'De-select selection in youth sports'

What exactly is selection, and why is it such a hot topic? Jan Willem Teunissen recently attended a meeting on talent development at Papendal.

Recently I attended a meeting on talent development and identification of the consortium of 4 institutes at Papendal (national Olympic training center in the Netherlands).

The meeting was organized by HAN - Sport & Exercise, Ghent University (Be), UMCG Groningen, VU Amsterdam and the National Knowledge Centre Sports. Good platform, large group of professionals from all over Europe, from embedded scientist to trainers of football clubs and national associations. The aim was to work more closely together in our field of talent development and recognition in sports and to discuss the future of our field of expertise.

During one of the sub-sessions the idea was that with a small committee we would think about the future of our field of expertise in a certain direction. Since I'm doing a lot of research in the field of development myself, I had planned not to go to the 'development' session. I wanted to shift my horizon to 'selection and identification of talent'. The moderator of this session asked who has a pressing remark or question about these two themes – selection or identification. A professional from one of the largest sport federations in the Netherlands stepped up front and stated that selection is done on various grounds, but what is the value of that? A strange atmosphere arose (at least in my eyes and of the participants right next to me). What was his question? What was the remark he wanted to make about this theme in relation to his sport? There was a strange discussion about 'selection' that could not be traced back to anywhere. I wondered if this discussion between professionals is not exemplary for the understanding of selection or the concept per se?! 

What exactly is selection, and why is it such a hot topic? Selection is often used by trainers to put teams together in order to win games. Young children are selected on physical aspects or sport specific qualities, the 'best children in a ‘first’ team, the less good ones in another team'. Most often these children are identified based on perception of the trainers and how they see them. The elements that trainers look for are often far from substantiated, let alone evidence based. The result is that children could feel a pressure to perform (win games) and therefore encounter a possible decrement of their love for the sport. Furthermore, early selection also includes that certain children are de-selected. Does this mean that the de-selected children have no potential? In the short term these de-selected children are in any case not good enough to win is the reasoning. Otherwise they would have been selected for the ‘first’ team. There is a problem here, in my opinion. The problem with early selection, of course, lies in the idea that children who perform NOW will not necessarily be the best in later life, but will often get the best facilities, trainers and means to optimally perform. Is it fair to look at NOW or isn't the development of potential a better and fairer way of looking at things and replacing performance with development, for children? 

My statement is that selection is a construct of the our sports system that should always be at the service of the child's development. Selection and identification can never be a goal per se.
At the KNVB (Dutch FA), they recently started the ‘equal opportunities’ project. Good initiative, no longer selecting but treating all children equally at the same level. Good first step, but not the whole truth, in my opinion. Not selecting nor identifying potential is missing out on effective developmental tools.
How should selection work? Selection, detection and identification of the potential of children should be at the service of the child's development! During a training session - recognize what a child needs in order to develop their potential. Then make a selection of children who work together on their development or, as the teachers among us call it, 'differentiation'. What we differentiate on during a training session depends on many factors, the most important of which is the child! What can the child do, what can he or she not do yet and how are we going to help the child to develop these skills? It will lead to children who enjoy sports and develop by their own pace.

The symposium ended with a summary of the sessions. The conclusion in our section was; selection is too often an organizational tool in a system that emphasizes performance and should act more as a support for the development of the child.
Nice assignment for the future in our field seems in my opinion, look at the development of the child and not at the performance!

Jan Willem Teunissen

  • Name: Jan Willem Teunissen
  • Affiliation: HAN-University of applied sciences (expert team Talent Development & Identification) – Ghent University (Department of Movement & Sport Sciences
  • Profession & Expertise: Researcher and lecturer in the field of talent development and talent transfer. With special interest in all-round development of young athletes. Ph.D (c) – finding similarities and differences between sports in order to construct development pathways for athletes. Author of two books on talent development and international speaker. 
  • Short resume: Jan Willem has B. in PE and a MSc. in talent development & exercise physiology from VU University Amsterdam. In the past he worked for elite soccer club Ajax Amsterdam and implemented an all-round development program and maturity related individual training program (Bio-banding) into the youth academy. Furthermore, Jan Willem was head of the performance staff at elite soccer club FC Twente. Currently working at two educational institutes; HAN-University and Ghent University. 
  • What has inspired you? People who have exceptional skills inspire me the most. Especially when athletes find creative solutions to extremely difficult challenges within the game. Such as Jerome Simpson is this video: