“Without our context we are not what we are. We are not a list of attributes. My aim is not to fracture and break apart what should be together, not to de-contextualise. And that’s the oldest approach on earth”. (Juanma Lillo)
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) in an effort to advance a more unified and evidence informed approach to youth athlete development organised a consensus meeting of experts in the field in November 2014.They critically evaluated the current state of science and practice of youth athlete development. In a research paper published May 2015 the IOC presented recommendations for an approach that is sensitive to the conditions required to aid the evolution and emergence of healthy, resilient and capable youth athletes/people, while providing opportunities for all levels of sport participation and success.
Various systems interacting over time to influence development
“While sports science and research tends to focus upon the biological and psychological training necessary to become an elite performer, success in sport is much more complex than this. Underpinning any athlete’s “bio-psycho” make-up is the socio-cultural environment in which they are brought up”. (Dr Martin Toms).
Development is also dependant on the integration of organisational systems (family, team, sporting organisations, governing bodies, communities, cultures). One of my favourite sports interviews appears in the first edition of Blizzard magazine. Speaking with Sid Lowe, Juanma Lillo mentor to Pep Guardiola explains his thinking on clubs, coaching and society. Lillo talks about how people always want to separate things. “It’s as if, if we do not separate them out we are not able to see them. How do you know that the cause was not an effect of something from before and that the effect is not going to cause something else- in the context of countless other variables”. Juanma Lillo’s holistic “big picture” thought process is echoed in the research article The Dynamic Process of Development through Sport by Jean Côté (Professor and Director, School of Kinesiology and Health Studies Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario). Here it is suggested that the power of developmental system theories to help explain sport participation and performance resides in their ability to conceptualise sport involvement as a system of integrated personal and social variables that interact and shape development. I believe that the IOC has also looked through this lens when questioning the whole underlying philosophy for developing youth athletes. By investigating the complexity of athlete development, they are promoting an understanding that it is a” complex mix of experiences/factors that shape the development of a young person and hopefully their future success”. (Mark Upton)
According to the IOC the ‘culture’ of specific sports and youth sports in general, has become disproportionately both adult and media centred. There is a need to address interactions between athletes, coaching styles and practices, the effects on youth athletes from parental expectations and the view of youth athletes as commodities, which is often intrusive with a fine line between objectivity and sensationalism.
The IOC view specialisation in youth sports as a concern that needs to be addressed appropriately and realistically. Youth athletes involved in a single sport should be allowed experience appropriate diversity and variability within that sport. This should support the learning of foundational skills and sport-specific technique and biomechanics to minimise injury risk and optimise performance, along with consistent adequate rest and recovery. There should also be a balanced emphasis on other priorities (eg, family and school, life skills and social development).
The limited success of talent identification and athlete development programmes is nothing new to this blog and according to the IOC consensus statement not surprising. Many developmental programs begin (seemingly earlier and earlier) with a subjective assessment of talent. This is followed by a structured programme of training in a specific sport. This traditional linear approach is not without its problems. Athletic development is multidimensional and difficult to assess in youth, and the trajectories from the novice to elite levels can vary greatly among athletes. Development is built on an individually unique and constantly changing base, including the demands of normal physical growth, biological maturation and behavioural development, and their interactions. The IOC also points to the fact that we know little of those who are systematically excluded (cut from the system), who drop out or are injured (overuse or overtraining) or experience burnout .
General principles of the IOC statement
▸ Youth athlete development is contingent on an individually unique and constantly changing base of normal physical growth, biological maturation and behavioural development, and therefore it must be considered individually.
▸ Allow for a wider definition of sport success, as indicated by healthy, meaningful and varied life-forming experiences, which is centred on the whole athlete and development of the person.
▸ Adopt viable, evidence-informed and inclusive frameworks of athlete development that are flexible (using ‘best practice’ for each developmental level), while embracing individual athlete progression and appropriately responding to the athlete’s perspective and needs.
▸ Commit to the psychological development of resilient and adaptable athletes characterised by mental capability and robustness, high self-regulation and enduring personal excellence qualities—that is, upholding the ideals of Olympism.
