Joe Baker is Professor at the School of Kinesiology and Health Science at York University. He makes a welcome return to the podcast along with his research associate, Alexandra 'Sandy' Mosher.
Joe's research team focuses on optimal human development to understand how someone gets to, and stays at, the highest levels of performance. His previous research in this area has considered various psychosocial and environmental factors influencing athletic skill development across a range of sports to catalogue the extensive range of factors affecting an athlete's capacity to maximize their potential.
In this episode with unpack some fascinating new research which challenges the commonly held suggestion that early specialisation is "the villain of talent development", how it might be possible to experience 'healthy early specialisation' and why the link between early specialisation and burnout and injury is not what we think it is.
It is a fascinating discussion...
I hope you enjoy
Wow what a summer of sport! I haven't been able to sleep properly because the the orgy of human excellence that has been on the TV until late at night. The stories, the drama, the passion. Just amazing...
And the Olympics was just the starter. The Paralympics came shortly after...that's when we really got to see the triumph of human dedication, perseverance and excellence...the main course!
I do love the summer holidays... there is always some sort of festival of sport on offer that the whole country gets excited about. When I was at university it always seemed that the sporting gods had put on some major event which made it impossible to revise!
For my children it was great too...they were going to all sorts of sports clubs and activity camps and they got to experience a whole range of different activities...I got really jealous!!
My son Evan went to a weeklong cricket coaching camp...'The Freddie Flintoff Academy". What an eye opener to see 8 year old kids in full cricket whites with kit bags, pads and everything! Evan was the poor relation, he has only played windball cricket so far (I only coach windball cricket because a lot of my kids are pretty new and trying to catch a hard ball would put them off...not to mention the amount of times some of them try to catch the ball with their face!!)
But this environment was different, these kids were serious about their cricket (or at least the adults in their lives were serious about their cricket!) and they clearly knew what they were doing. The coaching was also designed to meet the needs of these kids. There were no taster sessions on offer here, the players were doing proper cricket stuff.
Now Evan really likes his cricket and he is doing quite well, but up against these kids he looked like he was a bit of a newbie. That said he really did enjoy the week and he did improve. He took great delight in showing me his catching or the shot he had learned that day or his latest bowling technique.
He had been taught techniques and he had improved...
Yes he had been TAUGHT techniques and he had IMPROVED!!
This stimulated a conversation with my wife one evening at the dinner table...it felt a bit like a boxing match...
I am paraphrasing here but it went something like this...
First she worked a good ring position...
"Look Stu, I know you are really into your coaching and your talent development stuff and you don't believe in teaching techniques and all that but don't you think that Evan should be better than he is?"
Then she got me off balance by leading with a strong jab...
"...I mean, some of those kids are really good and they are younger than him and he has a dad who is a sports coach and works in coaching and player development, shouldn't you be doing more to use your expertise to help him improve?"
Then she went for the killer overhand right....
"Aren't you worried that one day he will look back and ask you why you didn't help him more and make the most of his potential?"
Boom! knockout! my legs go from underneath me like a giraffe on ice!
I am laying on the canvas. I am wounded. But I know I have to get up and face my opponent, make it clear that I am not totally beaten. But here is the problem..I am reeling, my head is spinning. I have questions attacking my consciousness (and my ego!)
I am thinking...'what if she's right What if I am being arrogant that I know better, what if the science turns out to be wrong and I am letting him down, what if his development is delayed and I am crippling any chance of him having a career in elite sport?'
Then I realised that it was my lizard brain talking, my emotional brain was in control and I wasn't thinking straight.
To borrow a phrase from Dr Steve Peters, my chimp was angry!
I needed to give my chimp a banana, to calm it down...
The banana came in the shape of my research...
I remembered the hours of reading and study I had put into this, I remembered the stacks of books at my bedside, I remembered 'The Complexity of Greatness' by Scott Barry Kauffman, 'The Sports Gene' by David Epstien, 'The Goldmine Effect' by Rasmus Ankerssen, Peak: The New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson, 'Helping Children Succeed' by Paul Tough and 'Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverence' by Angela Duckworth
I remembered the articles I had read recently like this summary article on research into super Champion's and almost champions by Dave Collins, Aine MacNamara and Neil McCarthy.
In particular, I remembered the contrasting quotes from two of the athletes in this study...
“My parents were not really pushy,” explained one super champion, whose response was representative of her peers. “It was a kind of gentle encouragement …they didn’t get [overly] involved. They’d just come and watch me, support me. But they never wanted to know what I was doing training wise and never got involved in that way, and that helped.”
The parents of almost champions, however, were an ever-present factor, hovering over their every move.
