Put Down the Crystal Ball and Teach


Talent identification.

As coaches we think we are good at it.

But science would suggest that we might not be as great as we think.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study about Canadian hockey players who were successful at the elite levels, noting that 40% were born in the first quarter of the calendar year.  Why?  Because in Canada youth hockey leagues determine eligibility by calendar year;  so, children born on January 1 play in the same league as those born on December 31 in the same year.   When the athletes are very young, the January to March children are bigger and more mature than their younger competitors born later in the year.  (A six to nine month age difference is huge when kids are 5, 6 and 7 years old).  As a result, these winter babies are often identified as better athletes, leading to extra coaching, by more exclusive coaches and, in turn, a higher likelihood of being selected for elite hockey leagues.

Might have kids born in the late fall, given the right training, attention from coaches and ability to play an extended season developed into players as good, or even better, than the winter babies?  The world may never know.

In an even more dramatic example, a 1964 study by Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal proved that teacher bias influences kids academic achievement.  His study was designed to see what would happen if teachers were told that certain kids in their class were destined to succeed.

Rosenthal told the teachers that the students were taking and exam that would predict which kids were posed to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ.  He then selected at random a group of kids telling the teachers that these students were the ones who were ready to excel. 

For two years Rosenthal followed the students and discovered that if the teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then those kids gained more IQ. 

It turns out that the teachers’ expectations affected the interactions with the children they taught in many, albeit subtle, ways.  For example, the teachers gave the “gifted” more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval, consistently touching, nodding and smiling at those kids more.

How does this play out in gymnastics?

Selecting precocious gymnasts, labeling them as “tops,” “rising stars” or “hot shots” and placing them in small ratio groups with our strongest coaches and more practice time then congratulating ourselves for our outstanding selection process when those kids excel.

There is actually a name for this phenomenon: the Pygmalion effect, named for the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved.

Have I ticked off many of you yet?

That isn’t my intention.  Instead, what I want to suggest is that we stop pretending that we are great identifiers of talent.  But, instead understand that what most of us are doing is selecting talent.  And then fulfilling our own prophecies by how we coach these kids.   

John O’Sullivan, a soccer coach and founder of Changing the Game movement, has some terrific recommendations how to move away from talent selection that isolates potential elite athletes and makes playing sports less fun for kids.  I encourage you to take a look at his blog, but in summary, they are:

Stop cutting athletes.  Or in gymnastics terms, let kids who want to try to be a part of the team try. 

Develop all athletes. 

Stop state and national championship competition at younger ages.  (O’Sullivan points out that a tiny total of 27 current Major League baseball players played in the Little League World Series).

Educate coaches about the difference between selecting and identifying talent. 

And I am going to add this:

Stop caring so much about talent.  Just work with the kids who are in your club.   To me, the measure of a good coach isn’t taking a kid who is talented and developing them, rather taking kids who lack talent and making them into athletes.   Cultivate kids with good character and watch them thrive. Remember: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

Our gyms are filled with kids who want to learn gymnastics, maybe be part of a team or not and who we have an opportunity to influence.  When we focus on only the top 20% (or 10% or 5%), we do a disservice to the rest of the kids whose parents are paying for instruction, love their kids as much as the “gifted” ones and deserve equal opportunity to thrive within our programs. 

Or, if a club does not ascribe to this, then have the integrity to be clear: some kids are more important than others.  Then have a strict cut program and make it clear that paying tuition is not a guarantee that all kids will have equal attention or access.  Parents have a right to understand what atmosphere they are choosing for their child.  

And to those parents who are reading this whose kid has been sidelined and is routinely ignored despite being present and practice and ready to work because the child is not scoring at the top of the team, I’m sorry.  Please go find a gym that values all athletes. 

By definition, not all kids can be “elite” and very few (in fact, now ever fewer) can be “olympians.”  But all can learn if they have coaches who are using their full attention to teach instead of staring into a crystal ball.

Coaches, worry less about looking into a crystal ball and teach.