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  • Writer's pictureDerek Panchuk

The High Performance Ecosystem: Part 2 Talent Pool & Identification

Updated: May 29, 2019

Derek Panchuk* and Marc Portus**

*Chiron Performance ** Praxis Performance Group

In part one of this series we discussed governance and planning. In part two, this week, we look at talent pool and identification.

Take Home Messages

1. Junior sport forms a critical part of a sport’s high performance ecosystem – the talent pool. Often it is treated as a separate business function by sports, but for true sustainability junior development and high performance need to integrate and collaborate.

2. Kids need to experience junior sport as an engaging, fun and fulfilling experience during training and competition. This requires good planning and administration from sporting bodies to support kids, volunteer coaches and parents.

3. Modified sport is proving a popular way for sports to design appealing kid-friendly versions of their sports in a competitive marketplace.

4. Viewing junior sport as a developmental journey, rather than a series of performance outcomes, is likely to improve retention, skill development and provide a more sustainable base for a high performance pathway system.

5. The relative age effect is a known systematic bias that occurs in sport where the relatively older and bigger kids get selected for higher honours, disadvantaging the relatively younger and less developed kids. This needs to be understood and managed by sports.

A good high performance plan, underpinned by a strong organisational vision, is essential for sustained success but, let’s be honest, a high performance program isn’t going anywhere if you haven’t got a talent pool to draw from. A sport’s popularity will have a huge impact on how you approach your talent pool and talent identification. More popular sports, such as those in this recent release from Sport Australia, will have a different set of challenges than niche sports. Who and how many play your sport, how often, drop out and retention rates, and, maybe more importantly, drilling down into why will give you insight to target your efforts for developing a viable and sustainable talent pool. Numbers aren’t the only thing that matters though; regardless of the size and popularity of your sport, putting some good principles in place will increase the likelihood you’ll draw participants to your sport, keep them coming back, and find the athletes that will go on to compete at the highest levels.

Get them hooked

Getting athletes to ‘have a go’ is one of the biggest barriers to building participation and developing your talent pool. If you can’t get kids to have a try, then you’re going to struggle to build any sort of depth within your organisation. However, it’s not the kids you need to convince, it’s their parents! If parents aren’t willing to take the steps to get their kids involved in sports it’s probably not going to happen. Removing practical barriers to participation is the best way to get parents to buy-in. A recent review of research on barriers to participation, showed that time, cost and location are the most prominent considerations that parents face when evaluating whether or not to get their children involved in a sport, with time and cost being the most prevalent concerns. Obviously, making the schedule and costs as friendly as possible will go a long way but are there other things you can do to make your sport accessible?

Figure 1. External barriers to sport participation (from Somerset & Hoare, 2018)

Keep them coming back

Once you’ve got children giving your sport a try, you need to keep them coming back. Recent data in Australia shows that children’s participation in sport peaks around 9-11 years of age and then drops-off from there. So why are they leaving and what can we do to keep them?

Figure 2. Australian sport participation rates for children between 0-14 years of age.

There are plenty of reasons why kids drop-out of sport; factors like stress, lack of perceived competence, negative dynamics between teammates and/or coaches, and pressure from parents and coaches are some of the issues. And sometimes kids are simply forced to decide between options due to busy schedules. At the end of the day almost all of this can be traced back to fun. Fun and enjoyment is the overwhelming and most consistent reason why children drop out of sport. If kids aren’t enjoying themselves they won’t have the motivation to continue their participation. Most research looking at fun doesn’t really unpack the reasons behind the lack of enjoyment but issues like lack of playing time, poor coaching, and too much time training have been identified. So what can your sport do to make this better?

Top-down, systematic changes to the way sport is viewed can make a big difference. Norway’s sporting system has recently gotten a lot of attention for their approach to youth sports. In their system, Norwegian children are empowered to make decisions about how they want to participate in sport – “Want to transfer clubs in midseason? Go ahead, no penalty. Suit up with a rival club next week, if you wish.”. Norway even has created a formal agreement, entitled: Children’s Rights in Sport, which captures the basic principles and approaches all sports must adopt for children up to 12 years of age. The document stresses the need for sport to be inclusive and safe, to provide opportunities, and to minimize the emphasis on competition. All of these measures add up to ensure that sport and the experience of sport is as enjoyable as possible. While Norway represents how this approach works on the national level, these types of measures could be implemented on an organisational level as well.

Another approach to minimise drop-out is to ensure that coaches are properly equipped to create environments that are fun and enjoyable, giving young athletes the opportunity to develop their skills. Good coaching can mitigate many of the factors that contribute to kids dropping out of sport. For example, if perceived competence is an issue, a good coach will be able to modify drills, activities, and games to ensure that children are properly challenged but also given the opportunity to achieve success. Many coaching accreditation programs focus on what to coach (e.g., technical and tactical development) but don’t give coaches the tools to understand how learning occurs, the need to tailor to the individual, and ways to evaluate development. Investing in coaching and (re)evaluating how you develop coaches can pay big dividends – just think about the old Chinese proverb:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.

Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Good coaching that maximises each kids’ involvement and is appropriate to their skill level at these foundation levels will give kids the confidence and skills to solve sporting and movement challenges in later life. Having a single line of kids getting bored waiting for a turn to execute a skill or catch, throw or kick a ball at training is a sign this is not being achieved and a little more preparation by the coach is needed to alleviate this. Naturally this is tough when its typically a mum or a dad who put their hand up to coach the team for the season. Sports need to provide the information, drills and tools to make things as easy as possible for the volunteer mums and dads, who in turn are critical to make participation in a sport a fun and engaging activity for kids.

