I have become increasingly interested over the years about what exactly it is that one needs to look for in identifying a player who has the talent to make a career out of the sport. This has led to a bit of research about this topic. I felt that it would be great to share some of these thoughts with you and to touch on some of the key ideas that are out there at the moment.
Being a former player myself and a father of two sons has made me even more interested in this topic. I have started to take an interest in the development of my own son, Connor who has just started to play rugby. Both my sons will continue to grow up on the side of the rugby field. I can’t help but ask myself the question “Will my son make it?”
What is Talent Identification? The screening of children and adolescents using selected tests of physical, physiological and skill attributes in order to identify those with potential for success in a designated sport. Previous involvement in the sport is not a pre-requisite for identification.(www.fina.org)
The best time to identify talent
My son was born towards the end of the year on 14 December. I know that according to many studies his chances are not really that great in making it as a player one day. According to Cleaver (2016) 60 of the 173 All Blacks who have debuted since 1996 were all born in the first three months of the year. He states further that 39 were born before September.
The stats give credence to the theory of Relative Age, highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell’s book about talent, Outliers. The theory is that those born closer to age-group eligibility cut-offs have an inherent advantage. They’re picked for age-group teams not necessarily because they’re more talented, but because they’re older and usually bigger. This foot-in-the-door gives them access to better coaching and gives them exposure, so they improve. Cleaver (2016).
Connor is currently in a Grade R class which has been split into two classes according to their age. I have since learnt that this practice will continue for Grade 1 when he starts Junior School. Educators are fully aware of the age effect in the development of a child. In contrast to this, once we get out onto the sports fields this is forgotten. I know that by the time he reaches early puberty everything will have evened out. The unfortunate thing is he may not be considered to have ‘talent’ until then. He may not get the coaching he would have if he was playing for the A team. This will most likely have an impact on his development as a player.
Early maturation athletes are often identified in having talent more easily than late maturation athletes. “In youth sport people don’t always understand or appreciate these relative age or maturational age differences.” Phil Clarke (2011). Brent “Buck” Anderson the general manager of community and provincial rugby NRFU states that “your chances of identifying talent at under-13 are pretty remote.” The following statistics done from a study in South Africa are not surprising. 31.5% of the players, who played in the U-13 Craven week, were again selected to play at U-16 Grant Khomo week and 24.1% were selected for the U-18 Craven week according to the study. This highlights how wrong we are in our prediction of who has talent at an early age. This leads us into our next point of present vs. future performance.
Present vs. future performance
As coaches we often get caught up in the present. We want to achieve the best results in the immediate term. This creates a situation where a lot of potential talent is overlooked and not developed. We would rather pick that big inside centre and Eighth man to win now. This is often the case at U-13 level. The early maturation athlete is favoured over the late developer. I have seen too often how these players develop such poor skill sets and never learn how to pass or tackle. They literally run over everyone and throw the other players around. As long as the team is winning the coach is happy. These weaknesses in their game affect their chances of ever really making it. They may appear to be ‘talented’ at this early stage, but as the rest of their age group players catch up to them they struggle to ever reach those heights again.
Talent selection is the culling of players with the current ability to participate and be successful in events taking place in the near future. Talent identification, on the other hand, is the prediction of future performance based upon an evaluation of current physical, technical, tactical and psychological qualities. Talent selection is pretty simple; talent identification is an art. One yields great results today; the other builds elite athletes and winning teams for the future. John O’Sullivan (2013).
As schoolboy coaches, are we missing the point? According to the current Springbok coach, Allister Coetzee we are. He has most recently been quoted in saying that “The first thing that must be taken away from U-13 Craven week is the scoreboard.” This highlights the importance of skill development and not just the result. It is our job to develop talent and to create a future pathway for our players to make a profession out of the sport. We often place too much emphasis on winning in the immediate term. If we have the players best interests at heart, winning should not always be our first priority. The development of the player should be at the centre of everything that we do. This is unfortunately lost when we start to worry too much about only winning.
I have been privileged to have had the opportunity to work with some amazing talent over the last 17 years of my coaching career. Some of these players have gone on to make a living out of the sport. I have also been fortunate to have worked with players at a professional level who have later become Springboks like Willem Alberts, Jano Vermaak, Jaco Taute and Franco van der Merwe.The players that I will be using for this comparison are players that I have coached at a schoolboy level. They are the following: Dean Hammond, Matthew Williams, Wandile Mjekevu, Chris Cloete, Rory Kockott, Kevin Luiters and Khwezi Mona. I am going to attempt to make a comparison of what I believe has allowed these players to make it i.e. make a living out of the sport. While doing so I will relate it to some of the theory and principles that I have read up on. I am also going to share some interesting statistics with you about these players during their U-15 age group season.
