In this episode, I explore talent identification and development of athletes in Parasport. I speak with Professor Joe Baker to understand in detail what talent identification and development is. We consider approaches to finding and developing talent in a Parasport context, as well as how to build a sustainable Parasport talent system.
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High-Performance Sport: Talent Identification & Development
Speaker: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK)
Speaker: Professor Joe Baker (Participant – York University, Canada)
[00:00:29] Dr Christopher Brown: Welcome Joe. Thank you for joining me today for our discussion on Talent ID and Development. So delighted to have Dr. Joe Baker here to discuss talent identification and development in a Paralympic context. So I think just to orientate ourselves in terms of the discussion, would you be able to just define what we mean by talent identification and development, and whether there are any specific factors we need to be aware of in a Paralympic context.
[00:00:53] Professor Joe Baker: Sure. Happy to be here. I'm looking forward to the chat. So talent identification is more the explicit act of, um, identifying or selecting people from a group that might have greater likelihood of success within that group. So it's, uh, identification, selection. These are more around taking a large number and making it a smaller number in terms of efficient use of resources.
Development on the other hand is with athletes that you're working with, what's the most appropriate training environments and learning environments that you're putting those athletes in? So one is about the act of choosing the individuals with the greatest likelihood of success. The other one is ensuring that the developmental context you put that person into is optimised for their learning and for their development.
In the Paralympic context and Parasport context, we have all the complexities and nuance that we see in the non-para context, but it's actually even more complicated because there are a number of issues related to Paralympic athlete development that just don't apply in the non-Paralympic environments.
Like classification is the biggest one. For a Paralympic participation, you have to have a classifiable impairment that puts you into a category that means that we have like racing against like, or like competing against, like, so that there's an additional element of complexity in the Paralympic context that we just don't see in the non-Para context, which makes it even more of a challenge from an identification and development standpoint.
[00:02:23] Dr Christopher Brown: Okay. And if we were trying to get a picture of the life cycle of a talent id and development process, what would it be like for trying to get the next Paralympians?
[00:02:32] Professor Joe Baker: It differs quite a bit from sport to sport and country to country because each system, if we think about Paralympic athlete development as a system you know, at what we call um, National Sport Organisation, an NSO, then each country will have different priorities based on whether the priority is participation so that more individuals with disabilities are participating in sport generally, or are they chasing Paralympic medals at major Games so that they can place higher in standings. So it depends a little on, not a little, it depends a lot on what the vision and priorities of the country are.
And then within that we have differences by sport. We have differences by impairment category. Is it a congenital impairment? Is it acquired? What type of it acquired, what's the progression of the impairment? All of those variables, again, go into this, which is probably gonna be the message of today, which is just how complicated this process is when we start talking about athletes with disabilities.
Yeah, you get all the differences between individuals that affect their likelihood of success: genetics, hard work, behaviour, all that kind of stuff. But now you've also got all of the disability-related issues that athletes have to deal with, which adds a massive amount of nuance to the processes we're talking about.
[00:03:52] Dr Christopher Brown: A number of different topics that you've just discussed that I want to have a go at, if that's okay. One of them is talking about the difference between congenital and acquired impairments. So for listeners who aren't aware, congenital is when you are born with the impairment and acquired is obviously when you get an impairment later in life.
What are the main, obviously there's quite a big difference, but what are the main processes involved in trying to school and develop an athlete who's got it from birth versus someone who maybe acquires it either in childhood or even in an adulthood? Would you be able to talk from your experiences about that?
[00:04:23] Professor Joe Baker: Yeah. And without getting into the nuances of different congenital impairments, because there's a wide spectrum of impairments that people can be born with. But I think, from our standpoint, which is working with organisations and coaches and athletes to try to improve the way that we can help them develop you can probably appreciate the differences between somebody who at birth, you know that the disability that they have, you might be able to plot the progression of that disability across the life course versus somebody who has no disability until they're in a motorcycle accident at 14 and then all of a sudden they're now a Paralympian or they're thinking about Parasport development.
