How do you define talent? This is an important question to ask because your answer influences how you conduct your coaching sessions and how you interact with your players. Don’t believe me? Well, to convince you, let me take you back to the turn of the 20th Century and introduce you to a ‘genius’ horse. It’s relevant…I promise!

If you’d been alive just over a hundred years ago and living in Germany you may have had the opportunity to see the world’s cleverest horse. His name was Clever Hans. Clever Hans could answer mathematical questions with great accuracy. His owner would ask him problems such as “What is 5 plus 4? and Clever would tap his hoof until he stopped at the right answer. Clever Hans was very clever indeed!

Or at least that’s what many at the time thought, until a psychologist called Oskar Pfungst investigated the supposed genius horse. Pfungst was skeptical and wanted to find out exactly what was going on.

What he found was, in my eyes anyway, astonishing. It turned out that Clever Hans wasn’t clever in a mathematical sense. Clever was clever at reading body language. Pfungst discovered that Clever would stop tapping his hoof when he saw a subtle change in body language from the person asking the mathematical questions or a shift in body language from audience members.

When Clever had tapped his hoof the amount of times that equaled a correct answer the audience shifted how they were holding themselves. Clever Hans would read this and would stop tapping. He was no doubt rewarded with some food or water for a correct answer, thereby conditioning his responses. Clever Hans wasn’t cheating – he was simply reading body language.

Anyway, what does all this mean for your coaching? The Clever Hans case study was an early example of an observer expectancy effect. When the audience at a Clever Hans ‘gig’ heard the answer they changed their behaviour. It may have been a minute change, nevertheless it was a change.

The observer expectancy effect can be quite powerful. The expectations you hold of your young players influence how you communicate with them and how you behave around them. It has been demonstrated in several research studies that if you hold a favourable view of a person then you act accordingly.

In coaching terms this means that if you hold a player in high regard you’ll likely be more encouraging. You’ll likely spend more time with this player. It’s likely that the messages you send to this player will be more ‘can do’ than ‘can’t do’.

This is why it’s so important to see talent as multidimensional. As I write about in my book ‘Soccer Brain’ there are two types of talent – the traditional physical talent that people hold onto, and mindset talent – a lesser known form of talent, but one that is just as important as its physical counterpart.

When you define talent like this you get the opportunity to praise and to develop. You give yourself permission as a coach to expect more from your players.

There is more on this in Soccer brain – so if it sounds interesting, and you feel you can become a better coach as a consequence why not check it out.