Development of talent: How should we nurture talent? by Dr. Elferink

In her daily profession of assistant professor ‘Sports Sciences’ at the Center for Human Movement Sciences (University Medical Center, Groningen) Dr. Marije Elferink, together with many partners and colleagues, follows talented athletes in a variety of sports over time in order to determine what makes one athlete more successful than another.

In doing so they have been able to determine a few clear characteristics by which to compare many young talented athletes. What they found is that the ones that made it to the top had one thing in common: how they set their goals.
What they were trying to figure out is: who or what is talent? Is it something you can develop, or is something you need to have? They found it’s both. You can be born with a certain talent, but it’s how you handle that talent that defines where you end up.

The criterium of talent Dr. Elferink uses is as follows: a talented athlete performs better than peers during training and competition and has the potential to reach the top.

All kinds of factors are of influence on your success, sometimes rather arbitrary. For example In youth selection in sports there are certain age categories. The cut-off date per category is January first. That means that if you are born in January you are almost a year older than those in your category that are born in December. What we see is that the most talented ones are almost all born in the first three months. At the same time the ones from November or December that do show great talent, are the ones most likely to succeed in the long haul. We want to do something about arbitrary selections like that.

In order to change this Dr. Elferink tries to look at the interaction of the task. We take into account the antropometry, physiology, technique tactics, mental skills. But also maturation, learning curve and the conditions under which the performer grows. If you have a young athlete who didn’t train much, but has the same performance level as someone who has trained much longer, you have to take that into account.

We all know the 10-year rule or the 10.000 hours rule. Of course you have to train a lot, but it’s really not about making the hours. It’s about what you do in those hours. And at the same time it’s about being confident enough to take a step back and say no, or quite the opposite, do something extra when you feel that’s what’s best for you as a performer.

It’s not the more the better, it’s the better the more. Make sure there is an optimal relation between time and quality.

So what is better?

In their studies Dr. Elferink sees that starting at a young age is very important. However, don’t specialize too early. Other noteworthy advice she has: make for a challenging learning environment. Enable your kids to be curious, don’t tell them exactly what to do. Let them discover for themselves. Having concrete goals is very motivating for children, but they have to come up with their own goals,
instead of us telling them what their goals should be. That way they have fun trying to obtain their objectives.

Having fun is of the utmost importance.

What we know is this: the ones who know what to improve and how to do that, the ones who are the director of their own development, the ones who are motivated to improve and take action to do that, are the ones who make it to the top. They are the ones to make it to international elite levels.
This goes for the trainers too. It’s the trainers who give their trainees room to do thing their own way, the trainers who stimulate autonomous behavior, whose trainees ultimately are the most successful.

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