This is, again, the difficulties that we have is one of them we can look at and say, well, here's a nice clean progression that we could map out for you and, anyone with an acquired disability? Well, when was it acquired? How much pre injury sport engagement You know, all the different socioeconomic and demographic variables.
All of those things that affect your recovery from the injury once you have the injury, what's the progression now of that new life that you have post-injury? One of the reasons why working in Paralympic sport is so interesting is there is no one size fits all model that you can say, well this worked in Athlete X and they won a gold medal, so we're gonna just apply that to this new athlete that's coming through our system. You can almost never do that in a Paralympic context. I would argue you shouldn't do that in a non-Para context, but we do it you know, when we see a Usain Bolt or a Serena Williams or somebody like that, we take that model and we think that, well, that can apply.
That goes completely out the window in a Paralympic context because nobody's impairment, nobody's life history has the same contextual variables that we need that are so important.
[00:06:17] Dr Christopher Brown: You've highlighted and alluded to the fact that there's a lot of complexity and a lot of challenge.
There's a lot of individuality in terms of the process you have to go through. So nations are obviously spending a lot of money to try and get the top medal placings and the tables: it's a global sporting arms race, some academics suggest. And also, you wanna be efficient, of course, you don't wanna be wasting money.
So how can nations have an efficient governance approach to talent ID and development? Whilst also acknowledging that there isn't necessarily a one size fits all approach, what's the happy medium?
[00:06:47] Professor Joe Baker: Yeah, it's the elephant in the room, we have a Paralympic athlete development system, even in the richest nations with the most money in their Paralympic system.
It's still, sport. It doesn't matter what shape or size it comes in: it's a resource limited system. Because we don't have unlimited coaches and facilities and even money to put into the system. So we do have to be thinking about how we can use those limited resources in an efficient way. I think I would make a distinction between short-term efficiency, which is what most programmes look at. How do I use the resources I have at exactly this moment to be more efficient going into the next major Games. So going into Paris or whatever it is. For me, I think that's how most countries think about system efficiency. What I would like them to do in a Paralympic context is to think about long-term sustainability of the system.
So 10 years from now, 20 years from now, what do you want your Paralympic athlete development system to look like and what's the most efficient way to get there as opposed to get the most medals in Paris or LA or whatever it is. There's a subtle difference there because I think the biggest issue that we deal with in Paralympic and Parasport context is, capacity to build out the system in terms of just number of participants for our future elite athletes to compete against in grassroots sports, in local sports. We don't have that in most parasport systems. And there's no reason why we couldn't develop it. It doesn't mean everybody in that system has to be classifiable at the end of the system, you know, to, to play.
Let's use wheelchair basketball as an example. We don't need everybody in there to have trajectory to be on the national wheelchair basketball team. But everyone who does end up there needs more capacity to play against in the system, to make them better athletes, to give them better training, exposure.
So if we did that, I think we develop a high-performance athlete development system that was stronger, more sustainable, more robust over time. And for me, the non-trivial spinoff of that is we'd have a lot more engagement with people with disabilities in the sports system that we're not seeing at the moment.
So for me, I think that's a win-win. And if we could convince people to think more about long-term sustainability, we'd still be talking about efficiency, but we'd be talking about it over a longer time period.
[00:09:08] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah, no, definitely. It's probably harder for some of those sports organisations to justify that longer term outlook because they've obviously got the pressures, haven't they, with funding targets, et cetera.
Even though it might actually be more profitable from a long-term view. Yeah. I dunno about the Canadian context, but , from your experience, sports organisations, are they trying to recruit people for the specific impairment categories or classifications that exist for the Paralympics? Like rather than you said just trying to go for a more rounded performance system.
[00:09:35] Professor Joe Baker: Yeah, you're right. That does often happen and the reason it happens is for the thing that you suggested just a couple seconds ago, which is coaches and systems are being rated on how did they do at the most recent games, and oftentimes their funding is tied to that performance. So we can't say just, focus on building a system for success 20 years from now, because that's not how they're evaluated.
