Room for improvement. Talent

I just wrote a  rather challenging article (in Dutch): “I don’t give a penny for a talent…..”

So what does talent really mean? Being better than your peers at a young age? But that might tell us more about you level of maturation or your level of training than about your real talent.

Or does it mean the ability to spend 10.000 hours in deliberate practice of your specific sports?

Or that ability to endure your coaches, going through the stress, frustrations and set-backs that seem to be part of the life of an athlete.

Or is a talent somebody who develops his/her real potential as an athlete as a mature athlete?

Or just: having the right genes?

The reality is that with talent we often mean: a young person who has the potential to excel compared to his/her peers at a later age.

The real problem is: how do we know this at a younger age? Can we predict who is going to do well  in 10-15 years time? And here is the real problem: we don’t really! We just try to improve on coincidence and luck or bad luck.

Think for a moment about how much time, money and effort we spend each year selecting, coaching and supporting athletes that never make it to the top, despite their promises and our predictions. If only we would have know that before …… we could have shifted those resources towards the athletes that eventually made it or make it.

Considering this, we can look at the graph below.


There are four quadrants:

1. an athlete is considered to be a talent at young age and indeed fulfils that promise and becomes a world class athlete. (a true positive)

2. an athlete is considered to be a talent at young age, but does not become a world class athlete (a false positive)

3. an athlete is considered not to be a talent at a young age and indeed never becomes a world class athlete (a true negative)

4. an athlete is considered not to be a talent at a young age but despite that idea still becomes a world class athlete (a false negative)

As a talent scout you did a good job when all of your athletes are in quadrant 1 and 3 (green starts) , but you did a bad job if you have too many athletes in group 2 and 4(red stars), because you bet on the wrong horses.

In the former East Block states, especially in the former GDR, a rigorous  and successful talent scouting system existed.

But we realize that a massive, rigid, state-supported system like this is only possible in authoritarian states, where you nor your children hardly have any way to object.

Once there was some good ideas: 1. why not analyzing the characteristics of the elite athlete (profiling), so we know what is necessary to get to the top,  and 2. tracing back their development till a young age, like: how fast did Usain Bolt run when he was 12 years old, 13 seconds or 16 seconds?  The idea is that a real talent should match this profile and development as close as possible. And here we got stuck for several reasons:

-even at world class level, athletes display a wide variation in high-performance variables, elite athletes come in all shapes, sizes, personalities, and qualities, there is very little consensus. The common qualities are way to broad to draw relevant conclusions.

-some scientists say that one has to start and specialize early in order to make that 10.000 hours as early as possible, however others consider a wide range of motor skills a perfect foundation for elite performance later on and so they prefer late specialization. This makes it difficult to compare the age-related development with the elite athletes.  Against every example you have of athletes that started practicing at a real early age, you for sure have as many examples of athletes that did/do as well but started at a much later age!  Real life doesn’t give the right direction here, or maybe it does! Maybe it is better within the same sport, for some athletes to start at an early age, while for others a later start might be better!! Maybe they would have gotten bored or injured when they would have started and specialized so early.

-the profile of the elite athlete might shift over time, like e.g. the body weight and size of American Football players, or  one can argue that since the successes of Usain Bolt in the 100 meter, one might start thinking that tall guys (1.96 meter) can sprint as well.

-assumptions about genetic influence on sports performance have not been adequately proven. Since sports performance is a complex, multi-faceted activity, we can only be sure that at least many hundreds or thousands of different genes somehow will have their impact on performance.  A single gene predicting sports performance has proven to be wrong.

So what do to now?

First of all start reading the book “The right stuff” by Tom Wolfe, about the selection of the first American astronauts going into space, in which the problems of selection become very clear.

In my opinion a one-sided, simple approach can never be the solution to a complex problem. Talent has to be approached from all levels and all angles, by a multidisciplinary approach. Not to accurately predict who is going to be an elite athlete and who is not, because there will always be the X-factor that defies norms and rules. But to help us to be ‘lucky” more often in the future.

We could approach talent scouting from:



-biochemistry and molecular biology




-genetic and genomics

-systems biology


-knowledge of each sport itself

And probably you can think of a few other fields to complete the structure in which talent-selection should take place. Not only will this lead to a better allocation of our resources, but it will also prevent athletes from injuries and from frustrations of training. This might prevent them spending the best years of their lives with very little chance to succeed. Not everybody is born to run: or as I said in the past: “jumping is for cats, not for cows”.