The attrition and transformation models of sport development

Recently in The Star Khairy Jamaluddin, Malaysia's Minister of Youth and Sport, wrote that more grassroots development is needed if Malaysia is to raise its level of performance at the international level. It's good to see that developing the grassroots level of sport is recognized as a way to improve high performance by one of the country's leading sport officials.

The general principles of sport development are the same all over the world. Build the base; offer coaching and opportunities to learn, practice, and compete; and keep young athletes involved in the activity as long as possible. Somewhere during this years-long process talented athletes will emerge. No need to look for them, no need to eliminate athletes from programs. Countries that follow these principles are focused on creating talent, not just looking for it.

However, it's one thing to know these basic components but another matter entirely to put them in action.

Sometimes these general principles are difficult to implement because of the way sport is administered in a country. In the United States, for example, sport development is conducted in ways that are peculiar to and supported by U.S. culture. The way we develop sport in the U.S. probably wouldn't work in Malaysia since the U.S. sporting culture is different. Malaysia must find ways to create systems that follow the general principles but in ways that make sense for Malaysian culture and society. Copying practices from other countries usually doesn't work very well.

Two terms that are becoming more common in youth sport research help illustrate models of sport participation and development schemes. Attrition and transformation describe the direction sport development programs can take.

The attrition model starts with a large number of youngsters and predicts that eventually a much smaller number of high performers will emerge (assuming that the basics of talent development are followed). The attrition model relies on the arithmetic to succeed but largely ignores the individual athletes and focuses only on producing, or to be more precise, harvesting high level performers. Attrition can happen in two ways, either through the natural dropping out of athletes from sport participation or through forced elimination. Neither is good for sport development.

The transformation model's raison d'etre is to transform youngsters who enter sport programs into enthusiastic participants in their sports; igniting the fire that drives them to learn, practice, compete, and most of all enjoy their sport participation. The components of talent development (opportunity to learn and practice, coaching, competition, support from those that matter) all need to be present for the transformation model to work.

Transformational sport development is harder to implement but the results are far more gratifying than those produced in an attrition model. Athletes in transformation programs will be comprehensively trained, they will know more about their sport, their skills will be more robust, and they will perform at higher levels. Those that reach the high performance level in a transformation program are more likely to be better athletes than high performers from an attritional program. They developed a love for physical activity earlier thus their skill learning, training, and interaction with coaches and instructors has been more consistent.

In the transformation model it doesn't really matter who rises to the level of high performance or when. We know this will eventually happen and when it does it will happen pretty much on its own. Transforming focuses on giving every athlete the skills he needs to participate successfully. No artificial elimination is done, athletes progress at their own rates, and eventually high performers emerge.

Not all athletes can reach the high performance level. In the transformation model though we attempt to prepare every athlete as if they will reach this level. If they do then the transformation foundation will give them a rock solid platform for future performance. If they don't reach an elite level they can continue to enjoy sport throughout their lives and pass this love for physical activity on to their children. The side effect, and one may argue, the more important result of a transformation model of sport development is a healthier population.

Transformation is not easy to implement but it's worth it in more ways than one.

Attrition is the dominant model simply because it has been around longer and before research on talent development, growth rates, training stages, and other sport-related topics was available. Countries with large populations have used attrition successfully so it has been copied by others, especially small developing nations. What is overlooked when smaller nations copy the attrition model though is that they usually don't have enough athletes in training to make attrition work.

Transformation though is the better model and has long lasting benefits not only to sport performance but to society overall.

Attrition is popular because it's easy. It's what we're used to and because of that we tend to think that youth sport programs couldn't take any different form. But it isn't very effective and more athletes are lost than are found in the attrition model. Transformation is different from traditional methods so we see it as being harder to implement that the attrition model. But it is far more effective in developing youngsters as athletes and offering enjoyable experiences to youngsters even if they never move on to more advanced sport training. Transforming athletes increases the size of the athlete pool from which state and national competitors will eventually be selected. It also delivers quality and fun activity programs to youth who will never become elite athletes. These are good things.