The problem with pathways (aka how to put together a real Endgame)

The film Avengers: Endgame has smashed all box office records since its release. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which started with Iron Man in 2008, now encompasses 21 movies culminating in this three-hour epic. Multiple plot lines, dozens of characters, cameos and references to past movies were included. Nothing like this has ever been done before and eleven years ago no one would have predicted the path this franchise has taken.

Yet, if we look back retrospectively it looks ordered and sequential. Start small with individual movies and add little post-credit scenes that act as a teaser for the next movie. Slowly add more characters and then finish with the first big epic four years later: Avengers assemble. Phew, that was exciting.

Now dig deeper into the Marvel canon, take a risk on the lesser known Guardians of the Galaxy, build up to a second Avengers movie and use existing plots like Civil War to integrate lots more characters. Now the cash is rolling in from a loyal fan base, so try digging deeper to add minority characters like Black Panther and Captain Marvel. Those movies were even bigger hits, earning more money than Doctor Strange and even Spiderman.In 2008 if you had said that a movie with a black character as the lead or a superhero movie with a female lead would earn more than a Spiderman movie, you would have been laughed at. These things were not “givens”; risks and luck played a part. Rival DC has tried to create their own version of the MCU but failed miserably and with considerable expense.

Why then do National Governing Bodies (NGBs) in sports offer ‘pathways’ to the international stage, predicting an athlete’s success in 10 years’ time? There is simply no evidence that a single route will lead to success.

» Related content: Learn more from James and athlete development on last week’s GAINcast.

Todd Rose, in his excellent book The End of Average: Unlocking Our Potential by Embracing What Makes Us Different, says this about pathways:

“We presume the best way to be successful in life is to follow that well-blazed trail. But what the pathways principle tells us is that we are always creating our own pathway for the first time, inventing it as we go along, since every decision we make- or every event we experience- changes the possibilities available to us.” (page 139)

Asking the right question

After reading the introduction most people will ask:

“How then can we help develop athletes to become champions?”

This is the wrong question for club coaches, parents and teachers to be asking. In order to produce champions at 22-26 we need lots of people participating in physical activity, then sport, and then competition. From that healthy competition that is arrived at organically, the best people will emerge from 16-19 years old and then the NGBs can tailor elite level training to those few.

To paraphrase Owen Slot in the The Talent Lab: The secret to finding, creating and sustaining success: “UK sport is all about the shop window of Olympic medals, but we don’t have enough people in the shop.”

The question I ask as a parent is:

How can I help my children develop a variety of physical skills in a fun and challenging environment?

This is what I look for in activities for my own children which so far include horse riding, lifeguarding and climbing. In our local area these activities are being led by excellent people. They include a mix of fun, skill and challenge. Yet at no point have I been asked about “talent” or competition. I realize that by keeping moving and being exposed to different environments my children will develop in ways that I can’t imagine, foresee, or control.

From activity to sports and competition

An observant reader will have noticed that the three activities I mentioned could be classed as individual ‘sports’. Excelsior Athletic Development Club offers gymnastics, athletics and weight lifting, three more ‘individual’ sports.

With the exception of horse riding, all of the other activities happen in group environments. Collaboration is essential- belaying a fellow climber, rescuing a drowning victim or supporting a handspring all require another person to help.

The children compete like crazy sometimes in these sessions- who can get up the wall fastest, who can hurdle the fastest or throw the furthest, who can hold a headstand for the longest. But, not every child is trying to beat another person. The competition is self-organized for the most part. I always put some competitive element in each session- either a challenge to themselves- or against each other.

This is different from the team sport environments that I have witnessed for the under 10s, where the emphasis is on winning on Saturday or Sunday and the weekly training reflects this. Do the children want a weekly match against other teams? Or are they thrust into the environment and get swept along for the ride?

More importantly, children are simply too young to understand the group dynamics of team sports. They have a focus of one: themselves. This was well known in the past in physical education circles, where team sports were not introduced until about 10-11 years old in schools. Unfortunately, the commercialization of youth sport has not meant a corresponding increase in understanding of what activity is best for the child’s age and stage of development.

My son who is 9 and my daughter who is 11 have both represented their school in team events this year. The matches are few and far between, enough for a taster, not enough to be a grind. They have developed the basic skills of throwing, catching, striking, running and jumping that allow them to pick up sport specific skills when shown.

Compare that to the girls I saw this week doing cricket who flinched away when a ball was thrown underarm to them from two meters away. Cricket is a prime example of a sport that expresses skill rather than develops skill. When there is one ball and 22 players, how much time can be spent getting better by playing a match?

Teaching exploration

The next question is where then to start? My approach is to start where the child is now, not where a model says they should be.

One of the biggest changes in my coaching over the last 10 years is using guided discovery at the younger ages rather than directions. In gymnastics, the forward roll is often used as a benchmark of achievement. This can provide a great example of guided discovery. In this video you can see me learning from a gymnastics coach in a structured manner, with everything returning to the forward roll:

Guided discovery, on the other hand, allows exploration of different movements. In the next video you can see me leading the boys and allowing them to work out different movements. They may or may not be able to perform a forward roll at the end of this session, but that is not the aim. The aim is to get them to learn and explore how their body works. If they feel competent, have learnt something and had the chance to try new ways of doing something themselves, they are more likely to return. Keeping them involved is critical.

Good coaches know this already. But, if you are trying to “fun it up” with 5 year olds trying to learn rugby with a ball bigger than their heads, you are unlikely to succeed. You are trying to get them to adapt to a system for which they are unprepared: physically, socially, emotionally and definitely skill wise.

By piecing together adult-led initiatives and reverse engineering from the Olympics into the youth system, you trying to jump straight to creating the Endgame before the game even begins. Focus instead on making Iron Man and be patient enough to see where the story evolves from there. Excelsior!