Talent. What Is It And Where Does It Begin?
How do we identify talent and ultimately develop talent? Let me start by saying as coaches we control around 50% of their talent progression. More often than not their DNA will dictate their pathway in their sporting career. I think it’s important as coaches we recognise and appreciate that.
So, if you constantly tap yourself on the back and as a coach/school/club/academy set up market yourself on the success rate of your athlete then you need to be transparent on how you manage talent. There are many variables involved in the pathway, such as stages of maturation, socio-economic background and ‘non-sporting’ reasons. All we can do as coaches is ‘control the controllable’ and pave the way for them to fulfil their potential that they already have. We are talent managers that are tasked with ensuring potential is fulfilled. We don’t create it!
The changes that happen along the way
As coaches and athletes, we often observe discrepancies in the progression and nurturing of potential. What works for one just doesn’t work for another and on occasion have a detrimental effect.
This is common. And the problem isn’t the program, the coaching ability, athlete work ethic, or genetics. The problem is that the programme didn’t fit the psychological and neurological profile – basically, their personality type.
Personality profiles are genetically determined by the balance of neurotransmitters. And neurotransmitters control everything.
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers of the brain. They are involved in most things that take place in your body. They have a huge impact on personality traits, how well you perform under stress, anxiety levels, memory, capacity to learn, creativity, emotional responses, etc.
Three key neurotransmitter systems develop during early childhood. The dopaminergic system (dopamine), serotoninergic system (serotonin) and cholinergic system (acetylcholine). And while you can improve them as you are getting older, it’s really hard to make up for an underdeveloped neurotransmitter system once the brain is fully developed.
‘The human brain isn’t fully developed until 25 years of age. Everything is there except for the frontal cortex, which is the last thing to mature. An immature frontal cortex explains the spectrum of teenage behaviours: it’s what makes adolescents adolescent’. – Sapolsky
Neurotransmitters impact on all human behaviour. Poor development of either system determines behaviour and performance. Each system manifests itself in key characteristics.
- Dopaminergic system: motivation, self-esteem, resiliency, happiness, reinforcing behaviour
- Serotoninergic system: being able to deal with anxiety/stress, well-being, ease of adaptation
- Cholinergic system: speed of brain operation, memory, learning, motor learning, information retrieval, creativity. Helps deal with stress
One of the best preparation coaches around the world, Christian Thibaudeau has developed a system that I believe is a game-changer for sports preparation training. It takes individualization to another level. It’s based on neurotransmitters and how they impact on all aspects of human performance.
Neurotyping is based on the ‘Cloninger Temperament and Character Inventory’ (TCI).
“The TCI is an inventory for personality traits based on a psychobiological model. In a nutshell, people have different personality types because they have different genetic levels of certain neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. When scientists measured neurotransmitter levels and compared them to the personality types, they indeed found them to match up. This dictates how we perceive a training stimulus and how we can benefit from our training and coaching sessions” – CT Thibaudeau
There are three main basic profile types in neurotyping:
Neurotype 1: This type has low dopamine levels, so he or she seeks out novelty or new things to stimulate their naturally low dopamine. In psychobiology, they call this the novelty-seeking type.
Neurotype 2: These types have low norepinephrine levels. Since norepinephrine is associated with confidence and a sense of well-being, these people seek out rewards to boost their norepinephrine levels. It’s referred to as the reward dependent type in science.
Neurotype 3: This type is associated with low serotonin. They don’t like change; they like to master a repetitive activity. “Technique geeks” fit this profile. In psychobiology, they call this the harm avoider type
These can be split down further, which I will cover later.
The Nervous System is the Boss
The nervous system is responsible for the recruitment of muscle fibres, and the coordination of all movement. The quality of all sporting skills is determined by the efficiency of the CNS.
Your nervous system is also the control centre of motivation. It even plays a huge role in response to stress, and in how much energy, focus, and work capacity an athlete demonstrates during training and competition.
The key to training success is simply this: train hard in a focused way. You can’t do that, at least not for long, without motivation. And to be motivated it has to fit the neurological profile. Training to take advantage of neurological nature will aid in motor learning and skill acquisition. Boredom is the main enemy of progression and acquiring new skill.
