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Movement Experiences for Young Children
KIN 366
Instructor: Shannon Bredin
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Important Course Pages
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Talent identification is a means of identifying naturally gifted or skilled individuals within any performance-related realm (Vaeyens et al., 2008). This page concerns talent identification within sport and its implications on childhood development. Talent identification is used in sport to provide an accurate prediction of individuals who have the potential to compete successfully at the world-class level (Wolstencroft, 2002).


Talent Identification in Sport

Generally, talent identification (TID) in sport is described as recognising potential in current participants to become elite performers, and predicting performance over various time periods by measuring physical, physiological, psychological and sociological attributes. Such procedures tend to be implemented with pre-pubescent or pubescent children so that they can complete a sufficient number of years practice required to achieve excellence (Wolstencroft, 2002). With that being said, due to the complex and multifaceted nature of this process, there is currently no universally agreed upon definition (Breitbach, Tug, & Simon, 2014). To provide an example, one study describes TID in a contrasting way as “a streamlining of resources to produce optimal returns from a sport investment” (Pearson, Naughton, & Torode, 2006). The difficulties in defining this practice are rooted in accurately defining the specific attributes of “talent” in a way that is applicable to the performance variables of all sports (Breitbach, et al., 2014), and there have not yet been attempts to assess its validity (Reilly, Williams, Nevill, & Franks, 2002). Specific processes of TID vary between sports due to the wide variation in sport variables (Gonçalves, Rama, & Figueiredo, 2000). This term should not be confused with talent detection (TD), which is defined as the discovery of potential in athletes who are not currently involved in said sport (Wolstencroft, 2002).

Indicators of Talent

Anthropometric and Physical Characteristics

In an extensive study on talent identification in youth soccer players, Reilly et al. (2006) states that there are several anthropometric and physical characteristics that directly contribute to potential talent in sport. Percent body fat was a notable factor. Elite players were leaner than their corresponding sub-elite teammates. Physiological features also made a difference. Higher VO2max scores and faster sprint times were noted in elite soccer players, as well as better scores on endurance measures. Furthermore, early maturing children that are taller and more muscular than other children in their age group typically excel at sport at an early age (Wolstencroft, 2006), though the evidence of this is often criticized.

Psychological Characteristics

There appear to be several psychological characteristics that athletes can possess that may predispose them to be successful in sport. It has been well-documented that perception of anxiety is one of the largest psychological indicators of talent. Successful athletes are typically less likely to experience somatic anxiety than less talented athletes. Further, task-oriented players tended to more successful than ego-oriented players. Task-oriented players are more likely to play the sport for the love of the game and personal interest, rather than for self-esteem or social status. This drive showed to lead to stronger work ethic and top performance, and appears to be a key feature in elite players. (Reilly, et al., 2006). Other important psychological characteristics include confidence and motivation (Gonçalves et al. 2000).

Environmental or Societal Opportunities

It is widely believed that attributes of talent in the TID process must be innate, whereas in reality, there are numerous external factors that play a role in success in sport. Wolstencroft (2006) lists support as a major indicator of talent (i.e. from parents, coaches, etc.) With emotional or psychological support from an adult, a child in sport has a much greater likelihood of succeeding. Also cited is opportunity to participation as one of the most crucial determinants of success. Additionally, hours of practice appears to be an important element in success in sport. According to Gladwell (2008), 10,000 is the “golden number” for success in an activity - not just in sport. It was found that many of the world’s top musicians and athletes had only one thing in common – at least 10,000 hours of practice. In other words, 10,000 hours of practice is seemingly necessity to be elite. Other environmental factors include opportunities to practise, remaining free of injury, and cultural influences. (Reilly, et al. 2006).


Resource Allocation

TID aims to focus the limited resources available for athlete development on streamlined TID athletes who have been deemed to possess the potential to become future Olympic and World champions. Through this process, more resources are put towards athletes that have a greater likelihood of reaching the high performance level (Wolstencroft, 2006).

Enhanced Training Effectiveness

By selecting individuals that are superior in ability, coaches will have a significant decrease in the time and energy they need to put into coaching they would normally put in to less talented athletes. This results in a greater amount of time that can be dedicated to improving the skills of capable athletes (Reilly, et al., 2006). With this, athletes can reach excellence in a reduced amount of time.

Increased Self Confidence of Athletes

By identifying athletes who are predisposed to athletic success in their given sport, and resources are offered such that athletic success is achievable, TID may sustain enhanced passion for the sport. Self-confidence can also increase because performance gains tend to be more dynamic than other athletes with less potential (Reilly, et al., 2006). For similar reasons, TID can also mitigate dropout and failure rates.

