The Burden of Advantage in Athlete Development

The paradoxical burden of advantages is something that those who work with young athletes (and young people in general) often grapple with. We might consider this a 'first world problem of privilege' for developing athletes; some might even argue it is symptomatic of the wider ills of modern society. Whether or not you subscribe to such views, few would disagree that a sense of entitlement is the enemy when developing young people, regardless of whether the aim is that they grow up to become good people or top athletes. In either scenario, many of the qualities we are seeking to instill are much the same.

As we will explore in this post, the luxury of advantages, unless carefully managed, can pose a serious problem when our aim is fostering the traits necessary to strive for mastery and achieve long-term success in sport. We will investigate what makes a conducive environment for developing young athletes who demonstrate 'talent', and what pitfalls to avoid. Finally, we will tackle the question of how we might negotiate the challenges we presently face on our quest, and recommend practical steps to ensure young athletes are equipped with the fuel for the journey and the tools to overcome obstacles on the path to becoming elite.

'I BLAME THE PARENTS'...

There is a reason why kids who are continually indulged are described as 'spoiled'. Yet it must be stated at the outset that it is a gross oversimplification to place the full responsibility for our wayward youth on indulgent parents.

Particularly as they reach the teenage years, youngsters increasingly look to their peers as the example to follow, and peer approval increasingly vies for supremacy with parental approval. When considering social influences, we must also recognise that a significant portion of a young person's day is spent interacting with their smartphone or mobile device; this represents a potent and almost constant source of influence.

It is often said that kids are essentially a product of their environment. Taking a broader perspective it becomes apparent that there are however a host of influences that are present in the home, school, social, and even online environment, each of which contribute to shaping young athletes' values and behaviours.

When seeking to positively influence behaviours and instill good values, we must be realistic about the fact that very few of these influences are fully under the control of the coach, practitioner, or indeed parent.

SUCCESSFUL ENVIRONMENTS FOR NURTURING 'TALENT'...

I prefer to work with athletes who are passionate and driven about their craft. I like curious athletes... I enjoy athletes who live in gratitude and who are selfless with their time and friendships. There are very few lone wolf athletes at the top. In my experience the training group and culture defines the ceiling of performance.
— Dan Pfaff

In a previous post we have spoken about the perils of the 'talent' label, and how practices and systems employed to develop identified athletes can paradoxically have negative influence on their subsequent development.

As we will explore further in this post, presenting athletes who show promise with rewards of status and exposing them to a privileged existence is at odds with what is required to nurture their talent and develop the traits required to progress. Such issues are epidemic in youth academy systems in professional sports particularly.

So what are the characteristics of environments that demonstrate sustained success in this area?

Observers have identified that 'talent hotbeds' for the most part seem to exist in quite spartan settings, which are shorn of the trappings of 'high performance'. A common theme with these environments is the notable absence of the comforts of 'luxury' items, such as high spec equipment and teams of dedicated support staff on tap.

These observations would seem to suggest that a host of amenities and ready access to resources are superfluous to the process of developing athletes to succeed at elite level. We could even go further and consider the intriguing possibility that the presence of such superfluous items might end up being counterproductive. Certainly, as we will explore later in the post, the fact that successful environments are not built upon a system of external rewards is a critical factor in their success in fostering development and nurturing the intrinsic motivation that fuels this process.

Humble beginnings in fact appear to be a hallmark of successful environments that demonstrate sustained success in nurturing talent. Distance running culture in particular flourishes in a setting that lacks advantages, including what we might consider basic amenities such as transport. For kids who are raised in areas where there is no option but to run to school, running naturally becomes a way of life.

Among the Kalenjin and Arsi tribes that traditionally produce the best runners in Kenya and Ethiopia, respectively, it is common for schoolchildren to begin distance running at an early age, both as a sporting activity and as the primary method of transport to and from school
— Wilber & Pitsiladis, International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance

'DESIRABLE DIFFICULTY' - IMPEDIMENTS FACILITATE DEVELOPMENT...

A central theme of Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath is the notion of 'desirable difficulty' in developing successful people. Hereby a lack of advantages, or the presence of apparent disadvantages, paradoxically confers an advantage in the long run.