Neurotransmitter Balance and Your Personality
Personality traits gives you clues about the neurotransmitter balance in every athlete/child – which neurotransmitters are high, and which are low. Behaviour is heavily influenced by these levels, whether we realise it or not.
That’s why I evaluate the personality profile of every fast bowler I coach. This evaluation gives me a very good idea of their neurotransmitter balance. I then use that information to plan their training accordingly. I have also neurotyped over 20 pupils at Wellington school and the research highlights an alarming trend in the modern-day child. I will cover those later in the article.
If the training doesn’t fit well with the profile type it can create fatigue, drops in motivation, a higher stress response, and even lead to injuries. And it certainly leads to a lack of progress. That’s why you can be on “the best program in the world” being coached by the best coach in the world and not get results. For optimum results, you must train right for your type.
In the Neuro Typing System, I’ll explain the three main personality types, which neurotransmitters are high or low for each, and how that should influence a child’s/athlete training, and sporting ambitions.
So how does this impact on training and coaching methods for young athletes
Type 1: The Novelty Seeker
This type is associated with low dopaminergic activity. This means decision making is run mostly by the need to increase dopamine. Baseline dopamine is low, and the receptors are sensitive. Under the right circumstances, these receptors can produce spurts of dopamine.
Since the receptors are so sensitive athletes can become “addicted.” They are always seeking that next dopamine rush. If they fall into this category, they need excitement and intense or high-adrenaline activities. They also get bored easily, are naturally curious, and can be short-tempered.
This type requires a variety of stimuli and challenges. They’re naturally attracted to non-repetitive activities. They get bored from repetitive events like endurance training or coaching method that are repeated over and over. Technique training with type 1 athletes/children is a nightmare, it’s just a worthless box-ticking exercise. They just simply can’t do. It’s just all too slow. They are also poor at endurance events mostly because of boredom, but also because they tend to have high serotonin levels. When dopamine levels are proportionally lower than serotonin, work capacity goes down.
Novelty seekers are extroverts and do well in social situations. They’re also very competitive. They welcome challenges and love learning new skills. This type gets excited about learning a new exercise or drill, even if it’s tough for them. It’s “new” and stimulating, and that’s all that matters.
However, using the correct intervention methods is essential to nurturing the undoubted potential they have. Type 1 is generally the ‘sporty ones’ who are naturally gifted and fast-twitch dominant. This is why a type 1 child often is misunderstood in the classroom. On the field they are gold dust, in the classroom, it’s a different matter. However, I question the quality of the teaching for boredom to set in!
Type 1’s need to be inspired and motivated. When they are they win matches!
When it comes to sports, they’re more attracted to high speed/octane and contact sport, like rugby and 100m, sprinting. Incidentally, the fastest bowlers in the world are type 1 athletes. Type 1 athletes can also be identified as the ‘mavericks’ and ‘non-team’ players. They need to do something exciting/novel to get that dopamine fix. After they’ve had that burst they will hit a low and go wondering during the remaining part of the game until they feel ready to get involved again. They can be a coach’s best player with the correct manging, or on the other hand, can be a hindrance if the coach is an authoritarian type and wants control and be the ‘boss’. With the right coach/mentor they can inspire the team and become a successful leader. Simply by their actions, especially at the younger age groups. We have all had one of them.
We as coaches need to realise, it really isn’t about us!
Type 2: The Reward Dependant
This type is associated with low baseline levels of norepinephrine. This neurotransmitter, along with amping you up, creates a sense of overall well-being and confidence. Low levels of norepinephrine lead to a depressive state, lack of arousal, and low motivation. To counter this, this profile type seeks out “rewards” to increase norepinephrine levels, but this can cause them to be seen as ‘high maintenance’-always in need of approval and guidance.
This is your typical “people pleaser” whose self-esteem is based on how others perceive them It’s very important for these individuals to be liked, respected, and even admired.
They’re equipped to do well in social situations because they need to feel appreciated. They’re sociable, empathic, and have a high sensibility to social cues which helps them make friends, which they need. They genuinely care for other people. But because of their affection for others and the desire to please them, they can be easily taken advantage of.
