Gladwell's Law: In any sporting endeavor, elite achievement comes at the cost of mass participation

NGBs can improve developmental programs with a few simple changes to the competitive environment.

Malcolm Gladwell tackled the question of why young athletes dropout of or don't even join high school sport programs. Gladwell, an avid runner, suggested that many youngsters are discouraged from participating in high school cross country because they would not contribute to a team's result due to the way the meets are scored. Typically only the top five finishers from a team are considered for scoring purposes in a cross country race. Gladwell says that this limits the number of students who would be attracted to the sport because their participation would be irrelevant unless they were in the small group of top performers. Instead, he proposes that cross country expand the scoring to 20 places (or more), thus making it much more of a team experience. Every student, from the running diehard to the kid who just wanted to go out for a sport, would matter to the result. He ties this proposal to what he suggests is the underlying purpose of high school sports:

  1. To prepare those with elite ability for post-high school competition.
  2. To provide an opportunity for students to experience the joy that comes from exercise and competition.
  3. To lay down life-long habits of physical activity.

Gladwell claims that the way cross country competitions are conducted now only accomplishes Number 1. This situation is common in other sports as well and he has codified this observation into what he has named Gladwell's Law: In any sporting endeavor, elite achievement comes at the cost of mass participation. I have written several articles in this newsletter saying the same thing and arguing that the youth sport trajectory should be linear i.e. from the bottom up without undue entry requirements. In other words, youngsters should be able to begin their sport experience without having to show their ability or potential, and to participate without competitive structures that favor early developers.

Naysayers may argue that sport is all about elite achievement and they would be right if the athletes are older. In youth and high school sport a focus on elite achievement discourages mass participation, thus fails at Number 2.

Scoring the top five finishers in a cross country race favors relatively older athletes. Just like holding swimming competitions for 8-year-olds pressurizes the sport and discourages the less skilled from continuing their participation. We say any child who wants our sports' experience should be able to get into a youth program and participate in an educational and supporting environment, but often our competitive structures get in the way. Instead of supporting youngsters they discourage relatively younger or less skilled children from continued participation.

The purpose of youth sport is to teach the skills children need to participate successfully. Something is wrong with a competition structure that penalizes kids who are not proficient or who don't reach a certain level early on. While NBGs are eager to claim that their programs are open to all youngsters they continue to support competitions that subtly eliminate them.

I wrote about this in an article advocating more involvement in youth sport governance from the United States Olympic Committee:

If the USOPC wanted to address the cost to families of young athletes and improve the competitive experiences of youngsters then the obvious way is to make competing at a young age less attractive. That sounds bad but actually leads to a good result. For individual sports this is easy. In swimming, for example, the youngest athletes could be combined into a 12 years & under group for competition. Younger athletes (8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds) would still be allowed to compete but their age group would be 12 & under, thus they would have less motivation to compete until they were a little older and those who did compete would not be under unreasonable pressure to perform well because the would be racing the 'big kids'. National recognition times that are now kept for 10 & under athletes would be eliminated and the youngest group would be switched to 12 & under.

Making a change like restricting the youngest competitive age group to 12 years and under or scoring 20 instead of five runners in a cross country race can only be done by an NGB. Individual clubs or coaches can't do it on their own. It needs the environment-changing soft power of the NGB to address Numbers 2 and 3 effectively.

As I've mentioned here before, Norway has managed to do this. Norway consistently punches above its weight in both the Winter and Summer Games. Although larger countries win more medals, Norway wins more than one would expect based on their population. We don't think of Norway as a high performance power but maybe we should.

What's Norway's secret? For one thing their development system is different. Although they produce an unusual number of Olympic medalists there is little to no emphasis on high performance or even competition until youngsters are at least 12 years old. By national agreement NGBs don't host competitions for athletes under twelve. By holding off on competition, Norway's NGBs prevent unnecessary pressure on relatively younger athletes and introduce a new challenge or training element--the competition--at a time when it starts to become important. Competition at younger ages is almost meaningless; its only real purpose is to satisfy the adults involved that what's happening is actually sport.

Using soft power to change that one single environmental factor--no competition before 12 years of age--Norwegian NGBs have changed everything. Think about that for a while. This is not the only difference between Norway and other countries but it could be the key that all other differences flow from.

No competition means no age group rankings or travel teams. Fewer families will be economically eliminated from joining youth sport programs because the crippling cost disappears until traveling for competition starts to make sense. Gladwell makes a similar case for his scoring idea. Instead of emphasizing only the top five finishers, expand the scoring and make every runner's effort count. The top 5 are still the top 5 but with expanded scoring more young athletes will have a piece of the action and be able to see how their efforts contribute to team performance. There are no downsides to this for sport.

Gladwell's ideal is good but if it does gain traction in the running world it will face headwinds familiar to anyone involved in youth sport. He is trying to address Numbers 2 and 3 by modifying Number 1 and the people "in charge" of Number 1--coaches, officials, administrators, or anyone who has a sense of ownership in the sport--will be a tough sell. But this is old news. Anyone who has tried structural changes already knows what they're up against.