The concept of desirable difficulty was first developed by psychology researchers Elizabeth and Robert Bjork. One aspect of this idea is that @@impediments can serve to facilitate both the learning process and the outcome@@. With a nod to deep practice, as championed in The Talent Code, challenges or difficulties force the learner to engage in the process more deeply, tap into their reserves, and persevere. In this way, the experience of difficulty actually creates conditions which prove more conducive to deeper learning and comprehension. Having overcome such difficulties, the learner's struggles are then also rewarded by superior retention and transfer of learning.

Clearly these ideas have implications for how we approach learning. Equally, these principles also apply to how we develop young athletes who show promise.

As has been noted, if you look into the back story of champion athletes, or successful individuals in any field, you will often find they have overcome significant life challenges on the journey to the summit. This is another theme that is central in Malcolm Gladwell's 'David and Goliath'.

Admittedly the 'talent needs trauma' narrative has proven to be slightly overblown, in the sense that it is not strictly necessary for an athlete to experience life-altering events in order to ascend to elite level. Nevertheless, subsequent publications agree on the benefits of exposure to 'real-life' challenges in the development process.

@@If you find a path with no obstacles it probably doesn’t lead anywhere@@
— Frank A. Clark

@@Life experiences are as important for developing athletes as they are for producing well-adjusted humans@@. Just as trials and tribulations foster personal growth, the coping strategies derived during these struggles are also invaluable, and make for more resilient and self-driven athletes. In essence, the presence of obstacles on the path, and the ensuing struggles to overcome them, can ultimately pave the way for the athlete's success.

When we recognise the importance of life experience, exposure to 'real-life' challenges, and the value inherent in the process of overcoming these obstacles, once again it is apparent that developing athletes who live a privileged existence protected from these challenges are missing out on critical opportunities for growth. This represents an increasing issue as they ascend to higher levels of competition, in which the ability to respond to adversity understandably becomes a prized asset.

ADVANTAGES MUST BE MANAGED...

As noted, socio-economic and cultural factors are generally accepted to contribute to the success of East African nations in distance running. More specifically, central to this success is a lack of advantages, such that running is the default mode of transport for many of these societies. This is in keeping with the 'desirable difficulty' hypothesis.

In contrast, for European or North American kids whom we can consider affluent by comparison, there is often the option of being chauffeured to school by parents, or at least catching a school bus. Oddly enough, we don't see many of these kids running to school.

Here we can see that advantages associated with a relatively privileged upbringing, including ready access to labour-saving options, are not conducive to steering kids onto the path required for pursuits such as distance running, which by their nature require habitual hard work to attain success.

We should also note that this phenomenon is not limited to the western world. It has been noted that the children of champion Kenyan distance runners fail to reach same heights in the sport. The wealth of the parents and advantages it affords them (including being driven to school) are the very things that makes success unlikely.

These examples illustrate how an upbringing of relative affluence and environments that provide ready access to amenities can be detrimental to developing athletes. Advantages must therefore be managed if they are not to become an obstacle to achieving success. If we continually provide kids with access to the easy option, naturally this is the path that most will take.

THREATS OF POISONING THE WELL OF INTRINSIC MOTIVATION...

It is important to recognise that there are natural sources of motivation that are intrinsic to the task, and therefore require no external influence. Moreover, in the absence of external influence, such intrinsic sources of motivation can be endless. However, these natural wells of intrinsic drive to perform an activity must be carefully managed and protected. Societal influences and external factors can degrade these precious natural resources.

In contrast, environments built upon external rewards and instant gratification promote extrinsic motivation. What makes this damaging is that it is to the detriment of intrinsic motivation. This is a problem that is particularly prevalent in youth academies in professional sport where kids are exposed to rewards from an early stage. Even if young players are solely motivated by the love of the game at the outset, these rewards quickly threaten to extinguish intrinsic drive, so that extrinsic motivation (i.e. contingent rewards) becomes the predominant driver for many.

Due to the nature of extrinsic motivation, youngsters in these environments quickly become accustomed to such external rewards, so that they no longer hold the same value. As a result, drive wanes until we 'up the ante' by providing bigger rewards, which will work for a time, until eventually the process repeats itself.

Regardless of the sport, the path to mastery is long. Gratification and rewards associated with the outcome are by definition long delayed. Indeed, it is typically years before the rewards of the outcome are realised. Circumstances therefore demand that motivation must be derived from the process itself. In essence, for the most part the journey must bring its own rewards.

