Talent Identification In Weightlifting

Nature versus Nurture in Weightlifting

It is accepted theory in Weightlifting that genetics plays a substantial role in the ultimate performance of the individual (12, 33).  A typical belief is that Weightlifters of the highest performance levels have a greater ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch fibres (29). Similarly, a common opinion in the Weightlifting community is that certain anthropometric characteristics strongly influence success such as shoulder circumference (38) and shorter height and limb lengths (34). Furthermore, many researchers have found that Weightlifters as a group are amongst the most mesomorphic of all athletes (25).

How does Weightlifting sit in the nature v nurture paradigm

Figure 1: Relative contribution of nature (natural ability) and nurture (influence of environment) on success in Weightlifting

However, environmental factors also play a highly significant role in success in Weightlifting. These factors include the coach’s leadership skills (8), the coach’s knowledge and effectiveness (7), the culture within the training environment (22) and the degree to which the athlete develops a sense of belonging or relatedness to their sport and their training colleagues (30). These factors will affect the motivation of the athlete to pursue training over the many years of deliberate practise (10) at increasingly higher levels of commitment needed to attain high performance. Furthermore, environmental factors will impact on the athlete’s ability to cope with the psychological pressures of extreme heaviness in critical moments in competition and training.

For these reasons, success in Weightlifting should not be considered as predominantly dependent on genetics as is a popular view, but instead on a relatively equal contribution of genetics and environment as portrayed in Figure 1 above.

Critical Performance Factors

Figure 2: Factors that influence success in Weightlifting

The sport Olympic Weightlifting demands not only training for muscular strength and technique (37) but also the attainment of several other factors critical for success. Weightlifters must move with speed (Sokolov, 32) and the goal is the attainment of speed-strength (9), the ability of muscle tissue to contract forcibly at a high rate of speed. Flexibility in the major joint complexes is an essential quality for the Weightlifer (21) and training must continually work on this quality for performance improvement and injury avoidance (20). Olympic Weightlifters have been found second only to gymnasts on a battery of flexibility tests at one Olympics (3).

Table 1: Anthropometric,  flexibility and somatotype
Elbow extensionAbility to extend elbows to at least 181˚ (21)
Elbow flexionAbility to flex elbow sufficiently to comfortably sit bar on shoulders
Ankle dorsiflexionAbility to squat low, feet flat, with upper 2/3 of trunk in upright position (21)
Hip internal rotationInternal rotation of the femur assists achieving a low/upright squat position
Arm lengthShorter arms reduces necessary vertical displacement of the bar
Hand sizeLength of fingers and thumb, ability to hook grip the bar (21)
SomatotypeAll bodyweights high in mesomorphia, lighter bodyweights with elevated ectomorphia, higher bodyweights with elevated endomorphia

Psychological skills and attributes including motivation, coping with emotion, confidence and ability to focus are exceptionally important. Irrespective of the natural physical gifts that a person possesses, ultimately an individual’s ability to master a lengthy training process will determine their level of success. To endure increasingly higher levels of stress, individuals must be intrinsically motivated and find the training process rewarding, enhancing of self-perception, building competence, and satisfying the need for self-determination (36). However, even highly motivated individuals need to acquire mentals skills for coping with anxiety and fear brought about by the very nature of the sport. It is necessary for athletes to develop a special focus that reduces distracting thoughts (26) and enables a state of flow (19).

Current AWF Talent Identification System

A nationwide program in which youth are screened or pre-selected for entry into Weightlifting does not exist at present. Queensland has an “Introduction to Weightlifting” program conducted by qualified coaches in physical education classes. Although the program does assess student competencies, it is considered a promotional/awareness campaign (I.Moir, personal communication, 5 March, 2015). Western Australia has implemented an innovative competition program for children under 13 which focuses on technique by limiting weights lifted to 50% of bodyweight (J.Saxton, personal communication, 31 March, 2015). Victoria conducts a Schools League Program comprising schools visits by state association staff, coaching at schools, and 6 league competitions rounds (S. Francazio, personal communication, 01 April, 2015). These diverse programs exemplify the fragmented manner in which Australian Weightlifting works, and the tendency for state associations to develop their own initiatives to suit local conditions.

