Four Lessons from the Future of Talent Development


6a00d8341d55ee53ef012876940c9a970c-400wiOne of the parts of this job that I like best is hearing about talent-development startups. You know, those crazy, smart, ambitious folks who are quietly reinventing the way we learn.

Together, they’re part of a larger trend away from the traditional one-size-fits-all factory model of learning, and toward what you might call an organic-farm model: simpler, individualized, targeted programs that are more aligned with the way talents actually develop.

Here are two I especially like.

1) Bitmaker Labs in Toronto, founded in 2012, teaches software coding in the same way that the Navy SEALs teach marksmanship — as an intensive, immersive, no-holds-barred boot camp. They transform students (many with no previous technical experience) into proficient coders in the space of three months. And it works: 90 percent of Bitmaker grads have been hired by tech firms.

Bitmaker does it, in part, by reverse-engineering the educational process. Rather than taking the theory-based academic approach, founder Matt Gray and his partners asked 50 software companies what skills really mattered. Bitmaker built its curriculum around that feedback: an 80-hour prep course followed by nine weeks of project-based learning at Bitmaker’s headquarters — which, naturally, is open 24-7, the better to replicate the intensely immersive startup environment.

Here’s what one 18-year-old Bitmaker student wrote in his blog:

“The education system was designed during the Industrial Revolution to prepare students to become workers by, for example, having them follow instructions and do repetitive tasks. This resonates with my experience in college and I didn’t want to spend a big chunk of my life doing things that weren’t meaningful to me. I didn’t want to learn so I could get a diploma or a job, but so I could be empowered to affect the world in the way I want to.”

2) Joy of the People, a Minnesota youth soccer program that aims to reinvent how kids learn the game. (It’s named after the famous Brazilian player Garrincha, who was so exciting that Brazilians called him Allegria do Povo — Joy of the People).

JOTP founder Ted Koerten has a simple idea: to provide American kids with the chance to learn soccer exactly as Brazilians learn it: having lots of fun in small spaces. So he got rid of elite teams and elite travel and instead built a kid magnet: a series of small inflatable soccer fields — smaller space, smaller goals, with barriers to produce more continuous play. Younger kids are focused almost entirely on fun; older kids on more deliberate practice.

As Koerten told me in an email:

 The old models tend to structure youth soccer (and all youth sports) heavy on the deliberate practice…. The dark side of the idea that players are made is that now mad scientists are all trying to make them. But our model is kid centered and understands that kids need to be kids in order to complete the hard work of adults.

Koerten is full of ideas: for instance, he has the kids play with balls that vary in size from tiny to large, and employs a tennis-ball machine to increase touches. He’s interested in cross-pollinating with newly invented sports like Puckelball. And it’s working: he’s drawing 600 kids a week.

Which brings us to the deeper question: what lessons do these organic, free-range models provide? How can they help us improve and innovate our own talent-development spaces? Here are four:

  • Focus on creating rich, people-centric ecosystems. They are based on the principle that the best learning happens when humans are in intense collaboration.
  • Put fun first. These aren’t solemn, self-important places — rather, they’re looser, more user-driven. Emotion is not some background factor, but a vital part of the process.
  • Design for lots of mixing. People aren’t  segregated into levels and classes; rather, they’re mixed together in a style that might be described as Montessori-like, which provides a rich environment for relationships and mentoring.
  • Focus far less on lectures/theory, and more on doing stuff. Knowledge isn’t transferred from the top down so much as it is grown from the bottom up, through challenge, smart design, and lots of intense reps.

Do you know of any new, surprising, and/or innovative talent-development programs? I’d love to hear about them.

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23 Responses to “Four Lessons from the Future of Talent Development”

  1. Takeshi says:

    Great! Bitmaker Labs seems like a very cool program, much different than the theory-heavy Computer Science courses I was forced tot take!

