How to build the perfect Athlete

Nick Pierce, The
‘Talent identification’ is the new buzzword in British sport – using science and psychology to find the next generation of Olympians in sports from kayaking to martial arts. How does it work – and should we be worried? When Rachel Cawthorn was 15, her sporting career amounted to swimming a couple of times a week at her local club in Guildford. “It was mainly for fun,” she says, shyly. “I tended to come in last, and I wasn’t a very competitive person.” Fast forward three years, and she is, at only 18, one of the world’s best sprint canoeists, and a genuine gold-medal hope for London 2012. Cawthorn only stepped into a boat after canoeing talent scouts turned up at her school and invited the taller girls to do some physical tests in the gym – she didn’t look especially athletic, but her aerobic fitness and upper body strength impressed them. Nor was her first experience of a canoe particularly promising. “I got in one side and fell straight out the other,” she laughs.What the scouts and Cawthorn herself soon noticed, however, was her “feel for the water”. She turned out to be exactly the fast learner they had been looking for. “I would never have imagined myself as an elite, Olympic sportsperson,” she says now. “But the better I got, the more competitive I became.”As a doctor in sports medicine, working for the English Institute of Sport (EIS) for the past seven years, I have witnessed a transformation in Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic success and growth since the nadir of Atlanta 1996, when Britain came home with a single gold, and finished 36th in the medal table. In the past dozen years, the government has allocated hundreds of millions of exchequer and lottery funding to sport through UK Sport and Sport England. My own job was born out that money, as are the positions of nearly 400 staff working through UK Sport and the EIS to support and develop elite athletes.This investment has had rich rewards – as demonstrated in Beijing – and the funding has fuelled a professionalism seen most vividly in cycling, sailing, rowing and canoeing, as well as winter sports such as bob skeleton. Performance directors have introduced business models to their sports and now nothing is left to chance; the “aggregation of small gains” is constantly reviewed. Investment in quality coaches, performance analysis, scientific and medical support, technical equipment and facilities has transformed the landscape, and British success at the last two Olympics has been a resounding endorsement of the funding programme.But however well oiled the sporting machine, it still needs athletes: new recruits to feed into the now successful models of refinement and performance. And it needs the right athletes – which is why a team of scientists turned up at Rachel Cawthorn’s school back in 2005.

Traditionally, recruitment into Olympic sports in this country has been haphazard. Athletes have emerged not from a finely honed system of selection, but from a mix of clubs, schools and families, with the right athlete finding the right coach often purely by chance. In the fringe sports, many athletes would have a sporting family; I have seen, during my own involvement in canoeing and cricket, generations of paddlers or cricketers coming through. Clearly genetics, and growing up with an “environmental” background in sport, may maximise a child’s abilities; however, it does not mean that they are the most talented, or that their parents are the best coaches. It remains a very limited pool of talent. Olympic teams have been dependent on the same small field from which to cultivate their talent and, not surprisingly, there have been some very barren years. Injury or illness to one key athlete could finish off an Olympic programme.


In the past decade, British sporting bodies have been studying recruiting models in other countries where the numbers of athletes is similarly limited. East Germany in the 1960s and 70s stood out as the leading proponent of what has become the increasingly precise science of talent identification. But their science served a grotesque end, creating a legacy of doping and other extreme measures that continues to blight the lives of those affected. Nevertheless, Australia has distilled elements of the East German programmes to identify the right athlete for the right sport. The pilot programmes in the 1980s, which focused on rowers, produced notable success (in the 1992 Barcelona Games, Australia won two rowing golds, their first since 1948, and followed them up with two more in Atlanta). Formal programmes introduced in the 90s led to a record haul for the country at Sydney 2000.

The idea of “talent ID” is nothing new: even at school, PE teachers will assign the big lads to the forwards and the speed machines to the backs. Football academies snap up talent as young as possible, trawling widely and gradually discarding all but the very best. Tennis academies work on a doctrine of “make or break them” over an average 10,000 hours of tennis practice. Some sports even use military exercises to help explore athletes’ potential for leadership and teamwork. In a heavily populated country such as the US, which is overwhelmed with athletic potential, enormous college and high school programmes feed into professional sports, with huge “meat market” testing days before the rounds of draft picks each year.

In the UK, the process of talent identification has had to become more imaginative and precise. Many of the Olympic sports have minimal publicity and little prospect of recruiting in large numbers (consider the number of children you know who have seriously tried their hand at watersports, or at shooting, tae kwon do or eventing). In the absence of a large pool of talent, the focus has turned to actively seeking and selecting those with the right physical and mental attributes for specific sports. And how to quantify “the right stuff” is becoming increasingly refined.

Two years ago, UK Sport launched its first public appeal for athletes with Sporting Giants: a programme seeking talent for “tall sports”, such as rowing, handball and volleyball. It invited men over 6ft4in, and women over 5ft11in, who were already competing in a sport at county or regional level, to sign up for trials. From a database of more than 3,500, the trial system has now placed 45 athletes in Olympic development programmes, 30 of those in rowing. Victoria Thornley, who was a showjumper when she signed up, this year took gold at the Under-23 rowing World Championships, as part of the first British women’s eight to win the competition.

