A Cautionary Tale: Don’t be blinded by unicorns and survivors and misled by economic forces

Don’t be blinded by unicorns and survivors and misled by economic forces – Ross Tucker

In 2015, the International Olympic Committee released a consensus statement raising concerns regarding recent trends in youth athlete development. The statement questioned the validity of talent development models in youth sport, while also referring to the problematic nature of early specialisation, parental pressure, coaching styles, media sensationalism, and the view of youth athletes as commodities (Bergeron et al, 2015). Further, the IOC consensus statement recommended that frameworks for youth development need to be more flexible, incorporating a combination of both best practice and experience underpinned by quality up to date research.

The search and pursuit of the alchemic process of how to unearth and develop professional athletes has been described as the’holy grail’ of any sporting nation (Weissenteiner, 2017). In football, environments that successfully develop professional players can enjoy both increased profits and recognition (Henriksen, 2011). This pursuit has gained intensity since the “Bernard case” in 2010, a follow up to the Bosman ruling. The European Court of Justice ruled that football clubs can seek compensation, if young players they trained signed their first professional contract with a team in another EU country. Youth football could now be framed as an economic activity, thus encouraging the training of young ’talented’ players as a form of human capital investment (Hendrickx, 2010). This has arguably accelerated a ’talent arms race’, resulting in incentives to import and reproduce talent development models from ‘successful’ nations or clubs, while partly providing the context to further legitamise and justify the pervasive use of what has become broadly known as the Standard Model of Talent Development (SMTD).

Coined by Bailey and Collins (2013), the SMTD shares common characteristics that are now central tenets of player development programs around the world (Güllich, 2014; Rongen et al., 2018). For example, basing identification on early ability or physiological and/or anthropometrical measures; and the removal of athletes from the system as they progress from one level to the next (Bjørndal et al., 2017). Described as a ‘pyramid’ structure dependent on strong coordinated central governance, this model lacks both empirical and conceptual validity (Bjørndal et al., 2017).

Despite these insights, structured performance pathways across countries are relatively homogenous and commonplace, with many clubs and organisations investing heavily into the professionalisation of the identification and development of talent (Ford et al., 2012, Williams et al., 2020). More recent work carried out by Ford and colleagues (2020) in 29 of the best professional soccer clubs from around the world, highlighted a relatively high annual turnover of players, around 29%, through age groups. This showed an ongoing difficulty in identifying young players and keeping them in the system, while revealing the systems inherent difficulty in coping with fluctuations in performance and development that are naturally occurring aspects of life and learning in sport (Adolph, 2019; Balagué et al., 2017; Button et al., 2020;). Many models based on this ‘pyramid’ shape clearly fail to account for the complexity and nonlinearity of human development (Vaughan et al., 2019; Bailey & Collins, 2013), fundamentally highlighting inherent problems related to the prediction of the future (Finnegan, 2020).

Research has highlighted these inherent problems related to the predictive value of future performance through early identification (Williams & Reilly, 2000; Bailey & Collins, 2013; Koz, Fraser-Thomas, & Baker, 2012). For instance, studies in Sweden (Lund & Söderström, 2017) and the Netherlands (Bergkamp et al., 2021) showed how coaches’ talent identification is underpinned by an ‘intuitive’ approach (what feels right!). But what feels right is greatly influenced by their experience of previous identifications, personal interpretations of what elite football entails, and the coaching culture in which they find themselves. It was further suggested that scouts were aware that early indicators of performance are often poor predictors of future performance.

These subjective methods have been criticised due to a bias towards the selection of players born earlier in the (age category year) (Glamser & Vincent 2004; Helsen et al., 2005), a phenomenon that has been referred to as the Relative Age Effect (RAE). In youth football it has been shown how RAE is more pronounced in selection to the academy than in grassroots football (Jackson & Comber, 2020). The presence of RAE within athlete development systems has been explained by several factors, such as, maturation, date of birth, environmental factors, socioeconomic class (Teolda da Costa et al., 2010). The maturational differences between individuals has been the most common hypothesis. For example, within a one-year age bracket in youth football, there will be a match of chronological ages but not necessarily biological ages (Finnegan, 2020). Chronological and biological ages rarely progress concurrently to the same degree, implying the variance is likely to be greater than the 12-month age band (Vaeyens et al., 2008; Helsen et al., 2005). As earlier maturation can affect the development of several anthropometric and physiological variables biasing the selection of ‘older’ players (Finnegan, 2020), there are inherent problems with frameworks where each stage is associated with a chronological age. It has been argued that children disadvantaged by birth date or physical maturity might have become equally skilled senior athletes if they were afforded equivalent developmental opportunities (Doyle & Bottomley, 2018). Despite claims from some governing bodies, reversals of the RAE rarely exist in a true sense (see here). Yet leading European football clubs continue to recruit more and more early born players (Carling et al., 2009; Doyle & Bottomley, 2018).

