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“I didn’t make it, but…” A case for the defence of talent pathways | Coaching Youth (age 13-18) | ConnectedCoaches

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“I didn’t make it, but…” A case for the defence of talent pathways

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We have all read stories about the negative impact specialist sporting academies have had on the welfare of young athletes. This blog – with Professional doctorate student and Millfield School practitioner Graham Williams – examines the range of positive experiences those athletes deselected from talent development pathways encounter that are instrumental in their future success.

There are two sides to every story; the truth lies somewhere in the middle; for every negative, there is a positive. Three popular adages that those quick to criticise elite sports academies and talent development pathways should take a moment to contemplate.

The rush to judgement has become a familiar feature of an intransigent society that sees life in polarised terms. People can be so quick to apportion blame nowadays and we are all guilty of seeing things in black and white when, in fact, most topics that we debate come in different shades of grey.

Talent pathways is a case in point.

There exists a negative perception of youth development programmes, while the word ‘talent’ has itself become taboo in coaching circles.

It was a hot topic at The Open University’s fourth annual Sport and Fitness Conference in Milton Keynes, titled ‘My Child: The Athlete’.

I myself wrote during a review of Dr Jean Côté’s presentation, ‘A framework for positive youth development’: ‘Designing sports systems that neglect over 99% of the population in favour of the fewer than 1% who might go on to achieve elite level status is becoming pervasive.’

Similar sessions at the two-day event sparked countless follow-up conversations from delegates, who raised alarm bells about ‘talent factories’ in youth sport.

We must prioritise young people’s welfare above all else, was the consensus (and quite rightly so), and those programmes which ignore athletes’ long-term well-being, or consider it of secondary importance, should be held accountable.

Feelings can run strong, with critics bemoaning the little or no after-care athletes receive during the tough transition process that inevitably follows deselection – when careful management and support are so vital but, alas, not standard practice. This fuels a belief that athletes aren’t so much let go as ‘spat out’ of the system, stripped of their self-confidence and self-efficacy by an uncompromising system and even of their enthusiasm for playing the sport that had held them spellbound since childhood.

You see. It’s happening here, right in front of your eyes. Observe how quickly rational reflection can morph into a rant, with balance and reasoning flying out of the window.

Getting angry in a heartbeat has consequences. Before you know it, every talent programme is tarred with the same brush. And that is not at all constructive.

Playing the percentage game

In his conference presentation, Graham Williams, Lead Practitioner and Athletic Development Coach at Millfield School and Professional Doctorate Student at the University of Central Lancashire under the supervision of Dr Áine MacNamara, offered a case for the defence of talent pathways.

It’s true, he began, that fewer than 2% of youth engaged in talent pathways will ever go on to achieve international success as seniors. ‘But let’s not bash them all the time,’ was his plea, as he revealed his findings from a robust qualitative study of athletes who had been involved in talent pathways but, crucially, hadn’t made it.

Graham wants his evaluations to serve as a ‘health-check’ for talent programmes, while ‘rectifying’ some of the generalised remarks that have given pathways to elite performance such a bad rap.

‘They are stripped back findings from the full research paper given the time frame but I want to show you what people have told us, and show that even though you don’t make it, there is a lot of value, a lot of good things you learn as a result of being involved in a talent pathway.

‘At the end of the day, talent pathways will always exist, so what we need to be asking ourselves is, what lessons can we learn to make things better for those who go through one?’

Graham focused on six different academy programmes across two sports. Those involved in the study had spent an average of five years in their programme. Their average age on deselection was 18, and the average time after deselection when they were interviewed was two and a half years.

‘It was critical that they had enough time post-programme and post-deselection to reflect on their experiences and that they had gone on to do something different,’ said Graham, who interviewed participants three times.

He asked a range of descriptive questions to get an overview of their characters and motivations; more detailed questions to understand the multiple experiences they had gained from their time in the pathway and skills they had developed; and, the final time they came face-to-face, he put the following question to them: if they could repeat the experience, what sort of things would they do differently, knowing what they know now, and what would they want the pathway to do differently?

Money matters

Helen Glover (pictured, left, with rowing partner and fellow double Olympic champion Heather Stanning) is one of many famous Millfield School alumni

Graham works for one of the country’s most successful talent production lines, with Millfield School widely regarded as the best sporting school in Britain – having produced more Olympians than any other school. Since 1956, it has been represented at every Olympic Games, boasting 68 Olympic and Paralympic alumni.

He is therefore well versed in the practical realities of being involved in a system designed to maximise potential and build a successful athlete.

The bottom line is, at an elite level, specialist sports academies exist to generate professional athletes.

‘They need to be seen to be proactive in that space, and potentially use it as an income stream,’ he said.

When a club is spending between two and half to five million pounds a year on running a football academy – which, Graham revealed, is the average outlay amongst Premier League clubs – little wonder that, as a business as well as a community asset (in that order of priority, most observers would venture!), they expect a return on their investment.

But it is not just football club academies that are investing huge pots of money.

‘Sport England have estimated around £85 million in the current funding cycle for the talent pathways,’ revealed Graham.

The question is, are we comfortable with that sort of investment for the fewer than 1% who make it?

