Gifted athletes can ruin your rugby program

Having a so-called “gifted” athlete on your rugby team can be great if they have the right attitude and fit well into your team culture. But gifted athletes can ruin your rugby program if they don’t have the commitment and personal values to match their skill at sport.

For example, in the hyper-competitive area of pay-to-play youth sports in America, too often we see “gifted” athletes that are uncoachable. An uncoachable athlete exhibits behavioral traits familiar to most coaches. These include:

  • poor commitment to training
  • low attention span and effort
  • tardiness for games and practice sessions
  • lack of respect for teammates and coaches
  • lack of humility
  • lack of passion for the game
  • finger pointing/lack of accountability

How gifted athletes can ruin your rugby program

In team sports like rugby, these behaviors can have a host of negative impacts on your team. The most common and dangerous impact is poor morale. Poor morale affects more than just on-field performance. If left unchecked, poor morale can decimate numbers at training, negatively impact player recruiting, and directly prevent your ability to communicate with your athletes in a meaningful way.

In other words, poor morale can kill your rugby program. So if you’ve got a “gifted” athlete hurting team morale, you had better do something about it.

Talent is a poor indicator of long-term success

Before continuing, all coaches, parents, and athletes of all levels should watch the video above by international sports consultant Wayne Goldsmith.

Mr. Goldsmith has worked at all levels of sport and with wide-range of high-profile organizations including the Australian Rugby Union and USA Swimming. Critically, he spent 8 years as a talent identifier for Swimming Australia in the lead up to the 2000 Summer Olympics.

In the video, a parent asks Mr. Goldsmith “How do I know if [my child] is talented.” In his excellent reply, Mr. Goldsmith makes a number of important points based on his 25+ years of experience in sport:

  1. “There is no such thing as a gifted 8 year old.” It doesn’t exist.
  2. Gifted athletes with the commitment level to be professional or represent their country are exceedingly rare. As an athlete’s parent, it’s unlikely that you are “…sitting across the breakfast table from one”.
  3. Specializing in a single sport too early is a “…road to doom” with most kids who do so leaving the sport early. In other words, “The kids that [..] could be anything, in sporting terms, most of the time end up doing nothing.”
  4. “Don’t worship physical talent…” because it is a poor indicator of long term success.
  5. Commitment is the best indicator of long term success.

How to manage “gifted” but uncoachable youth athletes

To prevent the long-term negative consequences of having an uncoachable “gifted” athlete on your team, you need some strategies for dealing with the problem.

With Mr. Goldsmiths comments in mind, the strategy to deal with uncoachable “gifted” athletes is quite clear: to maintain a positive, sustainable coaching environment for your team you must sacrifice the short term benefits of having a “gifted” player (i.e. winning).

In other words, the player will need to shift their attitude to remain on the team.

The specifics of how this plays out will be unique for each player, coach, and team. But it likely starts with honest discussions to educate the player and (for youth athletes) their parents as to the coach’s expectations. At a minimum, the coach will have to make it clear that the behaviors described above are not acceptable.

If discussions are not fruitful, you may need to start benching the “gifted” player. In the worst cases where all other interventions have failed, this process likely ends with the coaching asking the “gifted” player to leave the team.

Turnover Time

We’d love to hear about your experience dealing with talented players. How did you manage the situation? Did the player remain on the team in the long run? What would you do differently the next time this problem occurs?

  1. Afa Hanipale
    Afa Hanipale
    February 12, 2019 at 5:58 pm

    This is an awesome article! Im totally agree on this! Coaching in nz now in Japan! Its happening!! In Japan the focus is winning not developing!! And I’m changing the mindset of students n players by communicating and one on one talks!! Thanks

    • Vic Drover
      Vic Drover • Post Author •
      February 12, 2019 at 6:07 pm

      How do you handle difficult players there? Would love to learn from your experiences.

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