My parents, my dad especially, was always there, shouting instructions from the touchline, pushing me to practice at home,” remembers an almost champion. “Really, I just wanted to be out there with my mates. I felt like sport stole my childhood.”
I remembered this study into children's sports specialisation that I read recently which suggested that...
"Current evidence suggests that delaying sport specialization for the majority of sports until after puberty (late adolescence, ∼15 or 16 years of age) will minimize the risks and lead to a higher likelihood of athletic success".
"Young athletes who specialize too soon are at risk of physical, emotional, and social problems. Athletes may become socially isolated from their peers and may have altered relationships with family, overdependence on others with a loss of control over their lives, arrested behavioral development, or socially maladaptive behaviors.4,14 Specializing early with intense training can lead to overuse injuries, which can cause pain and temporary loss of playing time or may lead to early retirement from the sport."
I also remembered this research dissertation I had come across by Kristoffer Henriksen at the University of Southern Denmark and this story about a young female footballer...
"I remember specifically a young girl a soccer player who had enormous potential, and who left her local club to join a bigger and more prestigious one. Her soccer career was on a roll, but everything else suffered. All her time was consumed by training and transport, and she felt she was falling behind in school. She felt she had let her old friends and teammates down and no longer felt comfortable asking them to play a friendly game of backyard soccer. And she felt an enormous pressure to succeed. In sum, she felt alienated in her own environment. When she came to me, she was in tears and close to giving up soccer altogether."
I remembered this article I read about the issues with pushy parents in ice hockey....
"It’s official. Parents have just about killed the fun of playing team sports.
They’ve done it with technique clinics, personal trainers, elite travel leagues, pricey tournaments — fine-tuning kids for athletic glory before they’ve amassed a respectable archive of knock-knock jokes".
I thought about the blog post from John O'Sullivan of 'Changing the Game Project' about the dangers of the overzealous parent and their likelihood of making kids drop out of sport where he describes a conversation with a young player...
“I just can’t take it anymore coach,” a talented but underperforming player named Kate told me a few years back. “I think I am done playing...It’s my dad. He loves me and I know he only wants the best for me, but he just can’t stop coaching me, in the car, and from the sideline each and every game. I can’t play when he is around, and he insists on coming to every game, every road trip, you name it. It’s like it’s more important to him than it is to me".
And I thought....they can't all be wrong...
So I rallied, I composed myself and I countered...
"You might be right about this and I could be wrong...but let me just map out the consequences of me taking this approach versus the approach you are advocating..."
"..if I am wrong the worst that could happen is that our son doesn't become an elite sportsman..."
"...if I take the other approach and teach him, if I push him more and get him more focussed, then the potential consequences are much more severe...he could hate sport altogether, he could drop out, he could get injured but the thing I am most fearful of is that it could damage my relationship with him because he feels the pressure of my expectation and I don't want him to feel like a failure if he doesn't live up to that expectation."
"...he is 8 years old...he is a child...he has the right to be goofy, to play, to choose when he wants to play sport and when he doesn't. He has the right to fail and to try out different things, he has the right to be free from my expectations and choose his own path...he has the right to be a child"
"...I have spend countless hours studying this stuff and I think that this is the best chance for him to achieve whatever his potential might be is for me to allow him to fall in love with sport, to explore the sheer joy of it, to develop friendships through it, to understand challenge, to be come curious and then at some point in his middle teens he will come to me and say...'Dad, can you help me...I want to get better?'...and that's when we take it up to a new level...that's when he accelerates past all of these other kids that look so good now but have plateaued and got bored'.
"... I am not prepared to roll the dice with my future relationship with my son just so that he can 'keep up with the Jones's".
From the perspective of the boxing match I felt like Muhammad Ali coming back off the ropes against George Foreman in the 'Rumble in the Jungle', Pow!...rope a dope...I am the greatest...etc..etc
I'm not sure how much of a dent it made. She gave me that look where she rolled her eyes at me without actually rolling her eyes (I call it the 'no eye roll eye roll'). I think she filed it away in her brain in a folder called 'things to say I told you so about'. (she probably didn't but my paranoia has no limits!)
It really got me asking myself some questions...
How many other parents fall into the comparison trap and look at other kids of a similar age and make judgements about their child's ability or potential and then question why their child isn't as good?
How many other parents are struggling with these issues but because they don't have the information to fall back on find themselves doing things that go against their better judgement?
How many 1000s of kids all across the country are toiling under the expectation of adults who don't necessarily mean to but don't know any better?
How many parents are putting pressure on their kids without understanding the potential consequences?
