Since Matthew Syed’s publication of Bounce in 2011, the theory that, if a young sports person spends 10,000 hours practising a sport, then they will be world champion, has been subject to much critique.
Leading authors such as David Epstein and Professor Ross Tucker have established that diversity in sport is key: students being curious and sampling a wide range of purposeful practice in multiple sports holds the key to excellence, they argue.
Encouraging passion for physical activity
The continuation of this argument is that it also holds the key to students being more likely to continue sport and physical activity into adult life.
With what is happening around Covid-19 and physical and mental health we surely now, more than ever, should be doing all we can to ensure that our students take a passion for sport with them as they leave school?
The barrier to this in the independent sector currently is two-fold, and comes down to two main factors: misinformation, and sporting governing bodies not being aligned.
Currently there is no set age that students are selected for representational sport.
In cricket and football we have students join us at 10, for instance, who are already in the county or academy set up. Whereas in rugby union, the age that they can join Harlequins has recently been pushed back to 14 and budding sports stars can’t play county rugby until they are 15.
Yes, rugby is a late-maturation sport and cricket requires a very honed, fine skill set. But, that said, the issue this difference in representational age brings about is that as soon as students enter a county or academy set up there is huge pressure to focus solely on that sport. And at age 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 or 15, it could be argued that early specialisation will not help and is, in fact, more likely to lead them to drop out of the sport all together.
So, should sports governing bodies align their selective representational age?
The need for a holistic approach
Having sat in on numerous discussions from different governing bodies on how to increase participation at youth level and ensure that adult participation drop out rates are minimised, it’s clear that there needs to be a holistic approach driven by UK Sport and Sport England that links different sports governing bodies up when it comes to representational age selection.
Perhaps all sports can agree upon a unified selection age for representational teams which factors in different rates of maturation, dates of birth and training age?
What’s more, should governing bodies also be encouraging players to sample other sports at a young age to benefit their own programmes?
A focus on ability over attainment
Trinity Sport’s philosophy has always been to ensure that students are exposed to as many different sporting environments as possible. This is true even if they have a so-called ‘high training age’ in a particular sport.
What’s more, as we have a large bursary and scholarship programme, and around 60% of our students join us from a state school background, quite often new starters haven’t had the same amount of exposure to sports such as rugby, hockey, cricket or water polo as prep school students.
In my previous role running the sport scholarship programme we changed our approach to move away from looking at a candidate’s training age in a given sport, ie how good they are now, towards looking at their athletic ability instead – factoring in the quarter they are born in, their ‘coachability’ and their ability to play sports that they haven’t experienced before.
When tracking our sports scholars, results show that over time they end up playing to a higher standard across multiple sports and staying active in two or more sports as they move into sixth form and adult life.
Increasing choice within sporting provision
The impact of the pandemic has allowed us to further progress this philosophy and approach. During the first lockdown, as students were learning from home and had access to a range of space and equipment, we differentiated what was being asked and gave options on which activities they could take part in.
Then, at the end of the summer, rather than offering just rugby and football pre-season training, this year we held open pre-season in rugby, water polo, football, hockey and cricket. The response was incredible.
The uptake was higher than ever and feedback from the students was that they really enjoyed the range. As a result we continued this in our sporting approach this term, enabling students to sample many different sports.
The result, again, was increased attendance. Students voted with their feet.
The problem of misinformation
Yet, all too often, as a result of misinformation many believe that young athletes should specialise early and focus on the sport that, very often, parents want them to focus on. As mentioned above, this, in some sports, leads to early representational honours and can end up creating a multiplier effect with more external pressure to keep focusing solely on this single sport.
Whilst there are examples from elite sport of some athletes adopting this approach, most notably Tiger Woods, these success stories are actually few and far between. Science suggests that Tiger made it to the top in golf in spite of this approach.
How do we address this misinformation that parents and coaches have?
Quite simply, schools should push back by ensuring students have a wide diversity of sport, known commonly as ‘sampling’. At Trinity, we ensure that if a student wants to play a sport, they have the chance, regardless of ability.
In rugby, students that are put off by the contact element have the opportunity to play a touch version. I have two young sons of my own and whilst I think it would be fantastic if they were to become professional athletes, I will be encouraging them to be curious and sample as many different environments and experiences in as many areas as possible.
To conclude, students should sample as many sports as possible until they find those that really interest them. Coaches and parents should support this if they want students to continue playing sport into adult life and have the best chance of reaching an elite level. Governing bodies could help by creating a uniform British age at which representational teams are selected.