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Talent detection programs in sport: the questionable use of psychological measures.

The pressure exerted by sports organizations, sponsors, and, in some countries, by governmental bodies (e.g., Sport Authorities, Olympic Training Centers) on young athletes to be successful sports competitors is greater than ever. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is also considerable pressure to predict future high quality sport performance in competitive settings by using various physiological, anthropometrical, and psychological tests on young athletes (see Abbott & Collins, 2002, 2004; Martindale, Collins, & Daubney, 2005; Tranckle & Cushion, 2006). Vaeyens, Gullich, Warr, and Philippaerts (2009) contend that programs whose aim is to predict future sport success, called talent detection (TD) or talent identification (TID) programs, "are designed to identify young athletes who possess extraordinary potential for success in senior elite sport, and to select and recruit them into talent promotion programs" (p. 1367). The purpose of these programs is, ostensibly, to "increase athletes' potential by means of a variety of institutional measures designed to accelerate talent development" (p. 1367). Another purpose is to provide tests--motor, physiological, anthropological, biomechanical, and psychological--during an athlete's "early" years in order to predict long-term success in competitive sport. The intention of these programs is to allocate scarce resources toward individual athletes whose test scores show "promising" talent, at least in the long-term. Are these objectives met? Are the tests valid? Is this a good idea, at least from a philosophical perspective?

The main purposes of this article are: (1) to critique, both empirically and philosophically, the value of predicting future talent in sport using psychological measures, and (2) to offer suggested directions for enhancing the processes of TD/TID, and talent development (TDV). The existing evidence suggests that the use of psychological inventories to predict future success and achievement in elite-level competitive sport lacks validity and proper ethics. The review will include the following: (1) defining important concepts, such as talent detection, also called talent identification, (2) providing empirical arguments in favor of TD programs, (3) making a case against the use of psychological measures in TD programs, (4) examining the philosophical arguments against the use of psychological measures in TD programs, and finally, (5) providing recommendations and guidelines for initiating talent development programs in sport.

Defining Terms and Concepts

Brown (2001) and St-Aubin and Sidney (1996) have defined TD as the methodological process of predicting sport performance over various periods of time by obtaining information on the prospects' physical, physiological, and technical abilities, either alone or in combination, with measures of psychological aptitudes. TD has also been described as a process by which children are encouraged to participate in the sports in which they are most likely to succeed, based on the results of testing selected parameters (Bompa, 1999). Woodman (1985) defined TD programs (in Australia) as "the screening of young athletes to determine those most likely to succeed in sport and directing them towards the sports to which they are most suited" (p. 49).

To Hahn and Tumilty (1989), TD programs consist of the selection of individuals who have shown to have the characteristics important for success at the highest levels of a particular sport. Durand-Bush and Salmela (2001) contend that TD programs reflect the attempt to match various performer characteristics--innate, learned, or due to training - with task demands of a given sport, to ensure the highest probability of maximum performance outcome. Williams and Reilly (2000) define TD as the discovery of potential performers who are currently not involved in any sport program. Finally, Lidor, Cote, and Hackfort (2009) use the term talent identification as "the process of recognizing individuals currently involved in sport with the potential to become elite athletes/players" (p. 134). All of these definitions consider TD as any conscious effort that recognizes individuals who have the potential to become elite athletes.

Two concepts that have been used interchangeably, but erroneously, with TD are talent selection (TS) and talent development (TDV). TS consists of the ongoing process of identifying athletes/players at various stages of the training program. To Lidor et al. (2009), TS programs refer to specific tasks or tests that target an athlete's capability to demonstrate competence in a particular sport or position within that sport. TDV, on the other hand, "implies that the athletes/players are being provided with the appropriate learning/practice conditions to promote and realize their potential in a specific sport" (Lidor et al., p. 134). TS does not include attempts to predict future success based on identifying the athlete's psychological characteristics.

Ostensible Advantages of TD/TID Programs

TID programs are often of great importance to select sporting bodies of governments that seek national and international status in competitive sport and apply scarce financial resources toward developing potential champion athletes, so that they may achieve national and international recognition (Vaeyens et al., 2009). Effective use of these financial resources are compromised, however, if these efforts fail to accurately predict future success in competitive sport, particularly among younger competitors (Lidor et al., 2009). Ideally, therefore, the early detection of talent provides the opportunity to obtain the best "return," or "investment," in giving potential elite level competitors the required resources in coaching expertise, equipment, facilities, practice time, and opportunities to reach their full sport potential. TID programs have been attempted with respect to the testing of sport skills, as well as of physiological and anthropological parameters.

Proponents of TD programs claim that showing that sport skill tests are, in fact, efficacious in predicting future sport skill performance adds credence to the examination of the psychological dimension (Vaeyens et al., 2009). In fact, the results of selected studies have indicated that measures of motor ability and motor skill proficiency predict future sport performance to a relatively high degree, at least at the elite level (e.g., Falk, Lidor, Lander, & Lang, 2004; Kerr, Booth, Dainty, & Gaborault, 1980). Tennis Canada's FirstServe TD program includes measurements of skin-fold, bone diameter, body girth, and reaction times that, ostensibly, accurately predict an athlete's future sport skill level and the athlete's compatibility with the demands of a particular sport (Leone, 1993). The program does not, however, include psychological measures.

