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Sports Science: Servant or Master?
July 13, 2018
Sport Science: Servant or Master? Last month I attended Vern Gambetta’s GAIN conference in Houston, Texas.  A great mix of practical sessions, seminars and informal idea sharing, it is my annual chance to take time out and immerse myself in learning. I shall be sharing some of the ideas and insights learnt this year. The […]

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The Talent ID Bun Fight

“I feel pressurised as a parent to choose between sports for my daughters”.

talent id netball hockeySaid a concerned Mum at a recent workshop. She is far from alone. Talent identification has been misused by sports as an excuse for working kids too early and too hard.

Well meaning, but concerned, parents are being asked to ferry their children from “selection camp” to “regional centre” to “talent pathway nuclei” (O.K. I made that last one up).

They are often told that if their child fails to attend, then their sporting career is over.... at 14! Is that true?

Research consistently shows that elite sports performers come from a diverse sporting background, and only specialised at around 15-16 years old (1). Most often they are late maturers.

NGBS are trying to select “talent” at 13-14 years old and keep them in their own pathway. They recognise that there is massive competition between sports, this is especially true with female athletes who are good at both Netball and Hockey.

But “talent” really is hard to identify until after puberty and some maturation- about 16 years old. What NGBS are selecting is often “early maturers” or “early birth date” children. This is a temporary advantage that is eliminated when the children get to be 17-19 years old.

Selection is also reliant on “devoted parents“: simply those parents who can survive the Corinthian task of organising the logistics of attending all these sessions.

Examples of the madness

Hockey says that players need to come up through its “Single System“. This requires endless camps and selection days, with selectors looking at who made it on the squad last year, rather than who is the current best player.

This means a desperate rush to get onto the Under-16s squad so that you are “in the system”.

talent pathway devonAnyone on the Under 18s squad is supposed to sign up to the AASE programme which requires extra sessions in Bristol every week.

Is that necessary for kids who are already studying for 3-4 A levels? They hardly need to be part of an apprenticeship.

Netball players in Devon have to choose between training in Bath or Truro (2 hours drive each way) every week if they want to progress.

One 15 year old I coach told Netball South West that she was struggling to get her homework done in GCSE year, she was told “do your homework in the car”.

Another Netballer was told “to move to a school closer to the Talent and Performance Centre in Bath” ! Who are these people? Do they have any touch with reality?

Talent Development Model or Pay per Hour Model?

cricket talent

Too young to specialise

Cricket players are told to take part in “Winter nets” to stay in the county squad. The fact that year round training of a high impact activity increases the risk of spinal injury like Pars defects seems to be an afterthought.

Tennis is in it’s own mad race to the bottom. 

One “Talent ID” session in Exeter was looking at 5 year olds and whether they had a chopper grip serve: 5 years old! Is that talent or a learned activity? 

I see some local 13 year olds doing 30 hours of tennis a week! This is hardly necessary at this age: what it does is line the pockets of coaches.

It is a pay per hour model (thanks to Brendan Chaplin for pointing this out to me).

It is recommended that young athletes have 2-3 months off from their sport each year to prevent burnout (1).

They could use this time to play another sport, and allow their bodies to grow, develop and recover from the one sided dominant nature of tennis or cricket or golf.

More importantly, they could play in the park with their mates. Middle class parents especially may be hampering their child’s development through over formalising the process. Kids who spend more than hours a week than their age in organised sports are at greater injury risk (4).

But how would the coach earn money in that case?

Unfortunately, I rarely see a good looking athlete with a tennis racquet or cricket bat. Instead, I see a lot of early specialisers who lack all round physical skills that will help their Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) (research articles on that link).

Note to Parents

Your child’s health and well being is paramount. All else is secondary to that. Whilst you may be under pressure to make a decision that affects your child’s selection in the next month, be aware that there is no evidence that early specialisation has any benefit.

In fact, early specialisation is fraught with danger: risk of overuse, injury and burnout (3). Remember that the NGBS are trying to capture your child early for their benefit: they need numbers, and they are worried about another sport getting them!