Born: 9 July 1992 – Height: 1.83m – Weight: 92kg – Position: Centre
South Africa Sevens in 2011 and represented the South Africa U-20 squad in the IRB Junior World Championships in 2012. He is currently playing for Worcester Warriors 2015/16. His ability to play in more than one position sticks out. I recall playing him at centre and loose forward during his U-15 season. He participated at the highest level in both rugby and water polo throughout his schoolboy career. He is the youngest of three brothers who have been raised by a strong family support structure.
|Statistics from 2007 – U15|
Born: 29 July 1991 – Height: 1.83m – Weight: 104kg – Position: Hooker
Matthew has recently signed with Worcester Warriors 2016/2017. He was playing for Northampton Saints. He had always been a loose forward but was moved to hooker. I recall using him to throw in the lineouts, but playing him at loose forward. I was worried about whether he would become too tall for hooker. He is a natural athlete and excelled in water polo as well. Matthew’s older brother, Jeffrey was born on 18 August 1988. He represented England at Sevens and currently plays for Bath. They also come from an extremely supportive family structure.
|Statistics from 2006 – U15|
Born: 7 January 1991 – Height: 1.9m – Weight: 94kg – Position: Wing
He displayed strong leadership qualities at an early age and was appointed as the captain of my side. He was in the Grade above his age group at school which made it difficult for him to fit in (he was mature for his age). I recall his strong desire of only wanting to play at inside centre. He moved high schools for his last two years and became Head Prefect of his new school. He played for the SA Schools team and later SA U-20. His debut in Super rugby was for the Lions. He went on to play in France for Perpignan and he currently plays for the Sharks.
|Statistics from 2006 – U15|
Born: 18 February 1991 – Height: 1.76m – Weight: 98kg – Position: Loose forward
He was recently involved with EP Kings Super Rugby. He has always had a massive drive to become a professional rugby player. He has represented Western Province at Currie Cup level and he is currently with the Pumas. Extremely hard working and one of the toughest players I have ever coached. I remember playing him at inside centre for a couple of games during his U-15 season. He usually played flank. He gained selection to the SA Schools team in 2009. Like Matthew Williams he also has an older brother. I know that he has been plagued with a number of injuries in his career so far. He has shown tremendous amounts of resilience to keep bouncing back from these setbacks.
|Statistics from 2006 – U15|
Born: 25 June 1986 – Height: 1.8m – Weight: 89kg – Position: Scrumhalf
He plays for France and is currently with Castres. Love him or hate him he is an amazing talent. I looked after him during a preseason rugby festival at U-15 level. He had the ability to play in a number of positions. I knew his parents who were never interfering. They supported their son from the background. He also has an older brother. He is fanatical about his training and would even train on days of the year when he knew his opposition wasn’t.
|Statistics from 2001 – U15|
Born: 2 July 1992 – Height: 1.74m – Weight: 80kg – Position: Scrumhalf
He was involved with EP Kings Super Rugby and he is currently playing for the Pumas. I recall how determined and dedicated he was. His father used to come to training after practices and would work with him on his passing. He also had the ability to play in more than one position. He unfortunately broke his arm during a B team match playing at centre. His parental support was unquestionable. I doubt that he would have reached the heights that he did if he had not left for boarding school in Bloemfontein, which proved to be a good move.
|Statistics from 2007 – U15|
Born: 8 October 1992 – Height: 1.81m – Weight: 112kg – Position: Prop
Khwezi currently plays for the Pumas. He used to play loose forward for me in his U-15 year. He was appointed as the team’s Vice Captain. His older brother Max also played for me. I know that he only moved to prop after school. His break came for him when he was included in the Sharks XV for the Vodacom Cup competition in 2014. I have no doubt that he will continue forging a career out of the sport.
|Statistics from 2007 – U15|
I believe that the following players, who I have also worked with, have the ability to continue making a career out of the game. I certainly will be following these players careers with interest: Sintu Manjezi, Tyler Paul and Nicholas Oosthuizen.
I recall telling Nicholas Oosthuizen’s father immediately after a Marlow vs. St Andrew’s College match that his son should make the SA schools team. Having played in the position myself, I knew that he was destined to make it. I was involved in his coaching at Craven Week level for two years. He fits the mould of a modern day prop with athletic ability and skill. Naturally strong and powerful. I was not surprised to see him in the SA U-20 squad. Again like many of the players who have made it, he comes from a supportive family structure with extremely passionate parents.
I have not been involved with the development of many former Springbok players sons. I have however worked with Matthew Andrews, the son of former Springbok prop Keith Andrews. The support of their son is an example that every parent should aspire to be like. They are always positive and have a wonderful perspective and balance in their approach. They encouraged their son to also play a summer sport in water polo. Matthew was able to achieve in both sports. It may be a bit soon to include him in my list, but time will tell. I do recall asking him one day during a Grade 9 Economic and Management Sciences class what he would like to become and he said a professional rugby player.
It is very difficult to come to a conclusion on why these players have made it and not any others. I also realise that I am comparing a very small and isolated population group. However there are certain characteristics that one can identify. Most of these players showed the following characteristics at an early age.
- They all had the ability to play more than one position.
- None of them specialised at an early age and they showed ability in other sporting codes.
- An interesting observation which was made after identifying the players is that most of them were all born in the first six months of the year. This would back up the theory of ‘outliers’ by Gradwell.
- They all displayed a tremendous amount of resilience, competitiveness, leadership qualities and an amazing belief in their own abilities.
- They were also above average in the tests that were conducted. With some of them recording the highest in their age group.
