August 7, 2011


A fairly popular discussion on the interwebz of late revolves around the idea of talent, or lack there of, and US Weightlifting. 

The US model of talent identification and development might be best described as a talent funnel. In this case, large numbers of athletes are encouraged to participate in a variety of sports, and via the process of natural selection, those individuals with the innate characteristics to succeed or with the innate characteristics needed for success in that particular sport, become better, gain reinforcement, are enrolled in programs with increasing quality of coaching and higher levels of competition. 

Over time, these are the athletes who develop to the highest, and hopefully, internationally competitive level.  Think of this as the youth to high school to college to the professional level seen in most team sports.  In many individual sports, such as weightlifting, the funnel is not as defined due to lack of participants at the wide end and lack of professional opportunities at the concentrated end. 

It is thought that if the number of participants (or talent pool) was to increase, the performance at the concentrated end would improve. The talent pool argument is something I have debated for a long time and something that I am not sure there is an easy answer for or against either way. A greater number of competitors could dramatically improve results and our worldwide standing, but I do not think it is the final answer. 

Marathons have 10s of thousands of participants every single weekend in this country, more than any other country. Currently, our best American marathon competitor Ryan Hall is ranked around 10th in the world. Since the mid-1970s we have had a greatest number of competitive distance runners of any country yet our worldwide standing has remained stagnant. Same argument for soccer; it has been one of the top youth participant sports in the country for at least 25 years. It is a high school varsity sport and numerous college offer athletic scholarships. Our worldwide standing has not improved much in the past 40 years, and for the past 20, it has been said we are on the verge of breaking into the top but it has yet to happen. We could also throw the American past time of baseball into the argument. It is "our" sport but we have lost our status to many of the Latin American countries. 

In all of these sports (Marathon, Soccer, Baseball), countries with less than half our population and a 1/3 of our resources routinely kick our butts in international competition. 

Numbers will definitely, definitely help us improve from the high 20s where we currently reside, but to get in the top 5 and eventually on the medal platform, we need more than just more average lifters.  There needs to be a systematic plan for the development of talent if and when it arrives at in the sport.  Additional thoughts will come in a future post regarding the development of talent specific to weightlifting in the US


  1. I've seen soccer used as an example of equality in terms of US youth development relative to the international community's. However, our youth development programs are nothing like what Europe has. The best pro teams have various levels of youth 'schools' & camps where the kids starting around 7 can enroll, then live and breathe soccer while they study etc. As the kids age, talent is identified and moves on to the next level of development within this huge feeder program. The US has nothing like this in soccer. By and large most of the talent that ends up on the world stage and gets contracts with these various pro teams, comes from these programs and is identified by the age of 14-16. The pro teams fund the feeder programs, direct the system of coaching and have a serious hand in steering and bringing up these youths. So the kids get exposed to the highest level of competition and competitive support at a very young age and for a very long time if they have enough fundamental talent to progress.

    So while the large end of the cone may have relatively similar numbers in terms of youth involvement here in the US vs abroad, the form this involvement takes is very different. And judging from our stagnation on the world stage, this may indeed be the critical factor.

  2. Let's be honest. Weightlifting is always going to lose a majority of the kids most genetically suited to it to Football. I am sorry to say that, but i believe it's true. The guys out there who can beat Kendrick Ferris and qualify for the Olympics are playing football. This is not Europe, Asia or the Middle east where the biggest strongest and most explosive don't fit into their national sport, this is America where our national sport relies on that. The guys that don't fit their Football end up in weightlifting, the guys that don't fit our football aren't always the most explosive.

  3. The football argument JoeC put out would only hold its weight for the heavier weight class in olympic weightlifting.