This type of personality will do anything to help others out, even depriving themselves. They’re driven by wanting to look good in front of others and be liked. Nothing is worse for them than disappointing someone. Because of that attitude, they’ll go to great lengths to reach their goals.
Again, with the right sensitive coach they make very good leaders/captains due to their empathetic nature. However, issues arise over respect as more often than not they are not automatic selections into teams.
Type 2 athletes tend to be more team players and are driven towards team sports. They are more comfortable when they can ‘hide’ around others who they see as a protective blanket.
They tend to choke more during individual events because they put a lot of pressure on themselves. As such, they rarely do well in individual sports, but they make great teammates. They’re rarely the “superstars” but they’re willing to do anything to help the team and earn respect.
Type 3: The Harm Avoider
Harm avoidance is associated with a low serotonin level which affects people’s way of acting and feeling. Low serotonin can make athletes more easily tired or have a lower baseline of energy. If they fit this profile, they want to avoid unpleasant situations, punishment, and conflicts much more so than other people do. They have to be in familiar situations that they can control.
These athletes tend to be more introverted. They have a higher vulnerability to criticism; even constructive criticism creates anxiety. Their higher level of overall anxiety leads to an overproduction of cortisol, which can negatively affect performance. So openly criticising them in front of others is a sure way of damaging their performance. Half time ‘honest’ talks should be avoided with type 3 athletes.
Unexpected changes of plans really upset them and cause a huge stress response. They’re careful planners, especially when a situation represents a potential harm or risk. Because of that, they’re very well organized. But under stress, they can feel inhibited by anxiety, which leads to procrastination and having a hard time making decisions.
The driving force of harm avoiders is to stay away from stress and injury. When it comes to training, it makes them attracted to more repetitive activities that they’ve mastered. Unlike the novelty seeker, this type of dislikes variety and new things in the gym/classroom and playing field. They get stressed when learning a new skill. They get anxious over anything that veers away from routine. A change of venue, a change of position or change of game time will disrupt their performance. They simply can cope with spontaneity.
They rarely push themselves in training when things get tough but when on task and happy in their environment they have great focus when they train. They’re great at sticking to a plan, sometimes bordering on training OCD.
In terms of sport, this type is more attracted to sports where fewer unpredictable events occur and with a lower risk factor. They don’t like contact sports or sports where random events are an important part of the game. Long-distance running would suit a type 3 athlete.
Neurotype closely linked with muscle fibre type
It is important to mention that Neurotyping can also be linked with muscle fibre type. They can move up and down the continuum, but permanent changes are very difficult. The correct coaching and training methods can have a short term impact on performance and well-being.
How can we develop these systems together?
All this science is all well and good but what does it mean for young athletes. So, do we just give up or can we do something to change their neurotype?
What I will say is that by the time they enter into various pathways post under 11’s their motor patterns and sensitivities to various neurotransmitters is set.
The dopaminergic system normally develops first and is accelerated when a child first learns to crawl to reach and object he is seeing. The dopaminergic works via the Effort —) Reward mechanism. You make an effort, delaying gratification so that you get a great pleasure sensation in the end. The more effective your dopaminergic system is, the great is the pleasure response in your brain when you succeed.
If you get more pleasure you more easily accept putting more efforts toward the goal, because the pleasure response is worth it. That’s why you need to let your child do things on their own. Even if they fail you should let them keep at it, not do it for them. By doing it for them you decrease the pleasure response, essentially programming the brain not to make efforts. The more a child is free to move around and play with their environment and try stuff, the better the dopaminergic system will develop.
The serotoninergic system develops when the child is happy and comfortable. When he/she is a state of well-being. Skin-to-skin with a parent; being held, napping with mommy or daddy. These things help develop the serotoninergic system. Also, being happy in many different environments, with different people or doing different things is important to optimize this system.
The cholinergic system is developed when a child is free to experiment on their own, with tons of different options. He/she needs to observe, touch things, try to understand how things work, create games for himself. Nutrition will also play an important role. Foods rich in choline (eggs, meat, poultry, fish, etc.) will help develop the system and help produce acetylcholine.