Shortcomings of TID in Children

Relative Age Effects

In theory, the practice of financial investment into a small group of physically “talented” youth appears to be a focused means of financial allocation. In reality, TID has been associated with very low predictive value and validity. As mentioned, current TID practices tend to favour physical and anthropometric characteristics. According to Vaeyens et al. (2008) it may be almost impossible to identify a successful adult athlete while still in adolescence because “many of the qualities that distinguish top athletic performance in adults may not appear until late adolescence.” TID testing does not take into account the maturational status of children because it is difficult, if not impossible, to prescribe necessary measurements, such as x-rays of bone growth analysis, on a large population. Neither does it have the potential to assess future fitness variables. In this way, the athletes who portray a high level of immediately-observable fitness or anthropometrics are those who are selected for talent development programs. But in reality, what you see may not be what you get (Ankersen, 2012). Thus puberty is a significant confound in the process of TID. In summary, physiological measures tend to be poor markers for sport targeting strategies because they are dependent on maturation status, and the earlier the decision is made, the more uncertain the outcome (Gonçalves et al., 2000).

Lack of Widespread Participation

It is inevitable that with a specialized sport system whose gates are barred by talent identification tests that many children will be excluded from training in competitive sport. Although this exclusion is a desirable and necessary consequence that allows for focused resource allocation to high-potential athletes, it also disadvantages the “hidden talents,” who may continue to train in a less specialized environment and an environment with fewer opportunities (Ankersen, 2012). These athletes who do not have extraordinary performances early in their sporting career, and subsequently achieve a low score on their performance at the time of a talent identification test, will likely not have the opportunity to succeed.

Limitations of Testing

Current talent identification testing is primarily based on transient anthropometric and biometric variables (Abbott & Collins, 2010). For a short-term TID and training program, the current fitness status of the athlete is very important. However in long-term development programs, such as sports schools, very little, if any, information on a child’s potential can be determined by biometric TID testing. Missing from current TID practices are models that include variables specific to individual sports, rather than generic physical characteristics, that can reliably identify talent in different performance levels and predict future international success (Breitbach, et al., 2014).

Inplications on Childhood Development

Early Specialization

If an athlete is deemed to have “talent” by the TID process, an early specialization training program likely follows, states (Gonçalves et al., 2000), in order to dedicate as much time as possible to the specific sport skills. Early specialization has been criticized by multiple sources due to it’s disconnect with the recent literature that highlights physical literacy as necessary for lifelong physical activity. Because physical literacy is defined as demonstrating a wide variety of fundamental sport and movement skills (Canadian Sport for Life, 2011), engaging in early specialization in one sport may be detrimental to early movement experiences.

Early Evidence of Success

With all this being said, there have been significant accounts of successes in TID. Perhaps the most notable series of successes was the rise of TID programs in the 1960-1970’s in Eastern Europe. In the 1976 Olympic Games, eighty percent of Bulgarian medal holders were the result of the TID process (Wolstencroft, 2002). This clear display of success is one piece of evidence that TID may be a beneficial system to introduce to young athletes. Further research is needed on the topic of TID to know the full implications on childhood development.

The Future of TID

Genetic Testing

Commercial genetic testing companies have begun advertising their services for the purpose of determination of children's future characteristics and abilities (Inoue & Muto, 2011). Such characteristics include intelligence, artistic sensibility, and, as one Japanese company advertises, the “gold medal gene” for athletic ability. Although such tests on humans are far from becoming common practice, their emergence indicates a deeper means of TID in the earliest stages of life. It also raises ethical concerns over the difference in treatment of children whose full genetic potential is known prior to their birth, and with this in mind the Japan Society of Human Genetics has released statements advising against the genetic testing of minors. Such testing would have heavy influence over the expectations of a child’s career path and pressure to perform, while disregarding their interests or values, cautions the Society. However, should ethical means of conducting such testing be conceived, genetic testing would provide information about an individual’s future attributes which are currently impossible to obtain. Genetic testing is a much more sophisticated and reliable means of TID than current methods.

Psychological Component of Talent

Despite psychological factors appearing to be crucial to consistent performance, current TID programs place minimal emphasis on psychological determinants (Wolstencroft, 2002). Rower Jeremiah Brown (Olympic silver medal, men’s eights, 2012), who became an Olympic silver medallist after very little sport-specific training in comparison to his competitors and teammates, cites his mental determination as the keystone factor of his success and deemphasizes his physiology (Brown, 2014). In the spirit of a more thorough, multi-faceted approach to talent identification, Abbott and Collins (2007) recommends that TID encompass more than basic physical data collection. As illustrated in the case of Jeremiah Brown, mentality has a great deal of impact on sport success. It has been strongly recommended TID programs integrate psychological evaluation in their search for athletes, as the nature of an athlete's work ethic and mental toughness plays a key role in athlete development and potential realization.


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