And so sometimes in order to make sure that they have sustainable funding for the programme, they have to be looking at who can I actually put into this spot that I have that's gonna be the greatest likelihood of success? And so sometimes it's very specific, very positional in terms of the way that they're thinking about their athletes, whether that athlete goes on to have long-term success, you know, multiple Games, multiple medals.
I think that's part of it, but the more important part is, can I put someone in the position to win me a medal at the next Games? Because my career is dependent on how I'm gonna be assessed going into those kind of outcomes.
[00:10:34] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah, it must be tricky as well. Obviously the general impairment category might be the same, but there's also the nature of the classes can change and be dropped and altered it, et cetera.
And the athletes themselves, of course could be reclassified. So that can be obviously quite a tricky thing for the sports organisations to navigate.
[00:10:49] Professor Joe Baker: Yeah, absolutely. And that's again, when we talk about the unique nuances of the Paralympic system is the fact that they, you know, the IPC, the International Paralympic Committee can decide to change how they classify athletes.
So you might have spent the last 10 years thinking you're going to the Paralympics and get classified out right before the Games start, which has happened to a number of athletes going into Japan.
[00:11:15] Dr Christopher Brown: And did they get support to transition to the other category? If they had an option to do that?
Of course they may not have had another class to go into. What was the kind of support for those athletes?
[00:11:22] Professor Joe Baker: Yeah, overwhelming support. I think the thing that's so rewarding about working in the Paralympic system is that athletes are never seen as commodities. They're always seen as people that we, you know, we have to work with these people as individuals that have unique needs. So it's a much more holistic approach to athlete development than what I've seen in a lot of non-Para context.
The transitioning out was the issue and you know, all the resources. And you know, when we talk about system efficiency, all the resources were that were put into that athlete to get them ready are wasted from a certain perspective.
[00:11:56] Dr Christopher Brown: And I'm not sure if you've read this book and listeners might have read this book, I don't know, but it's the Talent Lab book by a journalist called Owen Slot, which focuses on Team GB's Rio 2016 successes. And a big part of the book is talking about being clever basically in terms of talent ID and development and sports science innovation.
And one of the points that is made is that there used to be in certain sports the approach that if we build it, they will come. Rather than trying to actively and strategically look for talent. Has the Parasport context moved to that recently or has that been a consistent pattern that we've actually had strategic programmes in place, or has it basically been, they'll find us and we'll try and then take it from there. What's been the approaches?
[00:12:35] Professor Joe Baker: I think it's been much more strategic in terms of number of countries around the world have active talent searches for Paralympic athletes. And so there they have really clear criteria of what they're looking for and what positions they think they've got open.
So there it's very strategic and very efficient. And from a certain perspective they've had success doing that. And you can't say that doesn't work. For me, again, I think I bring it back to the long-term sustainability of the programme. And I think, chasing medals is a great, uh, recipe for short-term success until countries catch up to you and see what you're doing. If you want long-term success, then build a system where you're building the, you know, if we look at that outdated athlete development pyramid where the broad base of support is how every stage above is fed from that broad base.
We don't have that broad base in Paralympic sport because of how, you know, the issues that athletes with disabilities have had accessing those kinds of programmes. Just the availability of those programs in the first place. For me, maybe they're not separate systems working against each other.
But if we thought of, well, how do we actually build that base of participation? I would love to see more countries doing that sort of thing, more sports doing that sort of thing. For me, that's the long-term secret to success because more people at the base means more people that will have access to finding your high-performance system in the first place.
But we also have a tendency to focus on that one athlete who ends up with a medal around their neck without actually acknowledging the fact that that one athlete probably needs hundreds, if not thousands of athletes in the system for them to compete against and work against and train with, and be motivated by, and supported by.
And so when we focus on that one person, we undermine all the other elements of the system that are necessary for that one person to succeed.
[00:14:25] Dr Christopher Brown: So there are two very broad, and I do this as not an expert in the field, so correct me if I'm wrong here, Joe, of course. Yeah, two kind of broad approaches I think for tan ID and development.
