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Author: Ben Oakley

From PE to podium

Updated Friday, 11th July 2008
What is the typical journey a talented youngster takes to reach the medal podium at senior level? 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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The 28 Olympic sports are diverse in the attributes that they require and consequently each sport has different ways in which talent progresses. However, as a general guide, it takes about 10 years of specialised training to progress to the top.

We’ll look at this journey using a four stage pathway that researchers have identified: the sampling, specialisation, investment stages at junior level, and then the transition to senior stage and ultimate podium success. A busy emerging elite athlete also needs to balance their education with this journey to success.

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The sampling years

Firstly, children sample a range of sports (6-13 yrs). Here, the key motivation is a focus on ‘playful’ activities. This sampling of sports is heavily influenced by the content of the school PE curriculum and by parental interests. Schools and clubs are the main organisations involved and 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. It is worth recognising that only a limited number of Olympic sports are sampled through the typical school curriculum (for example swimming, athletics, basketball, football, gymnastics, hockey and volleyball).

Talent identification systems have been used with some success in Australia and China. However, in this country the role of family background is still influential in providing opportunities. 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 journey to reaching their potential.

A further filter is that the range of essential movement skills (physical literacy) learnt in this sampling stage such as balance, agility, running movements and hand-eye coordination are not always taught to all children.

The specialisation years

The next period is a specialising stage in which there begins to be a concentration on specific skills and fewer sports (13-15 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 of the activity. Perceptions of fun and enjoyment can still rely heavily on the social element of sport and shared experiences with peers. Good coaching at this stage is important and has to balance these elements.

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).

Clearly, a child’s success in their early experiences is a crucial aspect that encourages specialisation and progress in a sport: 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% 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 and encouraged as much as their more successful peers and less likely to progress beyond the specialisation years.

The investment years

The decision to concentrate on one sport and commit to intensive training, normally including elements of scientific analysis, typically over 5 days a week represents a major step in the athlete’s journey. The age of specialisation varies between sports but a reported ‘average’ age is 15-16 years. Some sports such as swimming and women’s gymnastics are known as ‘early specialisation’ sports in which the stages described above all occur 3-5 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.

Many families struggle to support these years. A subsequent outcome of this is that those from lower socio-economic groups are often under-represented in elite young athletes; one report also suggests that elite athletes from one-parent families are three times less prevalent than British national norms.

A further feature of this phase is the incremental provision of competitive opportunities where athletes can learn the craft of winning at higher and higher levels. Sports organisations have a role here in providing clear appropriate competition pathways for talented athletes to follow and the right balance between training and competition. Some competitors may have established themselves as seniors by now, but others have to make the difficult transition.

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 16-24 years period. In this transition, a developmental approach is required to an individual’s funding and support based on making progress; there can be difficulties for the athlete if the funding criteria applied do 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. For example, the increased expectation and responsibility of defending a title, and thus a shift from chasing to ‘being chased’, requires an entirely new mental orientation and tactics. 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 need for an 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. Becoming a champion is a seven days a week job where there is no room for half measures – this commitment is difficult to teach and needs to come from within an athlete, and is perhaps something that grows as they progress from PE to podium.

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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