For this blog I/you have to thank Ian McKeown (@IanMackers – has a good blog here that is definitely worth following) for pointing me in the direction of a blog on early specialisation on twitter . It got me thinking. What is driving this behaviour? The blog mentions the commercialisation of sport and the media glamourising rich athletes creating extrinsic motivation for the young athlete, parents wanting to provide opportunities to excel and a limited number of coaching jobs causing coaches to push athletes into earlier specialisation as reasons. I’d like to delve a little deeper if I may.
I’m not so sure on the first point. Are young athletes driven by the wages and commercial opportunities that are associated with success at the highest levels of sport and the entrapments that so often seem to accompany it? They don’t tend to get mentioned in separate articles within the media. If young athletes read the tabloid press, I’m not sure the hounding that Tiger Woods, Ryan Giggs and Lance Armstrong have received recently would seem too appealing.
I’d say that young athletes are the most likely of anyone to dissociate the celebrity and monetary rewards from the adulation received from having 80,000 screaming their name after making a match winning play. If anyone is to be drawn in by extrinsic rewards, I’d have said parents would be the most likely candidates (see this documentary for details). I’m sure the majority of parents are driven by a will to give their children the best opportunity for success and that was why the dad I saw at 630am the other day was with his two under 10 year old children dribbling a football around cones in the park.
I think that commercialisation of sport has had an effect but in a different way. Many professional clubs have academy sides that start at a very young age. These sides are seen as a gateway to success and so children (and parents) are trying to get into them. For clubs that rely on developing talent as a source of income by acting as a feeder club, these sides represent an important part of their business model and they perhaps see that the more kids they can hoover up into these sides, they have perhaps more chance of discovering talent and seeing an investment return. Essentially professional clubs are panning for gold. Instead, professional clubs should be playing the role of alchemists.
The approach of sports teams relating to community should be a joined up one across a number of sports. The development of athletic ability should be the primary aim and increasing long term participation in sport. The athlete can then decide what sports they enjoy competing in and have a pathway into whichever sport they choose because they are all involved in the development process. The talented, driven and more committed athletes will still succeed but social interaction between groups of young athletes can be enhanced. This can allow sporting success to be defined and measured differently.
At the top end, success will always be measured in time, distance and points. It has to be. But the success of community sporting projects should be measured in ongoing participation, sports club members, long term health and anti social behaviour and crime. Sport is about so much more than just winning medals and making money. We can’t lose sight of that.