What turns a competent athlete or ‘player’ into an exceptional performer? Crispin Andrews considers the make-up of this type of talent and highlights some issues for schools

PE and sport, as a curriculum subject, is currently enjoying a significant increase in interest, partly because of concern about obesity in children and the need to combat ‘couch potato culture’ and, of course, the desire to produce athletes and sportsmen and women who can compete successfully in the world arena; with ambitions accentuated by the excitement about the 2012 Olympics being hosted in the UK. The government’s public service agreement targets ensure a minimum of 85% of all pupils being engaged in high-quality physical education and sport by 2008. The task for schools is to provide for pupils in an equitable way, identify talent and potential, and nurture excellence effectively.

The national curriculum: PE

  • Acquiring and developing skills.
  • Selecting and applying skills, tactics and compositional ideas.
  • Evaluating and improving performance.
  • Knowledge and understanding of fitness and health.

Elite athletes and sporting stars possess a range of highly developed abilities:

Cognitive: knowledge and understanding of techniques and how to apply them to best effect Creative: responding to challenge with fluency, sensitivity and originality Personal: self-regulation, self-belief, determination Physical: coordination, balance, speed, strength, flexibility

Social: leadership, teamwork Beyond a narrow definition When identifying gifted and talented students in PE and sport it is important to go beyond a narrow physical definition of what constitutes talent. The Talent Matters project suggests that a youngster’s physical competence and fitness to perform within a range of physical activities is only one of several strands that should be taken into account.

Cognitive ability relates to how well a student can apply knowledge and understanding of central physical concepts within planning and compositional settings, whereas their social ability concerns leadership, teamwork and other similar social concepts. Personal ability is concerned with self-regulation, self-belief and commitment to self-improvement and mastery, whereas creative ability – how well a youngster responds to challenges with fluency, originality and sensitivity to problems – should also be taken into account. Ben Tan, senior lecturer in PE, sports development and coaching at Sheffield Hallam University, believes that students should show exceptional abilities in the four strands of the PE national curriculum, and all five of the Talent Matters ability areas: ‘This is different from the notion of an elite athlete who may be totally useless in two or more strands of national curriculum for PE, and have mediocre attainment, while excelling in their own particular discipline’. Guin Batten, Olympic rower and head of performance at the Youth Sport Trust agrees that it’s important we look at the whole athlete not just their physical characteristics: ‘There are many successful Olympic medalists whose determination, emotional intelligence and commitment enables them to outdo physically superior rivals.’ Although the 12-year-old who scores the most goals, takes the most wickets or runs the fastest time will not necessarily be the one who will go on to become a successful elite athlete, the potential will be there in one form or another from an early age. Former Olympic 400m runner Roger Black, for instance, never ran seriously until the age of 18, when he left school, but while playing in his beloved school rugby teams he was more often than not positioned on the wing, usually the preserve of the very fastest. Similarly, during his formative years in South Africa, England’s current star batsman, Kevin Pietersen, was noted more for his feats with the ball. It wasn’t until he made the decision to quit South Africa and began his county career with Nottinghamshire several years later, that his potential to be one of England’s best ever batters began to show. Guin Batten echoes this sentiment: ‘At the age of 13 you can’t be sure that what you are seeing is what you are going to get in two years’ time. What you are doing is identifying those young people who are currently demonstrating more ability than their peers, those students who could go on to be successful coaches, sports scientists and PE teachers as well as players. It is a secondary school’s responsibility to signpost these youngsters into the areas where they can make the most of their attributes.’

