How do you make a sporting champion?
This is a question that those working in talent development environments wrestle with daily. There is no recipe. Every individual is different, and there are lots of routes to success, and yet there are commonalities in the developmental experiences of elite performers.
It’s clear that it helps to pick the right parents. The influence of genetics on sports performance is indisputable1. But talent development is not just about identifying and selecting people with the most sporting potential. It is about providing appropriate experiences to sustain the development of that potential. It is about how we nurture what was provided by nature. So how do we provide young talents with what the need to become the champions of tomorrow? We can start by looking at the talents of today and understanding what experiences contributed to their success.
An overwhelming amount of evidence shows that the majority of elite performer had diverse sporting experiences (played multiple sports) during their youth before specialising in a single sport at a much later stage2. For example, players from the German soccer team that won the 2014 soccer World Cup played a variety of sports and only specialised in soccer at 22+ years old3. A similar study revealed that elite individual sport athletes played more sports and trained fewer hours in their youth than athletes who didn’t reach the elite level4. Even at a non-elite level, children who play multiple sports improve faster than children who specialise5.
James Barksdale once famously said, “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”
In this case, we have data. These studies (and a wealth of others) make it clear that developing a broad variety of sports skills and movement competencies is an essential ingredient in the development of sporting talent. Now lets use the data.
In South Africa, talent development is largely the remit of schools. We have very few sports academies or clubs that consistently produce sporting talent while many schools in the country have long lists of international representatives. What is surprising is that many of these schools are currently disinvesting in Physical Education (PE). What is more surprising still is that many of these schools employ fulltime coaching and strength and conditioning staff that take no interest in teaching or promoting PE.
PE lessons are an ideal opportunity to expose developing athletes to sport and movement skills that they are unlikely to experience during their regular sporting involvement. Even a child who plays three different sports would benefit from the strength, rhythm, timing and co-ordination that could be learnt through exposure gymnastics, or the acceleration and speed that can be developed through exposure to track and field athletics. Few sports programs have time to pay sufficient attention to the development and maintenance of fundamental movement skills, and yet this is a core of most PE curricula. PE can even help develop tactical awareness and decision making through innovative approaches like Game Sense6 and Teaching Games for Understanding7.
My previous article (hyperlink here please J!), discussed the importance of PE for lifelong physical activity. The responses I received indicated that most people thought that PE is important for schools that don’t have sporting programs, but that there was little benefit for those that do. In contrast, highly successful sporting organisations like England’s Football Association are mandating that specified amounts of time be dedicated to fundamental movement skills and multi-sports skills in their academies because they understand the importance of these experiences for player development. Here in South Africa, we are largely ignoring this opportunity. It would be fantastic to see our foremost sporting schools in South Africa treating PE as what it is meant to be – an opportunity to develop the movement and sporting skills of the pupils – rather than a tolerated waste of academic time.
- Epstein, D.J., 2014. The sports gene: Inside the science of extraordinary athletic performance. Penguin.
- Rees, T., Hardy, L., Güllich, A., Abernethy, B., Côté, J., Woodman, T., Montgomery, H., Laing, S. and Warr, C., 2016. The great British medalists project: a review of current knowledge on the development of the world’s best sporting talent. Sports Medicine, 46(8), pp.1041-1058.
- Hornig, M., Aust, F. and Güllich, A., 2016. Practice and play in the development of German top-level professional football players. European Journal of Sport Science, 16(1), pp.96-105.
- Moesch, K., Elbe, A.M., Hauge, M.L. and Wikman, J.M., 2011. Late specialization: the key to success in centimeters, grams, or seconds (cgs) sports. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 21(6), pp.e282-e290.
- Güllich, A., Kovar, P., Zart, S. and Reimann, A., 2017. Sport activities differentiating match-play improvement in elite youth footballers–a 2-year longitudinal study. Journal of sports sciences, 35(3), pp.207-215.
- Light, R., 2012. Game sense: Pedagogy for performance, participation and enjoyment. Routledge.
- Werner, Peter, Rod Thorpe, and David Bunker. "Teaching games for understanding: Evolution of a model." Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 67.1 (1996): 28-33.
Dr. Jason Tee
Jason is Duputy Headmaster at Jeppe High School for Boys in Johannesburg, South Africa. An experienced Strength and Conditioning Coach, Jason has also worked as a Director of Sport, a Senior Lecturer and as a Rugby Coach.