Are Justin Verlander and Calvin Johnson elite athletes because they were lucky enough to have the right parents? Or are they superstar athletes because they were exposed to an ideal environment that afforded them the opportunity to develop their talents?
I recently heard an interview with Joe Baker, PhD Applied Exercise Science at Queens University (Canada), an expert in the field of talent identification and research.
I came away from the interview with several points that all young athletes, coaches, parents and youth sport organizations should pay close attention to.
As coaches we need to focus our efforts on the factors that we can control or influence within the training environment. While genes are important Dr. Baker says “forget about them because you have no control over that part of the equation.”
Research clearly demonstrates that genes are not deterministic. Further, because of the complex interaction between the genes you are born with and the training environment that you are exposed to we won’t even know whether a person has the right genetic make-up to become an elite athlete until they’ve already been through the optimal training environment.
This is good news for coaches because we can dramatically improve our young athletes’ chances for future success IF we concentrate on creating an optimal training environment for kids to develop athletically while also providing them with high-quality training. This also means the kids can stop blaming their parents for their apparent lack of athletic talent at least from a genetic perspective (environment and training opportunities are well within a parents control).
What exactly is the ideal/optimal training environment? By now I am certain you have heard of the “10,000 hour” rule. It has become popularized in the media and is the subject of many books, most prominently in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  The theory is that in order to become an expert in any field (athletics) you have to devote 10,000 hours of specific practice/training to one domain (sport). Too much focus has been placed upon an arbitrary number and the real message has been lost. The culture you practice in and the quality of the training are much more important than the sheer quantity of time spent devoted to deliberate practice.
If I shoot 10,000 basketball jump shots a week for 5 years with lousy technique I would likely be a very flawed and inconsistent shooter. On the other hand if I were to shoot just 1000 shots a week for 5 years with very strong fundamental technique along with great effort and concentration I would become better and a more consistent shooter than the athlete who “lives” in the gym but never seems to improve or perform when the pressure is on. Plus, I could spend all my extra time improving my speed and endurance while the other guys is clanging away on the court.
It’s not the amount of time you devote to a task but the quality of that time that determines how well the skill will be developed and honed.
That said, to serve all athletes and ensure we are providing the coaching they need all sport development should be based upon long-term goals. Coaches need to implement developmental systems within their sport that will allow them to break down each season with developmentally appropriate goals for the team as a whole and for each individual athlete. Then you schedule and build out your practices to lead the team/athletes where you want them to be at the end of the season.
Other environmental factors that must be considered are the culture that you are developed in as well as your birthplace. From a cultural perspective if you want o be a football player America is the place to be, soccer in Europe and hockey in Canada are also examples of how the culture influences sports development. Certain sports depending on the country or region/state (baseball in the South and Southwest, Lacrosse in the Northeast) you are developed in are better supported through the availability of facilities, better coaching, and even tradition (football Alabama, lacrosse Duke, basketball Kentucky).
Where you are born also affects future success. Smaller suburban centers are more likely to produce elite athletes. Just 1% of the U.S. population resides in cities between 50,000 and 100,000 residents, yet cities of this size produce 16.8% of Major League Baseball players, 11% of PGA golfers and 17.2% of American born National Hockey League players.  The best way to explain these demographics may come down to accessibility. If you are a young athlete in Toronto, Canada finding ice time may be difficult because of the demands on facilities. Ice time is likely booked months ahead of time and with higher demand for their space a facility will charge more squeezing out certain athletes because they can’t afford it. This also excludes many kids that may just want to try the sport or just play for fun.
So in this scenario athletes are eliminated from the talent pool strictly due to financial constraints or lack of opportunity. It is then reasonable to suggest given this information that athletes with the most long-term potential may never even get an opportunity to compete.
If where you are born can make a difference what about when you are born? Currently, most athletic training and competition programs are based upon chronological age much like our academic system. However, athletes of the same age between 10 and 16 can be 4 to 5 years apart developmentally. Though the use of chronological age may be easier to manage it shouldn’t be a reason to perpetuate a system that is clearly flawed.
Consider the following evidence:
Of the 28 members on the U.S. Boys U15 National Soccer Team (all with birth year of 1998), 17 were born in the first 4 months of the year and only one of the athletes was born after September. 
Of the 66 members on the U.S. Girls U15 National Select Soccer Team (birth year 1998), 30 were born in the first 4 months of the year and only 11 after September. 
Of the 18 members on the U.S. Boys U12 National Select Baseball Team (all born in 2001 except for one born in ’02), 11 were born in the first 4 months of the year and only 3 after August. 
Of the 54 members on the Men’s Junior National Hockey Team (born in 1994 or ’95), 20 were born in the first 4 months of ’94 and only 6 after July of ’95. 
It is highly unlikely that there are fewer athletes with long-term potential born in the last quarter of the year than in the first quarter but upon inspection of national select team rosters the early births are disproportionately represented. Have you ever heard of a “late bloomer”? With this set-up you’ll be hearing that term a lot less than ever before because if you are unlucky enough to be born at the tail end of a league or programs “cut-off” date you are at a huge disadvantage. The current system for developing and selecting athletes in this country rewards early-maturing athletes who may not have the ability to be elite performers. Late developing athletes are excluded, cut, and consequently leave the sport or are segregated to recreation program that limit training opportunities and instruction from advanced coaches. These late developers may have substantial long-term potential but they are eliminated from the talent pool prematurely.
