Fun and games? Myths surrounding the role of youth sports in developing Olympic champions
Daniel Gould and Sarah Carson argue that the professionalisation and specialisation of youth sports disadvantages the majority of young people who will never be elite athletes, and does not optimise the development of Olympic champions. They suggest that a multisport approach, which makes sport fun for all young people, will not only encourage youth to be physically active but also provides more young people with the support and skills necessary to progress to the elite sporting level.
Over the past several decades, youth sports have become increasingly professionalised. Winning, achieving elite or professional sport careers, and personal recognition and status have taken on increased importance, and early sport specialisation, intense involvement, and year-round training have begun to characterise many youth sports programs. Interestingly, while driven by the motive to achieve athletic excellence, the increasingly professionalised approach to youth sports is seldom founded on youth talent development research. In fact, researchers have indicated that youth sport practice is often driven by a sort of folk pedagogy as opposed to hard scientific evidence (Ingham, Chase & Butt 2002).
When scientific evidence is examined, athletic talent development research shows that many of these "professionalised" practices may not be optimal approaches for fostering athletic talent development, which is also the case with general youth development. This paper is designed to summarise the research on developing athletic talent and, in so doing, identify and refute myths surrounding the role of youth sports in developing champions. *
The development of athletic talent
Research shows that athletic talent development is a long-term process that takes approximately 10 years, or 10,000 hours, of quality practice to achieve (Ericsson 1996). A gifted athlete is not made overnight but develops over a considerable length of time. Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer (1993) also found that the development of expert performance in any endeavour (for example, music, sports, computer programming) is dependent on acquiring knowledge, skills and characteristics through deliberate practice over an extended period of time (approximately 10 years). Moreover, these researchers emphasise that deliberate practice is not inherently motivating and does not necessarily lead to immediate rewards.
Champions have also been found to progress through definitive stages of development (Bloom 1985). In his classic research of 120 individuals (renowned artists, academicians, musicians, mathematicians, swimmers and tennis players) at the top of their fields, Bloom found that these talented individuals' careers fell into three distinct stages: the early years, or what has been labelled the Romance Phase; the middle years, labelled the Precision Phase; and the later years, or the Integration Phase.
In the Romance Phase, the child developed a love for the activity, received encouragement from significant others, was free to explore the activity, had a great deal of fun, and was successful. Parents, during this stage, also fostered the value of hard work and doing things well.
In the Precision Phase, a master teacher or coach promoted long-term systematic skill learning in the talented individual. The focus was on skill development and technical mastery.
During the Integration Phase, the...
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