Are We Recognising Talent Too Young?

I was once lucky enough to visit Everton FC’s training ground, which was exactly as you would imagine a Premier League team’s multi-million pound training facility to be – top of the range, innovative, with incredible attention of detail. It seems no stone is left upturned when it comes to developing talent. As part of our tour, we got to watch one of their teams play in a 7-a-side game vs. a local side.
It was Everton FC’s under-6 team.
At the time I loved it. It does look awesome seeing such young children playing the game  a highat level. This wasn’t your usual 6-year olds, chasing the ball around the pitch. They clearly had an understanding of the game, as well as excellent technical skill.
However, 5 years later, I find myself wondering whether we are recognising talent too early in sports? Are we sending the right messages to children – or their parents – by labelling them as “talented” at too young an age?
Over the past few years, it seems like many sports are in a race to the bottom when it comes to identifying and developing talent. In some sports, we are having children represent their country at younger and younger ages. In fencing, we had an u10 National Championship until 2018 – to determine who the best 9 year old was!
I cannot dispute that representing your country or being a National Champion at age 9 would probably be a positive experience for the child and their family. However, there is a difference between what is a good experience for a child, and what’s best for the child. I wonder if rewarding “success” – i.e. being “the best” age 9 – is actually detrimental to the child’s chances of sporting success as an adult?
In Champion Minded, Alistair McCaw states that instant gratification is the enemy of hard work. If we accept that competing at the World, Olympic or International level as an adult is the pinnacle of our sports, then it is clearly going to take a huge amount of hard work over a course of many years to achieve it. I believe that by recognising talent too early – by putting in systems such as “elite” u6 teams or National teams or National Championships for children – we may actually be hamstringing our young people from reaching their potential.
High level competition at such a young age, perhaps before the child is emotionally strong enough to deal with the inevitable defeats and set backs, is dangerous. At such a young age, enjoyment is the catalyst for the motivation required to do the thousands of hours of deliberate practice needed to master their sport.  Nothing turns enjoyment into dread quicker than obligation.
The younger we are, the more dependent we are on our decisions being met with praise from other people. This is more unlikely in a highly structured sporting environment. Taking a big fish out of a small pond into an environment where they are “just another athlete” can be an extremely challenging time for a young person, who is still trying to figure out who they are. The more structured the environment, the less likely the child is to develop their creativity, a skill that is sought after in many sports. Less prior constraint equates to more creativity. Creativity is difficult to nurture, and easy to thwart.
We know that eventual elites spend less time in deliberate practice in their chosen sport as a youngster. Instead, they have a sampling period where they try many different sports, usually in a lightly- or unstructured environment. This allows the child to gain different physical proficiencies, learn what they like and don’t like, and what they are good (and not good) at. Unfortunately, parents often want their kids doing what Olympians are doing NOW, not what they did when they were the same age are their child. Often, the answer is a different sport.
When it comes to the development of young athletes, regardless of the sport, I believe that trajectory is more important than current destination. Everyone involved in sport has an example of the talented child who was destined for glory but didn’t make it, and the child that wasn’t “special” that went on to exceed expectations.
PS – the books I read to research are discussed in our monthly, email Book Club. For more info, see here – BOOK CLUB!

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