Talent ID Schemes are the buzzword in high performance british sport. Designated pathways to identify talented individuals and nurture them through to olympic glory have been producing a number of olympic and paralympic champions for team GB.
However the idea of talent ID is nothing new, in fact it seems increasingly similar to PE lessons, where the most talented kids were picked first and those less athletically gifted were left until last. It’s why they placed the tall girls as defenders or shooters in netball whilst the smaller, faster players played centre and wing attack. It’s looking at the physical attributes (mental comes later), and assessing what sport, or position in a team best suits that individual.
In the UK, the process of talent identification has had to become more imaginative and precise. Many of the Olympic sports have minimal publicity and many children and teenagers never consider trying their hand at water sports, taekwondo or shooting. So with the talent pool limited, the governing bodies of these sports have turned their hand to actively seeking out individuals they believe have the right mental and physical attributes to mould into world class athletes.
So how does it work? Each sport identifies its own requirements with the help of Talent ID scientists, whose background in sports science, physiology and skill acquisition enables them to research and define a profile of successful athletes in that sport – what qualities do the best rowers, windsurfers or volleyball players in the world have in common?
There is no denying that talent ID schemes have produced some outstanding results. Girls4Gold was launched by UK Sport in 2008 with the aim of finding highly competitive sportswomen with the potential to become Olympic champions in cycling and other targeted Olympic sports (bob skeleton, canoeing, modern pentathlon, rowing and sailing). Girls4Gold was the single most extensive female sporting talent recruitment drive ever undertaken in Great Britain.
And the results were staggering. Lizzie Yarnold was discovered through the Girls4Gold programme in 2009 and tried the sport of skeleton bob for the first time at a taster day. Five years later she was crowned Olympic skeleton Champion in Sochi. Helen Glover who won olympic gold in the women’s pair in rowing at London 2012 came through another UK Sport talent ID scheme, Sporting Giants which was launched by five-time Olympic gold medal-winning rower Sir Steve Redgrave in February 2007.
The scheme aimed to discover contenders who could be fast-tracked into sports, particularly rowing, handball and volleyball. The basic criteria was that candidates must be tall, a minimum of 6ft 3in for men and 5ft 11in for women, be between 16 and 25 and have some sort of athletic background. Glover came from a sporting background, playing hockey for the England squad, captaining her county team and playing tennis and swimming for her county. Before 2008 she had limited rowing experience, however four years later she was winning Olympic gold at her home Olympic Games.
There is no denying that talent ID schemes have produced some outstanding results.
There are currently a number of Talent ID schemes out there on offer, Girls4Gold Canoeing has launched their Diamonds Programme which aims to build greater strength in depth in GB Canoeing’s talent pool and fast track outstanding talent in Canoe Sprint.
2008 saw the launch of Pitch2Podium, a programme targeting previously untapped pools of sporting talent from football and rugby academies. Only a tiny percentage of football academy scholars make it into a professional career, and, in conjunction with the Football Association, UK Sport and EIS have run screening days at the Madejski Stadium in Reading for academy students, looking at sprint, jump, endurance and strength tests to determine which sport they might be suitable for. Cycling, bob skeleton, modern pentathlon and canoeing have all benefited.
However whilst some of the talent ID success stories are about those coming to one sport late, having previously tried other sport, what about children that are singled out at the ages of 11, 12 and primed for success? Is it a good thing to specialise and focus so early on? A lot of research consistently shows that elite sports performers come from a diverse sporting background, and only specialised at around 15-16 years old. Most often they are late maturers.
NGBS often try to select “talent” at 13-14 years old and keep them in their own pathway. They recognise that there is massive competition between sports, this is especially true with female athletes who are good at both Netball and Hockey. But can you really class an individual as good enough to win an olympic gold as early as 13 years old? There are of course cases where there is no denying when a youngster has undeniable talent but what are the repercussions, both mentally and physically for a child is they are identified as ‘talented’ and then don’t go on to ‘make it’? Is it wise to place so much pressure on young children?
There is no great evidence which suggests that early specialisation is good for children, in fact the success stories from talent ID programmes suggest that often it is those with a varied athletic background, who have certain athletic attributes that go on to have the most success. The overwhelming view from many of those in the industry, either athletes, coaches, is that the importance should be placed on children taking part in, and most importantly enjoying, a wide range of sports from a young age, with talent identification taking place at an older age.