We all want our children to succeed, we all want them to be the very best that they can be. It is also pretty cool if our children are thriving with their sport and at a young age look more capable than most.
The child we see on the football field that everyone is captivated by due to their skill, power and speed.
The cricketer who can bowl beautifully and smash the ball all over the ground, the swimmer who looks born to be in water and the rugby player who can make wonderful decisions based on their understanding and perceptions of the game in front of them.
However, before we get too carried away with what our children are achieving we need to be aware of some of the statistics around young top performing sports-people.
“Junior success is a poor indicator of long-term senior success. Their success at the age of 10 had a zero correlation with their success as a senior. Same was true with their success at 11-14, 15-18. We have a zero correlation.”
Professor Dr. Arne Güllich delivered this startling, yet now, not surprising statement at the 2016 Youth Athlete Development Conference.
This may be incredibly difficult to take as parent if you are hearing this for the first time. We can often be swept along by a tidal wave of adulation, praise from coaches and other parents, selection for talent programmes and before we know it we are ill prepared for the next stage of the sporting journey.
We all love to be given good news about our children. It make us feel good, proud, we grow a few inches, our demeanour improves and we like to tell a few people about it. This is a natural process that all of us will have encountered at some point in time.
As a result our expectation can soon start to outweigh our patience and some of the decisions that we make may not always be in the best long term interests of our children. I want us to pause for a moment if we have a child who is excelling at a young age and just think if our behaviours have potentially changed and have we managed to keep things in perspective?
Being told our children are talented or watching them perform considerably above their peers can stir a huge range of emotions of parents. Excitement, disbelief, nervousness and hundreds of questions that they probably want answered.
• Is the club or school your child is now playing at good enough?
• Is the coaching that you previously thought was good, challenging enough for your child?
• Do you have to drop everything else, specialise in one sport to maximise their chances of being successful?
• Should we give up family time to make this happen?
All of this based around the use of one word ‘talent?’ There is nothing wrong with the word itself.
The problem is that defining talent is far more difficult than we may think.
This article is not intended to crush any dreams that people may have but help provide a balanced and realistic perspective for what the sporting journey may actually look like.
I often tell the story in my own workshops about my own son who is in a category 1 football academy and there is more chance of me being hit by a meteor than him playing premiership football for that team. Do I tell him that? Of course not, we want children to dream, to aspire to be whatever they want to be.
However, I am the adult in the experience and it is vital that I do everything I can to ensure that he is not defined as a person by his football. It is my role to ensure that he plays a multitude of different sports, help support him to have so many strings to his bow in all facets of life and if the inevitable happens and he does not become a professional footballer, then he will thrive in whatever walk of life he chooses to take.
Some of you may ask why I am being so negative about this and the reason is that the statistics in a number of sports suggest he will not come out of the other end of the system as a professional player.
One of the biggest frustrations in the sporting world is that of talent identification as there can be so many flaws attached to it. Many early selections for groups are based on physical and emotional attributes often favouring certain individuals born earlier in the calendar year.
Some children who are selected into some of these groups may not necessarily be more talented than the next person but they have merely spent more time on task and had access to better coaching and facilities.
That is why it is essential as parents that we take a long term view and try to keep the sporting journey with our children as balanced as we possibly can. Hopefully, many of you will already be supported by the sports and the programmes that your children are currently involved in.
Here is some evidence for you to consider across a number of sports backing up Professor Dr. Arne Güllich that early success is not a prerequisite for long term success. We are not just talking the very best 11 year olds becoming top performers but also many junior athletes who have represented their country in a number of sports at U18 level not making a successful transition into professional adult sport.
In the world of athletics, research shows that very few who represent their country at the Junior World Championships go on to have success in the senior ranks. The full research article can be found here but the article concludes with,
‘Governing bodies may decide that the value to the minority of junior athletes who have later success at the senior level justifies the investment in this event, even though a majority of junior athletes sent to World Junior Championships will not go on to compete in senior championships.
The following data from the world of swimming that has been doing the rounds on social media recently shows that by being the best 10 year old for example the chances of carrying this through to even being the best 17/18 year old is very small. This is before we even get to the chances of then swimming the fastest times as an adult.
Patience is certainly key here and I know a number of swimming coaches who are really recognising the need for patience with younger swimmers and often cite Adam Peaty as an example of someone who did not hit the heights as a younger athlete.
According to Peaty, he did not take swimming seriously until he was 17 – he was preparing for a night out drinking with friends when he read that Craig Benson, whom he knew well from the junior circuit, made the semi-final of the 100m breaststroke at the 2012 London Olympics. This prompted him to reassess his priorities, and spurred him on to commit fully to swimming and train full-time.
Swimming parents please take note, I know how amazingly committed you all are to your children’s swimming but hopefully some of these stats will help you the next time your child swims a slower time, is not the best in their age group or perhaps misses out on some early selections.
Becoming a professional footballer is even more difficult. The statistics are really sobering. Out of all the boys who enter an academy at the age of 9, less than half of 1% make it, or a make a living from the game either.
The most damning statistic of all is only 180 of the 1.5 million players who are playing organised youth football in England at any one time will make it as a Premier League pro.
That’s a success rate of 0.012%.
We could continue with similar data across a wide range of sports showing the difficulties of children eventually becoming professionals, of junior teenage international athletes making the transition into the senior ranks and even U23 academy footballers making it in the men’s game.
My advice and support to you as sporting parents is that if your children are described as talented, enjoy the moment but treat it with a pinch of salt.
If they are selected for a performance squad at a young age, use it is an amazing opportunity for them to access some great coaching in fantastic environments. Use the environment to equip them with life skills and take all of the positive experiences that they can from it.
Don’t define them on their sporting prowess, ensure that you are helping to support and create a multi-faceted individual. Most importantly, be patient, keep a sense of perspective and whilst you may have dreams along with your children, don’t pack up for the Hollywood hills just yet!