Another apparent advantage of TD programs is that they maximize the number of gifted individuals participating in a given sport, resulting in stronger domestic competition and likely increasing the number of internationally competitive athletes (Durand-Bush & Salrnela, 2001; Hahn, 1990). This is because TD programs ostensibly promote competitiveness and direct athletes toward sports in which they are more likely to succeed, increasing the number of athletes aiming for elite levels of sport (Abbott & Collins, 2002, 2004; Bompa, 1999). Meeting psychological needs reduces sport attrition, that is, the likelihood of dropping out of a sport at which the athlete is expected to succeed (Petlichkoff, 1993, 1996). As Petlichkoff noted, attempts to determine the sport that best represents a young athlete's skills might provide a more efficient way than traditional trial-and-error approaches.

Along these lines, Bompa (1999), Hahn (1990), and Haskell (1983) contend that TD programs profile the athletes' strengths and weaknesses, and provide them with relevant feedback so that they can effectively monitor their progress throughout the entire training program. For example, Petlichkoff (1993, 1996) contends that children who drift from sport to sport in an attempt to find a satisfying and rewarding experience waste an enormous amount of time and resources. As a result, many children with high quality sport talent do not find their niche in sport, consuming considerable time in their search for a sport that is compatible with their skills and goals (Feldman, 1986). TD programs, therefore, can maximize the number of children who have positive sport experiences and a greater likelihood of success, thereby reducing the rate of sport dropout (St-Aubin & Sidney, 1996). The productivity of elite coaches is also enhanced by ensuring that their time, energy, and resources are directed toward the development of younger athletes who have the potential to succeed in elite sport (Bloom, 2002; MacNamara, Button, & Collins, 2010).

One additional factor in favor of TD programs is the limited statistical evidence from numerous studies, reviewed by Deaner and Silva (2002), in which discriminant function analysis has detected unique psychological characteristics that predict long-term sport success among young athletes. For example, athletes are categorized as "elite" and "non-elite" on measures of self-confidence (Andersen, 1976; Vealey, 1985, 2002), ambition (Mahoney, 1989), self-motivation (Mahoney, 1989), emotional stability (Missoum & Laforestrie, 1981), and enthusiasm (Missoum & Laforestrie, 1981).

When these advantages are considered together, an effective TD program will not only identify (younger) athletes who already possess desirable psychological characteristics that are commensurate with successful sport performance, but will also create a template against which other athletes (and their coaches and parents) can aspire and learn over time (Renger, 1993). Table 1 lists selected studies that discriminate between successful and less-successful athletes.

The Case Against the Use of Psychological Measures in TD Programs

The case against the use of psychological measures in TD sports programs rests primarily on three factors, failure to take into consideration the performers' physical maturation, the coach's role in the athlete's skill development, and flaws in the scientific process.

The Performers' Physical Maturation

TD programs may assist coaches, athletes, and the athletes' parents in identifying the type of sport that is most compatible based on the performer's physical attributes. These programs, however, may not accurately predict future skill development and sport performance. Predicting future successful sport performance using physiological and anthropological measures has received uneven support in the exercise science literature (Lidor et al., 2009). For example, based on their review of 13 studies that were aimed at distinguishing between highly-talented and less-talented athletes, Lidor et al. concluded that "no clear-cut evidence has been found to support the predictive value of physical tests in talent detection and early development in sport" (p. 140). They cite numerous studies indicating "no correlation of physical tests with final selection and ranking of athletes" (p. 140). Along these lines, Till, Cobley, O'Hara, Chapman, and Cooke (2010) found low relationships between anthropometric, physiological, and selected characteristics in high performance junior rugby league players in the United Kingdom. The authors concluded that these results raise concerns about the ability of motor skill testing to identify characteristics of immediate and long-term player selection and development. Similar concerns have surfaced concerning the use of psychological testing for prediction purposes.

Along these lines, researchers and practitioners have examined the relationship between TD and TDV in sport. For example, Gulbin, Oldenziel, Weissensteiner, and Gagne (2010) reviewed "key developmental experiences and insights" of 673 high performance Australian athletes (p. 149). They determined that elite athletes possess several selected characteristics that are not found in their non-elite counterparts. All of the identified characteristics, however, were behavioral (e.g., commitment to practice, access to high quality coaching) and not psychological in nature. In addition, no personality traits were listed.

In their review of related literature, Lidor et al. (2009) concluded that assessing physical ability and skill level in order to determine future talent of athletes offers no clear support of the predictive value of these tests, either for individual or for team sports. Thus, while TD programs may help a young athlete decide to which sport he or she is best suited, the capability of these programs to predict future sport success may not be as promising.

Coach Expertise and Influence

The athlete's coach is almost always the most important external source that influences the development of physical and mental skills (Bloom, 2002). Two issues must be addressed with respect to the coach's role in the use of psychological measures in detecting and predicting an athlete's talent. First, reliance on the use of psychological inventories in TID programs undermines the coach's role in developing the athlete's talent. Predicting future performance from inventories does not take into account a coach's expertise. Coaches are primarily responsible for each athlete's development and maturation, particularly at the elite level (Salmela & Regnier, 1985). The coach's expertise is far more likely to influence an athlete's performance potential than psychological testing, especially over the long-term (Bloom).

The second point related to coaches is that athletes who are designated as having "high," or "good," potential to achieve in sport are likely to receive far superior coaching than their less-skilled peers. This phenomenon, called an "expectancy effect," consists of a person in a subordinate position (e.g., child, student, athlete, experimental participant) responding to an authority figure (e.g., parent, teacher, parent, coach, experimenter) in a manner that is consistent with the authority figure's expectations (Thomas, Nelson, & Silverman, 2011). Three types of expectancy effects include halo effect, Rosenthal effect, and Hawthorne effect (see Thomas et al., for descriptions). In the current context, this phenomenon might refer to as a coaching bias built into TID programs. Two studies lend credence to this view.

