We have a habit of labelling things in modern society and we like to do this; frequently when making comparisons of one against another. They are often subjective by nature, “I think Messi was better than Pele”, and on many occasions, never even something that can be quantified. But this extends from harmless pub chat to labelling in schools and sport – “this young person is talented or gifted” (whatever they mean) and therefore better than others. But what is the impact of being labelled this as a young person? Too often we do not see the impact through their eyes and what it actually may mean to them. Let’s look at this using football as the example but you could replace football with any sport or indeed school subject.
1. From an early age being labelled as talented increases expectations and they come to realise that when playing games the pressure is on them entirely; because they are talented and others aren’t. More becomes expected every game and can build and build.
2. The knock-on effect for their own self-perception can become dangerous if others around them are deemed less talented by themselves or adults, bordering on developing an air of arrogance in many as that comparison kicks in.
3. Parents can have inflated expectations, and whilst that child may be happy just playing football with their friends, the parents habitually expect massive things and game winning performances every week.
4. Internal pressure on their own ability creates added weight with the child feeling that if they don’t produce these performances every week that their parents will stop loving them. This can stem from positive feedback only coming from a positive performance. This is produced from within but is a dangerous feeling to have for a young person and is linked to causes of stress and anxiety.
5. Being talented in one sport leads to frequently being talented in others, using athleticism and game skills as the core underpinning of skill application. However, this may not always be the case, it could be domain specific. Expectations from teachers and peers because of a talent in one sport can lead to increased pressure when playing others.
6. Sibling rivalry can have a major effect in a family dynamic. One sibling that gets praised for being mediocre in a sport (“trying their hardest”) leads to even greater pressure for the talented sibling to perform every week. There are no allowances for anything different.
7. The constant need for approval and basing their own self-worth on what other people think of them is a dangerous place to be. It can lead to greater anxiety, because they never fail at anything, and don’t want to let others down. Managing this carefully is vital.
8. In fact, the opportunity to ‘learn to fail’ is sometimes missed because of this pursuit of excellence. Failing is a huge part of learning and feeling like its ok to shoot for the moon and sometimes miss is essential. However, we need to create an environment that makes it ok for this ‘miss’ to happen.
9. A feeling of jealousy from others towards them is something that is often passed by and helping young people deal with the feelings and comments from peers is something we can help them manage.
10. Constantly managing high expectations is incredibly difficult. There are two options; if they perform great, that is expected, and if they don’t that is a failure. It is either neutral or negative.
11. The journey towards becoming an elite footballer is incredibly difficult and can also give a false sense of security. Being labelled as ‘talented’ from a young age just means they are talented today, not necessarily in five or ten years time. Helping them understand the journey and its challenges is important.
12. Equally, young people are often deemed talented within their peer group, but what if that peer group is below average? Compared to their peers they are talented, but put them in the wider world and they become average. Having had a build up of expectations and self-worth about being talented to then see this come shattering down is difficult and tough to manage and internalise as a child.
The role of a teacher or coach is to help the child; help them understand the nature of the dynamics above and what it may mean to be talented (today) compared to your peers. Emphasising the need for hard work, recognising that it is ok not to be amazing every game and developing a growth mindset (see Dweck, 2006) in young people is essential life skills to help them with ongoing challenges.
The journey towards long-term talent is never easy and dealing with disappointment is inevitable. Helping them understand this may come in different forms is important; this could be getting de-selected from a professional football club, not being selected by the manager to play or dealing with a bad injury. But it is going to happen at some stage – we don’t always win.
As a parent, regardless of their performances, achievements or otherwise, they just want to know you still love them.