So you've got the classic kind of youth development one where you get them young and then try and train them throughout their formative years. And then the more kind of fast track identification schemes again in the Owen Slot Talent Lab book, he talks about that. What about for the Para context? What are the fast track talent ID and development schemes like, if indeed there are any, based on your experiences?
[00:14:54] Professor Joe Baker: Yeah, there are. And that's the normal approach I would say for at least high-performance Paralympic athlete development is a fast track. And part of that is because there are so few athletes in the system, the ones that are in there are really focused on, they're really given as much resources and support as possible to try to nurture them and just see, and see what becomes.
And the other part is there is no capacity to develop it in that slow burn sort of way that we can do in non-Para contexts. And you know, things like talent transfer, optimised environments, fast tracking, those are all things that we can do in a Paralympic context because with so few athletes, you can make predictions about who's gonna have a disability that's gonna be classifiable in the right way.
And if the answer is yes, this athlete can be, then let's try to support them as much as possible. And if the answer is no, you know, from a simple mathematics standpoint, then the system often says, well, you know, let's get you into some grassroots local participation. But the high performance pathway is essentially closed to you.
[00:15:59] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah. So the pathway is probably a shorter pathway for a Para athlete, obviously you still have to have the talent and the dedication, et cetera, and all those other factors, but it's probably a shorter pathway than it is for an Olympian?
[00:16:10] Professor Joe Baker: Yeah, it can be now. And part of that is the reason that you know, as much as Paralympic sport has grown in the last couple of decades, it's still in its infancy compared to non-Parasport, where the number of countries around the world, the depth of competition, the sophistication of the performances that we see.
We're seeing it increase very rapidly in terms of its growth profiles, but it's still not in that period of stabilisation and advancement that we see in the non-Para world. And so you can get away with less training or less years of engagement because of those contextual factors.
[00:16:34] Dr Christopher Brown: And obviously we're talking in a general sense here about all sport. Obviously that belies the complexities again, in terms of sport as well as of course what we're talking about, the Paralympians themselves. Are there certain sports that you could benchmark athletes against? So for example, if you wanna be a rower, you're probably gonna have to be a certain height, maybe a certain physique. If you want to be a basketball player, again, you're gonna have to be a certain height, et cetera. So how does the knowledge of data science, sports science, feed into the talent ID and development process when trying to find those talented athletes?
[00:17:14] Professor Joe Baker: There are certain sports where that is a easier task than in other sports and there's a category of sports that we call, 'CGS sports', centimetres, grams and seconds. Anything that has an objective outcome that we can measure somebody against. It's easy to benchmark athletes in those things because we can use prior athletes because the outcome, the target that we're trying to achieve isn't changing.
So those kinds of sports are a lot easier than a sport, say, like a wheelchair rugby or wheelchair basketball. Not only is the level of performance of the athlete getting better over time, but their opponents are getting better over time and maybe the rules of the game are changing over time.
And so the target is actually moving at the same time that you're trying to develop athletes to be able to hit that target. So, those ones make the athlete development process so much more difficult than the ones that we see in those more simplistic sports.
[00:18:06] Dr Christopher Brown: And you mentioned about the fast-track programmes. Do you have an example that you could refer to just so that we've got a kind of a picture in our mind of what it actually means?
[00:18:15] Professor Joe Baker: Again, they vary by country, sport, those kinds of things. I don't know the members involved with the para hockey programme in the States, but some colleagues of mine have told me that they look for people that would be good candidates for para hockey. And so they talk to people that might be coming back from active military service that have now gotten a disability from their military involvement because they have the right sort of personality, that competition, that desire to be active, all of those kinds of things.
And so what they do is they try to find people who are in rehab programmes and to just streamline that process from rehabilitation of your new injury and impairment into Para ice hockey so that they fast track. And there's, there is no lag-time between this person as an active, non-injured individual to an injury, to rehabilitation, to Paralympic fast-tracking.
