Having lived in western Canada for several years as well as having previously lived in other countries before that, I’m continually looking at the way talent in sports is identified in Canada and then later fully developed. As a running coach I’m particularly interested in how Canada and specifically my neighbourhood of Alberta identifies and keeps track of future running talent. So far my feeling is that there is no set system currently in place for achieving this, but that runners are expected to enter the ‘talent funnel’ themselves and that excelling in the system and fulfilling potential is mostly down to chance and coincidence rather than design. Ultimately the high level question I ask is, when we see race-winning elite Canadian runners on websites or tv or in magazines, are we actually looking at the best talent out there the country has to offer?
The most basic way to screen for future talent is to formulate a systematic testing procedure that measures key metrics of the athlete where the subject either passes or fails the screen. This is most commonly administered by sporting bodies or organisations through advertised testing days at hub locations. It is definitely a great way to get a lot of variable potential young people through a screen in a short space of time with little logistical fuss. It does however raise the first very important concept in talent ID. You must already have a very clearly defined profile of exactly what you are looking for. The consequence of getting this wrong and not understanding exactly what your gold medal winner in a sport should look like, is that the testing events will just let high potential subjects slip through the net, whilst the organisers may remain oblivious to the underlying shortcomings.
a great way to get a lot of people through a screen
Suffice to say, to have even gotten so far as to have designed a systematic testing procedure you should have first gone and spent time studying the sport you are recruiting towards and pulled apart piece-by-piece what key qualities create the best in the world at that discipline. And this is a key step that I have seen missed out numerous times. Here in Canada in the past 2 years I have seen talent testing events tauted as being staged to find future Olympians for a wide range of different sports, but where the definition of exactly what was required to be successful at the highest level in each of the sports was clearly lacking.
When we think about performing a screening process for identifying talent it makes logical sense that the tests should be highly sport specific. In the case of running some obvious metrics that would need to be tested that come to mind immediately would be for example vo2 max, lactate threshold and running economy. A good recent example of this process in action was Nike’s search for the best possible candidates for their Breaking2 marathon project. Other more mundane metrics would also be preferable, such as height, leg length, body mass and skinfold thickness. In fact if you wanted to get more advanced still you could also consider strength testing and plyometric/power testing with common benchmark gym tests or customised running specific gym tests.
As has been noted many times in high performance sports and what makes an athlete a champion, a large part of the success equation is rooted in psychology and mental approach. There are countless examples across all sports where equally gifted young sports men and women have experienced very different levels of success later in their sports careers simply because of their differences in mental approach. So it makes sense that any screening for future talent should logically include an element of psychological testing. In the most successful cases I have seen, the test administered in this area has been made as realistic as possible whilst attempting to separate out candidates based on their immediate responses to pressure, stress, fatigue, information overload and more. In fact in some sports it is starting to become more common to test how athletes deal with a lack of knowledge, rules or equipment in an effort to assess their adaptability.
any screening for future talent should include psychological testing
One concept that I believe is also critical to investigate if possible is how ‘coachable’ the athlete is. Can they accept direction? Can they understand the long term goal? Can they learn to make smart decisions? And so on. This is not always as simple an assessment evaluation as you might initially think. There is a large body of anecdotal evidence to suggest that consistent medal winners in sports tend to have very exceptional psychology that can border on selfish, obsessive, impulsive, perfectionistic and in some case marginally psychotic. By nature these can be difficult athletes to coach and people to work with and may not immediately screen as particularly coachable, yet they might be the ones with the biggest future potential. An example vocation where this is routinely the case during selection is during screening for special forces roles.
Pulling from other sports
There have been some notable examples of cross over style athletes that have done extremely well at a completely different sport or tenuously linked sport. Here in North America we are seeing the cross over between track and field athletics and bobsleigh becoming more and more routine. In Great Britain we have had some very good examples too such as Lizzy Yarnold in the skeleton who’s prior background in sport was in the heptathlon. As mentioned early in this post, pursuing this approach assumes that you have already produced a clear blueprint for what the ultimate athlete in the sport should look like. Without this understanding, pulling from other sports quickly becomes a very hit and miss affair.
One area that I have seen given too little attention in talent ID is medical and injury history. Often times this doesn’t matter and not screening for it will not come back to bite in the future. But sometimes it can and there can be significant collateral damage created along the way. In the context of distance running I believe this is particularly important. Whilst skill dominant sports such as shooting or archery aren’t so plagued by injuries, sports like distance running definitely are. Although it’s not always the case by default, a previous history of injury issues can be a sign of a susceptibility to injuries in the future. Of course it goes without saying that this should always be considered within the context of how and why those injuries occurred.
In my role as a distance running coach when I think about a search for future talent what I’m really hunting for and what really gets me excited are runners with ample ‘headroom’ to improve. People often casually ask me about coaching and who I coach and why. When I look at the runners I coach today and why I formed a connection with them the common theme is not fast times, specific gender, specific age group or particular race events. The common thread is that I was able to very quickly see potential in them, a capacity to dramatically improve, a kind of headroom. Mostly importantly I could envision a potential to improve as a direct result of my coaching (as opposed to naturally improve because they were new to running). There are a lot of very subtle factors going into dictating whether someone appears to me to have significant headroom, but when you know that this is in fact what you are dealing with, you can just sense it.
what really gets me excited are runners with ample headroom
For some runners this will mean becoming elite athletes and winning big races. For others it will mean breaking boundaries or records for their age group in their event. In some cases I have spotted talent in runners who are past their athletic peak but they still retain the fundamental components related to great running even in their masters level years. It is often said in sports and performance psychology that we are all searching for meaning in being part of something larger than just ourselves. What gets me most excited in a purest sense as a personal coach is working with someone who has the potential to achieve goals that have a wider impact than just themselves, that can positively affect people on a larger scale. Through inspiring and motivating others.