In the past, however, the AWF has successfully implemented a nationwide promotional/screening program within schools. The program, known as the Schools Clean and Jerk Competition began in Victoria in 1979 with 504 participants and by 1987 had grown to over 47,000 participants nationally. This program was responsible for the recruitment of many national champions, and six (6) medallists at Commonwealth Games, two of whom were gold medallists (P. Coffa, personal communication, 18 March, 2015; Commonwealth Weightlifting Federation, 2015).

Talent Identification – an Introduction

It is important to state at the outset, that the meaning attributed to the term ‘talent’ determines how a talent identification process is developed. In some sporting contexts, perhaps in Weightlifting, the term ‘talented’ might be used to describe a person with certain natural or genetic attributes. Possession of these attributes is considered to elevate the performance expectations of the individual. In other sporting contexts, such as team sports, the term ‘talented’ might be used to describe a person who has developed key skills and competencies to a significant level through the training process.

Thus in developing a talent identification system for Weightlifting it is necessary to consider whether the primary object is pre-selection, that is quantitative assessment of natural abilities for high sporting performance (14) or individuals already engaged and demonstrating the development of key competencies.

In either case there are contentious issues. A talent identification system that aims to test for natural abilities among youth with no previous experience of Weightlifting must deal with the confounding problem of unpredictable growth and maturation (27, 35) and that a delay in a single major component that leads to success significantly affects the validity and legitimacy of a TID selection process (4). Equally, a talent identification system that aims to identify youth and junior athletes already within the ranks of Weightlifting must take into account that present performances may not be indicative of future potential. In particular, the number of years of training that an athlete has undergone training will have a large effect. In essence, therefore, a talent identification system must have a predictive value of future performance (27).

Future performance is not determined solely by physiology and anthropometry, but also psychological factors. These factors include psychological health (23), psychological maturity (15), trainability (27, 4), accelerated expertise acquisition (31), perceptual function and ability to learn motor skills (17). Many of these factors cannot be gauged adequately by ‘snapshot testing’ (4) and the predictive value of a talent identification system is strengthened if it also takes into account the development, progress and behaviour of the athlete (1).

The primary aim of talent identification is therefore to recognise participants with the greatest potential to excel in a particular sport (35) and to maximise the number of gifted athletes participating (17).

Historical factors

In the 1970’s and 80’s, the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between performances of athletes in Weightlifting on both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain’ developed a fascination among coaches of the West in the methodologies adopted by nations such as Bulgaria, the Soviet Union and East Germany. Among these methodologies was a systematic identification and development of children considered to have high potential for sport.

During the years in which Bulgaria was a phenomenon in Weightlifting, all pupils of 8 or 9 years of age were subjected to fitness tests with a view to determining ‘children capable of athletic development’ (24). At 10-11 years, children in these groups were then tested for sports specialisation purposes, and such testing included specialised tests for Weightlifting. Children who showed good results were then admitted to children’s boarding schools where preliminary training began (24).

In the former Soviet Union during 1970s, the first stage of selection into sport involved organisation into groups which took all comers having a medical examination and desire (11). Thereafter the talent identification system involved three more stages in which the youth sports player was assessed by coaches for prospects of higher performance. A key aspect of this system was the existence of 4000 children’s sports schools which, at the higher level, provided the sports player with a combination of high school classes and everything needed for intensive training (28).

In East Germany, primary school children were observed by experts during compulsory sport classes and measured for height, weight, sprinting speed, endurance running, coordination, and performance in broad categories of sporting activity (17).

The history of East European nations in talent identification and development, and the phenomenal results achieved has left an indelible mark in the belief systems of HP coaches in Weightlifting worldwide. Despite the suspicion of rampant doping in this era, there exists a belief that success in Weightlifting requires the discovery of people with a genetic predisposition and a commencement of training in early teens.

The Issues in Talent Identification

Undoubtedly, there are many senior coaches and administrators in Australian Weightlifting who would advocate that some form of talent identification system is necessary. A reliance on athletes walking through the door is not realistic and proactive initiatives that identify and recruit athletes with capacity for higher performance are required. However, in developing and implementing any talent identification system, it is necessary to address a range of issues of feasibility (Table 1) and impact on infrastructure (Table 2) below.

