My favourite sports quote of all time is “the more I practice, the luckier I get”. It was made by South African golfer Gary Player. The quote is brilliant because it sheds light on a much debated topic within sports, the talent vs development debate. The talent side of the debate states that great sportspeople are born with a predisposition towards being good at their sport. The development side subscribe to the view that “great players are made and not born”. The debate tends to polarise people to one side of the fence or the other.
On one hand there are exceptional sportspeople who may be considered “late bloomers” and take longer to develop than others (Jamie Vardy). However, there also seems to be people who were destined for greatness at a very young age (Kylian Mbappé). To try and see which side of the debate is correct I took a look at 18 players from Manchester City’s squad that played Burnley two weeks ago and took note of the age where they first received their international cap, be it at underage or senior level.
Here, receiving an international cap is a proxy for talent being recognised as to receive one you have to be viewed as one of the best, if not the best in your country. The idea here is that if natural talent exists, it should be prevalent and easily observable in the majority of cases from a very young age. Or in other words, if natural talent is the reason people go on to play international football at senior level, then they should have been playing at international level from the year they were eligible to do so. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case in the data.
Half the sample received international caps at a young age, indicating they may have had a natural predisposition toward being good footballers; but the other half were adults by the time they finally received their first international cap, indicating they may be the product of development and practice.
So, is it the case that these “late bloomers” are people who had a natural talent and it layed dormant within them during their childhood? Or is it the case that we perceive people who are good at something at a young age as naturally talented because that’s the most readily available information to us and we just haven’t seen the endless hours they’ve put in in training? This is definitely an area where more research could provide valuable insight.