The Freddy Adu Problem – Can We Generalize Talent ID and Development?

Professional sports depend upon two related, but distinct processes: talent identification and talent development. When we talk about one’s potential, we are identifying talent, or the potential talent. However, these athletes do not always meet expectations. This can be attributed to poor talent identification, poor talent development (from the organization’s perspective), or other factors (psychological, social, etc), as the talent development process is complex. 

In recent years, and especially since the publication of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, statistics and sabermetrics have dominated the discussion of talent and performance. Sabermetricians use large data sets in an effort to find small advantages that can be exploited to create a competitive advantage. Sabermetrics have been used in an attempt to identify talent. Whereas there are large enough data sets to draw some conclusions (you will have a hard time succeeding in the NBA if you are under 5’10) in terms of identifying talent, these large data sets are ineffective in terms of developing talent.

In an ESPN column on the California Angels’ barren farm system  titled, “The guide to sustainable farming,” Sam Miller wrote:

Most of the lessons of the sabermetric revolution are based on what’s called large-N analysis: looking at all the players who ever played and finding, in millions of data points, answers about player tendencies and optimal strategy, and meta-answers about the reliability of statistics. But developing a prospect is an N=1 problem: Each player’s combination of skills, genes, experience, health, neurology, psychology, size and style makes him unlike any other player. Studying one player might tell you nothing about another — might mislead you, even. And a breakthrough with one player might be irrelevant to another’s potential.

As an example, I worked with two brothers over a period of years. They shared many of the same experiences, not to mention the same genes. For the most part, I never worked with one without the other. One developed into one of the nation’s best shooters; one did not. They received the same instruction from me, and played for the same high-school coaches. Even with these similarities, the instructions, drills, workouts, etc. that helped one player did not have the same effect on the other, for a variety of reasons.

For this reason, I noticed a Yahoo! headline for an Ivan Galacarep column that read, “Adu a reminder to take caution with Green.” Adu refers to Freddy Adu, the one-time 14-year-old future of American soccer who has largely disappeared from the radar of the U.S. Men’s National Team without ever making much of an impression. Green refers to Julian Green, hailed by some as the 18-year-old future of American soccer, who has developed within the Bayern Munich system.

Galacerep wrote:

“It’s only natural to get excited about the ‘next big thing in American soccer’, but we should consider the lesson Adu’s career has provided us, which is that sometimes placing unrealistic expectations on young players makes it that much tougher for them to become the players we are hoping they can become.”

Statements and comparisons like these are made all the time by the media, and even by decision makers. As an example, as a UCLA alum, I follow UCLA men’s basketball, and fans continue to compare former Bruin Russell Westbrook to current Bruin Norman Powell, primarily because both are good dunkers and are relatively the same size. If Westbrook can go from barely receiving a UCLA scholarship, as some are quick to remind us, to an All-Star, surely Powell can follow the same path. Why? Because they attend the same university? Because they are the same height?

Talent development is the N=1 problem. Because Westbrook turned himself into an All-Star has no effect on what Powell may or may not do. Miller’s article about the Angels focused largely on two can’t miss prospects: Brandon Wood and Mike Trout. Each had minor-league success that would be expected to translate to success in the major leagues. However, while Trout has become one of the brightest stars in baseball, Wood had one of the single worst seasons in Angels’ history and is out of baseball. Same pedigree, same organization, same training, same expectations, but different results. Talent development is an individual process.

One of the key points of David Epstein’s The Sports Gene was that people adapt to the same training differently. That is the N=1 problem. Part of becoming a successful athlete, then, is learning to listen to one’s own body and being involved in the process. When I talk to my players, and they want very specific prescriptions, I answer with a lot of “it depends”, especially during the season. They have to decide how their body responds to training and how much training that they can tolerate and still feel fresh for practice that night or a game on the weekend.

In the weight room today, a player said that he lifts lighter on Thursday and Friday before Saturday games because he can’t feel his arms on his shot if he lifts heavy. In my mind, this is psychological, not physiological. Physiologically, he will be more tired from lifting higher volumes of lower weights as opposed to lower volumes of lighter weights. Plus, the idea that weightlifting negatively impacts one’s shots – an idea that was considered a fact when I was playing – is psychological, not physiological. I prefer to lift weights prior to a game; that is probably psychological too. I feel stronger, I feel like I have more lift.

This, of course, is another aspect of the N=1 problem. Not only will players adapt to training differently, they will have different beliefs. They will react differently to instruction. They will be more or less resilient. They will have different mindsets. All these small pieces are interrelated, and the interrelationship between the pieces is the talent development process. What works for one may or may not work for another, so there is no sense worrying about Green because of Adu’s career or to expect that Powell will become Westbrook 2.0. They are individuals, and their predecessors have no say in their development.

This is the N=1 problem, and the reason why talent development is so complex. Once you think you have it figured out with one athlete, the same methods do not elicit the same responses or adaptations with another, and you have to start the process from the beginning. Individual talent development is about one person, not the means or even the outliers of a large group. You learn how to develop the individual by focusing on the individual, so the process starts anew with each and every player, regardless of similarities in terms of backgrounds, appearance, height, or even genes.

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