The attrition and transformation models of sport development

By | March 2, 2021

I’ve written previously about attrition and transformation models for sport development but have never really outlined how the two models differ. There is a Sport Lab podcast available that gives a pretty good idea of what I mean when talking about the models (episode #2) but in that podcast I think I give the impression that the models are actual research tools. They’re not, in fact, they’re not really models at all but more like metaphors that describe common sport mindsets.

For most people, including coaches and sport administrators, the way athletes are developed seems like natural law: It is the way it is, how could it be any different? The idea that current methods are only one way to do it and that there may be others hardly ever comes up. This kind of tunnel vision is what makes the attrition model so persistent.

Attrition of athletes from sport programs is the way we expect sport development to happen. Players without the requisite talents or abilities will leave the sport through self-selection or through elimination from training squads, select teams, etc. The basic assumption of the attrition model is that the best players will always remain while the less skilled will leave. The process clings to the idea that the cream will always rise to the top. Enlightened coaches and administrators know that this is only partially true and that many of the youngsters who are eliminated from training opportunities because they don’t show early talent might have developed into excellent athletes if given more time.

Attrition is the dominant development model simply because it has been around long before research on talent development, growth rates, training stages, and other sport-related topics was available. Countries with large populations have used attrition successfully so it has been copied by many others, especially small, developing nations. What is largely overlooked when smaller nations copy the attrition model though is that they don’t have the population to support the cream-to-the-top process, which is the primary strength of the attrition model.

If you start with a gigantic number of athletes then you’re bound to produce a few world class performers. But start with smaller numbers of athletes or fewer facilities, coaches, or training opportunities, and suddenly attrition disappoints, the math just doesn’t work. The solution or counter strategy to attrition is to take a much more structured approach to athlete development. Instead of depending on attrition to weed out those with lower ability some sport governing bodies and even entire countries are attempting to transform youngsters into athletes.

Young athletes need to be involved long enough to make a difference

The transformation model depends on two components. The first is a philosophy that recognizes the value of transformation. Often youth sport programs operate as if they are the minor leagues of professional sport teams where elite performance is the one and only goal. Providing the foundational skills and practice opportunities to as many youngsters as possible though will ensure that those who have the desire are able to progress through the various participation levels and, possibly, participate on elite teams. Those who don’t have the desire to participate in sports can leave youth programs with a solid foundation of movement skills and an enjoyable experience. No sport program can keep every child involved but attempts to do this should be one of our principal goals. This will help increase the number of youngsters who emerge as potential elite athletes.

Additionally, programs with a transformational philosophy would ensure that children who leave programs because they decided sport is not for them would leave with the skills necessary to lead long and healthy lives. This aspect of youth sport is often overlooked because it veers away from the elite performance pathway and focuses on matters often considered as being outside the sport realm. However, at the youth sport level developing elite athletes and providing enjoyable sport experiences for large numbers of youngsters are both equally important and inextricably linked. Governing bodies can’t do one successfully without doing the other.

If there is a key point to the transformation philosophy this is probably it: At the youth level athlete development, physical education, and learning lifelong activities are all part of the same thing. Differentiating between levels of elite sport development and recreational participation derails the process and compartmentalizes it in ways that are not effective. But sport governing bodies aren’t responsible for what happens in physical education classes and physical education teachers have no official interest in developing elite athletes so who is responsible for this process? No single group controls the entire athlete development process but wider knowledge of the transformation model will help each coach, teacher, sport administrator, and parent understand their own role in it.

The second component in transformation is to actually create programs that are fun, ongoing, and open to all interested youngsters. Reduce or remove barriers to participation. This is the job of sport governing bodies and other organizations who organize and run youth programs. Some communities are better at creating these opportunities than others; these areas probably do not need much help from sport governing bodies. But this is not true everywhere. Sport governing bodies should endeavor to offer youth the chance to learn and practice sport in under-served areas. Spreading the word, so to speak, and offering a larger potential pool of athletes to learn, practice, and, hopefully, excel at an activity. This is how athlete development really gets traction.

Attrition is popular because it’s easy. It’s what we’re used to and because of that we tend to think that youth sport programs couldn’t take any different form. But it isn’t very effective and more athletes are lost than are found in the attrition model. Transformation is different from traditional methods so we see it as being harder to implement that the attrition model. But it is far more effective in developing youngsters as athletes and offering enjoyable experiences to youngsters even if they never move on to more advanced sport training. Transforming athletes increases the size of the athlete pool from which state and national competitors will eventually be selected. It also delivers quality and fun activity programs to youth who will never become elite athletes. These are good things.

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