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Nurturing Talent

Jamie French, Scott Grace, Jenny Harris, and Dr Matt long explore how to develop young talent in the sport.

Historically the early participation of children in intensive training and inappropriate competition owes much to the enduring legacy of the 'catch them young' philosophy. In some quarters, a perpetuation of the urban myth still exists that to become a performance athlete on the international stage as an adult, one must start intensive training before puberty.

Long Term Athlete Development

The golden rule for long-term athlete development, according to Bailey (2012)[2] is that children are not mini-adults. While adults engage in sports-specific skills, children engage in foundational and fundamental movements that are generic across sports, for example running; jumping; throwing; and developing Agility, Balance and coordination. Differences manifest themselves in terms of (a) Physiology; (b) Psychology and (c) Pedagogy, in terms of how learning is affected.


Children's physiological development is rather 'stop-start' in the following ways:

  • 3-6 Years (pre-school) - Rapid physical growth and brain development.
  • 6-12 Years (school-aged) - Slow physical growth and steady brain development.
  • 12-17 Years (adolescence and puberty) - Rapid physical growth. Initially rapid and then steady brain development.
  • 17+ (early adulthood) - Slow physical growth and steady brain development.

The anaerobic performance capacity of children is less than adolescents and adults due to their smaller muscle mass and lower glycolytic capability. Neurological linkages are still being made, with bone calcification happening over a longer period and tendons being much slower to grow than muscles (Bar-Or and Rowland 2004).


The memory of children is not as well developed as adults with their ability to process the information being much slower.  Children tend to be intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated with a 1992 study of 26,000 10-18-year olds by Ewing and Seefeldt revealing ‘fun' to be the pivotal reason for their being in the sport. According to Whitehead in Coaching Children in Sport, “Young children are more concerned with mastering their environment and developing skills than beating others – at least until someone tells them that it is important to win”. So however difficult it is to accept, it would seem that children are socialised into the belief that winning rather than taking part is important.


Children who have limited vocabulary and taking into account the VARK model (Fleming, 2012)[3], tend to learn more visually rather than by being told aurally or by reading something.

Early and Late Maturation

There are various advantages and conversely problems that come with the label of ‘late' or ‘early developer'.

Early Developers Late Developers
Advantages Problems
  • The physical advantage over peers
  • Early competitive success Possible
  • Talent ID selection
  • Access to performance coaching
  • Success can come with little effort
  • Initially lose out to early developers
  • Lose out on early selection
  • Drop out due to lack of opportunity
  • Believe they have not got what it takes
Problems Advantages
  • Eventual stagnation in growth
  • Peers catch up in physical growth
  • Long-term success harder to achieve
  • Potential lack of determination
  • Focus on skill development
  • Develop greater determination
  • Develop a growth mindset

The case against early specialisation

In considering the above, due to the increased risk of muscular-skeletal injury, possible reduction in growth potential, delay in menarche for females, and increased risk of mental 'burn out', the work of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2000 helps make the case against early specialisation.

Istvan Bayli and Jean Cote developed the 'FUNdamental' concept for the long-term planning of athlete progression and spoke about the following stages of development:

  • Learning to Train
  • Training to Train
  • Training to Compete
  • Training to Win
  • Retraining

Working through the above stages is not dependent upon chronological age (time since birth). More astute coaches will be aware that both biological (physical development for given chronological age) and training ages (amount of time in the sport) are paramount. Also, developmental (emotional/ social maturity) and relative (proximity of birthday to start of the academic year) should be factored into developmental planning plus a consideration of the amount of competitive experience an athlete has. By disaggregating the notion of athletic age, coaches and athletics leaders can play a massive role in retaining athletes in our sport.

According to Orlick and Botterill in their bestseller, Every Kid Can Win, “To win the game and lose the child is an unworthy sacrifice”.

So, what?

Too often late maturing athletes are overlooked due to the success of their earlier developing fellow peers. It is also interesting to note that some early developers are also written-off as only winning because they are 'Big for their age'. In both cases, it is not so much what you possess now (as a child), but more what can you develop and improve in the long term for senior success.

Now what?

Developing and nurturing the young athlete requires concern and an overview of their holistic development. In his book Running My Life, double Olympic champion Lord Sebastian Coe recalls that as a youngster his coach-father Peter would always seek to develop “the whole person”. Remember that Coe was a proverbial ‘late developer' compared to his arch-rival Steve Ovett during their teenage years, but the gap was expunged when both were in their early 20s.

As well as sporting development, a holistic approach will include a focus on the academic, emotional and social, and spiritual development of the young person. By so doing, we can do that which was advocated by Professor Neil Armstrong who implored coaches too, “Focus on the role of sport in promoting the well-being of the child not the role of the child in promoting the well-being of the sport.”

Coaches should seek to educate both early and late developers about the advantages and disadvantages they may possess and how they need to develop these qualities for the long-term benefits.  

Consider the following checklist of questions:

  1. Am I coaching adult-type training sessions for athletes with an underdeveloped body?
  2. Am I unwittingly encouraging advanced strength and conditioning training?
  3. Am I neglecting athlete fundamental movement skills?
  4. Is there a lack of balance in terms of volume, intensity, and recovery in the work set for my athlete(s)?
  5. Are my coaching practices unconsciously placing undue psychological pressure on my athlete(s)?
  6. Am I overly focussing on the quantification of success by measuring my athlete(s) in time or distance at the expense of focussing on the ‘process' side of their execution of athletic movement?
  7. Am I wrongly focussing on the chronological age of my athlete(s) at the expense of working them according to Stage Appropriate Training?
  8. Am I athlete-focused even when coaching a large group?
  9. Have I considered other sporting, educational and emotional commitments of my athlete(s)?

Article Reference

The information on this page is adapted from Grace, Harris, French & Long (2014)[1] with the kind permission of the authors and Athletics Weekly.


  1. GRACE, S., HARRIS, J., FRENCH, J. and LONG, M. (2014) Handle with care. Athletics Weekly. 23rd January. p.32-33
  2. BAILEY, R. et al. (2012) Participant development in sport and physical activity: The impact of biological maturation. Journal European Journal of Sport Science. 12 (6), pp. 515-526.
  3. FLEMING, N.D. (2012) VARK teaching and learning styles.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • LONG, M. and FRENCH, J. (2015) Nurturing Talent [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Authors

Scott Grace and Jenny Harris are England Athletics National Coach Mentors. Jamie French and Matt Long are British Athletics Coach Education Tutors.