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Understanding Talent

There is nothing wrong with any of these athletes' personal goals, and we should all do everything we can to help the athlete achieve them.

Let’s start this off by getting the hard part of the conversation out of the way. Repeat after me: “There is no such thing as an elite 8-year-old lacrosse player. There are no high-performance 10-year-old lacrosse players.” 


One more time, say it to yourself; “There is no such thing as an elite 8-year-old lacrosse player.  There are no high-performance 10-year-old lacrosse players.” Some coaches may tell you different. Parents may tell you different. But what they are commonly mistaking for “elite” or “high-performance” is really just a young athlete who is simply more physically gifted at that given point in time, compared to their peers. 

Sports are littered with elite athletes who were busts and never turned into what everyone thought they would like former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf. There are also countless athletes who were passed on by professional scouts, yet have gone on to tremendous success at the highest levels such as Tom Brady.

If professional scouts get it wrong, and that’s their full time job, what is the likelihood of the layperson getting it right?

We can put pretty much every athlete into one of the four categories above. So, how do you know which one of these categories your young athlete(s) fall into? Let’s take a look at some mental characteristics for each of the athlete types and how we can improve their chances of success:

Likely Dropouts say:

“I have to go to practice.” 

“I don’t want to practice that.”

“Are we practicing today? (with a negative tone)” 

“I’m going to skip practice because I’d rather_______________.”

These athletes are crucial to our sport. We cannot continue to lose them. The environment we create around training, competition, and the car-ride home influences their mindset. If we get away from results-based environments and focus more on development, many of these athletes will be retained. With retention comes growth at the individual and sport level.

Under-achievers say:

“It’s ok if I’m late, I’ll still start.” 

“Coach will give me the ball in crunch time”

“I don’t need to practice.”

 “I deserve ________________.”

We often do a disservice to this young athlete by touting them as more than they really are (physically gifted compared to their peers). To help this athlete reach their full potential we have to create an environment where they are guided into the elite block and not just placed their based on their physical prowess. High performance is a behavior, not an outcome. We need to develop this behavior if these athletes are going to reach their full potential.

Over-achievers say and DO:

“When’s the next practice?”

“I want to be like my favorite player.”

“I can ____________ to improve.”

“I will ____________ to improve.”

This athlete needs two things to be successful. Time and coaching. Quality coaches will understand this athlete’s passion and desire for the sport and will be patient in helping develop the skills necessary for on-field success. The parent of this athlete should seek programs that understand this to ensure their athlete has the best chance of going as far as they want and not have their passion extinguished by those only concerned with results.

The Elite say and DO:

“I don’t want to stay up late. I want to be my best at practice tomorrow.”

“I will ______________ to improve.”

“I will earn ________________.”

“What else can I do to improve?”

These athletes are truly special. They’re the once in a generation types (Michael Phelps). For them to achieve their goals, coaches and parents will support their drive to be exceptional athletes even if it means the coach has to say “I’ve taken you as far as I can, I think you will get further by going to play for ___________.”

This is tough, it could mean losing games once the athlete leaves the program. It could mean the parent and child sacrifice time and social interactions outside of sport, and may even require a considerable financial investment. This path is not for everyone and it is not a guarantee of future success. It cannot be forced on an athlete. Be cautious before asking an athlete to go down this path. In fact, if they’re not asking for it they’re either not ready or meant to be on it.

It is our job as parents, coaches, and administrators is to help every athlete develop, no matter where they land in the chart above. We also need to be aware of what the individual’s goals for sport participation are. Some kids want to play for fun and friendship, some want to play in high school, and some want to play for Team USA one day. There is nothing wrong with any of these athlete’s personal goals, and we should all do everything we can to help the athlete achieve them.

The key to helping each reach their full potential is understanding each athlete and developing them accordingly.

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