Also, of critical importance is how often these models are legitimised and justified through a ‘copy and paste’ template of talent development models imported from ‘successful’ nations or clubs. North and colleagues (2015), in their UEFA study, investigating player development and coaching in youth football in seven European countries, warned against the uncritical application of good practice ideas from other successful countries and clubs. Here it was argued that an approach which works in one sociocultural context may be distracting or even detrimental in another.

There is clear reason to doubt whether these models of talent development and organisation in many elite sporting structures have sufficient scientific validity. There is even further reason to reinforce issues associated with the uncritical “copy and paste” of best practice from successful countries or clubs. Even the clamour for contact time (Finnegan, 2020), where Governing Bodies use comparisons with other nations regarding the number of hours spent in coach led training, is a very narrow lens through which to view development when we consider the complexities involved in developing talent in sport (Güllich, 2014; Suppiah et al., 2015; Vaughan et al., 2019). These messages, arguably associated with the falsely promoted notion of the 10, 000 hour  rule, may go some way to explaining why many clubs, parents and coaches have bought in to the unnecessary generalisation that development of expertise has all to do with accumulated volume of practice (Seifert et al. 2019). Indeed, it is ‘the illusion of scientific credibility and validity (created by sports policy makers) that provides a degree of authority to some dubious ideas’ evident in talent development structures (Bailey & Collins, 2013, Bjørndal et al., 2017).

To better understand player/athlete development in and through sport, culture and context do matter (Araújo et al., 2010; Vaughan et al., 2021; O’Sullivan et al., 2021).  Perhaps it is time to investigate ways to comprehend the distinct contextual complexities of cultures, communities and situations to support a broader perspective on player/athlete development.

Suggestions for moving forward: Write your own story?

Athlete development environments, within a specific country or club, are not blank slates devoid of social, historical and cultural influence (O’ Sullivan et al., 2021; Vaughan et al., 2021). Rather, social and cultural factors continually shape an athlete’s development journey. Araujo’s (2010) work on Brazilian football highlighted how different kinds of early specialisation can exist in different cultural contexts. In contrast with traditional practices from other contexts (e.g., early deliberate practice, precise repetition of movement drills in structured practice tasks), a broader range of early specialisation was developed, with little formal coaching, where players from an early age specialised in “feet-ball activities‟, that have a direct correspondence to organized football (Côté et al., 2007).

The types of practice designed, which individuals are identified as talented and the characteristics that distinguish a good coach, are continually shaped by sociocultural factors (Redelius, 2013; O’ Sullivan et al., 2021). This idea highlights the extent to which learning, and skill development are embedded in a larger sociocultural context. These specific unique social, cultural and historical factors, invite the potential for a myriad of possible complex, unpredictable and ill-defined challenges. (Bjørndal et al., 2019; Vaughan et al., 2019). It can therefore be suggested that the athlete development setting (club, training, competition) alone cannot account for the behaviour of its inhabitants (Rothwell et al., 2020). Indeed, if it was, we could just ‘copy and paste’ a borrowed template.

In sports, like other performance environments, context means everything. We need to write our own story! What is possible in Barcelona or Amsterdam might not be possible, or needed, in Stockholm, Beijing or Dublin. The implication is that there is no ‘copy and paste’ template, athlete development frameworks should evolve in interaction with the specific sociocultural context in which practitioners and individuals are embedded (Vaughan et al., 2019; O’ Sullivan et al., 2021). Also, as it is be appreciated that learning is a non-linear process – implying that coaching methodologies in sport should be accommodative – it is reasonable to suggest that athlete development structures and models should also account for this non-linearity (Sullivan et al 2021). 

As specific unique social, cultural and historical factors, invite the potential for a myriad of possible complex, unpredictable and ill-defined challenges, we need to find ways to highlight and harness these factors (O’Sullivan et al., 2021; Vaughan et al., 2019). Governing bodies, clubs and organisations should challenge themselves to adopt strategies to guide reliable ways of conducting research and designing practical applications to support the evolution of athlete development frameworks within their own ecology, specific to their sociocultural context.

In a recent discussion with my friend and colleague Michael Cooke at Northern Ireland Sport, he asked two questions that are of relevance to this piece.

  • What opportunities does your culture/ context afford that could support the healthy development and performance of young people as they grow?
  • What are the unique aspects of your sport/ country/ culture that transcend the ‘copy and paste’ culture

Many thanks to Michael Cooke and Andrew Kirkland for being critical friends during the process of writing this piece

On a separate note: I have re-launched my record label. The first offering is the digital release of a collection of tracks previously only released (between 1999-2002) on vinyl and CD.

Have a listen…….and maybe buy the collection.



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