I think that's a really interesting way of looking at system efficiency. I think there's issues that probably need to be talked about and need to be thought about in terms of those situations. But from a system efficiency standpoint, that's a really efficient way to be thinking about those things, especially if you link the sport engagement to, you know, what does that individual need as they're now getting used to a new life with a disability, support, engagement you know, people around them that they can identify with. There's a lot of checks that we get when we think about what the Paralympic context provides to an individual with a disability that goes above and beyond whether they ever get a medal or not.
[00:19:51] Dr Christopher Brown: This is a potentially very simplistic question. So you might have to humour me here. So talent ID, identification and development, they go hand in hand. Can you separate them? And is there more emphasis towards one or the other based on your experience?
[00:20:04] Professor Joe Baker: It definitely is done and the talent identification is almost always done because of system resource issues. Like most coaches that we interact with would love to keep everybody involved in the system for as long as they wanna stay but they don't have unlimited time. They don't have unlimited resources, and so they have to make decisions. So that's the identification, selection part.
We would argue, like in our research lab, we argue that we spend too much time thinking about identification and selection and we should be spending more time and more energy focusing on development. How do we provide the greatest optimal learning environments for as many people as possible? That's where our focus is because I think, you know, regardless of whether somebody ends up on a Paralympic podium or not, if they're engaging and enjoying their interaction in a sports system, then they become an advocate for sport. The more positive experiences we have, the better and more sustainable the overall system is. TV rights, all that kind of stuff is based on how many people are actually interested in engaged in the system in the first place.
So we, in our research, we really emphasise, don't focus so much on identification and selection, focus more on development, but recognising that coaches don't have unlimited resources, so sometimes they have to make those decisions. When that happens, we say, well, when possible, try to make sure that the people that are being removed or deselected from the system are not just sort of left out in the weeds that you're nurturing those people, that you're deselecting so that they're staying engaged. They're leaving with a positive experience to ensure that these kinds of outcomes are happening.
[00:21:34] Dr Christopher Brown: So it sounds to me like you need to have a whole systems approach, a holistic approach to ensure that yeah, we're not just focusing on those who we think are gonna be the winners. Obviously that's important, but we also need to make sure there's a thriving system underneath to support those at the top as well.
[00:21:58] Professor Joe Baker: Yeah, absolutely. For us that's the holistic, long-term sustainable model that we're advocating in our work.
[00:22:05] Dr Christopher Brown: So if there are nations that are relatively new to the Paralympic context or trying to really focus their attention and resources onto getting higher up in the medal table, would that be your advice then? Or is there anything else that they should do to try and develop the system?
[00:22:18] Professor Joe Baker: In the Paralympic context, you know, we, 10 years ago, I think we started doing research in this area and we were kind of surprised that there wasn't a lot of research on athlete development. And so I think, you know, as much as we've done work in this area and there's other people, Australia, the UK, a couple in Eastern Europe, I think there's still, it's a small community that's doing work in this area.
So my advice is for coaches or people trying to develop a system is, don't assume that the answer is out there in some other system. Don't be afraid to identify the unique elements of your sport. What do you need, what's different about your sport compared to things that we know about from previous research?
And then figure out what you want your long-term vision to be. So what do you want your sport to look like 10 years from now? And then what do you need to do today to make sure that it's more likely to look like that 10 years from now. Most of the time when we have those conversations with coaches, chasing medals is not high on their list of what are things that are gonna improve their sport 10 years from now.
It's capacity, it's educating coaches, it's putting programmes in place so that when we lose athletes from the system because their end of their careers, we have pathways to reengage them as a high performance coach or as a mentor, as a programme advisor. So be thinking about those kinds of things because, you know, the speed at which Paralympic sport is changing means the way things are today are not gonna stay that way for very long. So we need to be predicting and to a certain extent, creating the future that we want in this sport.
[00:23:47] Dr Christopher Brown: Now you might be biased, you are in this field of course, but to what extent does talent ID and development actually influence Paralympic success, do you think?
So when we're looking it in the round, why some nations are often you know, successful in the medal table. What role does talent ID and development play compared to, I dunno, the wealth of the nation, the disability attitudes and society, population size, et cetera?
