• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

In search of the X factor

W H Auden once said that it takes a little talent to see what is under your nose, but a great deal of it to know which direction to point that organ.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning win gold, having come to rowing through the Team GB Start programme   Photograph: Getty
Helen Glover and Heather Stanning win gold, having come to rowing through the Team GB Start programme Photograph: Getty

It is a line that probably appeals to Tony Stanger, talent and direction being the very things that dominate his working life these days.

Stanger, of course, will forever be best known for that magical Murrayfield moment in March 1990 when he raced after Gavin Hastings' kick and scored the try that sealed victory against England and won a tumultuous Grand Slam. It was probably the greatest day in Scottish rugby history, but if Stanger was the toast of the nation back then he is doing something now that might cause us to raise our glasses a little more regularly in the future.

Stanger, now 44, admits his remit was more than a little vague when he gave up his position as speed and skills coach at London Irish and headed back north to take up the newly-created post of talent manager with the Scottish Institute of Sport a little over four years ago. To some extent he has defined his own brief in the time since, but he also understands that, with the 2014 Commonwealth Games looming, and with memories of London 2012 still fresh, expectations throughout the country are growing all the time.

In truth, there are others in the Institute who carry more direct responsibility for delivering a haul of medals in Glasgow next year, but Stanger operates in an area where concepts such as legacy and sustainability are daily realities and not just buzzwords to be bandied about by politicians. And while frontline coaches fret about their athletes' immediate prospects, the 52-times-capped Stanger is looking further into the future with the specific aim of optimising what a country with Scotland's relatively modest human resources can achieve.

"Countries like China are spending billions on sport," he explains. "We have to do what we can to keep up. In Scotland, if we're going to be successful we have to be sharper than anyone else because we don't have the population to fall back on.

"There are so many people and processes involved in taking a young athlete to the highest level and we have to address all of them. It's not something that is done in a couple months. Whether we like it or not, we are a limited talent pool country."

Limited, too, in the approach that has traditionally been taken to getting the cream to rise to the top. Stanger says the traditional view of talent as something people are given at birth no longer stands up to scrutiny, and that smarter, clearer thinking is required if the best athletes are to be identified and nurtured.

"A lot of talent systems are built on what has been done previously," he says. "People have not been looking at the new evidence that is out there. The big problem is that what has happened in the past is not a good predictor of future success. If you look at a group of 14-year-olds, it is easy to pick out who is best at the moment but that is not a reliable guide to who will be the best in 10 years time. So it doesn't make sense to put all your efforts into them and ignore those who might be better in the long term.

"A good 14-year-old can become a good senior, but it doesn't happen very often. What often happens is that people who are in the mix, but not necessarily the best, are the ones who push on, while the ones at the top drop out. It's very common that superstar juniors don't make the transition to senior sport."

Stanger's own experience proves his point. At 14, he was a Scotland schools trialist, but failed to win a place in the national under-15 squad. By the time he was 21, and scoring "that" try at Murayfield, many of those who had been considered his betters a few years earlier had dropped out of rugby altogether. He is too modest to make too much of that backdrop, but it is as good an example of the phenomenon as any.

If precocious ability is an unreliable indicator, what other traits can be used? Stanger cites the work of the American psychologist Carol Dweck, who draws a distinction between "fixed" and "growth" mindsets. Those in the first category may have a certain level of talent, but are reluctant to challenge themselves as they believe it is finite. Those in the second may not shine early, but are willing to embrace challenges, learn from mistakes and, ultimately, succeed.

Stanger says: "People who are told they are talented at a young age start to believe it, so they don't like pushing themselves in areas they are not particularly good at. The start to avoid things like that.

"Because we have a small population we end up with weaknesses in key areas. We don't have a big enough population to sift out people who have those weaknesses. The fact is that you can get into squads and you can be the best in Scotland, and still have significant weaknesses in key areas.

"The problem is those weaknesses are magnified when you step on to the world stage and are up against people who don't have them. We don't have the numbers to have what I would call a natural selection talent system, where people with weaknesses are weeded out, or forced to work on areas where they are weak."

Stanger has focused on a small group of sports – primarily cycling, swimming and judo – to ensure their talent identification programmes work well. He is also keen to promote the concept of transferrable skills, encouraging those who have found they cannot reach the top in one sport to consider where their abilities might take them in another.

He talks enthusiastically of the achievements of Rebecca Romero, who won a silver medal in rowing at the Athens Olympics in 2004, and a gold as a cyclist in Beijing four years later. He also cites Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, who showed their power and stamina in other disciplines before they ever set foot in a boat and won gold in London 2012.

But is it all about medals? Have we been blinded by silverware? Stanger acknowledges the point: "Sometimes, good athletes come through despite a system," he agrees. "You have to look at what is underneath. You also have situations where people do well because they have a strong family background in a sport.

"We know which sports are putting in good systems that are logical and connected and make sense. Medals are not a measure of everything, although sports that are winning medals are probably doing something right."

Contextual targeting label: 
Non Football Sports

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

135019