Christensen (2009) conducted in-depth interviews with eight elite soccer coaches, who identified the characteristics of highly-skilled soccer players. Christensen found that coaches predicted future success among highly-rated players who "were assumed to be willing to learn" and were "perceived to be hard working and dedicated" by their coaches (p. 379). These qualities are derived from good coaching rather than being generated from an inventory that ostensibly predicts the level of future sport performance. In another study, Davids and Baker (2007) found that highly-skilled coaches are more likely to be associated with elite athletes due to their excellent teaching and leadership skills. Specifically, better coaches (of elite athletes) offer superior structure and content of practice, maximize training time, and engage in meticulous planning. Thus, the degree of coach expertise is a mediating, but rarely controlled, variable in the attempt to validate the efficacy of TD/TID programs (Reilly, Williams, Nevill, & Franks, 2000).

Flaws in the Scientific Process

Flaws in the scientific process, which represent particularly powerful issues in questioning the role of psychological factors in talent TD, include these 12 components: (I) vague definitions of selected constructs, (2) inconsistency in defining an "elite" athlete, (3) invalid inventories/poor predictive validity, (4) poor research methodology and statistical procedures, (5) sample bias, (6) failure to use baseline measures, (7) extensive use of cross-sectional comparisons, (8) paucity of skill level comparisons, (9) poor inventory construction, (10) limitations in personality research, (11) inherent problems with self-report, and (12) over-reliance on anecdotal evidence.

Vague Definitions of Selected Constructs

The terms "mental toughness," "competitiveness," and "psychological readiness" are often used when attempting to determine an athlete's potential for future success. Almost unknown, however, are their operational definitions, and the extent to which these characteristics identify or predict sport skill level (Singer & Janelle, 1999). In addition, interpreting and applying such arguments would challenge most sport psychology consultants and coaches. It is not known, for example, whether these measures are stable (i.e., trait) or situational (i.e., state) constructs, or whether they reflect relatively stable, cross-situational dispositions (i.e., traits) and thus are open to change through intervention and experience (i.e., state constructs), as proposed by Anshel (2012). Similar limitations are inherent in examining specific psychological characteristics in TD research (Durand-Bush & Salmela, 2001).

Inconsistency in Defining an "Elite" Athlete

Examining psychological characteristics of athletes in predicting future success has usually consisted of comparing "elite" and "non-elite" athletes. Operationally defining an "elite" sports competitor, however, has been markedly inconsistent in the literature (Anshel, 2012). Often, researchers have used statistical procedures to discriminate skill level as a function of his or her current success or achievement (Matsudo, 1996). Traditionally, elite athletes have been defined as individuals "who are eligible for competition at the national, international, or Olympic level, or who are professional sports persons" (Van den Auweele, Cuyper, Van Mele, & Rzewnicki, 1993, p. 257). An additional definition of the elite athlete includes individuals who are eligible for such competition, but may not actually compete (e.g., Spamer & Coetzee, 2002), while another definition refers to athletes who are currently involved in sport competition at a particular level (Falk et al., 2004).

An additional concern is that the term "elite" is often culturally specific (Gan, Anshel, & Kim, 2009). For example, an elite athlete may be defined as a sports competitor at the national level in some studies, while in other studies the term "elite" is used for college students who played on their high school sports teams. It is unlikely, therefore, that elite athletes, as identified in various studies from different cultures will display the same characteristics in, for example, Africa (Spamer & Coetzee, 2002), Asia (Gala et al., 2009), Europe (Williams & Reilly, 2000), and North America (Brown, 2001). This inconsistency compromises the primary objective of TD programs--to predict the future quality of sport performance.

Invalid Inventories: Poor Predictive Validity

Perhaps one of the most compelling cases against the use of psychological measures in TD programs is poor predictive validity. Predictive validity reflects "the degree to which a measuring instrument or test yields information allowing prediction of actual behavior or performance" (Myers & Hansen, 2012, p. 592). A plethora of published studies comparing elite and non-elite or high and low-skilled sports competitors on selected psychological variables did not have promising results. For example, Prescott (1996) attempted to identify motivation, goal orientation, attribution, and locus of control as predictors of talent among British gymnasts aged 7-10 yrs, and found a very low prediction rate. In their extensive review, Deaner and Silva (2002) concluded that "while some of these studies do show personality differences based on sport type and gender ... many of these studies are old and focus only on a few select sports or a few select characteristics" (p. 61).

