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Search for Talent

nick ruddock Aug 18, 2017

It’s been a while since i’ve written a blog and it was about time I got back in to my flow, so here we are, this one’s about talent. Not the usual ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, but about how important it is to ensure that we match our high performance aspirations with athletes of the right nature to help those dreams materialise.

Talent is in abundance. It’s everywhere, you just need to find it. I’m often told, ‘we don’t have any talent in this neck of the woods’ which is basically an excuse for not being proactive enough to source talent, as opposed to waiting for it to walk through the gym doors.

Far too many clubs are relying on their existing membership base and the athletes within the recreational and pre school programs to pick their talent for high performance. They are both greatoptions, but coaches and clubs should not ignore the abundance of opportunity outside of their gym walls to seek great talent also.

Here are a few ideas:

School partnerships – Build a relationship with the local primary schools, either by having your gym staff deliver gymnastics classes on behalf of the school or by training the school teachers to deliver their classes better. The reason? Having the opportunity to scout for future performance talent!

Waiting list – If your gym has a waiting list of a few hundred kids, then not only should you be offering SOMETHING to keep that list engaged, but you may also have a potential Olympian sitting waiting for their class. Before long, that child may either a) go elsewhere, or b) try a different sport. Running regular exclusive days just for your waiting list (holidays are a great time) keeps them engaged and ensures you don’t miss out on any future talent.

Running regular talent ID days – You don’t need to package this up as a ‘talent ID day’ for the external world, but running frequent ‘try gymnastics’ days or camps for a specific age group is a fantastic way to get kids through the door. If they don’t fit your ‘talent profile’, then they can be offered a spot in your recreational programs. Clubs often do this once or twice a year. I’d be ensuring my class timetable/schedule allows me to do this every single month for different kids (from a talent ID perspective, there is little merit in inviting the same kids back if you’ve already seen them and they are definitely not suitable.)

For those clubs struggling to reach the relevant parents, a short phone call with a marketing consultant or digital marketer will have you clued up on how to tap into that audience. Parents are ready and waiting, you just need to present your opportunities to them. Facebook is the best place …

If you’re over capacity, happy days! Start a satellite club. It’s that simple. If you have 500 kids on a waiting list, it makes no financial, community or talent ID sense to have them just sitting there doing nothing! Find a local space which can act as a feeder club into the main centre, and accommodate as many kids as possible. It’s better for your members and better for your talent search!

So we’ve briefly covered finding new talent. What about keeping it, and making sure it’s of the right calibre?

You can’t turn a donkey into a racehorse, or polish a rock into a diamond, it’s a fact. There needs to be SOME ability there.

I believe in a talent ‘threshold’.

The talent threshold recognises there is a baseline level of ability (‘talent’) required to be a performance athlete. Some athletes will far exceed this baseline level, others be close to it. As long as you are above it, you’ve got a shot of making it. We all know that talent is just potential, and without the other ingredients, you’re not getting far.

Athletes who are way above the threshold have talent that ‘screams’, whilst those close to the line have talent that ‘whispers’. But here lies a problem, and one that i’m concerned about.

In gymnastics, at the common ages of talent selection, it’s not always obvious how much talent the gymnasts has. How can it be at 7 years old?

I understand we are an early specialisation sport, that is fact, but there is NO obligation to decide the fate of an athlete’s future at the age of 7. That is purely a choice. And this decision to move kids into ‘elite’ groups at 7 is causing serious problems.

I advise clubs to wait until the very last minute before they decide the fate of their athletes, and even then, ensure there are multiple avenues for the athlete to flourish, progress at their own pace and ensure they stay on the wagon.

The talent that whispers may just need some coaching, training volume and opportunity in order to flourish, and who knows, their hard work may see them surpass the performance of their ‘super talented’ peers.

Club programmes (and national programs at that) should be as INCLUSIVE as possible, not EXCLUSIVE at a foundational, talent end. Deselecting kids through exclusivity is counter intuitive at all levels.

Many clubs are becoming EXCLUSIVE to just a few as they know hard the elite path is, and that it is far from ideal having to ‘select’ and ‘deselect’ young athletes within a period of a year or so, damaging the athletes’ self esteem and becoming a spanner in the works with their group positioning in the club. So to avoid this situation they are only selecting the very obvious talents – but there are so many other contributing factors to success than just raw ability and skills that the ‘talent that whispers’ may have an abundance of.