  2. Jason Seabury says:

    Love what “Allegria de Povo” is doing. Unfortunately, that kind of youth soccer organization is not available to most of us. Parents have to do it on their own. For most youth soccer players in America, there are a few months in the fall and a few months in the spring when they are completely scheduled with organized club occer. The months in between is when the parents who “get it” need to organize contexts in which the kids can play, truly PLAY…like kids. These opportunities occur very organically in the rest if the footballing world, but have to be created intensionally by parents in our suburban, disconnected culture. In our family we play almost every day all year. In those “off” months from club soccer, this happens in basement death match 1v1 tournaments, soccer tennis, polar pelada (pick up games in freezing weather on asphalt parking lots…usually at night), and lots of informal 3v3 and 4v4 tournaments that are played without coaching. It’s simple…and it’s what happens around the globe every day with no parental involvement…but in our culture requires a lot of intensional effort by mom and dad. All “complete” players have to have a steady diet of playing in these informal contexts. It’s where they develop their flair, or as they call it, their swagger.

  3. Very interesting piece.
    On my Blog I have done 5 new essential interviews with regard to football thinking , Talent and player development, brain centered learning in sport

    I would like to share with you some ideas I have developed and work with here in Stockholm Sweden . Also a suggestion for a talent model that I am using for a book.
    Hope to hear from you

  4. Larry says:

    Great article on JOTP. Do you know where there got those small blow up fields?

    I can just picture how much fun kids (heck even adults) would have playing in those fields. It’s amazing how a simple concept can be so powerful.

  5. Bryan says:


    As a soccer coach, start ups like this are immensely important for advancing the game beyond the capabilities of the status quo in US Soccer. I have seen several of your twitter links to interviews with men such as Toney Lepore and today with Tom Turner. Tom says all the right things, and Tony tries to; but the question no one asks them is with all the influence they have, why have they not been able to make a difference? Whey have they not produced a single world class player?
    Our country is flush with talent, enough to dominate the world right now. But we have no artists, no real player development guru’s. All the guys inside the system say a lot of nice things, but not one has developed a player to his or her full potential. That is because before you can understand how to use any of the findings from your book or others targeted in improving performance, you must have the right type of worldview. All a coaches knowledge gets funneled through their worldview before it is spit out into pieces of philosophy, execution, and activities.
    There is one exception, and it is well worth checking them out. Brian and Gary Klieban, who work in LA. You can find information about their work here at their educational blog:

  6. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Brian – really appreciate your sharing Klieban’s stuff. Looks exciting.

    You’re definitely asking the right questions. Worldview is a huge factor.

  7. Doc says:

    A vacant lot (is there such a thing anymore?) with no adults and no uniforms and no extrinsic prizes.

  8. Jose says:

    Have you checked out what the guys at are doing?…..I would be interested on your thoughts. Maybe even a future post!


  9. TIm Clark says:

    Daniel, you might want to check out the Breakaway Hockey program in Chaska, Minnesota. It was started by Dave Snuggerud, a former professional and Olympic player and emphasizes skill development, character and health over winning. I’ve been privileged to lead their dry land program the past few years and I keep coming back to work with them because like Ted Koerten in soccer they’re all about the kids. Kids learn to skate, stick handle, score and play the game. It’s not unusual to come to a session and see all the sticks on the bench and kid playing capture the flag on the ice. Their ” teams ” may play in one or two tournaments over the course of the summer and that’s it. Lest anyone think this developmental approach doesn’t really produce top talent – that only the battle hardened kid who skates in countless elite tournaments makes it to the top – the Breakaway coaches had the pleasure of watching several of their players face off in the high school state championship game, see 7 or 8 of them sign Division 1 tenders to play college hockey and had 5 kids taken in the recent NHL draft. And, yet with all that they get just as excited when some little hockey player moves up from the pee wee B’s to the pee wee A’s. There’s more here

  10. Susan says:

    We live in St. Paul, MN and found our way to JOTP a few years ago. Couldn’t believe how ragtag and chaotic it was…until we realized what was happening and “got” the philosophy. There are now hundreds of kids whose parents are driving very far across the metro area (often during rush hour) to get to JOTP. Love that very often, kids are mixed ages. Older kids play with younger, and everybody learns. Kids are instructed, but loosely, and always – always – with that sense of joy. Very little heavy-handed adult involvement, so the kids are often left to be creative and figure out how to play on their own, which builds not only their intuitive sense of the game, but also their sense of right and wrong. Think of how this differs from the traditional school model which strictly monitors and enforces behaviors. We now have two kids in the program and are strong believers in what Ted Kroeten has created and are fortunate to be a part of it. After reading this I see how the model can and should be applied more broadly.

