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The problem with Talent Identification Schemes

In 2005 Sebastian Coe presented the London 2012 vision: "To make an Olympic champion it takes eight Olympic finalists. To make Olympic finalists, it takes 80 Olympians. To make 80 Olympians it takes 202 national champions, to make national champions it takes thousands of athletes. To make athletes it takes millions of children around the world to be inspired to choose sport". This statement paired with the impressive bid video and the Heather Small soundtrack almost brought tears to my eyes. But behind this inspirational message is the harsher and darker reality of Talent Identification schemes.

It seems obvious that sporting organisations should try and identify the very best footballers, gymnasts, swimmers, cyclists at an early stage to maintain our success as a sporting nation. But what is the impact of that on the young individuals concerned? Increasingly children who have been "inspired to choose sport" don't just engage with that sport and enjoy the opportunities it provides, but they get presented with the goal of making it onto a program, or academy, or pathway. That is a tremendously exciting prospect for a 12 year old looking forwards and seeing that there is a route to them becoming like the athletes that inspired them. The problem is that these programmes are so selective that we are ensuring disappointment and a sense of failure for 96% of our young aspiring athletes. "Well that's a life lesson" some might say - but few other life goals are quite as difficult to attain as this. It is difficult to get to study Medicine or Law, but thousands each year are selected to do so. The selection statistics for Cambridge or Oxford are better than for talent identification pathways. Then add in the factor that this harsh pruning occurs at the ages of 14, 15, 17 when children (they are still children in terms of their emotions) are still in the process of constructing their own self image.

In my experience, having watched quite a few athletes within talent identification, the further they progress the worse it gets, and the bigger the psychological impact of being cut from a program and 'rejected'. In a number of sports there isn't much in the way of support for those who are excluded, or initially included, but subsequently dropped. In the sport I am most familiar with, cycling, there is tremendous energy generated during the U14 and U16 competition period where all the enthusiastic, inspired 12-15 year olds vie to be the best in the country, but there-after very little structure for the 96% that don't progress as the "best of the best". The concentration of funding is very much towards supporting the elite programs and academy pathways that feed those. That of course is what supports the fact that GB is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, cycling nation in the world. But when we step back from that - What is the point of Pendleton's, Trott's or Hoy's Golds in 2012 or Lizzie Armitstead's World Championship Gold in 2015? The influx of gold didn't raise the UK economy or standard of living. The point is that we want our leading athletes to win medals so they INSPIRE our youth to participate, as Seb stated above. BUT then we need to cherish and nurture that body of inspired youth so they continue beyond 13,14,17 and into adulthood as a new generation of fit, active, sport engaged citizens. I think some sporting organisations haven't really grasped that aspect of "legacy". As Heather blasts her chorus of "What have you done today to make you feel proud" many of our young 16 year old athletes on the fringes of talent indentification programs are saying "nothing I'm crap and I'm not good enough". I think thats not good enough.

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