Welcome to the Sportkid Project

By | April 1, 2021
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How a country develops its national sport program has been one of my interests since the 1980s when I spent a few years coaching swimming in a small Southeast Asian country. The place did not have any kind of national swimming program so it only seemed natural to try to copy the U.S. model — the only one I knew anything about at the time — and transplant it into my new position.

As you might guess, this didn’t work. Principles governing sport and athlete development may be universal but the details and the structure that supports them are unique to wherever they are being implemented. Thus, a model that was successful in a country with 300 million people, lots of good swimming facilities, lots of athletes, and a commercial club structure that made swim coaching a viable profession didn’t work in a society without any of those things.

I viewed national sport development as a simple math problem: how many athletes did a country need to produce a strong national team? I didn’t know it then but I was thinking in terms of what I call the attrition model of sport development: getting as many athletes in training as possible and then letting the cream rise to the top. The “secret” to this process is to start with a lot of athletes because you’re going to lose many of them along the way.

If you’re reading this article right now then you probably already know that there are problems with attrition, one being that is creates lousy sport experiences for many youngsters. One of the reasons the Sportkid Project exists is to examine ways to develop enjoyable experiences in youth sport while at the same time creating effective athlete development programs.

Youth sport is where athletes get started on the path to elite performance. It’s also where the majority of youngsters who never quite make it to the elite performance level can develop a love of lifelong physical activity.

Whether organized or not the sport experiences athletes have when they’re young shape their future by providing a foundation on which future athletic participation and achievement is built. But youth sport and physical activity in general are fighting a losing battle with childhood obesity, abuse, low levels of coaching education, and shrinking amounts of physical education time in schools. Youth sport programs have been offering the same kind of activities and programs for at least two generations. Perhaps it’s time to find new ways to create better sport experiences for all children, not just the superstars.

You probably also know that dropout and burnout, already big problems in youth sport, are made worse because of the way programs are organized. Worldwide, national sport governing bodies (NGBs) struggle with getting children interested in sports, and then keeping them long enough to make a difference i.e. long enough to help them develop into the athletes they might become, or into healthy, fit adults who will pass their interest in physical activity and sport to their own children.

The cultural zeitgeist surrounding sport though is odd. It seems to be the only social institution that treats young athletes the same way it treats adults. Pressure to perform, instant judgement of skill level, and the unwavering ‘selection’ process are all used to tell youngsters they either have it or they don’t. And if they don’t then they should consider another endeavor. Combine this with adult models of competition for children of all ages and we end up with a Darwinian sport structure that only manages to shoot itself in the foot when it comes to athlete development.

Obviously the attrition process works: some athletes do reach the high performance level in their sports. But imagine how much deeper the athlete pool could be if a better development process were implemented; a process that recognized the need to get as many youngsters involved in sport as possible and to keep them involved long enough to make a difference.

I believe this is possible. To do it though, we have to let go of the notion that sport and physical activity are separate things. This would force us to realize that sport development begins where it actually does begin, when children first begin exploring physical activity, and not at some artificial, convenient point where NGBs begin to exert influence through organized training and competition.

The athlete development process starts when children are very young, and continues in physical education classes when they start school. Usually both of these stages occur before any formal sport participation is started but neither stage is recognized as being important to high performance sport. It’s largely assumed that athlete development takes place only within formal structures but developing fundamental movement skills and physical literacy, both vital components of athleticism, begins much earlier, and long before organized sport enters the picture.

Thinking that no athlete development occurs at young ages or without specialized instruction is a mistake. The germination of athleticism begins very early, almost as soon as a child learns to walk. Challenging children physically at this age will play a crucial role in what they will be able to do athletically later on. Learning fundamental movement skills, just like learning a language, is easier to do while young.

Becoming physically literate is the first step to leading a healthy, active life and the first step to learning, playing, enjoying, and perhaps excelling at sport. If children are unable to build a foundation of physical skills it is unlikely that they will choose to participate in games, sports, or any other kind of regular physical activity throughout their lives. The implications of this affect society at large and not just national sporting efforts.

There are still missing pieces to the athlete development puzzle though and this is what will make up the substance of the Sportkid Project. Where athletes come from and how we can structure sound developmental processes will be our main focus.

I hope you’ll visit the site often, comment in the discussions, subscribe to the email list, and invite your friends to join us.

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