Is Your Kid Talented?

Talent.

It’s a word that gets used frequently in the world of youth sports, and if we’re being honest with ourselves… we’ll admit we LOVE talent. We love watching the best players at any age perform skills beyond their years. We love it even more if it happens to be our kid who is drawing people’s attention.  Our infatuation with talent is the primary reason certain kids are labeled as talented before they’re even able to tie their own skates.

But what does talent really mean?

Here are three important things to keep in mind regarding talented young athletes:

1) Many times what appears to be natural ability is a combination of unknown factors.
2) Current success is not a guarantee for future results.
3) The way we treat talented young players impacts their mindset and development.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these three and why they matter.

He’s a Natural!

It’s particularly common at the youth levels for good players to be associated with natural ability. Since kids seemingly haven’t had much time to develop those skills, it’s easy to associate differences in ability with players’ natural-born “gifts”.

In many cases though, the top youth players, especially at Mites/8U or Squirts/10U, are older, have been playing longer or skate more frequently than their peers. These advantages tend to even out as players progress to higher levels, but they can make a significant difference at the young ages.

Another factor that can give the appearance of natural talent is the child’s physical development. Two kids who are the same age may have six inches or more of a height difference when standing next to each other. Furthermore, even if the two kids are the exact same age and the same height, they may be at very different stages of their motor and cognitive development, allowing the more developed child to progress rapidly while the other may struggle to initially learn certain skills.

As players become older and reach higher levels of play, the impact of these factors decreases and other factors begin to play more important roles.

The Danger of Projections

In most cases, referring to kids as being talented is fairly harmless. The trouble often starts when parents or coaches begin to use a player’s current ability level to predict where he or she will be in the future.

NHL clubs pay full-time scouts to travel the world to identify, evaluate and project players for their teams. Yet, each year about 40% of the players drafted will never play in the NHL and numerous players selected late in drafts or undrafted surpass draftees to be impact players.

A great example is multi-sport standout Anders Lee of Edina, MN.  Lee was selected in the sixth round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft with pick number 152 out of 210. Eight years later, less than 70 of the players drafted that year have played a full season worth of games (82) in the NHL. Meanwhile, Lee has played in over 260 games and his 84 career goals rank 14th among the players drafted that year.

If projecting players who are 18 years old, nearly fully matured and among the 200 best players in the world is hard, why do we get concerned if kids don’t make the top Squirt/10U team?

Development occurs on a nonlinear and unpredictable path so a great Squirt/10U player may not be a great Bantam/15U player. On the other hand, a player who doesn’t start organized hockey until Squirts/10U may still become a first line player on the high school team.

If your child happens to be one of the more skilled players, let them enjoy the success that comes with it, but beware of putting too much stock into early indicators.

For those kids who aren’t the most skilled, let them follow their passion. It’s not too late.

Changing the Focus

When adults, whether it’s parents or coaches, frequently praise the current talent or abilities of kids, we put them at risk of developing a fixed mindset in which they view people as either good or bad, which eventually limits their potential as players around them improve.

Carol Dweck, who has pioneered research on how people’s mindset affects their motivation and development, warns teachers, parents and coaches that:

“Praising children’s intelligence may boost their confidence for a brief moment, but by fostering the fixed view of intelligence, it makes them afraid of challenges, it makes them lose confidence when tasks become hard, and it leads to plummeting performance in the face of difficulty.”

Since the goal of youth sports is to develop kids into better people as well as better athletes, the focus should be on each player’s progress over the course of the season, regardless of their current ability. Parents and coaches can do this with simple acts such as praising players’ effort and embracing mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve. Over time, these lessons will help all players become the best they can be on and off the ice.

More Than Talent

One of the best attributes of youth sports is whether players are considered talented or not, all of them benefit from the same coaching and parenting lessons:

  • Do they love the game?
  • Are they coachable/do they have a teachable spirit?
  • Are they a good teammate?
  • How do they cope with adversity?
  • Are they responsible?

If we help young athletes develop these talents, success will find them eventually whether or not they become a great hockey player.