The model shown below shows 3 different strands of Talent development and the potential outcomes (thanks to Professor Jean Côté for sharing).talent development pathway

Here are the key points you may wish to consider:

  1. talend development in hockay and netballEarly participation is great, early specialisation less so.
  2. Your child needs an off season from their sport: every year.
  3. Motor skill learning is dependent on “trial and error” and “free play“. The body learns better when the brain is free from too much technical instruction. Kick about games in the local park are essential.
  4. Variety of sport and activity is crucial: water, land, jumping, bat and ball, bike, horse, board, individual, team. Get your child to taste everything: informally at first.
  5. Competition is great: but led by kids, rather than an adult imposed top down model. Let them win and lose the street “British Bulldog Championships” and come home with scraped knees. Better than the under -12s regional 11 a side “must win” football tournament led by parents..
  6. Play, play, play: a minimum ratio of 1 hour of play for every hour of organised activity is recommended to reduce injury risk (4).

If your child is being forced to choose: take a deep breath and gain a sense of perspective. Having fun and some down time is important for their development. It is a long term approach.

Further reading


  1. P. Ford, M. De Ste Croix, R. Lloyd, R. Meyers, M. Moosavi, J. Oliver, K. Till, and C. Williams, “The Long-Term Athlete Development model: Physiological evidence and application”, Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 29, pp. 389-402, 2011
  2. Brenner, J. S. (2007). Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. Pediatrics, 119, 1242-1245.
  3. Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM,2014).
  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. “Sports specialization, hours spent in organized sports may predict young athlete injury.” ScienceDaily, 28 October 2013


  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi James,

    I have read all of the comments above and was interested to know what type of model you think works that exists? Or what you think the ideal model would like for a sporty, athletic junior?

    Are their existing practical models currently which seem to work?


  2. James Marshall says:

    Hi Richard,
    did you see the diagram from Cote? A broad sampling and participation is best. However, even though sports say they agree with this, in reality they ask the “talented 9 year old” to come along twice a week. That stops them from doing something else, or playing!
    All of this is done retrospectively as there are no longitudinal models comparing different systems.

    Throw the school chaos into the mix and it is very hard.
    Hence why I set up the Athletic Development Centre: to offer that base over time, where the members then play a sport of their choice outside.
    I have seen too many broken bodies, minds and spirits over the last 10 years.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi James,

    Yes I have just looked further into it and read a few journal pieces on motivations of young children as well how coaches can influence participation. Unfortunately I cannot access the document you are referring to above so I have e-mailed Dr Jean Cote to see if I can gain access to the document. Do you have a copy perhaps that I could look at further?
    My reading unfortunately and interestingly has only brought about more questions. 1. The research I have read only looks at individual sports 2. The research has been done in Canada I think which will have a totally different set up for developing sport Club Vs School, Winning Vs Skill Development. Do we have any research from the UK worth reading?
    I also think that at some point people get to the stage where they drop out of certain activities. If you specialize earlier I think you will drop out earlier. So what’s the best age for our athletes to be specializing, well it’s probably connected to the team and when we think they will peak best in each sport. My instincts say Elite sports want teams to peak together at the same time, perhaps 18-23? Is our body in it’s best state, is our mind in it’s freshest state at this age? Physiologically I am sure you will be able to answer that but psychologically it’s more difficult to answer. We have many influences posed on us, money, education, family influences, motivations.
    It’s a fascinating discussion and it’s one that’s critical to our nation with obesity levels rising. What’s your motivation for sports development? Is it long term participation or elite performance or both?


  4. James Marshall says:

    Hi Richard, if you email me I can send you some relevant journal articles and a great chapter of book.

  5. Anonymous says:

    As much as I dislike early specialisation, I wonder how many of the current top 32 tennis players played competitive rugby/football/netball/swam etc until they were 14?

  6. James Marshall says:

    To the last anonymous comment ( please leave your name): early sampling means playing different sports and many different aspects of deliberate play. That is different from “competitive rugby until 14etc”.
    Playing/ participating.

  7. […] The Talent ID bun fight A look at why young people who are good at sport are in danger of injury and burnout. The system in the UK that has National Governing Bodies scrabbling for funding by increasing “participation” leads to a nightmare for parents. […]

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