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«Developing the Potential of Young People in Sport A report for sportscotland by The University of Edinburgh Developing the Potential of Young People ...»

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Similarly, differences in levels of performance during childhood can only partly be attributed to innate factors as the actualisation of the ‘innate’ talent requires the existence of favourable environmental conditions and active learning processes which are supported through one’s internal motivation and learning strategies.

“It is extremely likely that the environmental factors including deliberate practice, account for more variance in performance than does innate capacity in every salient domain.” (Simonton, 1999, p.454) Hence, whilst physique and motor skills will ultimately limit performance capacity in specific sports, an awareness of their dynamic and complex nature suggests that long-term predictions are only, at best, a probabilistic estimate of their development.

A further consideration is that the range of discrete variables measured within traditional linear TI approaches is typically limited, with little or no justification provided for their inclusion (Abbott et al., 2002). For example, children may be selected based on the ‘appropriateness’ of one or two key variables for a specific sport (e.g., height and weight for gymnastics). However, the various attributes that contribute to an athlete’s behaviour interact in a nested, discontinuous fashion meaning that performance cannot be understood or predicted when each are considered in isolation. Therefore, it is probable that many children who score very highly on one or two talent components (e.g., height), may not have any talent potential due to the total absence of a different talent component within the specific domain (e.g., commitment to train). Also, a child may be eliminated due to an apparent weakness on one of the ‘talent’ components even though this component may improve with training or maturity or the individual may be able to compensate for this weakness by positive values on one or more of the other ‘talent’ components.

As an example, consider the Russian artistic gymnast Svetlana Khorkina who was originally thought to be too tall to compete at the elite level and was advised to take up rhythmic gymnastics instead. However, Khorkina insisted on pursuing the sport she loved most and excelled despite her height disadvantage (she is a multiple world champion winner across various gymnastic disciplines). In fact, she turned her added stature to an advantage by producing slower and more graceful long, levered movements. This example highlights the limitations of basing selection on just a few discrete measures of ‘ideal’ performance. Therefore, there is a need to reconceptualise talent as a multi-dimensional construct and acknowledge that many of the key performance determinants in sport can be developed with the appropriate training opportunities. Unfortunately, one-dimensional models of TID, that continue to prevail in sport today, will be unable to make this crucial distinction.

DPYPS: Moving beyond a reliance on performance and physical measures

DPYPS was based upon the notion that many key talent determinants in sport can be developed with the appropriate training opportunities. As such, DPYPS acknowledges that physical and performance measures cannot be employed as reliable determinants of future values but emphasises the need to provide an opportunity for all children to develop the prerequisites for learning and development in sport. The following two sections emphasise psychological and motor skills that facilitate development and typify excellence within the physical setting. Psycho-behavioural Precursors to Excellence Psychological Prerequisites for Learning and Development The role of psychological processes in the development of expertise is increasingly acknowledged across performance domains. Consider the place of self-motivation for example. It is widely accepted that for an individual to excel in any performance area (e.g., sport, music, mathematics), ten years of deliberate practice is required (Simon & Chase, 1973; Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993). As such, a high level of motivation is clearly required, and its importance for high attainment has been highlighted by a number of researchers (e.g., Heller, Moenks, Sternberg, & Subotnik, 1993; Ziegler & Raul, 2000). In repeated observations (initially by Meij, 1992 and then by Meij, Riksen-Walraven & Van Lieshout, 1995) it was found that individuals achieving excellence in academia exhibited, without exception, higher levels of competence motivation and were clearly and significantly more persistent and enthusiastic than less successful individuals. Thus, both level and style of an individual’s motivation will determine the frequency and persistence of his or her interactions with the relevant environment, and thereby will influence his or her development. In this regard, Riksen-Walraven and Zevalkink (2000) stated that, “given that the motivation of competence in a given field literally drives a person towards interactions that foster development, competence motivation can be considered as the primary “engine” of development” (p.204-205). This strong relationship between motivation and attainment has also been reported by Bloom (1985), Csikzentmihalyi, Rathunde and Whalen (1997), Gottfried, Gottfried, Bathurst, and Guerin (1994), and Sosniak (1985) in the areas of sport, art, academia and music respectively. Interestingly, Barynina and Vaitsekhovskii’s (1992) study of elite swimmers indicated that athletes who specialised early spent less time on the national team and ended their sports careers earlier than athletes who specialised later. Therefore, while childhood performance can be a false indicator of potential, especially in sport where maturational status can play such a significant role, the child’s own interests appear to be an excellent, but often neglected, indicator of adult attainment (Hany, 1996; Milgram & Hong, 1997).

Clearly, the appropriate levels of motivation and perceived competence to interact with the relevant environment are important precursors to development. However, to maximise skill acquisition and development, motivated behaviour needs to be appropriately focused in order to produce quality practice. Indeed, research has highlighted that individuals who achieve the greatest success, as well as being highly motivated, consistently employ strategies which optimise focus and learning (Kunst & Florescu, 1971; Freeman, 2000). For instance, within education, Zha (1993) reported that high-level achievers use self-regulatory learning strategies more often and more effectively than lower level achievers. Similarly, Morrone and Pintrich (1997) reported that high achievers set goals frequently and consistently across tasks more often than low achievers. Conversely, drop-outs and underachievers have been found to have difficulty with establishing and working towards long-range goals and rewards (Citizens for Better Schools, 1995). Indeed, McCall, Beach, and Lau (2000) reported that underachievers (defined as “children who perform more poorly in school than one would expect on the basis of their abilities”, p.785) had unrealistic standards, low aspiration and persistence. These were all factors that could likely be improved by employing a combination of effective learning strategies such as goal setting, planning and performance evaluation (also known as psycho-behaviours). The importance of effective learning strategies in promoting achievement has also been reported in education (Schunk, 1990), surgery (e.g., McDonald, Orlick & Letts, 1995;

McDonald & Orlick, 1994) and sport (Kreiner-Phillips & Orlick, 1992). Accordingly, DPYPS acknowledges the importance of helping children to apply effective learning strategies (psychological behaviours) if they are to optimise their physical development from the opportunities afforded to them. Additionally, the psychobehavioural emphasis presents an opportunity for DPYPS to contribute to the development of achievement across many performance domains.

