It is important for schools to identify gifted and talented pupils in sport at a young age so that they can help nurture and develop their strengths. Crispin Andrews discusses using a multi-skills approach in primary schools to do this
A cricketer’s career
When he was 13, cricketer Nasser Hussain was well on the way to becoming an international leg spinner. But within three years, he had undergone a growth spurt and in the midst of this physical development his bowling fell to pieces.
In his autobiography Playing with Fire, Hussain writes: ‘I guess my bowling success must have had something to do with trajectory. I was a foot or so taller overnight and suddenly the angles were all different.’
Yet Hussain reinvented himself as a batsman of sufficient quality to play 96 test matches for his country, captaining in 45 of these; and now that his playing days are over, he has become
Hussain’s story, while inspiring, also tells us several key things about the nature of sporting talent:
First, that it can fluctuate – so the outstanding young performer doesn’t always become the elite adult athlete.
Secondly, that sporting talent is not necessarily one-dimensional or related to a specific skill, but has at its root underlying generic competencies common to many, and in some cases all, types of physical activity. Good hand-eye coordination, for instance, enables a talented bowler like the young Hussain to become a quality batsman in adulthood.
Thirdly, it shows us that there is more to talent than physical attributes.
Of course, Nasser Hussain was an extremely talented batsman. But he himself has said that it
was his determination to succeed, allied to an ability to make good decisions, based on a thorough knowledge of cricket, as well as of himself as a person and a performer, that enabled him to overcome early setbacks and reach the top of his sport.
Physical education in primary schools doesn’t simply consist of sports, but is much broader in scope. So it is even more crucial to take into account factors other than current physical capacity to perform, when deciding which children are gifted and talented children. The government’s current 10% target gives teachers the opportunity to identify those pupils who, to use an old sporting cliché, ‘might show promise or potential’. It also stops gifted and talented registers from being jammed full of kids from the local football and hockey clubs who can outperform their peers simply because they have had more experience of playing and more access to coaching.
There is space for children who demonstrate greater capacity to apply skills, and who use a quick understanding and appreciation of tactics to outwit more skilled opponents. Those youngsters who respond creatively to situations and make intelligent decisions about how to overcome problems, or those resilient youngsters who never give up and continue giving their all, however high the odds might be stacked against them, can also be identified. Most of all, it provides an opportunity for those with natural balance, coordination and athleticism, but who might not have had much experience of playing sport, to get noticed and recognised as having the potential to do well.
At primary level, teachers need to recognise this broad scope of potential among their children and inform the secondary schools, whose staff can use their expertise to more closely assess the nature of each child’s ability when mapped against a larger number of pupils. In all likelihood, school sport coordinators (SSCos) will be involved in the talent identification process. Not only will they be able to assist primary teachers in knowing exactly what to look for; but also, through direct involvement with children at primary schools, a broad range of interest, talent and potential can be ascertained and children directed into appropriate opportunities.
School sport partnerships all over the country are in the process of setting up multi-skill academies for their gifted and talented youngsters. In these, youngsters from several schools get the chance to further develop their skills together, under the guidance of a PE teacher or experienced coach. Some school sport partnerships (families of schools working together to develop PE and sport, now covering the whole of the country) have employed coaches just to take these out-of-school-hour clubs for talented youngsters. By 2010, the government hopes that a high-quality network of multi-skills and multi-sport competitions will be in place all over the country.
Underpinning the multi-skill concept is the theory of long-term athlete development (LTAD). In simple terms, LTAD claims that for a youngster to reach their potential in a specific sport by adulthood, they need to have experienced a broad and balanced diet of physical activity during their formative years. Learning the fundamentals (generic imperatives common to all sports), it is argued, is the only way to ensure that a young athlete possesses the all-round physical literacy that is necessary to excel in one chosen area at a later date.
Agility, balance, coordination, running, jumping, throwing, catching, twisting, turning, hand-eye coordination, rhythm and power are all relevant in one form or another to most sports; and whereas the talented athlete will excel in most if not all of these disciplines, all youngsters will need to develop proficiency if they are to progress and enjoy their experience of physical activity.
As far as competition is concerned, the government blueprint suggests annual multi-skills festivals at KS1, becoming termly for Years 3 and 4. It proposes that KS2 and KS3 not only continue with multi-sport festivals but also compete in central venue leagues. And, in the government’s view, the sort of inter-school league and cup competitions that are currently prevalent are no longer considered appropriate until KS4.
Things are not that simple, however, because opinion is divided as to the effectiveness of a generic multi-skills approach to talent identification and development. Worried that they might lose budding young talent to other sports (or worse still, to other clubs within their own sport), many national governing bodies of sport, and their clubs, are still cherry-picking talent at primary school age.
Sir Trevor Brooking, the Football Association’s director of development, recently bemoaned the lack of talented English youngsters in premiership sides, suggesting that a child must learn the basics of the game before age 11 to stand any chance of making it as a professional. In response to this, the FA is employing coaches to work in primary schools, delivering the sort of sessions that clubs, community groups and coaching companies are already delivering en masse to children between the ages of seven and 11.
Cricket – through its ‘Chance to Shine’ project – is also focusing on developing talent in primary schools, where more than 60% of the coaching is being concentrated. In common with hockey, rugby, athletics and tennis, cricket now has club, district and county teams all offering focused, sports-specific development and competition for primary-age children. On the tennis court, meanwhile, Steven Martens, player director of the Lawn Tennis Association, recently urged his new team of regional talent and performance coordinators and managers to focus on children who are already playing tennis, starting at the age of six and seven.
Add in the fact that sports such as gymnastics and competition dance also imposing stringent training schedules and heavy competitive programmes on very young children, and it is clear that the chance for primary pupils to experience a range of different opportunities in school is very important.
Primary school teachers can support talented young athletes by giving them the opportunity to try out a wider range of sports and help them develop decision-making, awareness and leadership skills to supplement their physical skills. Teachers can also help the elite youngster transfer knowledge and understanding from their specialist sport to other areas of the PE curriculum. For instance, much can be learned about balance by watching a really good skipping style or headstand – still head, eyes level, weight evenly distributed, good body tension, upper and lower body moving in unison – that can be applied to skills or movement in any discipline. Look at a Michael Vaughan cover drive, a David Beckham free-kick, an Andy Murray forehand, a Victoria Pendleton sprint finish or even the graceful movements of the professionals on Strictly Come Dancing. The fundamentals of balance are all present in one way or another.
A range of options
The majority of so-called elite primary aged youngsters will not make it in their chosen sport, so it is important they have something to fall back on. Like Nasser Hussain, as they grow it may become obvious that a different skill or sport is more suited to their talents and physical attributes. These days there are many opportunities for students to develop leadership skills through PE and sport both in school and eventually in the community. Identifying those with the ability to organise, communicate and analyse their own performance and those of others is an important aspect of developing the next generation of coaches, managers, administrators, sports development workers and PE teachers.
Primary school teachers have an opportunity to help youngsters over the course of several years to achieve high levels in PE. This may not mean that your current pupils are going to be stepping out at Twickenham or onto the Olympic podium in years to come, but it may help individuals to have a successful time at club, district and county level. What it will undoubtedly do is help each young person to become the best they can in whatever area they decide to go for, have a thoroughly enjoyable time and utilise their talents for their own benefit and the good of the community in which they live.