Transferable skills

Guin Batten also believes that schools should be giving all students, including gifted and talented youngsters, the opportunity to sample as many sports as possible to determine in which sport an individual might excel. A young footballer who undergoes a major growth spurt might find that, as their center of gravity changes, the sort of balance required to perform on the football field deserts them. They might, however, transfer some of their knowledge and skills into another sport where height is an advantage, such as basketball, volleyball or netball. ‘Of course young people will have a favorite sport into which they put a lot of time and energy, but let’s use their sport to teach them to become athletes – so if they do come to a dead end in their main sport, they don’t drop out of physical activity altogether.’ Long-term athlete development is now the cornerstone of both the Youth Sport Trust’s and Sport England’s thinking on the development of gifted and talented students and elite athletes. This approach supports a multi-skills and sports experience during primary school years, with children learning basic physical literacy; by the time they get into Key Stages 3 and 4, youngsters should start to choose their sport as determined by their own particular characteristics. Only then, the theory goes, will the player be able to reach the very heights of his or her potential. Operating in a theoretical vacuum, or if the world was to start afresh tomorrow with all memories wiped clean, this would be fine. But it doesn’t take into account the fact that young people are not robots; they are affected by traditions, experiences, the views of friends and family and the fact that sport – even for the most talented youngsters – is meant to be enjoyed. Roger Black enjoyed football and rugby more than running while at school, whereas to a young Shane Warne or an Ian Botham the idea of spending hours working on fitness in the gym was as unappealing as it was to both these cricketing giants when at their peaks. They wanted to enjoy their sport, but equally enjoy their life.

Keeping options open

One thing schools can do to help talented young performers is to manage the levels of pressure they are under and help them maintain a ‘work-life’ balance. The elite 15-year-old swimmer who is training five times a week and taking part in competitions as well as revising for GCSEs and trying to maintain friendships doesn’t need to be pressurized into turning out twice a week for the school hockey and netball teams just because (like many talented youngsters) she happens to be good at more than one sport. Encourage her to play some hockey, netball, football and cricket by all means; learning about teamwork, decision making and performance analysis in all of these areas during PE lessons will be a bonus. But let youngsters take their interest as far as they want to, while taking into account what is best for the individual given all that is going on in his or her life. Wayne Rooney didn’t get a single GCSE while at school, but he will earn enough out of football not to have to work beyond the age of his retirement from the game, if he so chooses. Very few individuals, even among the top professional sportsmen and women, will have this luxury and as only a tiny proportion of the youngsters on gifted and talented registers around the country will make it into professional sport, it is even more essential not to look simply at what these students can do for sport, or even what sport can do for them, but to look at what is best for the young person in a holistic sense. How can they be given every chance to succeed in sport without wrecking their chances of succeeding in life? The numerous sporting courses and scholarship schemes that are springing up around the country allow elite youngsters to use their love of sport to gain qualifications and experiences that not only enhance their own skills, but give them the opportunity to go into careers other than performance sport, should they not make the grade. Not everyone can score the sort of goal Rooney did against Newcastle, play an innings like Kevin Pietersen did against the Aussies at the Oval in 2005 or run like Kelly Holmes and Roger Black in their defining Olympic races. But there are many other options for young people who can analyze how these champions were able to perform at such peaks – as teachers, coaches, administrators, sports development officers or even writers! Schools have an important role to play in introducing these possibilities and helping young people to keep their options open.


  • Youth Sport Trust is the charity leading the development of the school sports partnership and sports college network
  • The Talent Ladder website is a key component of the Gifted and Talented program, which forms part of the Government’s Physical Education, School Sport and Club Links (PESSCL) strategy.
  • The Talent Matters project, funded through the National Strategy for Physical Education, School Sports and Club Links (PESSCL) aims to inform current efforts by the Youth Sport Trust to develop effective talent development practices in physical education. The ‘Talent Matters’ website aims to provide practitioners in physical education with information and resources to support the development of talented pupils.
  • The Olympics education website offers ideas and resources about the forthcoming Olympics, and how to organize an Olympics day in school (and involve all departments).
  • Meeting the Needs of your Most Able Pupils: Physical Education and Sport (2006) by David Morley and Richard Bailey, David Fulton Publishers is essential reading for practitioners and advisers.
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