Talent ID or Character ID?


Talent Identification has been a hot topic in sport and business for many years. Every organisation is out to spot those who have what it takes to be highly successful. In sport, it often means analysing the requirements of the sport and then matching promising athletes, who seem to have the attributes required to succeed.

There are some highly sophisticated Talent ID programmes, which scientifically measure an athlete’s physiology, physical ability, size, height, body fat, functional movement, medical history, sport history, family history, decision making, self-confidence, motivation, anxiety management and a whole lot more!

The NFL Combine uses similar tests to assess the potential of college football players before they get drafted by the NFL Franchises. They also measure speed, agility, strength, power, position specific skills and body measures (amongst other things). The franchises are also allowed to interview players for 15 minutes. This data gets added to the many scouting reports that the clubs hold on each of the athletes. The teams then make multi-million dollar decisions on which athletes to recruit, and which to reject.

However, it seems that there are some attributes of ‘talented people’, which might be difficult to measure. Michael Duncan, from Coventry University, argues that ‘talented people’, from a wide variety of domains, are defined by ‘high energy’, ‘creativity’, ‘imagination’ and are ‘less linear’. In addition, he states that talent sits at the intersection between skills, motivation and creativity.

If these attributes are the essence of talent, how can we measure them with real certainty? Are they even measurable? Perhaps this question led researcher, Roel Vaeynes, to state that there was “no empirical support for the traditional approach to talent ID in sport” (Vaeynes, et al, 2009). Michael Duncan goes on to state that the only thing that consistently differentiates International and National level athletes is that the international level athletes have spent 50% more time involved in their sport.

Perhaps there is a disconnect between the attributes that underpin success, and our attempts to identify talent. Maybe Talent ID programmes look at the wrong things?

Interestingly, two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history were drafted as the 199th overall pick; Bart Starr and Tom Brady. Neither of these two legendary players qualified as ‘talented’, according to the Talent ID models. Tom Brady, has led the Patriots to a record four Superbowl wins and six Conference Championships. He was awarded the Superbowl MVP (Most Valuable Player) three times and the League MVP twice, making him one of the greatest quarterbacks in history.  

Incredibly, Brady took part in the NFL Combine. He was considered to be “un-athletic”, “kinda skinny”, “not strong enough” and “too slow” (his 5.2 second 40 yard dash was well below par). And yet, the New England Patriots drafted him. So, how did they identify that Tom Brady had the potential to become a great quarterback?

Dick Rehbein, the Patriots quarterback coach, was sent to scout Brady. He described him as the “best fit for the organisation” because of his mentality, his leadership and, in particular, his ability to “go in and lead his team back to victory”. The Patriots Head Coach, Bill Belichick, also noted that Brady was learning and progressing fast. Belichick saw that Brady had made a significant step up between his junior and senior season as a College quarterback. Belichick also noticed that Brady has two qualities that he prized; he was tough and competitive.

Bart Starr was also the greatest quarter-back of his generation. He led his Green Bay Packers team, with coach Vince Lombardi, to multiple championship wins and the first two Superbowl crowns. He was also voted the MVP in the Superbowl and was the League MVP in 1966. This undoubtedly world class player was recruited in the 17th round of the draft, also as the 199th overall pick.

So, why did the Packers draft Bart Starr?

Interestingly, Bart Starr was a student at the University of Alabama. Although he played American Football, it was the basketball coach (Johnny Dee) that noticed him and recommended him to the Personnel Director (Jack Vainisi) at the Packers. Rather than focusing on his skills as a quarter-back, The Packers were convinced that Starr had the ability to succeed in the NFL and would learn quickly. It seems that the Packers recruited Bart Starr because of his ability to learn, and therefore his potential to become great (Hartley, 2015).  

Whenever I talk to elite sports coaches about the kind of athlete they’re looking for, they don’t describe physical attributes, 40-yard dash times, vertical jump scores or body fat percentage. Instead they describe the character of the person. Like Bill Belichick, they are interested in toughness, competitiveness, resilience, tenacity, adaptability, their composure and ability to perform in critical moments, their work ethic and their ability to learn. These are characteristics, elements of character, not physical qualities or even mental skills.

So, if we really want to find those with the potential to become highly successful, the question is…

Should we engage in Talent ID or Character ID?


If you’d like to find out how to assess and develop character, check out the free sample chapter of How To Develop Character





Duncan, M., James, R., Thake, D & Birch, S. (accessed 2016) ‘Talent Identification’, Science and Football.com <Available Online – 29th march 2016> www.scienceandfootball.com/uploads/306.pdf.

Hartley, S.R. (2015) Stronger Together; How Great Teams Work, London: Piatkus Books.

Vaeynes, R., Gullich, A., Warr, C.R. and Philippaerts, R. (2009) ‘Talent identification and promotion programmes of Olympic athletes’, Journal of Sport Sciences, 27(13); 1367-1380.