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A Way to Think About Talent Development

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As the school year wears on, kids often lose their enthusiasm for their activities. To be truthful, so do parents! Just about then, parents hear an inner voice saying

Winners never quit. And quitters never win.

I’d like to challenge your thinking on that a bit by taking a look at a talent development model. It doesn’t matter if your kid’s talent is playing a violin, kicking a field goal, singing in a band or editing the school paper, skill-building follows a similar path.


Exposure – Think of little kids and their activities: Brownies on Monday, art lessons on Tuesday, soccer on Wednesday, piano lessons on Thursday, free play on Friday, game on Saturday. Lots of activities are possible because they require little time, little practice and little commitment. Often, the teacher or coach is nice and the kids like them. Generally, not a lot of skill is required because, at this level, it’s mostly learning ABOUT an activity and giving kids an opportunity to interact together with other kids and adults beyond their parents. “Exposure” most frequently happens with elementary-age kids.


Refinement – By middle school there are usually important changes in kids’ activities. Since the purpose is to refine talent, activities take more time and effort. The coach/teacher requires the kid to commit to practicing; in fact, if he doesn’t show up at practice, he might not get to play on Saturday. Kids who’re good at the skill get to advance; kids who’re not so good often get discouraged as they sit on the bench. Coaches are not so nice as discipline becomes a key element in talent development. Feelings get hurt; judgements get made; commitment flags. At this stage, kids often want to quit the activity… which is not only good but in fact, it’s necessary because any activity now requires more time and dedication. A kid really cannot do it all; something(s) have to go. While this stage is still about learning about the activity, it also entails learning about oneself and about others. Kids begin to sort: Am I artistic? Am I fast? Can I pitch well? Do I like violin enough to practice as much as it will take? How come some other kids are better at this than I am? Do I want to make the effort? Where is my place to “shine”?


Parents may hear themselves saying the old adage, “Winners never quit; quitters never win.” But in fact, winners DO quit, they just quit the right things…so they can be devoted to what remains. Families have varying policies about quitting (like, “You promised your team and coach you’d be there. You must go for the rest of the season even if you decide you don’t want to play next year.”). And sometimes kids find they have quit the wrong thing to try out something else, only to return to their sport/activity later. Within your family’s values, it is important to give the kid the option to make this decision. If your kid is quitting a sport and your family values exercise and being healthy, require the kid to provide replacement activity and check for follow through.


Mastery – This final stage of talent development brings a kid to the pinnacle of his or her talent. The activity becomes consuming and we often see a kid going well beyond what is expected (like staying up all night working on an art project for her AP art portfolio). The parent is no longer responsible for setting the work pace; if the kid isn’t doing that, likely they do not need to be doing the activity. The teacher/coach takes on more of a mentor role and may in fact, in the kid’s eyes, for a time, surpass the importance of parents. The kid and mentor set expectations which are rigorous and demanding. If the kid comes up short, he may feel down in the dumps, a great opportunity to practice motivating himself to try again. Kids who are exceptional at the mastery level (think Olympic contenders) are their own drivers; it can even feel quite demanding to families of kids who excel.


Talent development changes across the age span of youth. Most kids have a smattering of experience with several activities before finding the ones which excite them, for which they have the talent and personality to pursue. In the process, kids learn far more than their skill. They learn important life lessons like

  • resilience,
  • sportsmanlike competition,
  • how to lose/how to win,
  • how to accept adult correction,
  • how to accept that an activity you love might only be a hobby and not a vocation, and many more.

Also, across the age span of youth, parents should have a decreasing role in planning, setting up practice, controlling performance, etc. while the youth assumes that role with increasing confidence and self-management. At every stage, it’s helpful to consider the activities, games, rehearsals, projects as “practice” for real life which beckons the kid to follow.

Finally, in talent development, it isn’t so much about winning OR losing as it is about learning skills for life!