Precocious talents vs late bloomers: Sport’s tantalising conundrum

Huw Jones
Huw Jones in action for Scotland against Australia in autumn 2016

When I played Kent schools cricket in the late 80s and early 90s, you could guarantee that every season the name of some boy would be whispered in the changing dressing room with awesome reverence.

Team-mates would say “he’ll definitely play for Kent”. Others might upgrade it to a certain England call-up.

So obsessed was I with playing and watching cricket back then that I can still remember the names of those fearsome opponents. And I can tell you with 100% accuracy that none of those half-dozen teens ever became professional cricketers.

Sure, many child prodigies do make it in sport: from Lionel Messi to Boris Becker to Ronnie O’Sullivan to Tiger Woods.

But what of those who aren’t spotted when they’re spotty pubescent teens and go on to achieve greatness nonetheless.

Ian Wright started his footballing career with semi-professional Greenwich Borough on £30 a week before Crystal Palace and Arsenal came knocking. Wright, now a tv pundit, is a certified Arsenal legend.

Huw Jones in action for the Stormers

Then there’s Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy who spent three years playing for Stocksbridge Park Steels in South Yorkshire before becoming a Premier League winner in 2016.

And closer to home, we can think of former King’s School pupil and Canterbury Rugby Club Youth player Huw Jones.

Born in Edinburgh, he qualifies for Scotland and playing at centre is a key component in their current Six Nations Championship campaign.

But the 24-year-old, whose father Bill is head of Spring Grove School in Wye, was as a youngster never singled out as the next Jonny Wilkinson.

Instead, he quietly went to study and work in rugby-mad South Africa and started playing for his university.

Jones was soon making waves and was in no time playing for Cape Town outfit the Stormers in the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby, regarded as the best club competition in the world.

In 2016, he got his call up for Scotland on a tour of Japan. On his home debut, he scored two tries against Australia.

Jones’s rise and those of similar players is proof that late developers have every chance of success, says Ed Smith.

The former England cricketer and Kent captain argues that not all stars of the future can be identified as children and then sculpted into champions.

“Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks,” he says.

“First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away, often damaged psychologically.

Huw Jones played for Canterbury as a teenager

“Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc.

“The narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth.

“Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution. They become blind to outsiders.

“In a quiet way, Huw Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice.

“The more we learn about talent, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults.

“Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values. Variety and fun have their virtues.”

This, says, Smith is his ultimate sermon: that sportsmen should be “free range” in their developmental stage rather than “battery-farmed”.

And the key to that is to keep playing your sport and – most importantly – enjoy it.


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