A common challenge of clubs I visit is that their performance pathway is not set up to transition athletes through different groups without hitting a major junction where they need to decide at 7 years old if a child is talented enough for the next step.

The reality is that most clubs’ structures are sabotaging many of their athletes from ever reaching their potential. They move this young 7 year old from an ‘elite’ development group, where they decide they aren’t cutting it, to a lower performance group, where the self fulfilling prophecy states they will never fulfil their potential, even if that is not high performance.

When you read it, it sounds ridiculous doesn’t it. An elite group at 7 years old????

These athletes are moved ‘in’ to an elite group too early, and then moved ‘out’ promptly after, only to discover the clubs structure doesn’t really have anywhere to put them on their performance pathway. It becomes either ‘Performance’ or ‘Recreational’, and there is a big gap in the middle! This becomes particularly difficult when this transition happens at 9/10 years old, following a spell of graft on the elite path.

The objective with an excellent performance pathway should be:

1. To ensure all athletes have the opportunity to show their true potential
2. To ensure all athletes are accommodated at their relevant performance level to help them fulfil their potential
3. To ensure that each athlete has the opportunity to reach the very highest level of performance should they have the qualities
4. To ensure a smooth transition between groups, both up, down and across
5. To ensure poor decisions are not made about group positioning

What do I suggest to help remedy the issues?

A two tiered talent pool. Having a two tiered system extends the time you take deciding if the athlete is suitable for a spell on the ‘elite’ pathway. It avoids the necessity and urgency of moving kids immediately from the development groups into a shot at high performance, when the reality is that it is far too early:

The first layer of the ‘talent pool’ should be as large as possible, with multiple coaches assisting to keep the ratio’s healthy. The objective of this group is to have fun, establish basic understanding of shapes and skills, build some physical qualities and monitor how well the athletes respond to coaching. This really needs to be as big as possible. The smaller this number starts with, the smaller it ends. Parents shouldn’t believe this is anything more than a typical recreational class.

It’s always a great idea to know your numbers – how many kids that go into your talent pool end up at a benchmark level of performance. If you know this number, you know how many NEED to be in that group to get the number of athletes you desire out the other side. (For example, for every 20 athletes that are selected into the talent pool, we get 4 qualifying for elite.)

Coaches need to be mindful of comparing the participants and of the relative age effect (a bias towards those born earlier in the year as they will likely be ahead in maturation, physical qualities and motor skills than girls of the same year of birth but born later in the year. A few months can make a big difference when the girls are that young.)

If the young athletes are coping well and showing signs of progress, then there is no need to make the call just yet, that would be too early, but they can transition in to a new development group, an extended part of the talent pool that has smaller ratios of coach : athlete. The second tier takes physical preparation and skill development a bit further, and perhaps a slight increase in training volume.

By having a two tiered structure, you can ‘cherry pick’ the more advanced athletes out of the initial group, and spend some time with them in the second tier before making a judgment call. It could buy you another 6 months, which is a great chunk of time with athletes so young to help inform pathway decisions. The language used for these groups is essential. These are not ‘elite’ groups. They are not ‘squads.’ They are not ‘performance groups.’ I like the word ‘foundation’. Every athlete needs great foundations. Recreational or high performance.

Now, where the participants go from here is key. For most clubs, they simply pass from their talent pool into either Elite or back to Recreational. Where is the in between? We all know that the majority of athletes that try elite gymnastics won’t make it to a high performance level, so it is critical that a club structure accommodates the MAJORITY. Having a dedicated path for regional and county athletes is ideal.

If your elite path ends up passing athletes all the way back to recreational, then make sure you are reviewing your ‘Talent Profile.’ Your talent profile is what it is you’re actually looking for in an athlete. If your talent pool is not accurate or clearly defined, then you may end up trialling a huge number of kids that will never have what it takes, and that sucks up resources and time. It’s also unfair on those athletes.

You may be thinking this is a big structure, and in some ways you’re right. The earlier you can set these pathways the better. Poor athlete movement and allocation stifles EVERYBODY’S growth. Both athletes and coaches.

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