Similarly sports need to be mindful of lopsided match-ups in their junior competitions. Latest trends for more junior sports (such as 10 years and under) is not to keep the score in the effort to de-emphasise winning and losing and focus more on fun and participation. It’s a noble initiative but it becomes obvious when a team scores 20 goals to the other team’s none or one, the kids will tell you themselves. Continued lopsided results are likely to result in disenchantment with a sport for kids. Junior sports competitions need to be monitored by sporting associations with red flags appearing where there are consistent demolitions of weaker sides in junior sports, particularly those with well-resourced game development departments (Rugby League, AFL, FFA and Cricket Australia - are you watching?!). We are not aware of any sports trying to address this mid-season but would like to hear if someone is aware or experienced this. We realise its easier said than done, but it is important.

The rise of modified sport for kids

Modified versions of your sport can help alleviate issues around location and cost. They can also help overcome some of the individual barriers to drawing participants to your sport. Kids are often self-conscious, worry about their sporting ability, and how they will be perceived by their peers. Modified sports are designed to consider the developmental capabilities of children, to help them be successful, and develop their abilities. Most sports have developed modified versions and there’s growing evidence that modified sports (i.e., scaling equipment and playing area) can have a positive impact on learning which, in turn, influence their perceived competence and self-esteem. While there is limited evidence that children transition from modified sport into full versions of the game, you can’t build a high performance program without participation so, in a world full of options, you need to do everything you can to make it appealing as possible.

Two great examples of modified sport programs are Hot Shots Tennis and Junior Cricket. Hot Shots Tennis uses balls with lower compression, smaller and lighter racquets, shorter nets, and modified courts. Rather than clumsily hitting balls into the net with big and heavy racquets, these changes create games that still resemble the full version but maximise participation, enjoyment and skill development. Children have been shown to hit the ball better and engage in longer rallies using these modifications – therefore increasing the chances for engagement, fun and skill development. Junior Cricket modifies equipment, rules, number of players, and pitch size to create a game where everyone gets the chance to practice their batting and bowling skills (= more fun) and reduces the game time to about 2 hours (= less time). They also use a ‘change it up’ coaching philosophy that is designed to encourage coaches to modify drills and games on the fly to ensure that kids are staying engaged during training. These examples highlight how barriers to participation and on-going retention can be addressed using modified sport programs.

Do you want to keep them to yourself?

The natural instinct is to find ways to get kids hooked on your sport as early as possible, ensuring their development is captured playing in your sport. It seems intuitive, the more kids play your sport, the better they will develop within your sport, and the more likely they are to become your high achievers. However development research has shown the counterintuitive reality is that, except in sports where peak performance occurs relatively early (e.g., gymnastics), kids are better off playing multiple sports and getting broad movement experiences. For example in one study, elite AFL players spent more time playing multiple sports and, in particular, more time playing other invasion-type sports (e.g. basketball, tennis, soccer) than their less successful counterparts. The benefits of diversified sporting experience have been acknowledged on a very broad level and a brave sporting organisation will be the one who pushes back against the idea that kids need to play their sport year-round. Rather than creating academies with a singular focus, encouraging kids to play multiple sports may provide a bigger return on investment – maybe the ideal ‘academy’ is one that de-emphasizes specialisation early on and has kids trying lots of different sports? This concept, amongst a myriad of others, supports the notion of compulsory physical education programs in the primary school curriculum. Well designed physical activity is a fundamental factor in a child’s physical, psychological and emotional development.

Your talent pool and entry to your high performance pathway

Once you have a healthy talent participation pool, naturally there will be a portion of these participants that will have interests and skills to take their chosen sport(s) more seriously. A notorious problem in this area is the systematic bias towards providing more opportunities for the relatively older and bigger kids, due to the phenomenon known as the relative age effect. This poses a risk for losing talented kids from your performance pathways, and possibly even the sport forever, if you don’t understand and manage this issue. It also devalues the smaller and lesser skilled kids who still may love the sport, placing them at risk of loss to the sport, plus there is every chance they can become a high quality player/athlete once through adolescence if they are still around.

To read more check out this blog to get a perspective on how prevalent the relative age effect can be. It focuses on talent development in Ireland, but the dilemmas are no different in other parts of the world. So how do we avoid these biases? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Changing the categorisations used to group athletes has been suggested – for example, Swimming Australia recently revamped their competition structure based on evidence of relative age effects in swimming (see figure 3). There are also calls to focus on skills rather than outcomes for younger athletes and to delay selection for representative-type teams until later in development (more on that theme next week). Unfortunately, these goals often get overridden by over-zealous parents and coaches who expect their children to be the best right now, which means late bloomers may miss out. We’ll discuss pathways and developmental frameworks more in next week’s article on Pathways.

So that wraps up part 2 of our HP ecosystem series on talent pool and identification. We hope this provides some good food for thought and challenges those involved in junior sport and talent pool creation to reflect and review what you do.

Please feel free to sign up and add your comments below, we’d be happy to hear your experience or views, even if you disagree or think we’ve missed something.

Next week we’ll discuss Performance Pathways. If you’d like an email alert when we release our weekly HP ecosystem blog you can sign up here.

Till next time,

Derek and Marc.

P.S. Want to know how to optimise your daily training environment? Or understand how to harness technology to get the most out of your athletes? Chiron Performance can help you find solutions to embed the science of skill acquisition and player development into your team or organisation.

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