4 talent development lessons to learn from the world’s leading sports academies

At a first glance, the sporting and corporate worlds may seem to have little in common (aside from a healthy dose of competition). But sports academies can teach companies a thing or two about talent development.

Take Barcelona's famous football youth academy, La Masia. Producing several globally acclaimed players, such as Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta, it has long recognised the importance of focusing on the youth and giving them time to flourish.

And although academies have been a mainstay of the European football scene, other sports are beginning to see the benefits. America’s National Football League (NFL) and Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) have both begun to open up centres with a focus on producing world-leading players.

The corporate sector can easily do the same. With that in mind, here are four lessons to learn from the world’s top sporting academies that’ll take your business from strength to strength:

01. Broaden your acquisition horizons

Searching for talent, wherever it may be, is the backbone of any sports academy. They don’t just scout in the local area, but cast the net across the globe, giving far-flung youngsters an accessible entry point. Some, such as London’s recently opened NFL Academy, are removing physical barriers from the recruitment process, asking 2020/21 season applicants to film themselves. Others, like the National Basketball Association (NBA), have opened up academies in countries such as China and India to ensure diverse talent

While a global focus may not be vital for your company, university campuses aren’t the only place to search for future leaders. Consider branching out to sixth forms and pre-degree colleges to capture talent at a time where the first important career decisions are being made. Or look to complementary industries to find driven people who are looking for their next best step. 

Remember what sports scouts look for, too. Not just football, basketball or tennis ability, but skills in a wide range of areas that could prove to be useful in the future. (Think teamwork and flexibility.) As Pedro Marques, technical director of Benfica’s youth academy, told Hudl: “In scouting, there is an investment in identifying potential more than just performance.”

This way of working is easily transferable to any corporate environment. Rather than a sole focus on experience, consider other capabilities that the ideal employee would possess. For example, are they confidently leading a university society and producing results? Or have they shown dedication to continue learning or to create meaningful change? They may not have specific experience in your industry in these areas, but, given the right level of attention, their talent can easily be moulded and developed.

"In scouting, there is an investment in identifying potential more than just performance."
Pedro Marques Technical Director of Benfica's Youth Academy

02. Dedicate time to development

While it’s easy to pigeonhole new recruits, giving them the space to try out various teams and areas can prove to be much more effective. Why? Because it allows them to determine where they thrive. Plus, it leads to a more well-rounded individual. 

Just look at the young players who go through Real Sociedad’s Zubieta Academy. Viewed as a project, each child is given the opportunity to play a range of sports during the school year, allowing them to learn about their strengths and weaknesses and adopt a more flexible mindset. Benfica, too, invests in players’ long-term development with support in everything from nutrition to social lives. As does London’s NFL Academy – it has recognised that preparing players to compete involves not just physical training sessions, but lessons in wellbeing and social media. 

The importance of development is perhaps best summed up by Miguel Miranda, goalkeeping coordinator at the Sporting Clube de Portugal academy. “We don’t want them to be professional at 14. We want them to be professional at 20,” he told the Guardian

03. Offer plenty of practical training opportunities

Practical experience makes the tangible difference in talent development. In football academies, young players soak up theories and philosophies in a classroom, then take their knowledge straight onto the pitch. National tennis academies also aim to create a professional-type environment to give players an idea of the intensity they’ll need to succeed. 

Giving your new recruits the chance to practise skills and reactions in a similar real-world setting is vital, whether it’s allowing them onto a challenging factory floor or opening the door to important meetings.

You, too, can benefit from this strategy. After all, they say you’re never too old to learn. So why not follow sporting academy leaders and team up with other companies to study the way they find and develop young talent? A combination of approaches is often key to strengthening a team and boosting performance.

04. Map out a clear route to progress

A truly motivated workforce comes from putting employees on a path that will take them onwards and upwards. Top football teams often have targets of having a set number of academy players in the main team, or even of winning the Champions League with a team made up of players from their youth academy. As soon as they join, the players are therefore aware of what lies ahead, provided they’re driven enough to reach that stage.

Even London’s NFL Academy is finding places for UK students to take the SAT test to allow them to enter the American collegiate system and be drafted into the NFL. And the whole point of the LTA’s tennis academies are “to increase the likelihood of players making the standard for Pro Scholarship Programme” selection. 

These young players know that their superiors believe in them – a strong philosophy that can easily be transferred into the modern workplace. If you believe in the talent that you set out to train and offer them a route toward promotions and responsibilities, they will flourish.

The recent decline of Barcelona’s football team is a prime example of what can happen when you lose sight of the talent you’ve acquired. After focusing on costly external acquisitions, the team has recently lost multiple trophies. Compare this to 2009, which saw a team of numerous La Masia graduates win an unprecedented six titles. The commitment to youth progression is no longer there, and it has led Barcelona to suffer. In the future, La Masia graduates may well decide to head elsewhere. The same can happen to corporate talent without the right level of nurturing. 

The key to the future

The sporting world is proof that talent development is the key to strong, award-winning teams. While there’s always a risk when it comes to taking on new staff, the potential rewards of committing to raw talent are huge. Not only will their passion and ideas propel your company forward, but they’ll also create a new culture that will encourage other top talent to seek you out. A slam dunk, as they say in basketball. 

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