Are we guilty of allowing the rise of an industry that makes false promises to vulnerable people and encourages children to be spending all of their time in so called 'talent academies' that are nothing more than modern day 'workhouses'?
The great Muhammad Ali (RIP) once said
"It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it's the pebble in your shoe".
If my son or daughter ever want to try and climb the mountain then I will be by their side supporting and guiding the journey every step of the way.
If he doesn't get there it won't be because I was that pebble!!
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OK so I might have slightly over reached here...but there are some very interesting recommendations being proposed in this paper which has some really strong challenges for the talent development community.
The paper presents a consensus position based on a 'meta-analysis' of the available research into talent development in sport that has a number of wide ranging implications for the sporting landscape including some interesting conclusions that may raise a few eyebrows.
Below I have lifted the headline recomendations and added some thoughts and field notes under each one.
“We therefore recommend that policy makers and practitioners consider the possibility of using genetic profiling to help athletes make more informed and appropriate decisions about sport type and discipline during their development years”.
This is something new and it is the first time I have seen an academic paper make a recommendation if this type. It suggests that the genetic research has now reached a point where there are certain elements that can be reliably tested for which could assist practitioners, children and parents to make informed decisions about sports to persue.
The concept of sport selection based on some genetic markers starts to move away from the idea of the 'mixed sport diet' advocated by supporters of the late specialisation model. This represents a potential paradigm shift in sports development where we move away from a broad participation model where the child selects the sport that the enjoy the most towards a concept where the 'sport selects the child' based on their genetic propensity to succeed.
“We therefore recommend that practitioners make use of physiological testing for purposes of informing the training process, and make use of anthropometric profiling and physiological tests for both talent selection and development purposes, but policy makers and practitioners should ensure that such action is accompanied by appropriate procedures (considering biological maturation) to ‘re-capture’ lost/missed late maturers”.
Dr Sean Cumming from the University of Bath is leading a global team of specialists in assessing growth and maturation of players to assist in providing competitive opportunities that are based on biological age rather than chronological age. Some early findings provide some interesting support for this recommendation. I did a vlog on this a few posts back.
It is important to stress that, as the authors point out, this is very dependent on the sport. For example, Dr Ben Jones and Kevin Till at Leeds Beckett University have some interesting research in Rugby League that shows physical size to be a less reliable predictor of elite prowess than agility and power. Sir Steve Redgrave was famously deselected from the GB rowing programme at the age of 14 based on his lack of hieght.
Sports will need to have some relaiable and clear ideas of which measures offer reliable predictions of elite success. My concern is that the tape measure will replace the coach as the mechanism to identify those with potential.
“We therefore recommend that practitioners make use of psychological profiling for talent development purposes. Key questions for future research include examining the causes of exceptional levels of motivation, resilience and mental toughness, including assessing whether and how psychological skills at junior level influence long-term adult elite/super-elite performance. How do exceptional performers use their anxiety in a positive way? How do the world’s best performers maintain focus and concentration, while avoiding lapses into conscious control? How can these skills be trained?”.
My observation is that we seem under resourced here across the landscape! I see very little provision for psychologocal support for the talented athlete and even in the elite space the provision feels like an after though in comparison to the resources allocated for other more 'hard science' domains. It seems that everyone wants physically robust players but they are less interested in mentally robust players!
Having spent several years working in the talent field with a range of sports organisations I see the lack of dedicated resources to support young athletes develop the behaviours and mental skills
Surely this needs to be addressed if we are going to really produce athletes with the qualities required to reach elite levels?
“We therefore recommend that practitioners might make use of personality profiling for talent development but not talent selection purposes. Future research could focus on whether there are other important (combinations of) personality characteristics that are necessary for the development of a strong competitive personality and how these characteristics might be best developed”.
I have often felt that if coaches are to truly be player centred and begin to understand how players respond to various environmental influences or coaching methodologies then these tools become crucial to supporting this process. At the moment I think that many coaches do this intuitively but if this can be supplemented by insights then we can refine and improve our ability to engage with an audience of players.
Nick Levett (@nlevett) wrote about this in his blog recently when talking about how so many academies invest heavily in analytics to track visible performance metrics but don't invest the same in insights that will help to enhance the learning process and drive performance.
“We therefore recommend that policy makers and practitioners at least take consideration of birthplace when designing talent search initiatives as well as profiling athletes during talent selection and development. Understanding more about the physical and social environment, organisation of resources and the number of participants competing for available places in sports are key areas for research—i.e. understanding more about the environments and neighbourhoods that potential sporting talents are exposed to, and less about birthplace population size.”