The science of Neurotyping
The neurotypes can be split down further into two subsections within each type. These are dictated by various enzymes in the body. I make no apology for the scientific detail that follows as it is essential to understand that the principle of neurotyping is not ‘Pseudoscience’. The following is heavily influenced by Christian Thibaudeau. His knowledge in this field is mind-blowing.
What is an enzyme and what is its function?
Enzymes are biological molecules (typically proteins) that significantly speed up the rate of virtually all of the chemical reactions that take place within cells. They are vital for life and serve a wide range of important functions in the body, such as aiding in digestion and metabolism. Enzymes have a huge impact on a person’s neurotype and ultimately will have an impact on all athletic performance.
There are 2 main enzymes that impact on the neurotransmitter:
- Catechol-O-methyltransferase(COMT; EC 188.8.131.52) is one of several enzymes that degrade catecholamines (such as dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine), catechol estrogens, and various drugs and substances having a catechol structure
- Glutamate decarboxylase or glutamic acid decarboxylase(GAD)is an enzyme that catalyses the decarboxylation of glutamate to GABA and CO2. GAD uses PLP as a cofactor
How we methylate these enzymes is what determines your neurotype.
The Type 1 athlete can be split into type 1A and 1B. Type 1A are your WARRIORS.
Due to the slow methylation of COMT, a type 1A athlete can’t inactivate dopamine and adrenaline levels easily, so it stays high for a lot longer once released. The undermethylation [inefficient methylation cycle] will also limit the clearance of adrenaline. Due to the inefficiency in the cycle, they will always be running high until they crash.
The undermethylation also leads to low serotonin and acetylcholine. The Extremely effective GAD leads to very low glutamate and high GABA. This makes type 1A’s externalise stress by trying to control others. Their low glutamate will also lead to low empathy, so they don’t really care about hurting others when trying to control them. When they are on a high they have no desire to worry about consequences. They get the job done. The coach’s role is to ensure that type 1A athletes don’t negatively impact on ‘team morale’ and the new buzz word ‘culture’. Managing their expectations of themselves and others whilst embracing the athleticism when they are ‘on’ can be a difference between a type1A being a matchwinner or a ‘team energy drain’.
The Type 1B are your natural ATHLETE. The fast COMT leads to a rapid deactivation of dopamine and adrenaline once it’s released. This allows them to keep their receptors extremely sensitive to these two neurotransmitters. Dopamine sensitivity leads to high motivation levels, whilst serotonin and acetylcholine leads to great adaptability and performance under pressure. This can also manifest itself in looking ‘too cool for school’ and lazy unless they’re highly motivated in a certain situation. Coaching variety and novelty are essential for a type 1B athlete. When boredom kicks in, you’ve lost your best asset. The difference between type 1A and 1B is the sensitivity to acetylcholine. The high levels of acetylcholine and serotonin is due over methylation. This is what makes them faster twitch and tendon driven athletes. They rely heavily on the stretch-shortening cycle of the muscle and heavy strength training can often lead to performance regression.
The Type 2 athletes can also be split down into type 2A and 2B. Type 2A can be seen as ACTORS. Due to Fast COMT and normal methylation they possess average sensitivity of the dopamine and adrenergic receptors. So, they can get ‘amped up’ but are not as lazy at rest. Normal methylation means that acetylcholine and serotonin are moderate, and also moderate glutamate and adrenaline leads to a lack of confidence and the constant need the respect of others. They are the people-pleasers, which is why they are termed the ‘actors’. Always looking for that approval from others
Type 2A can also be identified as being PASSIONATE. Fast COMT leads to high dopamine and adrenaline sensitivity. However, the undermethylation leads to low acetylcholine, low serotonin which manifests itself in the reliance on emotions to perform.
Type 2B’S can be split into being ARTISTIC or CONFIDENT.
