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Natural talent only minor in elite athlete development research suggests

17 April 2014

Lyndsey Boardman

UK coaches gather to discuss talent identification

Natural talent plays only a small part in a complex web of influential factors when developing elite athletes according to researchers from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

The findings, from several studies conducted by the University’s Institute of Coaching and Performance (ICaP), were shared at a Talent Identification Symposium held at UCLan that attracted coaching staff from professional sports clubs and organisations including the RFU, Manchester City FC and British Athletics.

The researchers suggested that athletes who have a slow and bumpy progression in the early stages of their career tend to eventually succeed at a far higher level than those that are tipped to be the next big thing from the beginning. By avoiding this ‘simply the best’ syndrome and positively reacting to challenges and setbacks athletes are more likely to be independent, adaptable and resilient leading to greater long-term achievements.

Professor Dave Collins, Director of ICaP and former Performance Director of UK Athletics, headed up the conference.

He said: “There is no magic answer as to what makes an elite performer. Too many people are looking for straight forward solutions such as the idea that practising for 10,000 hours is the secret to success. There are many ‘gifted’ individuals that don’t make it whilst those who are committed and work hard do.

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Adrian Ibbetson, Associate Dean of the School of Sport, Tourism and the Outdoors at UCLan, Dave Rotheram, National player development manager at the RFL, Neil McCarthy, Academy Head at Leicester Tigers RUFC, Ben Lazenby Head of Youth, Recruitment and Development at Warrington Wolves RLFC, Anne Pankhurst, Education Consultant to the Professional Tennis Registry and Development consultant for USA Football, Professor Dave Collins, Director of ICaP, Academy Director at Bath Rugby Danny Grewcock MBE, Brian Ashton MBE, former England RFU Head Coach, David Faulkner, former Performance Director of GB Hockey and now Director of Sport at Millfield School, Bryan Jones, ICaP Staff Member and Chris Carling, Performance Analyst for Lille FC and ICaP Staff Member.

“By considering the psychological characteristics of developing excellence such as completing realistic performance evaluations, learning how to cope with pressure and taking responsibility for your own learning, we can develop a 'curriculum' for helping"

“By considering the psychological characteristics of developing excellence such as completing realistic performance evaluations, learning how to cope with pressure and taking responsibility for your own learning, we can develop a 'curriculum' for helping people to achieve at the highest levels of their potential.”

The findings also show that the relationship between a coach and parents needs to be turned on its head - a coach should ask what a parent would like to know about their child’s performance to enable them to offer support rather than assuming what they need to know and what their existing knowledge is.

Anne Pankhurst, Education Consultant to the Professional Tennis Registry, Development consultant for USA Football and previously the Coach Education Director for the Lawn Tennis Association, is a Doctoral student with ICaP and presented on the parent-coach relationship at the conference.

She commented: “Parents generally want to know what competition their child is up against, how much and what sort of practise they need to do and more generally, what their job is in enabling the development of their child. Most coaches tend to assume parents have a pre-existing knowledge of what this is when of course why would they? It’s this focus that needs to change so that the coach can help the parents to play a more supportive role in the whole process.”

Other findings from ICaP found that:

  • Young athletes need to focus on a breadth of activity, done with a depth of commitment, rather than specialise early in their career.
  • Sportspeople who take more responsibility for their own learning rather than relying heavily on coaching and those that receive less pressure from their parents tend to make the transition to professional athlete much more successfully.
  • Having a sibling that has succeeded in sport can be a catalyst for success but it can also have a negative impact by influencing the talent development process before the coach comes into contact with the athlete causing perceived favouritism.

Other researchers in the Institute include Neil McCarthy, Head of Academy at Leicester Tigers RUFC, the Coaching and Education manager for British Cycling Vinny Webb and Will Tullett, Movement Specialist Chelsea FC Academy, who are all Doctoral students at the University.

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“It’s great for young coaches to see the variety of ways that coaching can be approached"

Brian Ashton MBE, the former England RFU Head Coach, attended the event. He said: “It’s great for young coaches to see the variety of ways that coaching can be approached. For some, it will be a reaffirmation that they are doing things right and highlight that there isn’t one set way to coach because many different strands make up an elite athlete.”

Former England RFU Player and now Academy Director at Bath Rugby Danny Grewcock MBE added: “As a coach you are constantly looking to improve performance levels and listening to the experts today has provided snippets of gold that I can embed into our performance programme.”

The ICaP Talent Identification Symposium attracted over 280 delegates from National Governing Bodies, team sports academy staff and other researchers. For more information about ICaP visit the UCLan website.