Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Talent Identification

Talent Identification
By Tudor Bompa
From Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training, 4th Ed. Human Kinetics Publishers. Pp 273 – 285.

The process of identifying the most talented athletes to involve in an organized training program is one of the most important concerns of contemporary sports. Everyone can learn to sing, dance, or paint, but few individuals ever reach a high level of mastery. In sports, as in the arts, it is therefore important to discover the most talented individuals and select them at an early age, then to monitor them continually and assist them to climb to the highest levels of mastery.

In the past, and even today in most Western countries, a youngster’s involvement in sport was based mostly on tradition, ideals, and desire to participate in a sport because of its popularity, parental pressure, a high school teacher’s specialty, the proximity of sports facilities, and so on. For East European training specialists, such methods are no loner satisfactory. They discovered that individuals who, for example, had natural talent for distance running often ended up as mediocre sprinters. Obviously the outcome rarely led to high performance.

A coach must invest work and time in individuals who possess superior natural abilities other wise the coach wastes talent, time, and energy, or at best produces mediocrity. The main objective of talent identification is to identify and select those athletes who have the greatest abilities for a sport.

Talent identification is not a new concept in athletics, although not much is formally done about it, especially in the Western World. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, most East European countries established specific methods for identifying potential high class athletes. Some of the selection procedures used were discovered and directed by scientists, who then advised the coach which youngsters had the required abilities for a sport.

The results were more than dramatic. Several medalists in the 1972, 1976, 1980, and 1984 Olympic Games, particularly from the former East Germany, were scientifically selected. The same was true for Bulgaria in 1976, when almost 80% of its medalists were the result of a thorough talent identification process.

A group of scientists and rowing specialists in Romania in 1976 selected young girls to participate in rowing. The initial 100 girls were selected from 27 000 teenagers. By 1978 the group had been reduced to 25, and most of these made the team for the Moscow Olympics. The result was 1 gold, 2 silver and 2 bronze medals. Another group selected in the late 1070s produced 5 gold medals and 1 silver medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and 9 medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

The talent identification process has to be a preoccupation of training specialists and coaches, to further its advances and improve psychobiological criteria used to discover more talented individuals for high performance athletics.

Using scientific criteria in the process of talent identification has several advantages:
Ø It substantially reduces the time required to reach high performance by selecting individuals who are gifted in sport.
Ø It eliminates the high volume of work, energy, and talent on the part of the coach. The coaches training effectiveness is enhanced by training primarily those athletes with superior abilities.
Ø It increases the competitiveness and the number of athletes aiming at and reaching high performance levels. As a result, there is a stronger and more homogenous national team capable of better international performance.
Ø It increases an athletes self confidence, because his or her performance dynamics are known to be more dramatic than other athletes of the same age who did not go through the selection process.
Ø It indirectly facilitates applying scientific training, because sport scientists who assist in talent identification can be motivated to continue to monitor the athletes training.

Talent Identification Methods
In training there are two basic methods of selection, natural and scientific. Natural selection is the normal approach, the natural way of developing an athlete in sport. It assumes an athlete enrolls in a sport as a result of local influence (school tradition, parent’s wishes, peers). The performance evolution of athletes determined by natural selection depends on, amongst other factors, whether by coincidence, they take part in a school sport for which they are talented. It may occur, therefore, that an individuals performance evolution in slow, mostly because the selection of the ideal sport was incorrect.

Scientific selection is the method by which a coach selected prospective youngsters who have proven natural abilities for a sport. Thus compared with individuals identified through the natural method, the time required for those selected scientifically to reach high performance is much shorter. For sports in which height or weight is a requirement, for instance basketball, volleyball, football, rowing, and throwing events, you should strongly consider scientific selection. The same is true for other sports, such as sprinting, judo, hockey, and jumping events in athletics, in which speed, reaction time, coordination, and power are dominant. You can detect such qualities with the assistance of sport scientists. As a result of scientific testing, the most talented individuals are scientifically selected or directed in an appropriate sport.

Criteria for Talent Identification
High performance athletics requires specific biological profiles of athletes with outstanding motor abilities and strong psychological traits. Training science has made impressive steps forward in the past decades, which is one of the min reasons for constant improvements in athletic performance. Other dramatic improvements have also bee in the quantity and quality of training.

If, however, an individual involved in sports has a biological handicap or lacks the necessary abilities for a sport, then even excessive training cannot overcome the initial lack of natural abilities. Scientific selection is therefore vital to hig performance athletics.

Individuals not selected for high performance athletics are not excluded from sports. They can take part in recreational programs in which they can fulfill their physical and social needs and participate in competitions.

Optimal training requires optimal criteria for talent identification. Not necessarily in order of importance, some of the main criteria are as follows.

Ø Health is an absolute necessity for everyone participating in training. Each youngster must, therefore, have a thorough medical examination before being accepted into a club. The physician should recommend and the coach should select for training only healthy individuals. During the examination, medical and testing specialists should observe whether a candidate has physical or organic malfunction and make recommendations accordingly. You should not select an individual with a malformation for dynamic sports, for instance hockey, basketball, track and field, swimming or boxing. On the other hand, such discrimination should be more liberal for sports with static characteristics such as shooting, archery and bowling. Similarly, physiological status of an individual, that is the ability to move arms, legs and so on should also play a role in talent identification, because physiological disparities can play a restrictive role. Once again, the eventual discrimination between candidates has to correlate with the physiological needs and specifics of a sport.

Ø Biometric qualities, or anthropometric measurements, of an individual are important assets for several sports and, therefore, you must consider them among the main criteria for talent identification. Heigh, weight, or length of the limbs play dominant roles in certain sports. It is however difficult to predict the dynamics of an individuals growth and development during the early stage of talent identification, which is performed at the age of 4 to 6 for such sports as gymnastics, figure skating and swimming. During the primary phase of talent identification, therefore, look mostly for harmonious physical development. You can do this by examining the leg joint and hip and shoulder widths and the ratio between them.

Ø At a later age (teens), you may use hand plates (growth plates in the wrist region) and hand radiography (X-Ray) techniques to test whether growth is complete. If the tester concludes growth is complete, the coach may make decisions as to whether the height of the given athlete is optimal for a particular sport.

Ø Heredity, a complex biological phenomenon, often plays an important role in training. Children tend to inherit their parents biological and psychological characteristics, although though education, training, and social conditioning, they may slightly alter qualities.

Ø The view on the role of heredity in training is neither uniform nor unanimous, but the athlete’s genetic potential will ultimately limit the improvements in physiological capabilities. Klissouras et al (1973) implied that systems and functions are genetically determined: the lactic acid system to the extent of 81.4%; heart rate 85.9%; and maximal VO2 93.4%.

Guidelines for Talent Identification Criteria
The criteria for talent identification, including tests, standards, and the optimal model, have to be sport specific. In many sports, especially those in which endurance or high volume of work is crucial, base the final selection on the athletes working capacity and the bodies ability to recover between training sessions. Dragan (1978) identifies the following test criteria:

Ø High anaerobic and aerobic capacity
Ø Coordination, concentration span
Ø Tall, long limbs, large biacromial diameter
Ø Resistance to fatigue and stress

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