Talent ID & Management Part 3: Imperfect tools & sensible science

26 Jan 2016 Posted by
Here is part 3 of my ongoing Talent ID and management series.  If you missed the first two instalments, you can view them at the following links:

  1.  The strategic and tactical fundamentals of Talent – the budgeting decision
  2. Acceptable inefficiencies

Today I discuss what I think is an important concept in terms of managing expectations around how talent can be identified, and performance predicted.  It deals with the precision and resolution of the tools  we have at our disposal.

It’s important because our ability to identify a given young player as talented (having potential) is limited by those tools. We want to put a young player through a test battery, in addition to our subjective evaluation of their ability, in order to make that budgeting decision that drives resource allocation.

But these tests do not have the kind of resolution that people seem to expect of them. That is, they cannot identify with any certainty who will succeed, and who will fail. Our reluctance or inability to recognise this has lead to a ‘scorched earth’ attitude towards talent, where examples of players who are “missed” or misjudged by a system and its scouts are held up as proof that talent either does not exist or is over-rated (Tom Brady is the most common of these, Steph Curry recently did the rounds too). Therefore, because we do not have 20/20 vision when it comes to predicting a performance future, we choose blindness.

This video is an attempt to address that imbalance.

First, we can hopefully agree that tools for Talent ID can be imperfect without being worthless.  It need not be all or nothing, 20/20 or blindness.

Second, you must appreciate that the higher up the pathway you move, and the more elite your group of viable athletes, the less precise your ability to measure potential becomes.  Why?  Because in a truly elite group, made up of say, the top 1% of all athletes playing a sport, the difference between #1 and #200 is absolutely tiny.  Minuscule.

So, there is no test, no measurement, no physiological battery, that will be able to tell those players apart because they are so close together that their sporting future is determined by innumerable factors that cannot be measured.

It’s different when you compare me to a top level college player in the USA, or a rugby player in an Academy team in the UK. I’m not even in the conversation, and pretty much any test, tool or measurement will tell you that. The gap is large enough that the resolution of those tests, however poor, is sufficient for its purpose. But when you start looking for differences between players in the top 1%, then it isn’t, and things that can’t be measured start to influence performance. This includes the favourite rallying cry of the talent deniers, hard work. Nobody ever suggested that hard work and smart training would not matter.

That is why Tom Brady, who clearly had SOME ability (he was offered a baseball contract straight out of high school, so his throwing ability was recognised very early), can succeed despite being the 199th pick, while others who are in the top 10 picks may ‘fail’.  It’s why Jaime Vardy of Leicester can go from playing non-league football to setting topflight records – he was at 99% already.

The tools didn’t fail, and nor did the concept of talent.  It’s more a reflection of the subjective nature of Talent ID, the relative imprecision of the tools, and the enormous complexity of providing the optimal environment for a player.  If you can appreciate this, then you are in a good position to capitalise on all those ‘undiscovered’ gems who actually have been discovered, but just not polished enough.

There’s a gold-mine out there, and good talent systems unearth them.  Your job, as a coach, a parent, a sports scientist, is to make sure you don’t lose sight of them because you’re stuck on the 0.0001% that are obvious.

Your best bet then, in terms of screening for talent and measuring performance, is to:

a) Make sure that you focus on trajectory rather than current ability.  That is, make the movie, rather than taking the still photograph, and;

b) Apply tools and measurement for different purposes at different stages of the pathway.  Your goal is to make sure that the top 5% are kept viable, which means getting them through each step of the pathway.  In Tom Brady’s and Steph Curry’s case, this means exposing them at high school, and making sure they are picked into the US-college system.

Once there, competition and continued exposure will reveal who makes the next step, into the top 1% (entering the draft and being selected, even if it is 199th).  And then, it is up to competition and ‘intangibles’ to make the top 0.01%.

So be mindful, and use common sense!  I’m not writing an essay though, the video below is long enough, so enjoy, and see you for Part 4 soon!