink in  a  small  town  is  the  only  option  available,  and the  sport  is  widely  supported  in  the  community. Comparative  analyses  have  suggested  contextual factors  associated  with  place  of  birth  contribute more to the achievement of an elite level of sport performance than relative age effects.

2D:4D Ratio

The  ratio  of  the  second  digit  (index  finger)  on a  hand  to  the  fourth  digit  (ring  finger)  is  known as 2D:4D. A smaller index finger than ring finger (i.e., a low 2D:4D ratio) has been associated with high levels of attainment in sport. One study with professional  soccer  players  showed  lower  2D:4D ratios than controls (a sample of men in the general population).  Furthermore,  within  the  sample  of professional players, those who played in 1st teams (rather  than  reserves)  and  those  who  had  played at international level had lower 2D:4D ratios than their counterparts who had not reached these pinnacles of professional soccer. Although the reasons 2D:4D effects have been observed among elite athletes  are  largely  unproven,  it  is  possible  that  fetal and adult testosterone may be important in establishing  and  maintaining  abilities  associated  with physical competitiveness (and therefore the attainment of high levels of performance in sport). These findings reflect the idea that talent development is a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

References:

  1. Bloom, B. S. (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York: Ballantine.
  2. Cobley, S., Baker, J., Wattie, N., & McKenna, J. (2009). Annual age-grouping and athlete development: A meta-analytical review of relative age effects in sport. Sports Medicine, 39, 235–256.
  3. Côté, J. (1999). The influence of the family in the development of talent in sport. The Sport Psychologist, 13, 395–417.
  4. Côté, J., Macdonald, D. J., Baker, J., & Abernethy, B. (2006). When “where” is more important than “when”: Birthplace and birthdate effects on the achievement of sporting expertise. Journal of Sports Sciences, 24, 1065–1073.
  5. Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review 100, 363–406.
  6. Manning, J. T., & Taylor, R. P. (2001). Second to fourth digit ratio and male ability in sport: implications for sexual selection in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22, 61–69.

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