Poor Research Methodology and Statistical Procedures

Researchers and theorists have noted inherent limitations of many studies concerned with identifying current psychological characteristics of athletes, comparing athletes categorized as elite and non-elite or making cross cultural comparisons (Gauvin & Russell, 1993), and predicting athletes' future achievement level in sport. Some of these issues have concerned the use of inventories that were not intended for the current sample (Morgan, 1997), and improper psychometric validation and statistical procedures that render the instrument invalid (Schutz & Gessaroli, 1993). In his review of related literature concerning methodological research problems, Morgan lists "the absence of randomization, small sample size, inadequate psychological measures, and experimenter expectancy effects, among other flaws" (p. 4). Also problematic in this area is that researchers have labeled constructs interchangeably, such as juxtaposing the athlete's personality traits with his or her orientations, styles, dispositions, and behavioral tendencies (Anshel, 2012). Each of these constructs differ; some are more amenable to change through counseling and treatment (e.g., orientations of mental toughness or competitiveness; behavioral tendencies such as pre-performance routines) than others (e.g., trait anxiety, neuroticism, trait anger, stimulus-seeking). Failure to control for moderator variables such as gender and culture provides an additional concern. Gauvin and Russell contend, for instance, that "it is widely acknowledged that such cultural factors can potentially produce major distortions and inaccuracies in test interpretation" (p. 892). Based on their thorough review of related literature, Gauvin and Russell concluded that "the selection of sport/exercise-specific tests and scales ... requires a careful conceptual analysis of the constructs under investigation, an examination of the measurement assumptions of the theoretical framework employed, and in some cases, a consideration of the amount of variance explained in the target variables" (p. 899). Clearly, future study is needed toward the continued development and validation of psychological measures that attempt to predict and identify the potential for future talent in sport.

Taken together, a common threat to internal and external validity is the use of a self-report instrument that was neither constructed nor validated for the intended sample (Thomas et al., 2011). For instance, sample characteristics, or the psychological demands of specific sports in which "desirable" traits are being identified, are not taken into account when developing inventory items (Andersen, 1976; Gauvin & Russell, 2003; Hahn, 1990). Consequently, one inherent limitation in the existing literature is the lack of consistency in determining for whom the inventory was intended and to whom it may be applied (e.g., a university athlete, a highly talented competitor at the community level, a national or an international level competitor, or an Olympic or professional performer).

The use of improper statistical analyses in TD research has been ubiquitous (see Renger, 1993; Schutz, 1998; Schutz & Gessaroli, 1993; and Vealey, 1985, for reviews). While an exhaustive review of these limitations goes beyond the scope of this paper, specific examples abound. For example, one statistical approach by researchers has been to attempt to statistically separate elite from non-elite athletes using multiple regression models and discriminant analyses. However, the use of a regression equation on a different population from the one for which it was developed is inappropriate (Nesselroade & Baltes, 1979). While it is important to test for predictive validity by cross-validating results (Renger, 1993), most studies have not included attempts at cross-validation.

Another statistical limitation in TD assessment is the frequent use of univariate, not multivariate, statistics resulting in low predictive power, the virtual absence of statistical interactions, and the failure to consider the complex network of factors underlying sport performance (Schutz, 1998). One misuse of multivariate statistics is the violation of acceptable case-to-predictor ratios, resulting in a loss of statistical power. An acceptable ratio is 5:1, and preferably 6:1 (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007). Instead, Salmela and R6gnier (1985) propose using discriminant function analyses (DFA) to determine if the selected variables discriminate among the members of each group, and specifically, to find variables that are appropriate for testing the targeted population. DFA may identify athletes who are highly skilled, however, it does not predict future performance (Regnier, Salmela, & Russell, 1993; Schutz & Gessaroli, 1993). Regression analyses more accurately predict outcomes within a targeted population. Yet another limitation of TD research is the incorrect interpretation of correlational data as cause and effect (Schutz & Gessaroli, 1993).

Studies of the TD literature report a lack of proper research methods and statistical procedures (see Anshel, 2012; Durand-Bush & Salmela, 2001; Lidor et al., 2009; Schutz & Gessaroli, 1993; St-Aubin & Sidney, 1996; Van den Auweele et al., 1993; Vealey, 1985, 2002). According to these authors, the primary issues that have compromised the integrity of attempts to predict high quality sport performance (i.e., TID) among child or adolescent age groups include sample bias, failure to use baseline measures, improper statistical procedures, extensive use of cross-sectional comparisons, a paucity of skill level comparisons, failure to control for coach expertise, poor inventory construction, inherent limitations of self-report, and over-reliance on anecdotal evidence.

Sample Bias

Selection bias for research purposes occurs in cases where the participants in studies are recruited based on their availability, their personal motivation to engage in the study, investigator coercion (i.e., participation not fully voluntary), or the athletes' current skill level and pre-existing personal characteristics (Thomas et al., 2011). Selection bias may result in statistical regression or spontaneous remission, which may inflate positive results. Collectively, these biases may contribute to an expectancy effect (Martinek, & Karper, 1984), also called a self-fulfilling prophecy (Horn, Lox, & Labrador, 1998). This is because these athletes are usually labeled "elite" or "highly skilled," thereby influencing the coaches' (or researchers') attitudes, expectations, and behaviors toward these pre-labeled players. Ostensibly, then, athletes with "superior" scores on selected psychological characteristics may excel because of the high expectations of their coaches or researchers. Coaches with high expectations of athletes tend to provide more positive and instructional feedback than do coaches with relatively lower expectations (Horn et al., 1998; Martinek, Crowe, & Rejeski, 1982).

Failure to Use Baseline Measures

TD studies have often failed to establish a baseline measure for dependent variables (Spamer & Coetzee, 2002), which is important when accounting for the athlete's previous experience and current skill level, initial differences in group comparisons, and the use of cognitive and behavioral strategies that influence the athletes' cognition, affect, and performance. Developmental research is a particular research method that requires the comparison of initial and subsequent performance over time as a function of interventions (e.g., fitness training, skill development, coaching, and the use of mental skills). Consequently, researchers and practitioners in talent research are often unable to detect changes in performance in relation to the inventory's initial (baseline) scores.

