Developing sport from the ground up

How does the process really work?

In 1984 I was coaching in Brunei. Part of my job was creating a national age group swimming program where athletes could eventually progress from lessons to competition, thus building a base of athletes for national teams. It was a great opportunity but unfortunately I didn't really know enough about how the athlete development process worked to make it successful, but at the time no one did. I'm not talking about teaching skills or conducting training sessions, the athlete development process, we now know, depends on much more than that. Social and cultural conditions as well as how a country's sport infrastructure creates opportunity for talent development determine whether or not youngsters will ever rise to elite performance levels in a sport.

These non-sport factors may indeed be more important than coaching skills or training sessions. They form a super-cultural framework within which all social institutions work. As any sociologist will tell you social institutions don't exist in a vacuum, they are formed and governed by the culture in which they exist. Thus the U.S. educational system is different from that found in Canada, and the Malaysian system is different from that found in Singapore. It's probably safe to say that all countries have the same goals for their educational systems but due to cultural differences they go about achieving those goals in different ways.

Sport systems operate under the same factors. Each country may want to produce high performance athletes but because of the many cultural differences between countries sport will be treated differently depending on where you live.

While countries may not conduct their sport programs in the same way they each have to address universal factors that govern sport development. Talent development is one of those factors. Denying the ingredients of talent development or skipping them because they are hard to do doesn't work as many countries have discovered the hard way. The main ingredients of a talent development program must be included in any development scheme but they don't have to be handled in the same way in every situation. As long as they are there then the cultural frameworks that govern social practice merely put a unique signature to different practices. Malaysia may do something differently than another country but the important point is that they're doing it.

Around the same time I was coaching in Brunei, Benjamin Bloom was conducting his famous study on expertise, The Development of Talent Project, back in Chicago. The result of this study and the subsequent research it launched is how we now know the scope of the sport development process.

While the basics of how athletes are created may be well-known throughout the sport world (even though some myths about sport, talent, and training are still active in many societies) implementation of important development factors are often lacking. It's not easy to fight social inertia and when youngsters are encouraged to specialize early or to drop a sport when they don't show early "promise" it's usually done with the understanding that this is the way it should be even though coaches and administrators will tell you this is exactly the opposite of what should be done.

The current model of sport development rewards children who have simply matured earlier, and discourages those who are not yet as big and strong. In youth sport strength and size trumps skill almost every time. But eventually the size and strength advantages that early maturers have disappear and athletes who have spent time improving and perfecting their skills are the ones who usually rise to the high performance level.

Emotionally it may be hard to realize that a hot-shot 10-year-old athlete is not all we think he is, especially if he's our own child or from our school or country. But the research tells us that only about 25% of high performing athletes were high performers while young. The majority of elite athletes developed later. They showed unremarkable ability at young ages but they stuck with sport, eventually finding one that they really enjoyed. Enjoyment turned to passion and later on, when it really mattered, they had the game sense, skills, and fitness to perform at high levels.

Athlete development is a long-term process. One that includes the low-ability 10-year-olds as well as those who are bigger and stronger than others their age. No one remembers the best 10-year-old athletes. No 10-year-old has ever made a mark on the world stage in sports and it's unlikely that they ever will. But sport opportunities for 10-year-olds and all young athletes are an essential part of the overall process.

What happens to the other 75% of top 10-year-olds? Well, their peers eventually catch up with them. As any parent knows, growth happens. Young athletes who are bigger or stronger than others their age lose these advantages as they grow. Some of these athletes continue to perform well while others are absorbed into the mix of good but not great athletes.

The best thing a young athlete can have is a coach who understands what's going on and who can make the youth sport experience interesting, challenging, and fun so that youngsters like what they're doing and want to continue. The longer youngsters are involved in sport the greater the chance of developing high performance skills.

In the Development of Talent Project Bloom studied young adult "experts" in art, science, and sports to find out what outward signs of their ability were noticed by parents, friends, and teachers when they were younger. But he didn't find anything remarkable about his subjects. They exhibited no special abilities when young that signaled their later expertise. But he did find one thing that his subjects had in common -- environment. All of the young experts he studied had environments that offered opportunities, encouragement, instruction or coaching, and feedback on what they were doing. This led to what is probably the most famous quote in expertise studies, "We were looking for exceptional kids, what we found were exceptional conditions."

Creating exceptional environments is the key to sport development. How this is done is mediated by culture but it has to be done if top sport performance is the goal.