Predicting Success in Sports

Coaches across all age groups tend to focus their attention on their top performers. Many favorable decisions are made about their players based on the expectations that their top performers will climb right up the ladder to the big show, even the professional ranks. Predictions of stardom are made with near certainty.

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In a conversation with Graham Ramsay, Maryland soccer leader, he told me of a youngster in England. This lad, at age 12, was widely acclaimed by coaches to be the next Number One soccer goal keeper for the Crown.

His accomplishments were legendary and widely portrayed in the media. Interestingly enough, this young player topped out at 5’7″. He did not come close to fulfilling the prophesy of the soccer English community.

This story reminded me that we just do not know what kind of players our young children are going to turn out to be. We just cannot predict with any accuracy who will become successful and who will never make it big.

Examples in Action

Basketball provides us with two dramatic examples of this. Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls began his rise to fame as the manager of his college basketball team. Yes, student manager.

As incredible as it sounds, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore. How could this be?

In football, neither Gale Sayers nor O.J. Simpson raised any eyebrows as football players the first year they played. In fact, Simpson was cut from the first team on which he tried to play and Sayers was not good enough to play. How could coaches not see the potential in these four players?

In a less dramatic example, I was an assistant coach for an eighth grade basketball team as part of my first teaching assignment in Hubbard, Ohio.

A gangly kid came to the tryouts and I convinced the coach to keep him on the squad. I felt he was certainly going to grow and might become a decent player.

Rich ended up being a fine high school player and at about 6’5″ went on to be successful at Youngstown State University. We gave him a chance to play and learn and he responded.

Others I have helped get a start in tennis have gone on to become respectable high school tennis players. One shy beginner was just named MVP of her high school tennis team.

What can coaches and parents learn from these events? The first lesson is that we are unable to predict future greatness from the early performance of youngsters.

The Prediction Predicament

An Englishman once said in a speech that there is an 80 percent failure rate when trying to predict success from performances of youngsters before the age of 10 and a 50 percent failure rate when attempted on players before the age of 14.

The second lesson follows. If we are not able to predict future stardom with any degree of certainty, we also do not know who might become well skilled with proper coaching.

If coaches and parents spend most of their coaching time with their young stars and ignore the others, opportunities will be missed.

What is certain is that if you cut the unskilled players and ignore the non-stars, they may not learn and develop. The solution is to treat all players like they will become future stars. In this way, you will not be responsible for the failure to coach those who might move up the ladder of success in sports.

The last lesson relates to specialization. Some players and coaches spend all of the time and energy on one sport. In some parts of the world like Mexico, it is soccer. Yet, some of these very good soccer players might become exceptional baseball, basketball or tennis players.

When youngsters play at least two team and two individual sports before the age of 13 or 14, they have opportunities to discover their other talents. We just cannot predict where those talents lie and when they will emerge.

Jack Hutslar is the founder and CEO of the North American Youth Sport Institute (NAYSI), which offers various on-line help and information sections at www.NAYSI.com. This article appeared in Sport Scene and has been reprinted with permission of the North American Youth Sport Institute at www.NAYSI.com. Readers can receive the NAYSI News FYI at no charge by sending an email to

Jack@NAYSI.com with “Subscribe to NAYSI News FYI” in the subject line.

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