So how does it work? Each sport identifies its own requirements with the help of Talent ID scientists, whose background in sports science, physiology and skill acquisition enables them to research and define a profile of successful athletes in that sport – what qualities do the best rowers, windsurfers or volleyball players in the world have in common?

Kayaking has been an early adopter of the techniques. It established a three-phase process, beginning with a mass screening of many hundreds of applicants, measuring strength, endurance, speed and skill on special testing days. From these, 24 were selected for the second phase: skill testing specific to canoeing disciplines. Could they go from sitting in a boat and falling over to competently completing 500m time trials in a short space of time? Ten athletes were ultimately selected to undergo an intensive, three-month talent confirmation process. During this period they received full-time coaching at camps based at the National Water Sports Centre in Nottingham, including intensive conditioning, and scientific and medical screening. It wasn’t only their basic athleticism that was assessed, their psycho-social makeup was considered too: did they have the right mental attributes? Sports psychologists were on hand to observe their behaviour under pressure, and to look at their sporting history.

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The programme has been a startling success, with Cawthorn – identified in the first round of schools testing – one of its most notable protégées. Three years after picking up a paddle for the first time, she was competing in the Sydney Youth Olympics, where she won two silver medals. This June, she secured Britain’s first ever medal in the Women’s K1 500, at the European Championships in Germany, and finished fourth in the World Championships, as well as fifth in the K4 500 – the best ever British results in women’s sprint canoeing.

But it is not all about retraining school children; kayaking and other sports are increasingly looking to recruit “mature” (age 16+) athletes. In fact, certain sports seem to reward those who come to them later in their athletic development. Shelley Rudman took up bob skeleton after spending her teenage years training in track and field and won Britain’s only medal in the 2006 Winter Games; Rebecca Romero made history by swapping her rowing boat for track cycling gold at Beijing last year; and Emma Pooley was a cross-country runner before representing Britain in road cycling. This kind of successful talent transfer was the inspiration behind last year’s launch of Girls4Gold, a nationwide recruitment drive for competitive women aged 17-25 into the sports of cycling, canoeing, rowing, bob skeleton, modern pentathlon and windsurfing.

Chelsea Warr, head of athlete development at UK Sport, says that research studying the biographies of elite sporting performers has uncovered some interesting trends. “Many successful Olympians have played a wide variety of sports, often successfully, to a relatively late age. This appears to give them a richer variety of inputs than those who have spent their entire life in one sport. Interestingly, a number of elite performers have also emerged from small cities or towns where they often had to compete against older peers. Athletes with this sporting history seem to have acquired a wide repertoire of skills, ultimately allowing them to springboard to the podium.” The “other” sports may make more of a difference than we think – may, in fact, be a performance advantage. Another significant by-product of talent ID is the enlargement of the elite athlete pool, driving domestic competition for places and pushing established athletes even harder.

This concept of picking late-maturing athletes makes instinctive sense. Not only do they have a foundation of athletic physical development but they have had time to develop, and indeed demonstrate, stable personalities, self-motivation and independent training. We already know of a number of athletes that have played to a high level across a number of sports, including James Milner (football, cricket, long-distance running), Phil Neville (football, cricket), Darren Campbell (athletics, football) and Ian Botham (cricket, football). Once you have this foundation you can, it seems, “bolt on” a sport’s technical aspects.


Last year saw the launch of Pitch2Podium, a programme targeting previously untapped pools of sporting talent from football and rugby academies. Only a tiny percentage of football academy scholars make it into a professional career, and, in conjunction with the Football Association, UK Sport and EIS have run screening days at the Madejski Stadium in Reading for academy students, looking at sprint, jump, endurance and strength tests to determine which sport they might be suitable for. Cycling, bob skeleton, modern pentathlon and canoeing have all benefited. James Hoad, a goalkeeper at Watford FC’s academy, has made a successful transition to bob skeleton, in which he is now competing on the international circuit, and hopes to represent Great Britain in the Winter Olympics 2014, if not Vancouver 2010.

However, it is not all about how high you can jump, or how fast you can sprint. In the US the major sports such as American football use a network of scouts and “information gathering instruments” to build a picture of an individual’s social background and mental profiling. Private investigators have, it is alleged, been used to check on leading draft picks. Arsène Wenger actively recruits the most talented teenagers from around the world but they will not make it beyond the Arsenal academy unless they possess sufficient emotional maturity, leadership, self-motivation and other aspects of emotional intelligence. But elsewhere the psycho-social framework for assessing the makeup of a successful athlete’s personality traits is still in its infancy in this country.

What is clear is that a lot of these processes require time and investment. Certainly our understanding of what makes the precise recipe of mental and physical skills for each sport is still in its infancy, but there are several UK sports bodies innovating behind the scenes and in time we will see the fruits of these labours. For all we know, David Beckham might come back as a cyclist.