The high acetylcholine and high glutamate levels lend itself to emotional creativity whilst the high serotonin levels cause a lack of competitive drive and a more ‘chilled’ persona. They type 2B differs from type 2B due to higher glutamate and lower acetylcholine and serotonin levels which leads to difficulty in adapting to situations and the inability to deal with failures. They internalise everything and have the tendency to buckle under stressful situations. In terms of school education type, 2B children find exam periods difficult. As coaches in a school/university environment need to be wary of placing too much physical and emotional stress on them during higher academic-focused periods. From experience in a schooling environment and as a fast bowling coach it becomes evident who the type 2B and 2B athletes are. The type 2B fast bowlers simply cannot perform during the summer term in school, during exam periods. They just can’t do both. As coaches we need to be wary of this, with regards pressure, match day preparations, fixture list, workload, expectations and managing failure. Your team will not be effective in exam season if you have more than 4 type, 2B pupils!
Finally, we have the type 3 athletes who are deep THINKERS. They form one group
They are similar in many regards to the type 1A athlete because of a slow deactivation of dopamine and adrenaline, low serotonin and low acetylcholine. However, the main difference is a genetic deficiency in the GAD enzyme which leads to a poor conversion of glutamate to GABA. The type has both low GABA and low serotonin which makes him a lot more prone to anxiety. Whereas type 1A externalise stress which can lead to aggression, the type 3 internalises everything leading to anxiety and overthinking. Type 3 athletes rarely play competitive team sports and gravitate to a more leisurely approach to sport and exercise.
The ’fragile’, ‘snow flake’ generation. Why has it happened?
Let’s make no bones about it, over the generations the desire to play sport has decreased dramatically as has the quality and natural creative talent coming through. Yes, manufactured and robotic athleticism has developed with a 16-year-old boy displaying feats of strength and physical development that was previously unseen. However, you only had to watch the recent world cup and the general amazement and excitement that happened when a rugby player threw a dummy or performed a side step. Seriously, these are basic skills, aren’t they? Why are we in awe when it happens. I’ll tell you why. It’s because its rare in modern-day, structured, manufactured sport that lacks creativity, flair and imagination. It looks different! It all starts at home. In my opinion and based on my newly gained knowledge on the brain and neurotransmitters the lack of creativity can be traced right back to the advent on laptop computers, phones and hand-held devices. This is one of the issues along with changing society and added external pressures on a young developing mind.
Here is a list of do’s for coaches and parents as they move along their journey from early childhood to adulthood.
What can we all do to maximize our athletes/child’s journey
So, what’s gone wrong?
Why is taking a one-handed catch in cricket or dribbling in football now an exception not the norm in sport?
Modern-day living has destroyed the dopamine neurotransmitter levels in the brain and desensitised the dopaminergic system. Creativity underpins talent. Type 1 athletes are now an exception! Modern-day PE programmes, schooling and sport, in general, constrains creativity. At home, before they even come to school the damage is nearly done!
- Parents put them in contact (direct or indirect) with blue light-emitting devices (TV, smartphone, tablet, etc.).
- Parents protect them as much as possible; they control their environment, keep holding them when they are moving/crawling/climbing. They can’t get hurt!
- They leave them in their cradle or baby chair as much as they can.
- They select with which toys to play and don’t give them too many options.
- Overreact when they get hurt.
- When they are learning new skills, parents help them as much as possible so that they succeed easily.
- When they start to play sports the two approaches are to either don’t care about what they are doing (to avoid putting pressure on them) or to be “all-in” and show them how much they want them to be the best (no kid of mine will be a loser).
- Coaches and parents have the belief that specialisation is the key to success. There is enough research that shows this to be incorrect. Just ask AB D’Villiers of SA cricket!
- When athletes get into various pathways the belief is that they should be doing the same as a professional athlete. This leads to much too soon and often times injury. Respect the stages of maturation and perform exercises that work in partnership with the human body development stages. This is called synergistic adaptations.
- Parents and coaches need to be honest with their maturing child. Be consistent with feedback and praise. Manage expectations, both yours and your child.
- Size does not matter! If your child is playing hockey, netball, rugby and the likes they do need to be big. The biggest will not always get selected and focus on skill acquisition and not let mother nature dictate the perceived success of the programme. Ultimately when mother nature has dealt her cards, skill trumps brawn!
Putting it all into context. The modern-day dilemma.