Extensive Use of Cross-Sectional Comparisons

Most TD studies have been cross-sectional, as opposed to longitudinal (Lidor et al., 2009). Cross-sectional designs limit the power to predict which traits, if any, are associated with the athlete's long-term commitment to a given sport (Kantowitz, Roediger, & Elmes, 2005). Cross-sectional designs are also limited due to the pyramid effect, that is, as the athletic pyramid narrows, athletes who do not exhibit the traits required for continued participation are often eliminated (Jerome, 1993). Longitudinal studies are more sensitive to changes in psychological characteristics than cross-sectional studies, thereby eliminating the pyramid effect (Bloom, 1985; Thomas et al., 2011). While cross-sectional studies should be viewed as merely a first step in TD programs (Poppleton & Salmoni, 1991), longitudinal research is needed to improve prediction rates and accuracy (Matsudo, 1996).

In a rare longitudinal study in this area, Vaeyens et al. (2009) compared the performance characteristics of youth sports' athletes between world class and national level senior athletes, and found no significant differences between the two groups. One key finding of this review was that sporting success and intense discipline-specific training and competition among adolescents did not contribute to explaining or predicting long-term success as an adult. They concluded that "early sport specialization as a child does not appear to be a prerequisite for attaining expertise as an adult" (p. 1374).

Paucity of Skill Level Comparisons

Comparing elite and non-elite athletes allows the use of multivariate statistics to identify traits that discriminate between these groups. Attempts to determine differences between elite and non-elite athletes, necessary for examining the unique attributes of higher skilled competitors, are rarely compared in the same study (see Elliott, Ackland, Blanksby, & Bloomfield, 1990; Roetert, Brown, Piorkowski, & Woods, 1996). The authors contend that athletes are not typically designated as "successful" or "unsuccessful." The combined result has low discriminatory power.

Poor Inventory Construction

This section warrants a brief review based on the extent to which poor inventory construction exists throughout the sport science literature. According to Schutz and Gessaroli (1993), inventories used in studies to identify psychological characteristics of athletes for descriptive or predictive purposes have suffered from poor item construction and a paucity of proper psychometric properties. The authors cite several inventories that did not include the necessary psychometric data. Failing to control for sport type was apparent in most of the studies. Schutz and Gessaroli contend that the pervasive absence of a conceptual basis for item content, as well as low content and predictive validity, have been symptomatic of these problems.

Limitations in Personality Research

Attempts to determine and predict the quality of sports performance is rooted in sport personality research (see Anshel, 2012, and Vealey, 2002, for reviews). Perhaps nowhere throughout the sport and performance psychology literature is the case against TD programs stronger than in the sport personality research. TD studies are designed to predict the quality of future sport performance based on selected personality traits or dispositions (Van den Auweele, Nys, Rzewnicki, & Van Mele, 2001). Contrary to this assumption, however, the sport personality literature reflects a paucity of research supportive of trait personality theory (Van den Auweele et al., 2001). Personality tests in general have a very low prediction rate--only 8-10% of explained variance--in determining future sport performance quality (Anshel, 2012). In addition, there has been an overall failure on most measures to associate "high" and "low" scores with athletic success in the majority of psychological inventories (Deaner & Silva, 2002). This has direct implications for TD programs, which are predicated on the validity of psychological measures to predict future behavior, specifically, the quality of sport skill performance.

Personality testing as a predictor of performance success has been heavily criticized in the extant literature as inherently flawed, due in part to the lack of psychometric support (Schutz, 1998). Common limitations include response bias, failure to take into account situational factors, sport-specific demands (see Van den Auweele et al., 2001; Vealey, 1985, 2002), and not controlling for cultural differences (Duda & Hayashi, 1998). Testing elite athletes with various psychological inventories, such as the Profile of Mood States (POMS; McNair, Lorr, & Droppleman, 1992), the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI; Hathaway & McKinley, 1970), or the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI; Spielberger, Gorsuch, Lushene, Vaag, & Jacobs, 1983), shows that no single measure or set of psychological characteristics is sufficient for predicting the quality of future athletic performance (Cox, 2012; Van den Auweele et al., 1993, 2001). The lack of ecological validity of constructs and dependent measures represents another inherent limitation of personality research with respect to TD programs.

Schutz (1998), and more recently Deaner and Silva (2002), contend that personality research in sport psychology has failed to live up to its early promise of predictive ability, particularly with respect to long-term predictions of future skill level in sport. The use of personality scales as relevant components of TD programs has generally not been supported (Schutz, 1998). While selected studies have shown the uniqueness of personality traits shared by most elite athletes, Deaner and Silva (2002) concluded that "studies showing a significant relationship between personality and sport performance cannot be considered reliable" due to numerous methodological and theoretical limitations (p. 51). Finally, Davids and Baker (2007) contend that "the links between psychological traits and performance are not as clear (as physiological traits)" (p. 968). Taken together, it is apparent that attempts to use psychological tests for predicting future success have been fraught with disappointing results.

Inherent Limitations of Self-Report

Self-report has inherent limitations in psychological research, including the use of psychological inventories for TID programs. For example, respondents, including athletes, can easily fake their answers in accordance with the expectations or preferences of others (Miller & Edgington, 1984). This practice, referred to as social desirability response bias, is defined as "the tendency for a person to respond in a way that seems socially appealing, regardless of his or her true characteristics" (Furr & Bacharach, 2008, p. 246). As Morgan (1978) contends, in the sport psychology literature "psychometricians are well aware of the problems associated with response distortion, and it is widely recognized that most self-report inventories are easily faked" (p. 223). The use of corroborative measures related to the athlete's skill assessments by coaches and other experts might at least partially circumvent the limitations of self-report.

