Progressing Talent Development

Thursday, August 21, 2014

By Josh Humbler
Box Hill Hawks 

Top-level sporting organizations, such as AFL clubs, continue to invest considerable resources into development programs and science-based support systems (e.g. psychological counseling, physical conditioning, computer-based match analysis) as they view this as fundamental to the preparation of elite athletes. In order to guarantee this financial investment is effective, it is incumbent upon us as coaches to progress talent development within these programs.

The genesis of early development programs is far less reliant on theoretical development frameworks and shows a greater reliance on practical knowledge of its coaches. This form of practical knowledge entails, among other things: (a) knowledge of how to structure and represent academic content for direct teaching to players; (b) knowledge of the common conceptions, misconceptions, and difficulties that players encounter when learning particular content; and (c) knowledge of the specific teaching strategies that can be used to address players’ learning needs in particular classroom circumstances.

Key issues in development programs
Arguably, the greatest challenge within an AFL development program is the compressed nature of the timeframe for development once a draftee reaches an AFL list. A draftee will initially be provided with a two-year contract, in which time a decision will likely be made on the player’s long-term future at the club. Whilst a variety of factors such as flexibility, strength, endurance, and other mental, physical, technical and decision-making skills should be included, talent development programs should have long-term aims and strategies, implying the need to focus on those skills that: (i) are important at senior level; and (ii) enhance a youngster’s ability to learn, develop and progress successfully in the future. In contrast, if programs over-emphasise immediate performance outcomes as opposed to learning, these individuals may miss fundamental development experiences. In working within the confines of such a timeframe, the rate of maturation in athletes becomes a key issue. 

How development systems/models might assist 
The aim of talent development is to provide the most appropriate learning environment to realize the potential of players recruited to the club through the recruitment process. Whilst the use of coaching knowledge and expertise is recognized to play a key role, theoretical development systems may further progress talent development practices through providing guidance on the complex management of contributing influences on the development process. Furthermore development systems may inform on the relative contribution of nature and nurture in the development of talent.

Development Systems

Premise of development systems
The aim of talent development is to assist players in gaining the expertise needed to satisfy the constraints required in the AFL environment. Talent development research has led to the construction of models, an increasingly common approach in applied research and policy development. In a sporting context, the talent development models detailed below seek to represent the development process of athletes. Traditional models present sports development as a relatively linear progression along a continuum, from childhood to retirement. Although theoretical in nature, these models can be employed as a foundation to talent development programs. 

Balyi’s Long Term Athlete Development Model (LTAD) – Strengths and Weaknesses
The model that compares closely with current AFL practice is perhaps that of Istvan Balyi and his model of Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD). This development model, seen below in Figure 1, is conceptualized in terms of a series of stages through which players pass and the type of sport in question determines the precise timing and nature of these stages.

Figure 1. Balyi’s Long-Term Athlete Development Model

The LTAD model is a useful starting point to demonstrate how adaptation to training programs and performer trainability progresses throughout the various development phases. Talent development models need to take into account the different rates of learning, and growth and maturation processes experienced by individuals on their pathway to expertise. While a useful starting point, the lack of fluidity within the model presents a key challenge in adapting it to the AFL environment.

Gagné’s Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent – strengths and weaknesses
Although developed in the domain of education Gagné’s Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent, shown in Figure 2, presents a constructive conceptual framework with clear definitions that has recently met with initial support in the sport sciences.

Figure 2. Gagné’s Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent [22]

The six components of the DMGT bring together in a dynamic way all the recognized determinants of talent and describe how it emerges from natural gifts through a complex choreography between various causal influences. The DMGT acknowledges that physical maturity and previous experience can influence performance and should serve as encouragement to development coaches and program staff to focus more on the individual’s capacity to learn. The model contains a degree of fluidity for the athlete and provides opportunity the appropriate developmental process to take place without defined timing, which Balyi’s model does not.

A key issue for us as coaches, which remains unresolved under this model, is the identification of the most important component to achieve the highest level of talent in sports. The model does, however, illustrate the complexity of the numerous interactions between the five components and provides evidence to show these interactions act differently from one athlete to another and from one stage to the next in a sports career.

Barriers to implementation of models 
The challenges faced in the daily life of a development coach are not easily solved through implementing a program based on a theoretical development model. There are three barriers to implementation of such a model into a development program: the need for a dynamic approach; the pre-existing culture of a club and its influences; the transition of athletes into elite sport. 

The linear nature of the LTAD model and the cross over between defined stages do not account for a player perhaps needing to return to a previous stage to achieve competency; for example, many of the young players of today have not had the luxury of developing their skills on both sides of their body prior to entering the development program. An important issue is that excellence in sport is not characterized by a standard set of skills or physical attributes; it can be achieved in individual or unique ways through different combinations of skills, attributes and capacities.

Although not readily discussed in talent development literature the role of club culture is essential in implementing change in talent development programs. Key questions need to be addressed by coaching staff implementing change, these include: do coaches think they have to win and, in turn, potentially hinder a player’s development? Is the current culture impatient to development? Is there connectivity from top to bottom in the organization to allow adequate time for the development process to take place? Each question needs to be carefully considered, and the role of club culture in development acknowledged and discussed between the established regular senior players, the emerging players and the younger players.

In addition to coping with the normal rigors associated with adolescence and early adulthood, young athletes often encounter events and issues (e.g., injury, burnout) that may increase the demands of the developmental process. Within the elite sport experience, transitioning between key points in a career has been identified as a particularly critical period. In AFL, this would like playing first senior game, regularly playing at AFL level, playing 50 AFL games, playing 100 AFL games etc. 

Application of model to this context and how it can improve practice 
Talent development models need to take into account the different rates of learning, and growth and maturation processes experienced by individuals on their pathway to expertise. It is recognized many questions remain unanswered in relation to what constitutes the ideal environment for talent development and the nature, type and frequency of practice activities that lead to expert performance.

The dynamic nature of talent and its development necessitates a hybrid model of current practice, and its reliance on pedagogical content knowledge, and the theories arising from the development models is required to progress talent development within the AFL environment. The advantage of the DMGT is encapsulated in its dynamic and multidimensional approach, encouraging greater effort to identify an individual’s capacity to learn rather than what they have already learned. The sport specific requirements maintain that there will continue to be a requirement for pedagogical content knowledge and expertise rather than general development systems. As such, an important first step should be for people involved in both talent identification and talent development need to capture the essence of expertise within AFL and design representative tasks that allow superior performance to be readily identified. 

In this respect, the best approach presents, as a revised development model that is dynamic in nature and accounts for the varying needs of young AFL players as they progress through different developmental stages. Key considerations in the construction of the model include: the transition of an athlete in an elite sport environment; the time pressure and rate of maturation of the athlete; the different paths of participation of an athlete in through the program based on their capacity to learn. The LTAD model provides an example of how practice and play may be organized differently at various stages of athlete development.

The delivery of such a model will rely upon the expertise of those in charge and the burgeoning sport science interest of the wider AFL community, allowing the model to continue to optimize and evolve. Finally, all key stakeholders in the program should set criteria for evaluation to ensure accurate evaluation is conducted. These criteria should rely less on qualitative assessments and more in line with the AFL expertise requirements discussed during the origination of the program.

This article was written in 2014 as part of the requirements for the AFL (Level 3) High Performance coaching course.

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