Talent - opening the can of worms...

In this article we will look at ways in which we can optimise the development of “Talent” – for the purposes of this piece will we use the arena of sport, but the lessons learned are perfectly applicable for developing “talent” in any organisation.


What is talent?

We should begin by deciding what we mean by talent. In my long and varied coaching career I have held many roles that had a specific remit for talent identification or talent development and attended countless hours of workshops and seminars on talent – and yet we, as a body of practitioners and coaches, still cannot definitively agree what we mean by talent.

I have debated long and hard with a great many coaches and sport scientists on this topic. Some say that “talent” is a person’s natural ability to perform or adapt to a given task – as if they were born to do it.

In his book “The Sports Gene”, David Epstein talks of talent in respect of physical traits – height, prevalence of muscle fibre type, limb lengths, organ size, visual acuity and so forth. No doubt each of these traits will influence a person’s suitability and likely potential for a given sport. For example if you are tall, have long levers and good lung capacity you’ll probably make an excellent rower (and my friends at GB rowing would probably like to meet you!)

However, winning the genetic lottery is not the only aspect of “talent”. Whilst sports which are primarily physiology based, like rowing or cycling for example, will certainly have a “type” of body they look for. Secondary skill sports, like tennis or golf allow for a much greater variety of physical traits to be successful - one only has to compare tennis players David Ferrer at 5'7" tall and Kevin Anderson at 6'8" for such evidence. Incidentally, both are ranked in the top 10 in the world at the time of writing.

In “The Talent Code”, Daniel Coyle talks of talent being about the ability to perform what he calls “deliberate practice” – practice where the level of concentration is so deep that it cannot be replicated for long periods. He discusses focusing in practice with such attention to detail that it is a struggle to maintain and how this level of focus is essential to the process of “myelination” (traditionally referred to as muscle memory). He also talks about the importance of an initial spark, an event that creates long term love for the activity, with long term commitment being seen as essential to mastery.

Out of interest, both authors do credit the importance of hard work in their books, which I think can accurately be summed up by the following:

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”


So what is it then?

Essentially, what we arrive at from looking at two of the most widely read books on the subject, with polar opposite opinions, is the conclusion that there is no simple answer. From all of my reading and researching and debating, the best description of talent I have found (and the one I find myself agreeing with most) is:

Talent quote.png


Playing the system...

So, if we accept that the environment is critical to the development of talent, how can we optimise the systems we work in to maximise the development of our people?

The Swedish academic Kristoffer Henriksen has spent a great deal of time researching highly successful Olympic sports programmes (programmes which have continued to produce medallists at multiple Olympic games over many cycles), to determine what characteristics of their development pathways are common. It is a wide ranging and highly interesting PhD study (and well worth a read if you are interested in the exact detail, all 192 pages of it). I have created a summary of the 8 key elements of optimal talent development environments (TDE’s) below. For each I have included descriptions of the optimal scenarios for talent development and also example scenarios which will likely have a negative effect on said development.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and there will many other factors that play a part in the equation, but if organisations can get these elements right, they will be well on the way to optimising their environment and therefore maximising the potential they have within.


  1. Create training groups with supportive relationships.
    Optimal: Opportunities for inclusion in group training, supportive relationships and friendships in group, good communications. 
    Negative effect: Individualised training at an early start, training alone, low cohesion in the group, inter-group rivalry, performance is a criteria for inclusion.
  2. Have proximal role models.
    Optimal: Community of practice includes prospective and current elite athletes: opportunities to train with the elite athletes who are willing to pass on their knowledge. Coaches/staff display behaviours of elite role models.
    Negative effect: Airtight boundaries between athletes at different levels, elite athletes keep their secrets and regard prospects as future rivals
  3. Build support of sporting goals from the wider environment.
    Optimal: Opportunities to focus on the sport: work, family, friends etc acknowledge and accept the athlete’s dedication to the sport, organisations build relationships across all parties.
    Negative effect: Non-sport environment shows lack of understanding of elite sport and the demands involved, organisation doesn’t engage with wider environment.
  4. Give support for the development of psycho-social skills.
    Optimal: Opportunities to develop skills and competencies that are of benefit outside the sporting domain; considering athletes as “whole human beings.”
    Negative effect: Focus solely on sport and winning at any cost, excessive control from coaches, focus not on personal improvement but on relative performance level, which devalues learning and development.
  5. Promote training that allows for diversification.
    Optimal: Opportunities to sample different sports during early phases, integration of different sports into daily routine.
    Negative effect: Promoting early specialisation, focus solely on developing sport specific skills, considering athletes interest in trying other sports to be a potential threat.
  6. Focus on long term development.
    Optimal: Focus on long term development of the athlete rather than early success.
    Negative effect: Focus on short term success, new athletes already seen as and treated like mature athletes.
  7. Create a strong and coherent organisational culture.
    Optimal: Organisational culture characterised by coherence between behaviours, espoused values and basic assumptions, culture provides stability to the group and supports a learning environment.
    Negative effect: Fragmented culture in which espoused values do not correspond to actions/behaviours: uncertainty and confusion amongst coaches, support staff and athletes, lack of common vision.

  8. Promote integration of effort.
    Optimal: Coordination and communication between sport, school/work/family and other components, athlete experiences concordance and synergy in daily life
    Negative effect: Lack of communication, conflicting interests, athletes experience many and contradicting pulls in daily life.


so what?

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to talent development, there are no guarantees that a selected athlete or individual will fulfil the potential that has been seen in them. However, by cultivating an environment which aligns to the 8 principles above you give those in your programme or organisation the best opportunity to maximise their potential.

If you would like help optimising your training environment please contact us here to enquire about our coach mentoring or business coaching packages, or leave a comment below.