Once again, a cosseted environment and a culture of entitlement fosters a demand for instant gratification. If those leading the process submit to the pressure to constantly reward with positive reinforcement whether earned or not, the effects are often negative and lasting. Clearly these conditions are not conducive to the long journey involved when striving for mastery.

Whilst well meaning, indulging kids in this way is inevitably damaging to motivation, and tends to diminish the enjoyment that is inherent to the task. Clearly this does not lend itself to the young athlete assuming ownership of their own development, and accepting responsibility and accountability for the process.

SOME SOLUTIONS - CREATING AN ALTERNATIVE ENVIRONMENT...

One antidote for the perils of modern society is to strive to make the training or practice environment an oasis from the rest of the world. For teenagers especially there is great pressure to fit in and conform to what is popular. The training environment should suspend these pressures. In turn we can establish an alternative set of standards and behaviours that youngsters might not experience elsewhere.

Within the training environment, the young athlete should feel unencumbered about engaging in something that they care about deeply. The environment should also provide the security and freedom to stand out, so that they can grant themselves the permission to be extraordinary and pursue their own path.

A keystone of this process is creating an environment that engenders intrinsic motivation. Kids more than anyone are hard-wired to enjoy the process of solving puzzles. Kids like to be challenged, and enjoy exploring different solutions. We must therefore tap into that well of intrinsic motivation.

In order to achieve this end we must take advantage of the inherent value of the training task itself. From this viewpoint it is important how exercises are presented. We need make explicit what purpose they serve in the overall process; if they understand the value of the task they are more likely to invest themselves in it. Another key tool to foster engagement is to present and deliver training as a series of problem-solving tasks, rather than exercises being viewed as solely a means to an end. We must @@emphasise the inherent value in the process; not just the outcome@@.

THE ROLE OF THE COACH...

The role of the coach or practitioner in first creating and then maintaining an environment that fosters growth is critical. From the outset, the coach must take the lead on defining standards and expectations. Thereafter, all coaches and practitioners on staff must actively develop and reinforce the culture, via their day-to-day actions, behaviours, and interactions with the athletes.

Given this pivotal role, each member of the coaching staff must be very clear on the specifics of their role in the day-to-day process.

Firstly, @@it is not the role of the coach to keep the young athlete happy@@. The role of the coach is to provide a safe environment that provides appropriate challenge. Delivery should be driven by what gives the best opportunity for the athlete to improve; the coach is not there to entertain or to indulge the athlete.

Leadership is getting someone to do what they don’t want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve
— Tom Landry

As noted, we must be ready to challenge the young athlete. This applies not only to the training tasks set, but also upholding the standards of behaviour that are expected of them. There may be resistance to this. The coaching staff must enlist the parents as a key ally in this process. Without their involvement and parental backing for this endeavour it is likely to prove futile.

THE POWER OF PURPOSE...

Young people (and adults) possess an intrinsic need to feel they have purpose, and a natural desire to engage in purposeful action. Kids who are privileged and have fallen into a sense of entitlement are dissatisfied. That indulgence and entitlement do not bring them satisfaction should give us hope.

The pursuit of mastery can provide this purpose. By definition, @@mastery is a journey not a destination@@. Attaining mastery is essentially a process without end; there is always scope to get better. In turn, @@striving for mastery can provide a constant source of purposeful action@@, and inspire insatiable curiosity for the activity itself.

In the right conditions, working towards mastery provides its own rewards. Naturally, youngsters must choose wisely; they need to care enough about the sport or activity to want to invest their efforts in the pursuit.

TAKING ADVANTAGE OF CHALLENGING EXPERIENCES...

As we have spoken about earlier in the post, life experiences and exposure to real-life challenges can be an invaluable part of the athletes' journey. Equally important is how the young athlete responds to these challenges, as noted by prominent authors on the topic, including Dave Collins. Indeed, one of the criteria that wise coaches employ when evaluating a promising athlete is how they respond to adversity.

It is apparent that there value to be derived from encountering and overcoming challenges, not least in developed coping strategies, and enabling the athlete to become more resilient and better equipped to deal with future challenges as a result. It follows that setbacks and difficulties should therefore be re-framed as 'opportunities for growth'. As far as possible young athletes should therefore be encouraged to embrace the process of enduring and overcoming these challenges.