- Many of them had an older brother as well.
The tallest player measured at U-15 level was Wandile Mjekevu at 1.90m. The most Pulls ups (underhand grip) recorded were both Dean Hammond and Chris Cloete with 19. Dean Hammond could also do the most sit ups with 74 (hands behind the head, knees bent and in 2 minutes). Chris Cloete’s 3km time trial of 12 minutes 28 seconds was impressive, but there was a player who could do it in less than 12 minutes (who has not managed to make a career out of the sport).
|Averages – Selborne College|
|Statistics from 2007 to 2009 – U15|
In my personal opinion something that I feel has a massive influence on whether a player really makes it or not is a good family support structure. This is something that is evident in every one of these players. The influence that we have as coaches and parents on the making or breaking of the process in the development of a player is so important. I remember once questioning an aspiring athlete who had just quit playing for the team (because he wanted to specialise in athletics), if he really thought that he would make it as an athlete. He was clearly on a mission and had decided to specialise at an early stage. He is now an Olympic athlete and I was very wrong about the statement I made.
“Is it what you see in front of your eyes…OR…is it the story behind the person that counts…?” Rasmus Ankersen
There are a number of factors that will determine whether a player has what it takes to make it at the highest level. “Success in high performance sport comes about from the blending of physical, mental, technical, tactical, cultural / family and genetic factors” Goldsmith (2016). Wayne Goldsmith refers to the following big six:
- Physical abilities;
- Personality characteristics;
- Playing skills;
- Performance abilities;
- Pedigree (i.e. genetic makeup)
- Preparation (i.e. environment, family, culture)
In the South African context I feel that a number of promising young rugby players do not make it because they often lack the perfect family environment. They don’t always have the support structure that other players have. This is often the case when having a look at our previously disadvantaged players. Our school system is in danger of exploiting these players by offering them bursaries and taking them away from their support structure or lack thereof. I know of many players who have been at two or more high schools during their high school careers as a result of this. These players sometimes feel as if they are a burden on their families at home and they end up not having a choice but to move to these schools. Articles suggest that a player will never reach his full potential if he does not have a solid family support structure close by. These young players are sometimes exploited by the current system. If they are not picked up by a union after they leave school they are then left out to dry. The high performance model or approach that has been adopted by many schools often does not cater for them academically and it can end up having an adverse effect on their academic performance in the classroom. Rugby after school becomes their only option. This is not fair on the player because the schools are selling them false hope. Realistically the chances of a player ever really making is less than 2% according to studies.
I know that statistically the chance of a player making it from a smaller school is not great either. “The majority of the Springboks came from 1.81% of schools, mostly elite schools” Roux (2012). There are obviously a number of reasons for this, but we will not be looking at them at this stage.
My personal opinion is that we are getting it wrong. We need to keep a balance and perspective in everything that we do. If we truly care about the development of our players we would know that it is important for them to be in a particular system from the earliest stage possible. This would allow them to develop their skills set to the maximum. Obviously, this would mean a massive investment and not just topping up in the higher grades. Whether rugby at a schoolboy level is only about high performance is another debate all together.
There are a number of different factors that will determine whether your son will make a career out of the sport. This is why it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what will determine whether he will be successful or not. The real chance of your son making it is slim, but this should not be the reason for him not to try. As parents we need to always keep a healthy perspective over the development of our children. Encouraging them to participate in more than just one sport will improve their chances of making it. We need to provide them with the support structures that they need and always ensure a healthy balance.
South African Rugby Union: Transformation Plan progress report; Southern Kings inclusion in Rugby Super 15. https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/14410/
Talent Spotting/Talent Identification: Is there a difference…? Nick Hill. http://nickhillcoaching.com/?p=1023
Rugby-playing history at the national U13 level and subsequent participation at the national U16 and U18 rugby tournaments. SAJSM vol 23 No. 4 2011 Justin Durandt1 BSc (Med)(Hons) Exercise Science (Biokinetics); Ziyaad Parker2 BSc (Med)(Hons) Exercise Science (Biokinetics); Herman Masimla3 (BA, HDE); Mike Lambert2 (PhD)
Our Biggest Mistake: Talent Selection Instead of Talent Identification. John O’Sullivan (December 2013). http://changingthegameproject.com/our-biggest-mistake-talent-selection-instead-of-talent-identification/
How New Zealand sustains its rugby dynasty. Danny Port (2015). https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2015/sep/11/all-blacks-how-new-zealand-sustains-its-rugby-dynasty
Coetzee: Scrap scoreboard in junior rugby. Lloyd Burnard (September 2016). http://m.sport24.co.za/sport24/Rugby/Springboks/coetzee-scrap-scoreboard-in-junior-rugby-20161021
Nurture and nature. Phil Clarke (2011). http://www.skysports.com/rugby-league/news/12532/7107658/nurture-and-nature
A star is born – mostly in January. Dylan Cleaver (May 2015). http://www.nzherald.co.nz/special-report-raising-champions/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503818&objectid=11443758
Top ten talent id tips for high performance sport – the T.O.P. approach. Wayne Goldsmith. http://www.wgcoaching.com/talentidtips/