[00:24:07] Professor Joe Baker: If you look at the Paralympic Games, the ones that are at the top of the medal table have a similar sort of perspective in the way that they think about athletes with disability and there isn't a lot of variation in terms of the social importance of support and, you know, the messaging around athletes with disabilities. So I don't know that there's that much variation there to be able to say it's, you know, social attitudes and cultural importance and those kinds of things.
Where we do see the difference is the amount of funding that they put into their Paralympic system, and so to a certain extent, you can create success if you put enough money into it.
What we're careful in doing is not saying too much about the value of that as, you know, as a gold standard approach to development because we don't have any comparisons. We don't have any of those sort of designs that we would need to have from a research standpoint to be able to say, yeah, this country is absolutely nailing it from an athlete development perspective.
Those sorts of questions I think are gonna become more important as the sport continues to evolve. And as we move towards better support, better understanding of what that pathway looks like, what do athletes need to have as they're transitioning through those different stages of athlete development? We might get a better understanding of which countries are doing it better. I would say our understanding is so preliminary at this point. I'm really careful not to say, you know, let's follow the UK model, or let's follow Australia, because really there are no comparisons in terms of how we're thinking about athlete development yet.
[00:25:36] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah. And like you said, we don't know for sure if it's the most efficient or most effective, and as you said, there's lots of complexity and the importance of individuality, so you can't just suddenly copy a model from one context to another.
[00:25:49] Professor Joe Baker: Yeah. I look at this from an empirical standpoint, like what's the outcome that is the thing we're interested in. Is it just the number of medals they won in Tokyo or is it sustainability? Is it social attitudes? Is it you know, the long-term health of athletes that have gone through the Paralympic system? Like, we haven't discussed at all what happens to them post Paralympic career and if they're burnt out and you know, their bodies are even worse by virtue of their Paralympic um, career, should we be advocating that for people with disabilities?
I think there's a lot of questions in there that we're just starting to scratch the surface of.
[00:26:25] Dr Christopher Brown: And interestingly we have that as a conversation topic for another podcast actually about the end of career and transitions out of Paralympic Sports. So do watch out for that one. Nice segue actually there. That's free advertising. Free promotion. Good work.
Yeah. And also in terms of the question I asked, you can't give a simplistic answer because obviously it's very complicated to say why some nations perform better than others.
So you did very expertly and adroitly in answering that question.
[00:26:48] Professor Joe Baker: In dodging that question!
[00:26:49] Dr Christopher Brown: Yes, exactly. Yeah, I mean because obviously there's so many different factors, like you said, and obviously funding's always very important. You know, funding obviously makes a difference for Olympic and Paralympic context, the ones with the most money, they use it well, they're gonna have a good chance, aren't they?
[00:27:03] Professor Joe Baker: Yeah, absolutely. And I think we, we have to be careful not to undervalue funding because a lot of it starts there. Where I would like to see difference is not in different amounts of funding, but different utilisation of the funding. So if we put it into grassroots sports, if we put it into, uh, high-performance sports, and we compare those two things, well, which one, in terms of our outcome of interest, which one has the greatest.
[00:27:26] Dr Christopher Brown: Is there anything else you want to add before we close our chat today?
[00:27:30] Professor Joe Baker: No, I don't think so.
I like to position myself as no means, uh, close to an expert in this area. Like, we're in our research lab, we're learning all the time. So if anybody has comments or concerns or wants to, you know, push back on anything. I think we, we waste opportunities if everybody's just nodding their heads along and afraid to ask questions so, if you have any, please reach out.
[00:27:52] Dr Christopher Brown: Great point. Yeah, always good to have open, honest criticism. Excellent. Thank you for that.
Joe, it's been great. It's been great chatting to you and hearing from your expertise and learning from your knowledge. So thank you ever so much for spending the time chatting to me today. I look forward to catching up with you soon.
[00:28:07] Professor Joe Baker: Sounds great. Thanks. I really enjoyed this.
[00:28:09] Dr Christopher Brown: That's it. That's all we have time for. Thanks for listening to another episode of The Disability Sport Info Show. Stay tuned for another episode. Until then, goodbye.