Psychological Determinants of Performance

Preliminary studies that sought to identify psychological factors associated with high level athletic success were conducted in the 1950s and a substantial body of research on the personality characteristics of successful athletes was amassed from the 1950s to 1970s. Nevertheless, this body of research was inconclusive and personality profiles could not be identified for elite athletes. The focus of this research on personality characteristics may have failed to consider the psychological issues that are important in the conversion of potential to achievement. It is apparent that individuals with very different personalities can excel at the elite level within the same sport. For instance, contrast John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg who were both major tennis players of their time but who clearly had very different personalities. Within women’s tennis, differences in the personality of Monica Selles and Mary Pierce are apparent. In football, Paul Gasgoigne and Alan Shearer are very different types of people but both were highly successful football players. This tenuous and fragile link between personality and success is highlighted through different research that has produced ambiguous and unusable findings for many years (e.g., Vealey, 1992).

However, subsequent research that has focused on the employment of psychological behaviours (e.g., use of goal setting or imagery) as opposed to personality variables (e.g., introversion, extroversion) has successfully identified psychological determinants of performance (Mahoney, Gabriel & Perkins, 1987; Smith & Christensen, 1995; Smith, 1997; Thomas Murphy & Hardy, 1999). Indeed, psychological characteristics such as goal setting, realistic performance evaluation, imagery and commitment have been identified as factors that are able to discriminate between medal and non-medal winners (e.g., Orlick Hansen, Reed & O’Hara, 1979;

Gould, Eklund & Jackson, 1992a, b).

In support of the influence of psychological factors on sporting performance, Smith and Christensen (1995) found the Athletic Coping Skills Inventory (ASCI-28), which was designed to assess seven psychological skill items that athletes use to manage their sports performance, to be a much better predictor of athletic success for professional baseball pitchers than an assessment of physical skills. The seven psychological skills assessed were: coping with adversity, coachability, concentration, confidence and achievement motivation, goal setting and mental preparation, peaking under pressure and freedom from worry. Additionally, Thomas et al. (1999) found that both male and female international athletes use a wider range of psychological skills (goal setting, imagery, activation, self-talk, emotional control, negative thinking and relaxation) in training and competition than those of a lesser standard.

Further evidence of the important role that psychology has in sporting excellence is apparent in research that has looked to distinguish between athletes who are able consistently to produce at the top level of their sport and those that are unable to retain their level of success. Indeed, it is often considered that a mark of a true champion is their ability to retain excellence. Starkes & Allard (1999) highlighted that “sport psychology has traditionally focused on what it takes to become an expert athlete. There should be equal concern over what it takes to retain that expertise” (p.284). Research that has looked at performance maintenance has found that a range of psychological factors underpin this ability consistently to produce worldclass performances (Kreiner-Phillips & Orlick, 1992; Gould, Jackson & Finch, 1993;

Jackson, Mayocchi & Dover, 1998). For example, Kreiner-Phillips and Orlick found that only psychological factors were able to distinguish between consistent performers, those who experienced prolonged performance slumps, and those who failed to reproduce comparative performances. Specifically, Olympic champions who continued to win at the highest level were able to handle the demands associated with the increased personal and external expectations and to focus effectively rather than being caught up in distractions.

As research suggests that such psychological skills are highly amenable to specialised training, as opposed to personality traits which are to a greater extent inherited (Williams & Reilly, 2000), greater emphasis on these attributes would appear to be warranted within TID models. Whilst Morris (2000) highlights the problems of employing transient variables for use in TI, the move away from predictive models of talent will hopefully lead to greater emphasis on all determinants of potential and performance regardless of their transient nature. Indeed, the limitation of TID models where little or no consideration is given to performance determinants due to their developmental and therefore non-predictable nature is apparent.


As it typically takes 10 years of dedicated practice to achieve excellence (Ericsson et al., 1993), athletes must possess and exhibit the motivation and learning strategies to interact effectively with the developmental opportunities offered by the environment.

This concept is formulated from the belief that talented individuals will only maximise their potential (innate capacities) when provided with appropriately stimulating developmental conditions (e.g. facilities, parental support, effective coaching) and when exhibiting high levels of motivation and adopting effective learning strategies.

Coaches and teachers can provide many examples of young children who appear to have possessed all the capacities to be successful within sport, but fail to progress.

Put simply, certain internal dispositions are advantageous and often essential for exceptional attainment within sport (e.g., fast twitch fibres for sprinting). However, internal dispositions do not automatically translate into high performance, but are dependent on specific individual and environmental factors (cf. Howe, Davidson & Sloboda, 1998). Further, not only does an athlete require the skills to interact effectively with the developmental opportunities offered, the athlete also requires the ability to perform optimally within the competitive arena. Again, psychological behaviours have been found to be key to this process and there is some evidence that the effective employment of these behaviours is a better predictor of success than an assessment of physical characteristics. Further, only the psychological behaviours employed by athletes are able to discriminate between athletes who have and have not maintained their success.

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