Overreliance on Anecdotal Evidence

The empirical perspective of TD has traditionally relied primarily on anecdotal evidence for providing standards of desirable psychological and behavioral characteristics. This is called the "bottom up solution," in which knowledge is gained from the collective wisdom obtained from individual interviews of sports competitors. Anecdotal evidence has been shown to have poor predictive power because it reflects an N of 1, that is, reporting the experiences of one individual (see Anshel, 1993, for a description of the limitations of anecdotal evidence on drugs in sport).

Anecdotal reports limit the generalizability of information and fail to account for individual differences (e.g., heritability, socialization) and task and situational factors inherent in competitive sport (Anshel, 2012); it is not a research method (Thomas et al., 2011). While a compilation of anecdotal reports may provide justification for conducting further research, far more problematic is the use of anecdotal reports to justify the efficacy of TD programs.

Philosophical Issues

Philosophical issues address ethical considerations, such as the "appropriateness" of TD programs or the allocation of community financial and physical resources. Addressing these issues requires recognizing that the main objectives of TD/TID programs are associated with discriminating between athletes who appear to have, as opposed to who do not have, the potential to reach the status of "elite" sport. These objectives include: (a) attempting to match individuals to sport activities to which they are best suited based on physiological and psychological measures; (b) selecting or eliminating certain athletes for future participation at elite levels of sport, and providing those "selected" competitors with optimal training and coaching conditions, and (c) allowing sports organizations, coaches, parents, and the athletes themselves to determine the extent to which they are committed to the necessary time and financial resources needed to reach the challenging goals of elite level sport (Abbott & Collins, 2002; Brown, 2001; Williams & Reilly, 2000). Questions remain, however, about the ethical and moral considerations of using psychological instruments to aid in making these decisions and to draw these conclusions.

Four issues are discussed in this section: (1) the Gatekeeper Syndrome, (2) the varied expertise of sport psychologist and consultants, (3) limited financial resources, and (4) questioning the validity of identifying pre-requisite characteristics.

The Gatekeeper Syndrome

Individuals or groups who claim to have the knowledge and power to make final decisions that have long-term implications on the lives of others, such as determining an athlete's future involvement in sport, exhibit the Gatekeeper Syndrome (MacNamara et al., 2010). "Gatekeepers" are individuals who regulate and monitor accepted knowledge in a field of study and practice (Christensen, 2009; St-Aubin & Sidney, 1996). In the present context, the "gatekeeper" determines the future status of an athlete based on the athlete's score on a psychological inventory. The philosophical question is whether a coach (or anyone else) should act as gatekeepers in using psychological inventories to predict an individual's future sport success.

Who are these "gatekeepers?" St-Aubin and Sidney (1996) described a TD gatekeeper system in which "the expertise of ... sport scientists is relied upon in the decision-making process ... particularly sport psychologists" (p. 10). Martindale et al. (2005) contend that recent advances in sport psychology measurement techniques, advanced research, and more experience in practice settings should be accompanied by less premature judging and predicting of sport talent. From a philosophical perspective, the issue is whether researchers and coaches, using psychological inventories as part of TD programs, should be the gatekeepers of an athlete's future - particularly in the absence of additional high quality coaching, training, mental skills, and sport experiences. The question is whether a gatekeeper can accurately determine the desirable, or even the requisite, psychological characteristics of elite sports participants, and then claim to accurately measure them in predicting future sport success.

Varied Expertise of Sport Psychologists and Consultants

Should TD programs that are based on the administration of psychological inventories be controlled by sport psychologists (individuals who are licensed psychologists, hence the title "psychologist") and sport psychology consultants (individuals who have expertise administering mental skills training but are not licensed psychologists and, therefore, may not use the title "psychologist")? Several researchers over the years (e.g., Anshel, 1992) have argued against the use of sport psychology practitioners in the use of inventories for prediction and even for diagnostic purposes. What would researchers and practitioners do with these inventory scores? Do these professionals have sufficient training in generating, administering, scoring, and interpreting the inventories? Is there training that instructs practitioners on proper ways to apply inventory data? While in recent years an increase has been seen in the proper training and greater monitoring of certification and training procedures in the practice of applied sport psychology (Lidor, Morris, Bardaxoglou, & Becker, 2001; Singer & Anshel, 2006), there has also been general disagreement--and even confusion--in determining the proper educational background, requisite skills, and training for effective practitioners in this field.

It is important to acknowledge two factors concerning the influence of sport psychology on talent development. First, a thorough review of the related literature clearly indicates that sport psychology practitioners in many countries have been highly effective in enhancing mental skills and sport performance of male and female athletes in virtually all sports and skill levels (Alfermann & Lidor, 2005). Second, however, is that the field's current level of development precludes any clear and consistent ability to identify and assess the requisite mental skills and psychological characteristics that can accurately predict future skill level in sport (Martindale et al., 2005). Previous attempts over the years to overcome these problems have been met with serious flaws.

Blanksby's (1980) work provides an historical perspective on the controversy of adopting TID programs. He describes the Australian TD program for swimmers, and has proposed that identifying future elite level swimmers could be accomplished through the school system; tests of fundamental movement skill tests could be administered annually to all students. Blanksby also suggested that psychological tests of locus of control and sociograms that measure group dynamics be administered at the same time. He argues that psychological tests "might help the teacher to understand and counsel each child more adequately" (p. 18). Local sporting club representatives would visit the schools at Grade 5 to engage in "a combination of wise counseling, individual desire, and gravitation to areas of natural preference [that] would ensure greater participation and nurturing of talented youngsters ..." (p. 18). The first author's visit to the People's Republic of China revealed that this selection strategy occurs today in China, as well as in many other countries.

