Elite! An Over-used Word? Andykirkland ph.d.

This blog explored the word 'elite' in sport and proposes taxonomies for the categorisation of sports participants.

In the most recent edition of the BASES magazine The Sport and Exercise Scientist, Evans et al. wrote an article "What does ‘elite’ mean in sport and why does it matter?" This article was timely because I had spent the previous week marking assignments from my MSc. coaching students at the University of Stirling. Some of these students had fallen foul of my wrath because they'd used the word 'Elite' to describe children who I wouldn't call athletes, let alone elite.

Of course, everyone wants to say they work with elite athletes because it makes them sound more cleverer. However, when coaches describe 9-13 year olds as being part of an elite programme, this concerns me greatly. I don't blame the coaches. It's the powers that be who set such precedents. I seem to be picking on the SFA quite a bit, but the SFA Club Academy structure is an exemplar of the use of 'elite' in non-elite contexts.

Language is all important, not only the original intension of how it is used but how others interpret it too. Taking a dictionary definition of elite, it suggests: "a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society"

"a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society".

In the context of sport, a globalised industry, I believe it is important for 'elite' to be assigned to only the very best athletes in the world. However, in a Scottish context, elite is used to describe a bunch of children who may simply be the best footballers in the East Coast. Whilst we can debate the semantics of what elite means forever, and regardless of the intention of who uses the term, we must recognise that its use sends out all sorts of wrong messages to coaches, kids and their parents.

One of the biggest challenges in talent development in Scotland is that we are a small country without huge breadth and depth in talent. It's quite easy to be a big fish in such a small pond. The greatest barrier to excellence is complacency. For an athlete to believe they are a big fish without them having any conceptualisation of pond size is problematic and breeds such complacency. We know from psychology and neuroscience that children/teenagers are particularly egocentric and see themselves as the centre of the universe. This is normal. However, building bigger egos by calling children elite is not only unhelpful, it probably acts as a barrier to them transitioning up to the next level.

I like the model of Brehm and Self (1989) to guide my coaching. For an athlete to achieve their true potential, they've got to:

  • Be goal orientated
  • Dream to the absolute limit of what they believe is possible
  • Continually achieve small successes to keep believing in the dream
  • Be situated in an environment that helps them mobilise maximum effort.
Brehm, J. W., & Self, E. a. (1989). The intensity of motivation. Annual Review of Psychology, 40(1982), 109–131.

However, I've seen too many talented athletes not transition because they possess beliefs that have not allowed them to mobilise their full effort. That has included young bike riders who have been given pro-level bikes and kit, yet struggled when they've come up against national and international riders. I have met athletes who have qualified for the Commonwealth Games and then taken their foot off the gas and finished way below their potential. There's countless stories of young footie players thinking they've made it because they've signed for a professional club at under 12's level.

There are exceptions with Scottish Swimming punching above their weight. Their pathway does not allow athletes to get overly carried away with status or allow them to slack. Ally and his team in Stirling have earned the right to call themselves an elite programme, only because they've got world class swimmers on it.

Quantifying Levels of Talent

The 1st time I broached the subject of how to describe athletes in terms of ability was during my Ph.D. Jeukendrup, Craig and Hawley (2000) provided a definition of what elite was based on a combination of physiological indices, training status and world ranking, as shown below.

Some of the bike riders I worked with, including national level ones, fell within the "trained" category in the table, despite them having elite category racing licences. Further, some had a VO2max much lower than their ability would suggest. I even worked with a guy who won internationally but his numbers suggested he should be classed with club level athletes. Sam Marcora and his psychobiological model explains why the best athletes I worked with did not fit neatly into neat physiological categories. I've a little inside info beyond public knowledge on how Mark Cavendish was nearly thrown off the programme because he didn't hit the numbers. Such evidence has led me to becoming a strong advocate against using quantitative physical metrics in isolation to define talent or ability. Have a watch of Sam here if you're interested in his model.

Kirkland's Levels of Sporting Performance and Participation

Anyway, I have now produced two of my own models to categorise athletes, taking a bit of knowledge from here and there in their conceptualisation. The 1st model is based on a UK Sport one. I use it in my student surveys to identify what environments my coaches work in. It's not perfect because I have a few students in the Premier League, and they work with players who could fall within the top 3 tiers. However, I'm pragmatic idealist who uses heuristics, so it's good enough for me. I like the model because it forces coaches working with 12 year old Elite Academy Players to 'tick the box' for youth development rather than a box that reflects the stature of their club.

Kirkland's Coaching Contexts Model

My second model is based on a market segmentation approach in sport. I designed this model when exploring distinct, but not independent, areas of sport that coaches typically operate within. Basically, I believe that much of coach education, and the programmes NGB's deliver are based on long-term athlete development models designed to move child performers to the elite referenced excellence segment, whilst generally only paying lip-service to the other segments in which the majority of coaches operate.

Kirkland's Market Segmentation Approach to Coaching.

This model borrows from Bailey et al. (2010) in which they identified 3 reasons for involvement in sport for three specific groups:

  1. Elite Referenced Excellence (ERE): where the ultimate goal of athletes is to win at the highest level.
  2. Personal Referenced Excellence (PRE): where athletes wish to achieve personal bests or complete challenging events to the best of their ability at a participatory level, not necessarily in a high performance environment.
  3. Participation for Personal Wellbeing (PPW): participating in physical activity without necessarily a performance element i.e. for health, social and/or aesthetic reasons.

I identified a a further three independent, but not mutually exclusive groups with are:

  1. Youth athletes: who participate for a wide variety of reasons but are typically coached within peer groups with similar aspirations
  2. Children: up to puberty who typically have less volitional control in their participation. For the record, this segment should never be confused with ERE, despite it being fundamentally important for the development of young people.
  3. Hard to reach: who may not typically engage with education and may feel isolated by socio-economic and cultural factors.

Using such taxonomies allows me to accurately describe the coaching contexts of all coaches and what they do.

To Conclude

So in answer to the question in the title, elite is definitely an overused term in sport, and I don't believe it is harmless. Further taxonomies in sport enable us to build systems which are fit for purpose in the specific contexts where they are applied. If only we could learn to use language in a way that fits reality rather than the human ego.

Created By
andrew kirkland
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