Long-term Athlete Development The sporting universe: Andy Kirkland Ph.D.

A Quick Commentary

This blog focusses on the challenges of long-term athlete development and was prompted by Mark O’Sullivan’s football blog in which he considered systems designed to develop children in sport. Mark posited the question:

Are adult created norms contributing to the design of a system that no longer meets the needs of the child in sport?

I was going to reply to him via twitter but I didn't have sufficient characters so I'm writing my own blog to do so.

Long-term athlete development systems, specifically in the UK, have evolved over the last 20 years or so. Much of their design has gone into schematic representations for handbooks and websites rather than implementing them to practical affect. That is despite many coaches, who are responsible for implementing long-term athlete development systems, only have a superficial appreciation of how they work. Rather, their coaching practices typically reflect how they were coached themselves or what others expect of them in their coaching environments. Rarely do the focus on the needs of children, despite being well intentioned (If you're the exception, I'm not talking about you). To answer Mark's question, there are very few systems in sport that have ever met the needs of children in the first place, despite rhetoric from NGB’s and clubs suggesting otherwise.

Rather, children are usually treated as inputs into models which fail to account for their cognitive and emotional level of development. I believe one reason is philosophical. That is, those who were involved at the embryonic stage of designing long-term athlete development models were schooled in reductionist science with their thoughts dominated by ‘physical’ development. Further, sports practitioners have a tendency to focus on ‘stuff’ that can be measured easily, such as competition and performance test results. ‘Stuff’ that is hard to measure is often deemed unscientific and commonly avoided.

However, we should not simply blame systemic flaws, but consider the complex interactions within the ‘sporting universe’ (system) between parents, coaches, education and the performance environment. We know that every system in the universe resists change to maintain a status-quo. We also know that humans tend to be egocentric, perceiving themselves to be the centre of the universe. Achieving unity in which all elements work together towards common goals is incredibly challenging. If one element is out of kilter, then it usually disrupts the whole system.

The Sporting Universe

To illustrate this I have a number of examples which I have direct experience in:

  • A few years ago, there was a complete shit-storm in the BMX world, in which British Cycling changed the competition structure based on the recommendations of UK Sport. Pre-pubescent and some adolescent age-groups were no longer allowed to compete at National, European and International level. Experts in long-term athlete development applauded and welcomed the changes with open arms. However, the BMX community and many parents were openly rebellious and opposed the changes with great venom. Everyone involved argues that they were being child-centric but the reality was very different.
  • In a sport I worked within, primary school children were offered sporting scholarships worth over £10k per year at a top fee-paying school. To be eligible the children required UK and European ranking points. I worked with some of those who were given a scholarship, in which as 12-14-year-olds', they were provided with ‘high-performance physiological expertise’. What they really needed was fun and for the pressure to be taken off them. The coaches could see the emotional damage being done but were powerless to do much about it. Rather, it needed the world body and NGB to change the competition structure to remove pressures from the children. However, they had implemented a parental support strategy and the youth-development programme had produced a world-class performer (despite the psychological damage done to the other kids) so it was deemed a success and the status-quo was maintained. I cried because I was powerless to do anything about it which did not involve losing the roof over my head.
  • In my sport of triathlon, the BTF have a Skills School programme and some wonderful lead coaches delivering it. However, the sport also uses Talent ID Tables to select young people for talent programmes too. Regardless of the intention, this means that 12 year olds are judged on qualitative metrics by coaches and parents who often have little appreciation of how poor a predictor these numbers are of future success. I’ve plenty anecdotal evidence to suggest that children who are selected for these programmes are often coached like mini-adults, focussing on building intensity and volume of training. There is some good news that some enlightened parents don't let their kids near such programmes.

My Conclusions

These examples demonstrate that even when there are plenty examples of good practice within sporting universes, it only takes one weak link within it to disrupt a whole long-term athlete development system. That means that parental education is just as important as coach education and that competition structures must be child-centric. I also argue that in a performance environment, talent should be identified based on a child's ability to learn, how well they move and their positive attitude to the sport, with quantitative metrics being the last thing they are judged on. I certainly do not advocate a 'soft' environment lacking challenge...quite the opposite in fact. Mark is right about many things, and we certainly agree here that many sports are failing young people.

About Me

I’m an endurance sport expert, who works as a Lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Stirling, Scotland’s University of Sporting Excellence. I am a BASES accredited sport and exercise scientist with Chartered Scientist status. I worked at British Cycling for 6 years as a coach developer and am a qualified triathlon and cycling coach. I have over 20 years’ experience in triathlon and an extensive personal network in the sport.

My coaching fees are commensurate with my level of experience, unless you can make me laugh and have the ability to win at the highest level. Then I’m cheap as chips.

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andrew kirkland
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