However, there are limitations to these suggestions. The appropriateness of using one personality construct (e.g., locus of control, trait confidence) or sociometric data (e.g., team member interactions, attitudes toward teammates) is questionable. In addition, there are potential "costs" to the community of categorizing children, as early as age 10 yrs, as having "poor" future potential to succeed in sport. Based on the extensive rate of dropping out of youth sport, it is plausible to surmise that many children will discontinue their participation in sport after receiving this negative information.

Rather than fostering a culture-wide positive attitude of engaging in sport and other forms of physical activity, many children will conclude they do not have the proper skills to play sports and will feel unmotivated and lack confidence to learn and improve their sport skills. Also unknown is the number of children who will succumb to the self-fulfilling prophecy (Horn et al., 1998), in which the label "poor potential" nurtures low personal expectations and reduces the child's motivation to engage in regular exercise and other forms of physical activity.

Limited Financial Resources

Another very important philosophical issue that strongly affects the decision to sponsor TD programs is the use of limited community and regional financial resources, both public (i.e., government) and private (i.e., corporate sponsorships). The community must make judicious decisions about the appropriate allocation of these resources, and the ethical consideration of devoting limited community financial resources toward a program in which relatively few individuals (i.e., young athletes) will benefit (Green & Houlihan, 2005). Brown (2001) asserts that serving relatively few athletes at the cost of eliminating sport opportunities for a far greater number will likely eradicate the aspirations of many sports participants who have the capability of nurturing their talent through high quality coaching, instruction, and practice. Existing funds could be applied to recreational programs, improving fitness, learning new sport skills, and programs for high-risk individuals (i.e., adolescents involved in crime and drug abuse). As Cote and Hay (2002) concluded from their review of socialization processes in sport, these suggestions carry a significant influence in promoting involvement in children's sport. It is an issue of ethics, then, whether community resources should serve "the few" at the expense of "the many" when it comes to the number of children and adolescents who would benefit from competitive sport.

Questioning the Validity of Identifying Pre-Requisite Characteristics

The TD paradigm falsely assumes that the psychological factors that accompany high quality sports performance can be identified, or that these requisite characteristics even exist. For example, Brown (2001), Durand-Bush and Salmela (2001), and Tranckle and Cushion (2006) assert that coaches and researchers disagree about the most desirable psychological characteristics of elite-level competitors. A plethora of studies have attempted to ascertain the psychological characteristics of highly skilled competitors, and some characteristics have been consistently identified (e.g., confidence, risk-taking, competitiveness, optimism, mental toughness). However, whether these characteristics--or the inventories used to measure them predict an athlete's performance potential or discriminate between athletes who compete in elite and non-elite levels, remains questionable. As Abbott and Collins (2004) conclude, "... current talent identification and development processes are likely to exclude many 'talented' children from support programs while rare resources are 'misinvested' in others" (p. 395).

Conclusions and Future Directions: Moving to Talent Development

There is ample evidence that psychological measures do not discriminate between athletes of different skill levels. Various attempts at predicting future performance quality, usually conducted as ex post facto research in which the personal histories and experiences of current elite athletes at various levels of competition are compared, show relatively few differences among the athletes (Davids & Baker, 2007; Vaeyens et al., 2009). Attempts at predicting an athlete's future success is meaningless without adequate resources to follow up this process and to develop the athlete's potential (Martindale et al., 2005). The limited financial resources of most communities, however, make this suggestion unrealistic and unlikely. Jarver (1982) contends that "even if it would be possible (to identify talent), how many 12 to 13-year-olds, after being identified as hammer throwing talent, for example, would be interested to take up this activity to develop their talent" (p. 7).

The use of psychological inventories for detecting athletic talent has been less than efficacious. There are alternative programs, however. Numerous authors have proposed that efforts toward the early detection and development of talent need to be re-conceptualized. Martindale et al. (2005), for instance, contend that sports programs should stress the "appropriate development" of sport skills rather than the early selection of young prospects, and then focus on meeting each athlete's individual needs through high quality coaching and program opportunities. Instead of using psychological inventories to predict future sport success, Tranckle and Cushion (2006) suggest that it is more important to improve our understanding of an athlete's potential to perform sports skills based on the direct observations and assessments by skilled coaches, and to identify the physical and psychological characteristics of elite sport participants.

Hoare (1996), for example, described an Australian program called "Talent Search," which consists of three phases--school screening, sport specific testing, and talent developing. Hoare argues that the process of TD may be inherently flawed because "the successful selection of athletic talent has relied upon experienced coaches, (a procedure that) is limited in that it only selects athletes from within that particular sport. If the athlete is better suited to another sport, this will not be determined" (p. 3). Consequently, psychological measures have been dropped from the current Australian TD program. Phillips, Davids, Renshaw, and Portus (2010) examined the factors that fostered skill development among fast bowlers in Australian cricket. They found that instead of the use of psychological profiles, it was of critical importance to provide younger athletes with the opportunity to compete with older cricket players, "forcing them to constantly adapt their behaviors and increase their level of performance" (p. 145). Again, behavioral strategies rather than psychological inventories appear to be more efficacious in developing sport talent.