▸ Encourage children to participate in a variety of different unstructured (ie, deliberate play) and structured age-appropriate sport-related activities and settings, to develop a wide range of athletic and social skills and attributes that will encourage sustained sport participation and enjoyment.
▸ Make a commitment to promote safety, health and respect for the rules, other athletes and the game, while adopting specific policies and procedures to avert harassment and abuse.
▸ Across the entire athletic development pathway, assist each athlete in effectively managing sport-life balance to be better prepared for life after sport.
▸ Provide a challenging and enjoyable sporting climate that focuses on each athlete’s personal assets and mastery orientation.
▸ Coaching practices should be informed by research-based developmental guidelines that promote flexibility and innovation, while accommodating individual skills and athletic development trajectories.
▸ Coaching should be context-specific (eg, participation vs performance focus) and aligned with individual athletic readiness.
▸ Coaching education programmes should assist coaches in establishing meaningful relationships that enrich the personal assets of their athletes and foster their own intrapersonal and interpersonal skills (eg, reflection and communicative skills).
▸ Coaches should seek interdisciplinary support and guidance in managing a youth athlete’s athletic development, fitness and health, and mental and social challenges and needs. Conditioning, testing and injury prevention
▸ Encourage regular participation in varied strength and conditioning programmes that are suitably age based, quality technique driven, safe and enjoyable.
▸ Design youth athlete development programmes comprising diversity and variability of athletic exposure, to mitigate the risk of overuse injuries and other health problems prompted by inappropriate training and competition that exceed safe load thresholds, while providing sufficient and regular rest and recovery, to encourage positive adaptations and progressive athletic development.
▸ Maintain an ethical approach to, and effectively translate, laboratory and field testing to optimise youth sports participation and performance.
▸ Develop, implement and continue to evaluate knowledge translation strategies and resources that will enhance injury prevention and promote health in youth athletes.
▸ Promote evidence-informed injury prevention programmes, protective equipment legislation and rule changes that are context specific, adaptable and consistent with maintaining the integrity of the sport and participation goals.
▸ Strictly adhere to a “No youth athlete should compete—or train or practice in a way that loads the affected injured area, interfering with or delaying recovery—when in pain or not completely rehabilitated and recovered from an illness or injury”.
Sport and sports medicine governing bodies and organisations
▸ Sport and sports medicine governing bodies and organisations should protect the health and well-being of youth in sport by providing ongoing education, and fully implementing and monitoring practical, and effective, athlete safeguarding policies and procedures in all youth athletes.
▸ Youth athlete selection and talent development philosophies should be based on the physiological, perceptual, cognitive and tactical demands of the sport, and a long-term, individually variable developmental context.
▸ Diversification and variability of athletic exposure between and within sports should be encouraged and promoted.
▸ Competition formats and settings should be age and skill appropriate, while allowing for sufficient rest and recovery time between multiple same-day contests.
The IOC challenges all youth and other sport governing bodies to embrace and implement these recommended guiding principles.
Embracing & Exploiting the Complexity of Player Development (Mark Upton, Cruyff Football Player Development Magazine)
International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development (Michael F Bergeron, Margo Mountjoy, Neil Armstrong, Michael Chia, Jean Côté, Carolyn A Emery, Avery Faigenbaum, Gary Hall Jr, Susi Kriemler, Michel Léglise, Robert M Malina, Anne Marte Pensgaard, Alex Sanchez, Torbjørn Soligard, Jorunn Sundgot-Borgen, Willem van Mechelen, Juanita R Weissensteiner, Lars Engebretsen)
The Brain in Spain (Sid Lowe, Blizzard issue 1, 55-64, 2011)
The Dynamic Process of Development through Sport (Jean Côté, Jennifer Turnnidge, M. Blair Evans, Kinesiologia Slovenica, 20, 3, 14-26; 2014)
Where you grow up matters for sporting success – that’s why Yorkshire cricketers are so good (Dr Martin Toms, 2015, https://theconversation.com/where-you-grow-up-matters-for-sporting-success-thats-why-yorkshire-cricketers-are-so-good-44157 )