As we entered the new millennium on a night we thought the world was going to end, another phenomenon creeped into the picture. The early specialization of youth athletes at ages we simply cannot fathom. Talent identification took a whole new meaning as coaches across the country scattered to find the secret to creating the next Owen Hargraves, Sidney Crosby, Genie Bouchard, and the list could go on. There have been many articles explaining how the incredible skill of exploration was being removed from sport and life for millennials. In this post, we want to touch on a vastly misunderstood concept of Nature vs Nurture.
What is Nature vs Nurture?
Nature is the genetic capacity of the athlete which can be separated into a number of categories; motor/technical skills, perceptual/cognitive skills, psychological make up, physical attributes, and physiological characteristics (2). Nurture is the environment in which we place our athletes. This can be broken down into training, coaching/instruction, practice, family influences, and resources (2). These two essential concepts eventually lead to performance as seen in the diagram below.
The balance of these is a very undermined ability that coaches often forget about in the pursuit of performance, especially in team sports. What I mean by this is that coaches are dealing with puberty, which arguably can be the most important aspect of youth athlete development. Kids all over the world are being dropped from teams for being too small, too slow, too weak, etc. This can simply be because their team mates have hit puberty and have grown much larger than their other team mate who hasn’t hit puberty. In recent times, we can see players getting punished for the above traits we can’t control.
Talent development has many challenges amongst youth sport coaches. There is day to day variations and progressions in skill as well as the physical and cognitive maturation that require regular monitoring. Talent development models should acknowledge and nurture these progressions (1). Burgess, et al. has an extremely valid point in that identification of successful attributes in sport, should only serve as a guide for team selection (1). Game sense and decision making should be assessed in environments like game play as supposed to athletic performance settings like gyms (1).
What Burgess is explaining above shows that you could be working with a player who has incredible game knowledge and ability to read the play but lacks physical attributes. These players are sometimes being punished for this in the Canadian game, especially in Football/Soccer. During my time as a strength and conditioning coach, working mostly with adolescent athletes, the number of times I have seen this happen is alarming. Now I understand that coaches want to create a team that can battle physically on the pitch but there must be another system in place to help nurture our smaller, “late blooming” athletes. This doesn't mean every club is guilty of this, some are doing amazing work to balance development. It's our jobs to ensure this development pathway reaches every type of athlete and their own personal timeline for growth and maturation.
Every day I have conversations with coaches about the ability to balance nature vs nurture to identify potential elite athletes. We must nurture our players and create environments that work to their strengths and allows them to develop on their own pathway that suits their genetic make-up and their timeline for growth.
A great example of this concept of nurturing is the process of bio-banding that English youth clubs have experimented with. Bio-banding is the process of grouping athletes based on growth and maturation instead of chronological age. This takes the competition for size out of the equation and creates an equal training and playing environment.
Although this seems like a great idea, it does have some limitations including the psychological and technical aspects of the game. For example, a player may be able to handle playing larger opponents due to their immense technical ability. There are other equations we need to process before exploring bio-banding in Canadian clubs.
Who is Involved?
To say that coaches are the sole reason kids succeed in sport is a poor statement. As folklore tells us, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This is beyond true in youth athlete development. Once athletes are identified as having potential, these players should be placed in an environment that balances their talents while developing their weaknesses.
This is should be guided by the National governing body and implemented by a team of volunteers/staff. These include parents, coaches, teachers and peers. It should also include; nutrition, fitness, injury reduction, maturation, and game sense. We can’t forget that in the 21st century, these are impacted by social media, culture, and other activities. Please see the diagram below for an idea of how each of these play their roles.
If we don’t create a model that encourages all aspects of athlete development and focuses only on “adult attributes” such as strength, speed, and stamina, we will continue to fail our youth athletes in Canada. Physical maturation has become a key box for coaches to check when selecting a team, when more gifted and smaller players are falling through the cracks. This must change within Canada.
One of the diagrams that truly hit home for myself is one by Vaeyens, et al. where he breaks down talent identification into success. It is beyond complicated and as coaches we must do our best to incorporate all aspects of talent development and it must take place at the most critical point, which is when boys and girls are hitting puberty or their peak height velocity (PHV) (3).
Youth sports within Canada has become a business in an attempy to deliver the tools to create elite professional athletes. Many initiatives have been incredible in creating world-class talent but I believe we are forgetting some key aspects. Nature and nurture need to be looked at from a detailed perspective that outlines what kids need at a time when they are cruising along the chronological, training, and biological timeline of youth athlete development. Working together to create these environments is key and coordination amongst clubs, provincial organizations, and national governing bodies can mean the difference between success and failure.
If you have any questions about topics touched on in this post, please reach out as I would love to have more conversations regarding this crucial topic.
Author, Taylor Evernden
1. Darren J B and Geraldine A N. Talent development in adolescent team sports: a review. International journal of sports physiology and performance 5: 103-116, 2010.
2. Reilly T, Williams AM, Nevill A, and Franks A. A multidisciplinary approach to talent identification in soccer. Journal of sports sciences 18: 695-702, 2000.
3. Vaeyens R, Lenoir M, Williams AM, and Philippaerts RM. Talent identification and development programmes in sport. Sports medicine 38: 703-714, 2008.