Developing sport from the ground up: How does the process really work?

By | February 12, 2021

It is unusual when knowledge and the opportunity to use it exist together. In 1984 I was coaching in Brunei, a small country on the western coast of Borneo. Part of my job was creating a national age group swimming program where athletes could eventually progress from lessons to competition, thus building a base of athletes for national teams. It was a great opportunity but unfortunately I didn’t really know enough about how the process worked to make it successful.

Since then, I’ve learned more about what it takes to produce successful, long-term athletes. Based on success in international events one could certainly argue that the United States seems to have what it takes, whatever it might be. But another equally valid argument is that our success rests on the large base of athletes from which we can select national teams. Given 100 athletes, for example, one or two are bound to be above average.

Choosing from approximately 300,000 USA Swimming athletes, we are able to come up with a pretty good Olympic team. This dependence on numbers has long been one of the reasons for our success. Indeed, it’s the source of success in most group efforts where attrition affects the outcome i.e. the more people you start with the more you’ll end up with. The guiding theme behind US age group sport programs is to train as many athletes as possible, and then harvest those who have the talent and desire to excel.

Until recently, no one really thought much about athletes left behind in the process; the athletes who drop out of the sport either because they don’t like it or they find little success or encouragement in it. The problem is not that athletes drop out, but rather when they drop out. This is the point made in the 1998 USA Swimming Sport Science Summit Report.

According to the report, we are subjecting our youngest athletes to a competitive model that is better suited to their older brothers and sisters, and one that subjects youngsters to competitive situations too early for the athlete to gain any benefit from them, or for coaches to learn anything useful about the athlete’s progress.

The current model rewards children who have simply matured earlier, and discourages those who are not yet as big and strong. Swimming skill rarely enters the picture because the model measures only time, and because races for young swimmers are so short, strength and speed trump skill.

We know that all youth sport activities have some level of attrition, children simply may not enjoy a particular activity or they might find a sport they like better. Is this what happens in swimming, or are we losing athletes because of how we structure and conduct our sport? The Report suggests that because of the way our sport is organized, we may be losing top athletes before we even know they are top athletes.

When we talk about athlete development we usually end up with discussions of how to pick the US Junior team, or should we have eliminated the junior championship etc. These questions deal with athletes who have already reached the upper level of swimming in the United States. The real question concerning athlete development is not how to train or motivate our best athletes, but rather how do they get to be our best athletes in the first place? How does a timid 8-year-old end up on a national team 10 years later? What keeps them involved and interested in the sport long enough for them to be successful?

Presently we’re not allowing children enough time to learn the skills they need to compete successfully in our sport before rushing them into meets in the traditional model. And no matter how much we talk about different formats for meets we have made no serious attempt at adjusting how young athletes are evaluated.

The Report also finds that early success in the traditional model is a weak indicator of future success. It suggests that the best path to success and long-term participation is a focus on technical training i.e. learning how to do things right. I think we know this, yet the competitions we offer young athletes do little to reinforce it. Doing things right is taken for granted in a time based evaluation system (our current traditional model). The notion of doing things right as a goal is never addressed, yet that is precisely what younger swimmers need in terms of evaluation.

An effective competitive model for youngsters must evaluate and reinforce the fundamentals of our sport. Since early maturing swimmers are the biggest and strongest they are usually the fastest but late maturers are far more likely to be the better athletes, and by their mid-teens have frequently caught up with their precocious teammates. Additionally, they are more likely to have a better understanding of the skills involved in the sport simply because they have spent more time learning them.

Initially, early maturers get by on brute strength. Whether they can streamline effectively or understand the relationship between stroke rate and stroke length doesn’t really matter to them as long as they swim fast. But according to the Report, only 25% of athletes identified as outstanding in their early years were still identified that way later on.

The main point of the Report is that if we are trying to produce long-term athletes then we are making a fundamental error when we apply one competitive model to all athletes. We are going about the process of age group sport development in the wrong way. The science points us in one direction, but we are drawn the opposite way because that’s where we feel most comfortable. We need to find a better way to serve our youngest athletes so that more 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds will have an opportunity to find out if they truly have what it takes to rise to the top of our sport.

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