November 29, 2007
Spotting unrealised gifts remains black hole in
murky world of talent scouting
So you want to know why only one of those nine-year-olds picked up by a Barclays Premier League behemoth was
still there at 16? Try pricking away at what one academic terms the “dark underbelly of sport”. Try fathoming why
football places so much faith in a theory born from Alpine skiing. Try a rocket from science.
Dr Chris Cushion, of the School of Sport and Exercise Science at Loughborough University, believes one of the
festering flaws is the issue of spotting future stars. The child prodigies such as Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney
will stand out to the most myopic of coaches, but what of those who mature later or go through life with untapped
depths? “You have two tennis players aged 8,” he said by way of example. “One is ranked No 1 and has been
playing for five years. The other is from the White City estate, has just taken it up and is rough around the edges.
The second kid gets left behind but he might be the one with the most potential.”
Therein lies the rubbish. Cushion believes that clubs scout novice players and pick them on their ability rather than
what they might achieve. “They are selected at a very young age on what they can do now,” he said.
That incredulity led to research undertaken at Loughborough to identify “markers of giftedness”, or in layman’s
terms a checklist for the future. This includes a child’s ability to mimic and learn things quickly. These are as
important as whether a child has already learnt how to shoot when the scouts turn up on the side of a muddy pitch.
“We are not good at identifying talent in this country,” Cushion said. “If there are a batch of kids taken on at
Chelsea aged 9, how many will be there aged 16? Something is not working.”
The problem is with what he termed “the dark underbelly”, one step down from the academies, where coaches are
unqualified and talent identification is an arbitrary process. It is a gloomy view, but despite advances in sports
science in terms of biome-chanics and dietary needs, the lack of a scientific approach to spotting unrealised gifts
remains a black hole. “I think there is an awful lot of talent that goes to waste,” Cushion said.
Cushion also has doubts about the Long Term Athlete Development plan developed by Dr Istvan Balyi and used by
the FA and numerous governing bodies as their blueprint for developing elite players. “He trademarked it and made
a lucrative career on the back of something that he assumes can be adopted by other sports,” he said.
Balyi’s six-stage programme, suggesting it took eight years for an athlete to peak, was based on a study of Alpine
skiers. Many academics and scientists have questioned how it has become accepted as fact throughout the UK
despite a lack of evidence and any “peer-reviewed research” underpinning its claims. One cynic said: “He filled a
hole for a lot of people but there’s no substance to it.”
The idea that we are failing our children has been around for a long time. It is 20 years since Rod Thorpe, now
retired but still regarded as a pioneer in the field, penned Rethinking Games Teaching. In it he suggested that the
system led to “the production of supposedly skilful players who in fact possess inflexible technique and poor
Thorpe’s speciality was racket sports, but his belief was that teachers put too much emphasis on coaching
techniques. “I think the conventional approach to the teaching of tennis has convinced at least 80 per cent of
children they cannot play the game,” he said.
The scientific world is a cerebral battleground with combatants gouging great lumps out of each other’s theories.
For example, the notion that we put too much pressure on children too young, and that they should be free to have
fun, is at odds with the present trend in the United States. Frustrated by what they deem as a lack of international
success, the authorities there are ploughing money into replacing the recreational approach to youth football with a
far more competitive structure.
What is clear is that the early years are the crucial ones. Dr Danny Mielke, the author of Soccer Fundamentals from
Eastern Oregon University, is an expert on motor development and termed the years 7 to 12 as “the period of
critical readiness”. This means it is the age when children are most receptive to learning. While many believe
children should merely be having fun, some scientists have advocated controversial methods such as using strobe
lighting to develop visual awareness by making them concentrate harder. They agree only to disagree.