Many countries use talent identification programmes to look for the best athletes. Those who will go on to win gold, those who have the rare combination of mental and physical attributes to endure the years of training that it takes to become an elite rowing athlete. But, how do you identify these individuals? Can you identify these individuals?
From Canada, Schorer’s research divided the overarching subject into what 'we' (coaches, talent identification scouts and others) do poorly and what ‘we’ are able to do well. There are several factors that impact on how athletes in all sports are scouted and identified. Certain factors cannot be explained. For example, in a study of more than 250,000 athletes in Europe, it was found that more than 30 per cent of them were born in the first quartile of the year (January to March) and this percentage decreased linearly to the last quartile (October to December).
Similarly, in many sports, left-handed athletes are more frequently selected and have more success than right-handed athletes. Schorer’s research demonstrated that there are a number of factors that are hard to identify in selection criteria across all sports.
However, there are some factors that coaches and scouts are able to accurately identify. Research has shown that national-level coaches are better able to select than club coaches, who are better able to select than lay persons.
Following Schorer's presentation, Chuck McDiarmid from Canada explained the implementation of the new Canadian initiative, Row to Podium. This system was put into place to 'bolster' the existing system and provide the Canadian Rowing team with an estimated ten per cent more elite athletes that will make the difference for them in their search to improve performance at an international level.
The Canadian system does focus primarily on the numbers although, as McDiarmid admitted toward the end of the presentation, sometimes there is just a feeling. Row to Podium uses a combination of age, height, arm span, bike test and weight tests to identify their athletes. The important factor here is that these athletes are non-rowers. The tests are devised to measure athletic ability of the individual, which is then compared to other factors (such as height, age and previous sport experience) to assess the possible level this athlete could achieve with appropriate development.
These athletes are then trained and developed following a specific programme outlined by the Row to Podium system. The athletes are in some ways sheltered from the normal progression of a rower. They train only in singles, they have specific coaching so that they never develop 'bad technique'. They only do step 2k tests on the erg, starting at a stroke rate of 24 for the first 1500 metres, bound to a specific split before being allowed to go to an open rate and split for the last 500 metres. The average split of this test is used as the starting point for the next test. These athletes may go for several years without ever performing a standard 2k test. This extremely methodological approach hopes to develop these athletes in a very specific way, to complement the athletes that are already being developed through the current system, through schools, clubs and universities.
The proof of the success of this very specific programme will only come several years down the line when the first Row to Podium athletes hit the international scene. In a sport that demands its athletes to push past inordinate amounts of pain, to dig deeper and to fight harder than the athlete sitting next to him or her, determining talent may be as difficult as identifying it. The skill of the talent identification scout may come down to a certain 'feeling'.