Another option, posited by Cote, Baker, and Abernethy (2007) and Cote, Lidor, and Hackfort (2009), is a system of talent support and guidance rather than prediction. Roffey and Gross (1991) contend that researchers and practitioners should attempt to help each athlete achieve his or her performance potential through the use of physical and mental skills training. They assert that "psychological skills appear to be learned skills, and those who master skills such as mental blocking, internalizing, goal setting, coping with pressure, and concentration are those who will make it" (p. 371).

An additional, preferred, approach to identifying talent among younger athletes is a program called performance profiling (PP; Dale & Wrisberg, 1996; Jones, 1993). PP consists of cognitive-behavioral interventions that help coaches and consultants identify an appropriate psychological intervention, enhance the competitor's self-motivation to conduct the intervention, and monitor performance changes during the intervention. Dale and Wrisberg (1996) used PP with a university women's volleyball team for team goal-setting, resulting in "a more open atmosphere for communication" between the players and their coach (p. 261).

Finally, perhaps the approach to predicting or developing sports talent should be a function of the old adage "practice makes perfect." Vaeyens et al. (2009) describe the "deliberate practice framework" in which "the level of attainment in any field is directly and monotonically related to the accumulated amount of deliberate practice in that field" (p. 1368). Based on their review of related literature, the authors describe a "time economic framework" in which athletic success is tied to accumulating "more hours of deliberate (high quality) practice than your competitors" (p. 1369). The mechanism of this approach is to "accelerate talent development processes by extension and intensification of training time in the targeted sport discipline" (p. 1369). TDV remains a superior alternative to TD/TID because it is predicated on the coach's systematic observation and assessment of each athlete's skills, followed by a plan of action for proper training and skill reassessment (Cote et al., 2009; Cote, Salmela, Trudel, Baria, & Russell, 1995).

It appears that rather than engage in attempts to predict future elite level performance of relatively few young athletes, limited financial and personal resources should be used: (a) to provide athletes of all ages the opportunity to select sports that interest them and in which they demonstrate competence, (b) to allow the normal processes of growth, development, and emotional maturity to form an integral part of the TD process, and (c) to teach athletes the sports skills and the cognitive and behavioral strategies that are necessary for improved sport performance (e.g., Abbott & Collins, 2004; Anshel, 2012).

In conclusion, it is apparent that the field of sport psychology is not, and has never been, about the selection or elimination of younger performers whose responses to psychological inventories may greatly determine their future level of sport competition and performance. Woodman (1985) contends that sports administrators, coaches, parents, and sport psychology consultants should focus on helping sports competitors of all ages reach their performance potential. To Woodman, "it is not enough just to identify talent, it must also be developed through the provision of appropriate training programs throughout the development stages" (p. 49). As Salmela and Regnier (1985) assert, "what the question of talent identification comes down to is whether we make our decisions (about an athlete's potential) using all of the available information or whether we wish to use partial hunches; whether we invest in the long-term solution or settle for the short-term fix; (and) whether we try to predict the somewhat predictable future or continue to predict the totally predictable past" (p. 93).


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Mark H. Anshel

Middle Tennessee State University

Ronnie Lidor

University of Haifa

Address correspondence to: Mark H. Anshel, Ph.D., Middle Tennessee State University Department of Health and Human Performance, Box 96, Murfreesboro, Tennessee 37132

E-mail:, Fax: 1-615-898-5020
Table 1.
Psychological characteristics discriminating between
successful and less successful athletes

Study        N    Sex     Age     Sport

Andersen     152  Male    18-22   Swimming

Hahn         N/A  N/A     N/A     N/A

Haskell      N/A  N/A     N/A     N/A

Ho           N/A  N/A     N/A     N/A

Hogg         N/A  N/A     N/A     N/A

Jerome       273  Female  11-25   Synchronized
(1993)                            Swimming

Kalinowski   24   Male &  N/A     Swimming
(1985)            Female

Komadel      N/A  N/A     N/A     N/A

Mahoney      67   Male    14-20+  Weightlifting

Mahoney,     713  Male &  17-25   Various
Gabriel, &        Female

Missoum &    220  Male    16-21   Various

Study        Instruments Used       skill level

Andersen     Cattell 16 PF          Self-confidence
(1976)       Social skills

Hahn         Review of Literature   Stubbornness
(1990)                              Self-confidence
                                    Anxiety *

Haskell      Review of Literature   Self-confidence
(1983)                              Goal-orientation

Ho           Review of Literature   Stubbornness
(1987)                              Ambition

Hogg         Review of Literature   Stubbornness
(1986)                              Self-confidence
                                    Emotional stability
                                    Social skills

Jerome       Cattell HSPQ 16 PF     Happy-go-lucky
(1993)       SCAT                   Anxiety *
             Rotter I-E             External LOC
             Buss-Durkee Hostility
             Self-Analysis Test
             Motivation Analysis
             Test (MAT)

Kalinowski   Interviews             Ambition
(1985)                              Self-motivation

Komadel      Review of Literature   Emotional stability
(1988)                              Intelligence
                                    Anxiety *
                                    Neuroticism *

Mahoney      SCL-90R                Self-motivation
             Mood (POMS)            Neuroticism *
Mahoney,     Psychological Skills   Anxiety *
Gabriel, &   in Sport (PSIS-P5)

Missoum &    Eysenck Personality    Emotional stability
Laforestrie  Inventory              Ambition
(1981)                              Enthusiasm

* denotes a decrease in the designated trait
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Author:Anshel, Mark H.; Lidor, Ronnie
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 23, 2012
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