  11. David says:

    JOTP is an amazing place. My son has put in probably close to 1000 of free play time over the last year. Between the friendships, skills, ethics, and passions he has developed, I am sure it will be one of the driving forces in his life (in addition to his parents of course).

  12. Walter says:

    Doc: “A vacant parking lot”? A times during our soccer practices we move it to a near by tennis court. The court is enclosed and we can have 2 games of 4vs4 which mimics futsal. We practice after 7pm so at times many of the tennis courts in our area are open! I let the kids police their own games while i over look it and say nothing. We have 4 teams of 4 so they have a mini tournament amongst themselves!

  13. Doc says:

    Walter: Kudos. There needs to be more like you. Good Coaching is certainly beneficial but we don’t need to coach every little move and mistake. I was actually talking about a vacant lot with dirt and crabgrass etc. and I had baseball and softball in mind as that is how all of us learned to play back in the 50’s and 60’s. Glad there are still coaches like you around that don’t think their whole program will go down the tubes if they don’t coach every single move.

  14. Walter says:

    Doc: The kids love it. We do it twice a year. I tell them to bring their “sneakers” or their indoor shoes and they get talking about it even before we select teams. It’s THEIR time to have fun and the intencity is so much better. They seem to try harder and you can tell they feel more like adults as i allow them to make their own calls and they get to decide who the ball went off of and so on. Excellent teaching tool.

  15. Megan says:

    I see many JOTP parents commenting and let me just reiterate… the energy is so fresh and, yes chaotic, but oh so kid-friendly. My 9 yr old goes and loves it. My 7 yr old girl tried it out and was super shy. Ted called two of the older girls over when I mentioned her shyness and put them on duty – “Girls, this is Clara. Take care of her today, OK?…” And they were so honored to be given a responsibility and it turned out pretty well for Clara too! Go JOTP.

  16. Shortly after the 2010 World Cup I wrote a piece on my blog in response to an article by the important education writer, Sam Chaltain. You might be interested in what I was thinking then. Seems to be validated as I read about JOTP and changes in training in Europe.

  17. djcoyle says:

    Hey Bill, Great post — I could not agree more with every word.

  18. Baseball Beth says:

    I teach at the School of Rock, which is a real place. The Jack Black character from the movie was based on our founder, Paul Green. The School of Rock campuses I teach at in MN are great examples of hot spots where students focus on every detail of a live show, from music to stage presence. The students (ages 8 – 18) preform in a show about 4 times a year. The shows are always excellent, and many of the teens are excepted to great college music programs.

  19. Dan,

    I met Sam Chaltain yesterday, and he told me about this post (small world, btw; I sat in on one of your great magazine writing classes at Medill years ago).

    I’m glad to see you’re talking about fun, experiential learning too. Two recent pieces that may therefore interest you: [It’s about the value of free play; the author’s book, “Free to Learn,” is great too, and completely changed how I look at education.] [my own op-ed about how the current infatuation with educational testing emphasizes the wrong things and undermines learning; the comments section includes ideas for how to put an end to this trend]

  20. djcoyle says:

    Thanks very much! I really appreciate your sharing those links, and Sam’s stuff looks incredibly useful/fascinating. Thanks also for the Medill shout-out! Best, Dan

  21. djcoyle says:

    Hey Beth – thanks so much for your comment. I didn’t realize that SOR was an actual place! Congrats on all the success. The next time I’m in MN, can I come see? Thanks, Dan

  22. Hey Daniel,

    I know one talent identification platform called Create.It

    They’re using the power of crowd sourcing for recruitment in sports for example.

    I think this talent ID industry is/going to get a huge shakeup in the coming years

  23. Roy Munin says:

    Hey Daniel, I invite you to check what we’re doing at @videeback

    We’re creating a new way for people around the world to practice & train together using video.

    Roy Munin. (@muninum)

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