Ok, here is how I have applied the knowledge gained from my Neurotyping qualification. My aim is to neurotype every child that comes into Wellington school as I’m a firm believer it’s the future of teaching and coaching. No more guessing and giving out detention to pupils who are unruly and disruptive for no reason. They may actually be type 1 and just simply bored with your lesson. So, improve your teaching and coaching instead of externalising and blaming the child! Honesty drives better performance.
Out of over 100 younger and older athletes, I have ‘neurotyped’ over the last 3 years, only 5 have been type 1 dopamine dominant. I was one of them! As mentioned previously this is also closely linked with testosterone levels and muscle fibre makeup and dictated by the ability of the body to methylate enzymes in the body. Over the last 3 years of coaching, from age group to IPL I have come to acknowledge a few things tied into Neurotyping. I feel that you see less “natural talents” in the modern era. Most naturally talented athletes in-fact develop outside the system/structure, academies and the confines of a rigorously structured training programme.
I didn’t start weight training until 18 and was never part of an academy. I played two professional sports. I would spend Sunday afternoons bowling on the road for hours or simply passing the ball around on my own on the field. On a different level take the West Indies bowlers and the welsh rugby players or Brazilian footballers in the 70s. They developed the athletic qualities through unstructured play, play itself, jumping and running on various uneven surfaces [they developed stiffness in their tendons which is key to moving in various directions quickly]. There was certainly no ‘high-performance centres’ around anywhere in the 70s. High performance was ‘free play’ with your mates at a level of intensity most professionals and amateurs would only dream of practising with now.
There were no large TV screens, mobile phones, app-based games and various electronic gadgets to keep them entertained and keep them indoors away from ‘free play’. There are two main reasons for lower dopamine levels in my opinion.
- 1. Lazy parenting [poor parenting despite best intentions]
- 2. Structured and constrained practice with a focus on competition
Parents don’t stimulate their kids enough when they are between 0 and 12 months old. This leads to an underdeveloped vestibular, proprioceptive and visual systems. They are never optimized. They are desensitized. Here is a question to all coaches: ‘how hard is it now to motivate your players to play a sport or participate in PE lessons [wellbeing as we call it at school?’ I suggest, very hard.
People call it the ‘snow flake’ generation where I see it as the ‘dopamine numb’ generation!
They’re a consequence of a lack of understanding of the impact the environment has on young athletes’ potential
TV screens and phones offer such a STRONG stimulation of the dopaminergic receptors that when a child (with an unstable nervous system) uses these too much they will desensitize their dopamine receptors. Add to that they are entered into highly structured play and encouraged to become specialists too soon and never develop their creativity – “CREATIVITY is the key to talent”
“Dopamine dominance used to be in 15-20% of the population. Now I’m guessing (educated guess) that’s it’s 5% or less.”- C Thibaudeau
I believe athletes reach the top-level ‘in spite’ of the system, not because of it. Parents are key in this development and what they do at key stages of the nervous system development can have a positive or negative impact on their development and ultimate success in sport.
The other key stakeholders in the process are the academies and age group structures. It’s beyond the scope of this article but I genuinely believe there should be no competitive sport before 11 years of age and no representative sport before 16 years of age.
Sport is a vital part of a child’s life. The benefits of sport and exercise goes beyond any physical capacities
‘According to researchers, there is an optimum amount of dopamine that should be present within the brain. This optimum amount can help improve cognitive performance on tasks, researchers report’– Source: Leiden University
‘The study participants were better at their tasks if the level of dopamine in their brains was artificially increased’
If we get it right, there is no need to artificially increase dopamine levels, we simply ‘LET THEM PLAY when they are young.
It’s a team effort! As parents, coaches and athletes there need to be an appreciation of how everyone has an impact on talent development. Natural talent is a combination of genes, biological processes in the body, neurotransmitters, the neurotransmitter system, upbringing at home, coach intervention methods and the environment in which they are brought up. A child is a product of their environment. All aspects of sport, exercise, motor learning and physical activity is controlled by the CNS. The neurotransmitter system which in part is hereditary but can be impacted as a child grows determines the direction of their future. A child will arrive at school already talented. How you nurture and develop that potential to achieve is the key to coaching. Armed with the ability to identify key neurological traits, identified by Neurotyping can provide a coach with the right information to make the correct decisions that will impact on their future