For the majority to answer in the affirmative, Graham agrees there must be a widely-accepted redefinition of talent pathways as rich foundational learning experiences, set up to have multiple outcomes of success.

Furthermore, for there to be a public and sector-wide validation of talent pathways, people must be familiar with ‘what these outcomes are, and that they can be facilitated for EVERY person in the programme’.

Also, performance coaches must demonstrate that they are focused on keeping the person front and centre, with an ethos to coach from the head down, not the feet up.

Achieve this, and suddenly the ‘enabling features’ of talent pathways, as Graham terms them – for starters, involvement in high-performance support systems, multi-million-pound training facilities and an opportunity to train like a professional – begin to look highly desirable.

Graham shared some of the experiences of participants who took part in his study. One remembered being inspired walking into the Saracens training ground for a pre-season camp.

‘All the pros were there. We had breakfast with them and we trained next to them. It was amazing. I learned so much about how they trained and how they communicated.’

Athletes on the talent pathway typically have access to state-of-the-art training facilities

Transferability of skills

Then there is the psychosocial value that talent pathways can provide.

By experiencing what professional sport looks and feels like, athletes will have learned how to overcome all manner of challenges thrown their way – the legacy of which, in many cases, is a strong work ethic and an appreciation of the professional standards expected by future employers.

To paraphrase one of the participants in the study: ‘I’m going into a new job and I’ve got a really good appreciation of the skills I could offer a team around communication when I’m under pressure, having been in those sorts of situations and having had those experiences.’

They may have put in extra work at the gym, stayed behind long after training to work on an area of their game that required improvement. They know, in other words, that sacrifices must be made to be successful.

However, what one person considers to be a positive feature of talent pathways, another person may consider a negative, and there were several examples given by Graham to illustrate this point.

Take the following learned attribute: resilience. Involvement in a high-performing environment that looks to strengthen the resolve and mental fortitude of performers – ‘where you are encouraged to reflect on underperforming in a game or tournament, and accepting you can do better’ – may indeed help some people learn to accept failure courageously and feed their determination to be successful.

Others, however, may develop a negative association with the pressure to perform and may not have the self-confidence or mindset to overcome setbacks in non-sporting domains. Knockbacks and ultimate deselection may have shaken them to such an extent that their resilience has ebbed, not flowed.

Coaching the whole athlete

That coaches should be placing great value on a holistic philosophy is something that became increasingly apparent through the study.

According to Graham, developmental outcomes of talent pathways should be ‘about cognitive, intellectual and moral development, development of the self, and the social and emotional as well as the physical, tactical and technical.’

Unfortunately, a ‘disabling feature’ of talent pathways expressed by some participants in the research was a poor-quality coach-athlete relationship, rooted in the former’s failure to implement this holistic approach to development.

Individuals mentioned that lifelong enjoyment and engagement in the sport did not seem to be a priority of coaches, and that there was an impersonal approach to development:

‘I wasn’t the golden one who was going to get the contract, step up to senior academy level, go into professional sport, therefore I was just a number. The coaches didn’t really care about me,’ was some of the feedback given.

Reflecting on the findings of the study, and the implications on practice, Graham said that ‘optimising the coach-athlete relationships, so talent pathways are not just for the golden few’ was a key message that must be taken on board by talent coaches.

A consistency of approach is another big challenge, as only then can you have a positive transfer of psychobehavioural skills inside and outside the talent domain. 

‘There is a lot of good things going on in pathways. The question is, is it consistent enough? So the next stage is to really challenge and embed this.

‘Ultimately, it is about positioning people with skills and abilities – those personal assets [developed in talent pathways] – so whatever domain they end up in they will function and thrive.’

Regrets? A few, but too few to mention

That D-day moment when you are summoned to an office to hear your fate – will you be given a professional contract, or will you be deemed surplus to requirements? – will never be anything but nerve-racking, and gut-wrenching if the news isn't what you were hoping for. That reeling feeling is inescapable.

But you CAN lose and still win. The legacy you are left with should not be a feeling that all those years of graft and toil have been worthless. Upon reflection, Graham’s enduring wish is that those who experience deselection are left with a warming sense that, for a period of their life, they have packed in a host of life-affirming opportunities and experiences, with the positives far outweighing the negatives.

There has been much talk of ‘winning v welfare’ in coaching circles, as if athletes on the pathway can only have one and not the other – you’re either in or out; win or lose; success or failure; make or break; win or bust.

But what if these lessons are learned and talent programmes and specialist academies act on what research like Graham’s is telling us. Maybe in the future we will stop thinking of them in such black and white terms, or better still, as rich foundational learning experiences, set up to have multiple outcomes of success.

Next Steps

In this article Graham emphasises the importance of performance coaches demonstrating that they are focused on keeping the person front and centre.

If you would like to learn how to become truly person-centred, you can discover how to put people’s feelings, thoughts, ambitions and motivations at the heart of everything you do by attending the UK Coaching ‘Coaching the Person in Front of You’ workshop. If you can’t find a workshop running near you check out UK Coaching’s range of resources that will help you develop a person-centred philosophy.

* Graham's study is currently under review with the research journal 'Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport'.

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