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The social Olympian: pathways to success

Updated Friday, 16th September 2011

Ben Oakley, a former Olympic coach himself, reviews what is known about the typical pathways to sporting success and the different factors involved in getting on to the podium.

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On the starting line Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images

Let's start by looking at the 7 to 12 year journey using a staged pathway model that researchers have identified.

First: the sampling years

Children sample a range of sports in this stage (6 to13 years). Here, the key motivation is a focus on ‘playful’ activities. This sampling of sports is heavily influenced by the school PE curriculum and by parental interests. In some ways the wider the range of sports sampled the greater the chance that a child will find the one that suits their attributes.

Research suggests that one in four elite athletes have at least one close relative who has reached top national or international level, whilst one in five attend a private school. This is the first of many influences that contribute to filtering children on their competitive journey. A further filter is the extent to which a range of essential movement skills (physical literacy) learnt in this sampling stage such as balance, agility, running movements and hand-eye coordination.

The specialisation years

Next is a specialising stage in which there begins to be a concentration on specific skills and fewer sports (13 to15 years). There are often ‘critical incidents’ that make a child pursue this more focussed set of activities that include experiences with parents, coaches, success and/or enjoyment, often with close peer friendships. The involvement of parents typically increases in these years, sometimes for the better (through day-to-day support) and sometimes for worse (through over involvement and/or pressurising their children).

A child’s success in their early experiences is a crucial aspect that encourages specialisation: here the birth date of individuals plays a part. For example, analysis of the birth dates of those in England football World Cup squads from 1982 to 1998 shows that 50 per cent of players were born early in the competition year (September-December). These and other findings suggest an inevitable bias at junior level that favour individuals that are more physically mature, particularly in sports where size and strength matter (football, athletics, swimming, tennis, rugby). The ‘relative age’ effect, as it is known, is especially evident in boys. It means that individuals with the same talent, but at lesser stages of physical development are often overlooked and are not nurtured.

The investment years

The decision to concentrate on one sport and commit to intensive training, normally including elements of scientific analysis, typically over five days a week represents a major step in the athlete’s journey. The age of this focus varies but a reported ‘average’ age is 15 to16 years. Some sports such as swimming and women’s gymnastics are known as ‘early specialisation’ sports in which the stages described above all occur 3 to 5 years earlier.

The resources needed in these years are considerable with time, transport, entry fees and equipment costs being essential requirements. If athletes have reached the required National Lottery performance standards, then funding becomes available to support these costs. However, when athletes are establishing their ranking the costs may need to be borne by the family; as a result many families struggle in this stage. The outcome of this is that those from lower socio-economic groups are often under-represented in groups of elite young athletes. One report also suggests that elite athletes from one-parent families are three times less prevalent than British national norms.

Transition to senior

This key transition phase occurs when a promising junior moves into the ranks of senior competition. It is often a jarring experience to go from being a junior champion to an also-ran. Coaches report that this crucial time can take up to four years, sometime in the 16 to 24 years period. In this transition, a developmental approach is required – it is all about making progress. There can be difficulties for the athlete if the funding criteria applied does not look beyond rigid competition results.

During and beyond these years athletes learn how to win and cope with the psychological demands at the top level by competing and evaluating their performances with expert help. It is this psychological aspect of excellence in sport that often determines those that make the Olympic podium. Experience counts: those in the British Olympic team have been a senior athlete for, on average, seven years.

A few final words about the all-consuming ‘hunger’ for success. A champion does not just get to the podium by hard work, they have a deep-seated ‘need’ or ‘desire’ to win; it might be that they need to constantly prove themselves, that they are a perfectionist, or other factors. The journey to the podium, therefore, takes a great deal of carefully planned time, dedication, hard work and support, and, above all hunger: talent alone is not enough.

Further reading

Young People’s Socialisation into Sport: Experiencing the Specialising Phase by A MacPhail and D Kirk in Leisure Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1, January 2006

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