Joe Baker, talent development expert, challenges coaches to reflect on their current selection processes and asks: what are the ideal conditions for talent to grow?
Given Joe Baker has been researching the development of elite athletes for over 20 years his response to the question “what is talent?” comes as quite a surprise.
“We’ve realised we actually don’t know a lot about it,” admits Baker, who is a sport scientist at York University in Canada, and one of the most respected and well published researchers in the field of expertise, talent development and lifelong physical activity.
“Even though it’s this cornerstone of what we want coaches and sports scientists to do, we know almost nothing about how to select talent effectively and what talent looks like. We can’t even agree on a definition of what talent is,” he adds.
The Canadian recently visited St.George’s Park to deliver at a number of events and to help shape the new FA Level 3 course in Talent Identification. There was also an ‘open and honest’ discussion about recruitment in football with FA staff. One of the key conclusions was the idea of a ‘likelihood estimate’ to help guide talent selection.
“We need to look at the idea of ‘likelihood estimates’ which basically means: if you have access and opportunities to certain kinds of things, then it is more likely you’re going to be an elite athlete. It doesn’t mean you are, but it increases the likelihood,” explains Baker.
Unsurprisingly, ‘support’ comes out as the most important factor. But there are other key indicators such as: access to training facilities, opportunity to work with elite coaches and parental and financial support. Family members who have participated in elite sport - particularly older siblings – are also considered as positive indicators for a career in elite sport. But, as ever, there can be no guarantees.
“I always say that if you want to be an elite ice hockey player but you live in Australia, then that’s bad luck. But if you’re in Canada you’re in a different situation because of all the things that environment brings to you.
“Those two people are exactly the same at the start point, but because one happens to find themselves in a certain situation there’s a greater likelihood of success,” explains Baker.
For balance, he is quick to stress that there are many successful athletes who rise to the challenge of a lack of access and opportunity.
To help solve this complex riddle, Baker feels that all sports need to start a more ‘open and honest conversation’ about the approach to talent selection. Gathering research and data is one recommendation.
“The fact we know so little about the talent selection process means there is a lot of room for improvement.
“The downside of that is that it involves honest and frank discussions with coaches about how poor they might be at the moment with regards to something that is so fundamental to their job. It is not an easy conversation to have.”
This is not a problem exclusive to football, Baker explains.
“There has been research done into day-traders on the stock exchange. What they found is: the traders’ decision-making was poor, but their belief in their decision-making was absolute. It is quite often the same in sport.”
Tracking decision-making over a period of time and collecting better data about the players selected, rejected or released, is the recommended starting point. It’s only then that Baker says you can start to apply ‘science’ and start to look at how to remove bias and flaws in decision-making and evaluate the outcome.
In the absence of a long-term study into talent selection in football, what would Baker do in the short-term?
“The best approach is to provide everybody with as much support, resource and opportunity as possible. Then we don’t lose anybody who wants to stay in the system.
“However, the real world means that you have to make decisions about who stays and who goes. So I think all sports could provide more opportunities for players who exit the system and who may re-engage in the pathway later on.”
Baker suggests caution when considering to tell a young player “they’re not good enough”.
“Making that selection decision is one of the biggest jobs in sport today, because the repercussions are huge, especially early on.
“The elite 17 year-old who is released may well continue in the sport, but an U11 who is told they’re not good enough may not and could go on to look for something else.”
How much talent does Baker think has been lost as a result of such decision-making?
“We don’t know for sure, but it’s a lot.”