Given the value of these experiences and the apparent benefits they offer, some authors have raised the intriguing possibility of whether we can manufacture such opportunities, or creatively impose 'desirable difficulties' during the athlete development journey. This was the topic of a thought-provoking recent publication by Dave Collins and colleagues entitled 'Putting the Bumps in the Rocky Road: Optimizing the Pathway to Excellence'.

Contriving challenges including 'boot camp'-style workouts in the name of developing resilience or grit has become commonplace in sport at different levels, including youth sport. For the most part these efforts might best be described as misdirected, and in the worst cases (including recent scandals) those responsible are guilty of willfully exposing their athletes to harm. Aside from violating duty of care, this is clearly not conducive to earning the athletes' trust.

I would submit that, even among the most privileged youth, the young athletes' experiences in their sport, the preparation process, and their life outside sport will naturally offer a ready source of life experiences and 'real-life' challenges. It is therefore incumbent upon us as coaches and practitioners to be attentive in recognising these 'opportunities for growth', and counsel the athlete to make best use of these experiences when they occur. Our role is to facilitate, as opposed to intervening on their behalf, or 'protecting them' from these valuable life experiences.

POSITIVE 'SOCIAL FACILITATION'...

As Malcolm Gladwell notes in his popular text 'Outliers', to explain the full story of the success of wildly successful people you must take into account not only the unique circumstances involved, but also the roles that culture, community, and societal influences play in the process.

If we can create the right training environment, we can harness the powerful effects of positive peer influence and peer-learning. One such example is that communal influences can positively impact the young athletes' frame of reference. As noted in a previous post, talent hotbeds are a great example of this, whereby kids in an environment where extraordinary feats are a daily occurrence become accustomed to this, to the extent that extraordinary levels of performance are perceived as normal and expected.

OWNERSHIP IN THE ATHLETE DEVELOPMENT PROCESS...

Parental support is a critical aspect in relation to athlete development. The role of the parent is often pivotal in providing opportunities to participate and engage in practices and training. Parents are often quite literally the driver, in the sense that they provide transport to training, practice and competitions!

However, the parent, or indeed any other external player, cannot become the major driver in the process. The young athlete needs to own and steer the process. Deferring responsibility to their parents to drive everything and steer their course is clearly contrary to the intrinsic motivation necessary to achieve in the long term.

Ultimately what will prove most decisive is how important the pursuit is to the athlete themselves. This is the key question that must be answered sooner rather than later, as it will determine the choices they make, and the actions they take.

EMPHASISING CHOICE...

The element of choice is something we need made make young athletes acutely aware of. They need to be clear that the choice resides with them; they also need to be clear on the importance of their choices, and what hinges on it.

The first step is to be clear and explicit about the fact that it is not enough to simply turn up. Attending training or practice does not automatically mean they will improve or adapt. It is what they invest once they have arrived at training or practice that ultimately determines the outcome. Turning up provides the opportunity. Taking this opportunity each day requires them to 'switch on', and 'dial in'. Once again, this is a choice. Nobody can make that choice but the athlete themselves.

The actions and behaviours of the coaching staff are once again critical here. For instance, rewarding kids with a high-five simply for turning up is clearly missing the point. Whilst it is critical that they first show up in order to give themselves the opportunity, equally they have not yet done anything worth rewarding.

@@Never complain about the results you didn’t get from the work you didn’t do...@@
— Anon

With choice comes responsibility. Young athletes must be made aware and held responsible for their role in the process; and in turn made aware and held accountable for how this impacts the outcomes of training. If they fail to attend regularly they rob themselves of the opportunity to improve. If the young athlete fails to engage fully in the training process each day, they fail to make full use of the opportunity afforded to them.

Young athletes need to have clarity about why they are there; and they need to remain mindful of this. In a previous post we have spoken about the importance of mobilising athletes' mental resources during training. Having made the choice to come to training, the athlete must still decide what attention, intention and directed mental effort they are going to invest in their training on that day. On a practical level, we must prompt the young athlete to ask themselves these critical questions each time they arrive at the training venue to encourage them to make better choices.

Enjoyed the read? For more on a variety of topics relating to athletic development, physical preparation, and sports injury visit the Books section of the website.

Name *
Name