Table 1: Issues of Feasibility
AccessGaining access to schools to conduct screening and/or awareness programs
ScopeTarget schools within reach of established Weightlifting clubs or extend nationally?
FundingFinancing promotion, cost of school visits, rewards, and follow up of TID programs
Safety/ethicsRisk management practises to ensure testing is conducted safely and ethically
StaffingSchool staff and/or visitation by representatives from Weightlifting

In regard to funding, it should be noted that Australian governments tend to target funding towards sports with greater potential for medals in Olympic and Commonwealth Games e.g. rowing, cycling and diving. As a result there is less funding for Weightlifting talent identification and development of athletes, and no Australian Institute of Sport program.

Table 2: Impact on infrastructure
ClubsAdditional space and equipment in existing clubs. New clubs hard to create
CoachingNeed for accelerated development of coaches to match the needs of athletes emerging from TID programs and advancing towards high performance
CompetitionsA successful TID program may create a need to alter the existing competition structure to cope with increasingly longer duration competitions i.e. over 2 days.

Whereas in Weightlifting there tends to be a want to discover athletes with superior genetics, there is a plausible counter-argument that our collective efforts would be better spent on improving the development process for existing athletes so that they may attain higher levels of performance. In his Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent, Gagné (13) proposed that a development process that transforms natural abilities into ‘talent’ requires the interaction of ‘catalysts’, which he collected into three groups – Environmental, Intrapersonal and Chance. Table 3 examines developmental catalysts in the context of Weightlifting.

Table 3: Developmental process catalysts
EnvironmentalAthletes are helped or hindered by local standards of performance, expectations, support, culture and practises of their existing training environment.
IntrapersonalKey intrapersonal factors that shape prospects for attainment of high performance in Weightlifting include motivation, resilience, mindset, tendency toward perfectionism, temperament, self-management and mental skills.
ChanceSocio-economic status, quality of parenting, encounters with Weightlifting, access to experienced Weightlifting coaches. Sports must be proactive in matching up quality talent with quality coaches and not relying on chance meetings (16)

The need for proactive programs that attract and engage youth in Weightlifting has been long discussed by the national and state bodies. However, at present, there is not any systematic and holistic approach to the issue of attracting, identifying and nurturing talented youth. The AWF strategic plan 2015-2018 does contain strategy to ‘develop relationships and potentially co-invest with key Olympic sport talent identification programs’ but as yet there are no concrete plans for the inclusion of Weightlifting into the AIS Sports Draft (2) or other similar national programs. The AWF strategic plan also includes strategy to assist state bodies to develop a targeted schools program but as yet there are no guidelines available or allocation of funding. The development of talent requires a strategic approach, which entails systematic and deliberate programming that allows access to best possible coaching, facilities, sports science support and competition experiences (5).

Recommendations

  1. Developing a systematic and holistic process

Developing talented Weightlifters who can compete more favourably at international level requires a systematic and holistic process. There is a need to determine the constituent components of such a process and to realise that if any one component is missing, the system will not deliver.

  1. Collaboration

The development and implementation of a systematic and holistic process for the identification and development of athletes requires the collaboration of all major stakeholders, namely the state and national bodies.

  1. Consultation

The development and implementation of a systematic and holistic process requires a thorough process of consultation particularly with involving persons who coach or have the potential to coach HP athletes. The consultation process needs to identify the practicalities of implementing a systematic approach to talent identification and development.

  1. Coaching development

A key element of such a system is that coaches are continually progressing in their knowledge and skill, and imbued with positive beliefs and attitudes towards the future of high performance Weightlifting in Australia. Education plays a vital role not only in helping coaches to learn training methodology but also to develop a deeper understanding of factors that lead to success in athlete development.

  1. Long-term athlete development

In creating and improving a systematic development process, the organisation of training should be different at various stages of athlete development. It is important for coaches to emphasize learning rather than immediate performance otherwise early achievers may end up ill-prepared to transfer from youth to senior level (35).

  1. Knowledge management

The acquisition, dissemination and management of knowledge is a key aspect that facilitates the long-term approach needed to achieve success. The acquisition of knowledge should not be a matter of chance nor solely the responsibility of individual coaches. A systemic approach should be taken involving researchers, writers, reviewers and knowledge managers.

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