Another key component of creating the optimal training environment is the concept of deliberate practice versus deliberate play. The current youth sporting culture in the U.S. has this backwards to a large degree. In the early stages of athletic development (6-13 years of age) deliberate play must dominate their sport/athletic exposures. Rigorous play over practice early in life is more effective because this is a period of discovery. Kids are forming their attitudes (likes/dislikes) toward sports and fitness and with unstructured play they aren’t constantly hammered with negative consequences (losing, getting cut, yelled at by coach) that could deter them from long-term participation.
At this stage kids are and should be more intrinsically motivated (fun, being with friends) and we want to fill their emotional buckets so they keep coming back to the “physical fitness” well. They don’t require nor do they need much in the way of “feedback” from coaches, who just need to create an environment where kids feel that it’s safe to take chances and experiment with movement. This is the proving ground from which elite athletes are molded.
Deliberate practice on the other hand offers highly specific and rigorous training. Kids start to train like adults and that brings along with it plenty of social consequences and pressures. Kids at this point are motivated more by extrinsic factors such as winning, scholarships, awards, trophies and recognition. A little bit of the joy begins to leak from those emotional buckets as they begin to sacrifice time with friends and family because they feel pressured to take sports more seriously now that the aforementioned extrinsic factors are at stake. If too much emphasis is placed upon those extrinsic factors we run the possibility of depleting them emotionally. With no joy or passion the drive to excel will also be vanquished.
So beyond this complex mish-mash of environmental influences what are the essential cogs, the “holy grail” for developing elite athletes?
It must start with kids that are intrinsically motivated and the process must be encouraged rather than dominated by coaches, i.e. the coach can’t want “it” more than the athlete does. The essential cogs to the athletic development machine are commitment and motivation from the athletes. They must be driven by their desire to master the task and the willpower to persevere through the inevitable ups and downs inherent in sport.
From a coaching perspective it is essential that we match the environment to the needs of the performer, in other words we have to meet them where they are. As an example you may have skilled athlete that fatigues easily and his/her skills deteriorate at the end of games or even a competitive season. The answer is not additional skill practice but rather we must improve their stamina and endurance in order for that athlete to express their skill consistently throughout an entire game/season.
Coaches also need to maintain the delicate balance between being comfortable and uncomfortable. We want the athletes to succeed and build confidence by exposing them to things they can handle but we also have to (when the time is right) encourage them to test themselves on that uncomfortable edge so they can continue to improve, being mindful not to overwhelm them.
Finally, all coaches must firmly comprehend that talent development is not a linear process. Kids bodies are always changing; they can literally be a different person from day to day due to the maturation and growth process. Emotional and social development is also a factor that must be considered. Kids are experiencing many things for the first time when everything in their life is in a constant state of discovery, experimentation and formation. Often your “outstanding” 12 year-old may hit a wall and lose all sense of coordination, often times without explanation. But this “regression” may be just what that athlete needs to make the next leap forward in their development. These factors are largely outside of our control but we do have to understand them so that we are prepared to handle it in order to adapt the training environment to meet the current needs of that athlete.
From an athletic standpoint it is critical that our athletes be highly adaptable. This means they must have robust and broad athletic exposures during the developmental years. Athletes who posses a large foundation of non-specific athleticism can cope with predictable and unpredictable situations and are able to succeed in any environment.
As an example the International Track and Field Association recently introduced a change that involved when the athlete had to release the pole when they go over the crossbar. That may not seem like a drastic change but those athletes had spent their entire careers training one way. If a change is introduced in your sport how well will your athletes adapt to it? Will they be able to handle the change? Without highly adaptive athletic ability it would be very difficult and could result in a significant drop in performance. Sports rules are always subject to change especially given the increased attention paid to player safety. Prepare for the unexpected in sport change is inevitable!
In summary, athletes have yet to reach their ultimate ceiling of potential where the perfect genetic profile is a prerequisite for future success. The ability to indentify a single gene (or sequence of genes) that is responsible for sports performance (say a baseball pitching gene) is just not possible. And if and when it does become a reality we still won’t know for sure until they have proven themselves to be an elite athlete. And this would only be possible after the developmental process has been “lived through.”
Genetics should not be a consideration when developing young athletes because it is a factor that lies well outside of our influence and would be rather pointless to pursue. Kids have enough trouble getting adequate sleep, eating enough fruit and vegetable, and gaining a diverse athletic foundation outside of a sport-specific environment. Once these areas have been addressed then we can start to tackle more advanced concepts like post/pre competition nutrition, examining genetic profiles and addressing an individuals’ fast-twitch muscle fiber composition. But in reality, most kids will never get to that point during their school years (K-12). Leave the advanced stuff alone until college where the universities have the personnel, resources and facilities to adequately address them.
Our time is better spent meeting the kids where they are by improving the environment and overhauling a developmental infrastructure that has become strikingly flawed! When these areas are adequately addressed then we have a better chance of providing those that do have the essential cogs (mental durability and the will to master their craft-intrinsic motivation) for athletic success to reach their ultimate potential.
 Joe, Baker and Steve Cobley. Talent Identification and Development in Sport: International Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.