The debate around hard work vs. talent, and which is more important, can be a contentious one among coaches. But perhaps our focus should not be deciding whether talent beats hard work, or vice versa, but determining the best ways to support all of the individuals within our team, regardless of ability. In this Q&A, we discuss the definition of talent and the pitfalls of early talent identification, address the challenges of working with players of different abilities, and consider how to work with a team of individuals at different stages of their developmental journey.

In This Article

How Do We Define Talent Within the Context of Soccer?

If we’re using the word ‘talent’ within our coaching or appraisal of players, it’s important that we first have a clear definition of what that means: “For me, it means a natural level of skill that the player is bringing to the game,” says Dan Cooke, Coaching Advisor at PDP. “So, if we’re judging talent based on what an individual is displaying on the grass, we’re likely talking about a natural level of technical skill.

“But if we’re going to say ‘talent’, it’s essential we understand why we’re using that word, the context within which we’re using it, and the implications of labeling certain players ‘talented.’”

What Are the Key Considerations When Identifying Talent?

According to PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright, it’s important to understand that there are different types of talent: “It’s easy to watch a game and identify two or three players who have the best physical attributes, or who appear to be the most technically proficient, but there are other important qualities.

“We should also consider things like ability to communicate, understand the game tactically, and lead and support teammates. Those attributes perhaps aren’t as tangible when you’re watching a player on gameday, but they’re still very important.

“We should also consider the context of the players we’re observing; for example, if a 10-year-old individual is excelling, is it natural talent, or is it because they have a training age of four years while most of their peers have only been playing the game for a year or two? We need to have some background information about individuals before trying to judge whether they’re talented.”

Hard Work vs. Talent: Which Is More Important?

When applying the label of ‘talented’, it’s also vital that we don’t undermine the importance of hard work. “We’ve got to acknowledge that, with hard work, you can improve,” says Wright. “We want to encourage that mindset in our players.

“You hear many stories of individuals who aren’t necessarily considered the best players at a certain point in their childhood but go on to make it as professionals. Yet one implication of labeling players ‘talented’ early is that you can create problems for those who are excluded. Early success isn’t always a long-term indicator of success in a performance environment, and things like growth, maturation, and time can be great equalizers.

“Consequently, some professional clubs have recognized the potential pitfalls of early talent identification, and adjusted their programs in order to keep more kids in the best possible environments for longer.”

Are There Dangers in Identifying Talent Early?

If we’re not careful, the word ‘talent’ can also be damaging to the players we apply it to: “The idea that someone is talented could encourage a fixed mindset, rather than a growth mindset,” explains Cooke. “Individuals may believe their talent isn’t something they’ve worked for, it’s just something that they have. And this can potentially limit their willingness to expose themselves to failure, meaning they stay confined within certain scopes of learning.”

Furthermore, Cooke says, our primary aim as coaches should be to help develop people, regardless of their ability as players: “Within many academy environments, the stated number-one priority is to ‘develop great people’. Developing great football players comes second. If we’re true to that, we should be inclusive of all players (of all abilities) within our programs.”

How Can I Support More Talented Players?

If we identify players with more talent, we may need to adapt our approach in order to help them develop and maximize their potential. “They may need additional challenges,” suggests Wright. “I like to use the term ‘stretch’; if they’re excelling in our environment, we find new ways to stretch them. That may mean moving kids between age groups to play with older teams, or tweaking our sessions — for instance, placing them in a 1v2 while their teammates are in 1v1s.”

“I’m a big advocate of Flow Theory,” adds Cooke, who also emphasizes the importance of challenging players. “It’s the idea that our optimal state of learning is when we’re so engrossed in an activity that we reach a ‘flow state’. If the challenge point is too high for our current capabilities, we’ll likely feel stressed or anxious; if it’s too low, we’ll typically experience boredom; the sweet spot is somewhere in-between, where we’re just on the brink of our competencies — where we feel that we’re going to achieve success but we’re not quite there yet. This is the appropriate challenge point that we want to create for our players.”

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