I have been campaigning for talent coaching to become more mobile for a long time. At the moment we tend to be very facility driven and we then require the players to come to us when in actual fact we should be looking for ways to take our best coaches to the players. In my mind this would offset many of these location specific disadvantages and challenges.
We also need to make sure that we get the right amount of provision according to the number of potential players in a given locatuon rather than using historical geographic boundaries.
“Evidence from non-elite, junior elite, elite, and super-elite athletes attests to the influence of support networks (including family, coaches, other athletes/ peers and support staff). In addition to their key role in the provision of expert coaching and training, coaches can help to enhance the development of psychological skills and mental toughness in athletes during their developmental years. Non-elite data suggest that the supportiveness and feedback effectiveness of coaches is dependent on a unique fit (and common identity) between the characteristics of the coach and the personality of the athlete.”
I have written previously about how well equipped our youth and talent coaches are to develop these psychological skills in players? Current coach education hardly touches on these areas and the vast majority of coach education course do not allow enough guided learning time to truly explore these concepts.
In so much of my work as a talent coach I find myself working to try and help young athletes overcome mental challenges that are holding back their development. I have had zero formal training provided by any NGB coach education system in this area but have spent my own money to develop the capabilities having recognised the need.
In most cases psychology support comes in once a player reaches the elite ranks but this is a 'retrofit' model of development where we are 'back filling' definiciencies in the athlete once they get selected. In my view this both is enefficient and inneffective. If the development of mental skills are important to futire performance then shouldn't these be core to our development curriculum in the same way that technical and tactical abilities are?
Should we be advocating for 'mental literacy' as well as 'physical literacy'?
Deliberate Practice - 10,000 hours?
“Despite wide variation across sports, most junior elite, elite and super-elite athletes have accumulated enormous volumes of organized practice and training [149, 230, 241– 260]. Extensive sport-specific deliberate practice (DP) is thus a pre-requisite to world-class performance in sports with a large participant base”.
“We therefore recommend that policy makers and practitioners continue to promote deliberate practice, but consider the present evidence before routinely increasing practice volumes with junior athletes, and acknowledge the potential benefits of automaticity, implicit learning and also enjoyment in practice and play”.
“Future research should also further explore the roles of explicit and implicit/incidental learning in the development of expert performance. This implies scrutiny of the intentions and specific activities performed during practice/training and play, their combinations, variability, potential interactions and relative influence through different developmental age ranges”.
The paper expressed support for the idea of practicing deliberately but is not supportive of the existing definition of ‘Deliberate Practice’ proposed by Ericsson, et al. Instead it is suggesting that the practice construct should move towards a more exploratory 'implicit learning' approach which I would suggest would require highly skilled coaches capable of using constraints led / game sense approaches. This may necessittate a radical overhaul of the coach education and coach development system in many sports. I would question whether the current linear, 'competency based' approach is producing coaches that are able to use these methods confidently.
“Both early specialization and sampling (and play) may be routes to expertise under optimal conditions. However, the probability of attaining elite or super-elite level may be enhanced by the coupling of a large volume of intensive, organized specific training/practice in the main sport with appreciable amounts of organized training/practice and competitions in other sports and/or non-organized play in the main or other sports.”
“We thus recommend policy makers and practitioners to draw on this evidence, bearing in mind the need to minimize the potential hazards of early specialization when such specialization is necessary, and with regard to promoting opportunities for young athletes to experience non-organized play and sampling in a variety of sports”.
“Future research is needed to understand how participation in various sports benefits super-elite performance in one main sport. Further, how does the process of late specialization following prior diversification or ‘talent transfer’ proceed? Are there certain sports or clusters that lay the best foundation for super-elite success in a final sport”?
This message chimes well with a post a wrote on the subject recently and is is a shift away from the rigidity of ‘early specialisation is bad and late specialisation is good’ message towards a more nuanced position around ‘it depends on the individual and the sport (with caveats)’ position.
It is also saying that we might start looking at complementary sports and start to recommend them to support a 'main sport' which I think is a very dangerous recommendation as it presupposes that kids would have a 'main sport' which leads to the early specialisation model that many have been fighting to avoid.
I welcome the idea that 'one size doesn't fit all' in this area but I want to urge caution here. There are strong correlations between later specialisation and better performance as well as reduced drop out rates. We definitely don't want to throw out the late specialising baby with the potentially early specialising bathwater'!
The upshot of all this is that the paper has some pretty strong recommendations that will present a challenge for a number of sports that will need to respond with some fairly significant system changes if they are going to act on many of these recomendations.
It won't surprise readers of this blog to know that I am pleased to see so many of the recomendations having such heavy emphasis of the role of the talent coach and the need to develop and support this army of unsung heroes far better than at present!