Coaching & Development, Performance | Jul 16, 2021
Southampton Academy Manager Edd Vahid explores the role an organisation’s culture can play in providing the balance of challenge and support that promotes trust, belief and eases the transitions of athletes on talent pathways.

Gareth Southgate named 26 players to represent England in Euro 2020 this summer, the largest squad the nation has ever taken to an international tournament.

By Edd Vahid

The playing group comprised of players from 14 different clubs but the squad was united by a common goal, which was to achieve competition success. Arguably, this is where the commonality ends. Each player has a unique background characterised by life stories that feature both successes and perceived failures, with defining experiences both on and off the pitch.

Whilst the seminal work of Anders Ericsson and colleagues has been popularised, occasionally misinterpreted, and often challenged it understandably retains a prominence in talent development conversations. Successful individuals are generally the product of an enduring commitment to their discipline. These individuals are differentiated on the basis that the experiences influencing and defining their commitment are usually unique. Whilst certain experiences can be planned and deliberately introduced, others naturally emerge through the realities of sport and life. Given everyone will vary in their perception of the presented challenge or experience, talent development environments have the exciting task of creating conditions that allow individuals to thrive.

Whilst avoiding an overly reductionist view, the most effective talent development environments are often characterised by a belief that aspirational targets are attainable, a progressive pathway designed to facilitate transitions and an empathetic approach responsive to the needs of individuals. Belief can emerge from various sources. Ideally it is held at both an individual and organisational level, and resistant to the fluctuations evident in a non-linear development journey. The pathway benefits from staff committed to understanding these needs and progressively increasing the challenge (and support) individuals experience. This requires a focus that extends beyond the short-term and an appreciation that individuals develop at different rates.

The compelling power of belief in the possible  

It is important that talented individuals believe success is possible. Organisations with a strong legacy of successfully developing young players or athletes present a compelling narrative. The vicarious experience of seeing what is achievable provides the strongest possible foundation for success. Famously, many believed running a sub four-minute mile was an impossible task before Roger Bannister completed this feat in 1954. In the weeks, months and years that have followed more than 1,400 athletes have surpassed this achievement and redefined what is possible. Rasmus Ankersen in the Gold Mine Effect highlighted the remarkable and disproportionate success of certain regions in producing elite sports people. Whilst many factors clearly contribute to the success evident in these talent hotbeds, the belief generated from witnessing what is feasible cannot be understated. The academy player graduating to the first team, accruing minutes, and displaying credible performances is a reassuring and inspiring presence for those with aspirations to emulate this status.

In addition to success, strong evidence of a sustained organisational commitment to supporting the development of talented young players and athletes is important. The average tenure for a first team coach or manager within the Premier League and Football League has previously been reported as significantly less than two years. This understandably might encourage a short-term outlook for managers who are required to immediately and consistently register results. Integrating young players, who may require a period of adaptation, clearly needs to be managed carefully with expectations adjusted accordingly.

At Southampton, our Academy Performance Plan details strategies that are designed to support our player development aspirations. These strategies are largely evidence informed and deployed in good faith, with the expectation that they will yield future success. Regular reviews, including players, parents, and staff, are conducted and contribute to an evolving programme. However, there is an appreciation that feedback on the impact of certain initiatives is often delayed and can perhaps only be fully recognised retrospectively. This emphasises the importance of having documented processes and a conviction in the key guiding principles that govern current practice.

It also highlights the importance of cultivating a trusting environment where results are not considered the sole or most significant indicator of progress. This perhaps represents the biggest distinction between an academy and first team environment. Prioritising a match result over a development opportunity can be restrictive and likely compromises the probability of future success. The club, players and parents must hold a shared belief in the process and accept the positive intent that underpins key decisions. For example, a player’s individual development plan might highlight the need to play in an unfamiliar position, encourage the use of a non-dominant foot or an opportunity to be stretched in an older age group. These approaches might simultaneously undermine the probability of a positive match result whilst preserving the long-term development needs of a player.

Belief is a critical component of effective talent development. Its presence is powerful, and absence can be debilitating. Whilst primarily held at an individual level by staff and players or athletes, it is significantly influenced by the organisational culture. Embracing the tension that exists between a strong conviction in your (staff and players or athletes) approach, whilst being responsive to change is a challenging reality.

Talent development environments are naturally characterised by opinions, comparisons, and judgments. The reality of contract decisions and regular assessments challenge the strongest held beliefs. Supporting the development of resilience and encouraging the emergence of grit, amongst both staff and players, are required attributes in negotiating the many transitions that characterise the talent pathway.

Better managing athlete transitions on talent pathways

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu used the phrase ‘a fish in water’ to acknowledge compatibility between an individual and their environment. During periods of transition (e.g., professional contract, injury, first team debut, loan experience) it is possible that individuals will (at least) temporarily feel like a ‘fish out of water’. The ability to quickly adapt and evolve represents a defining feature of a successful transition, and necessary for continued progress in the pathway. Given the range of possible transitions and the dynamic nature of most talent development environments, planning with precision can be difficult.  Instead, creating a pathway rich with experiences and reflecting purposefully on their impact is critical.

In his latest book, David Epstein promoted the virtue of a Range of experiences. Encouraging access or creating exposure to a range of experiences provides a necessary and helpful diversity. This might involve access to different competition formats, varied coaching styles, deselection, multisport activities, or other environments. Experience in a range of contexts will ultimately support more adaptive learners who are skilled at solving emerging problems and adept at self-regulation.

Talent development environments that provide both a depth and breadth of experiences will better equip players and athletes for a future likely to be defined by change and uncertainty. Importantly, these experiences need to provide an appropriate and increasing level of challenge. Instinctively, there are times when staff members may respond in an overly protective manner that can be counterproductive. This might involve diluting critical feedback, providing the answers, or manufacturing a change in the situation that provides a more (short-term) favourable outcome. Specialist staff at each stage of the pathway, with an understanding of the broad development needs, will help gauge the level of challenge suitable for each individual. An instinct to remove ‘bumps’ from the development experience contributes to individuals underprepared and ill equipped to negotiate the inevitable challenges.

Understanding and responding to an individuals’ needs reflects an important aspiration for talent development environments. Organisations are increasingly investing in individual coaches and specialists who have the capacity and skill to understand and support the needs of each individual.  Irrespective of this provision, our ability to embrace individuals and approach their unique needs with empathy is critical. Todd Rose, in the End of Average, acknowledges a societal desire to judge according to an average and encourage conformity to a perceived ideal. For an individual to fulfil their potential we must seek to identify and respond to their needs. This is a difficult reality given the number of players that often inhabit talent development environments. However, as Rose concluded, ‘we can break free of the tyranny of averagarianism by choosing to value individuality over conformity to the system’. The relationship between individuality and conformity reflects a further tension evident in the talent development space.

Talent development domains have the task of inspiring curiosity, commitment, dedication and hard work. Whilst multiple factors contribute to these outcomes, a sustained belief, exposure to a range of challenging experiences and a response to individual needs appear critical.  These often require a skilled negotiation that manages a tension between the short and long term, and the individual and system.

Download the latest Performance Special Report, Staying Agile: Managing Disruption and Optimising Preparation During the Pandemic – detailing the work of the English Institute of Sport with its teams and athletes.

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