Sports Science Monthly – December 2021

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In this month’s edition we look at failures in talent development, mental toughness, mental rest, using data in elite sport, nutrition, and more.

As always, the full Sports Science Monthly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Monthly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

Talent development failures

Quick Summary – Developing talented athletes to elite performers is the goal of many practitioners; this paper identifies some key mistakes athlete development teams make, such as bowing to the pressures of high performance, a lack of coherence, and a lack of psycho-behavioral development.

Developing athletes is the key task of the coach, as well as the sporting systems that surround the coach-athlete pair. What we’re all interested in is moving an athlete from a talented youth to successful senior. This is hard to do; research suggests that we don’t even know what “talent” looks like at a young age, as it can be masked by aspects such as early maturation and increased training age—meaning that we might not even be developing the right athletes. However, even assuming we can identify the right athletes to try to develop, the processes is still tricky. Some research, popularized over the last decade or so, suggests that adversity may play a key role in developing future elite athletes; these athletes have experienced something negative—a performance disappointment, or an injury, for example—and have, through that experience, developed the necessary psychological skills for success. This means that, contrary to what might feel “right”, it might be better to prioritize the long-term needs of the athlete above short-term performance—a tough message to sell.

This has led to research around the best environments for which talent can develop; one researcher in this area, Russell Martindale, developed the Talent Development Environment (TDE) model, which suggested that effective TDEs have a number of common features:

  1. They demonstrate a need for long-term thinking through their aims and methods
  2. They have wide-ranging coherent support and messages
  3. They place an emphasis on appropriate development
  4. They prioritise both individualised, and ongoing, development
  5. They espouse integrated, holistic, and systematic development and support around the athletes.

A second model of successful talent development environments, the Athlete Talent Development Environment (ATDE) model, was developed by a Danish research, Kristoffer Henriksen, who suggested that successful ATDEs were comprised of a number of key factors, including training groups with supportive relationships, proximal role models (i.e. the athletes are close to potential role models), support of sporting goals from the wider environment (such as their schools or universities), support for the development of psychological skills, a focus on the athlete’s long-term development, and strong and coherent organizational culture.

That all seems straight forward, but there are a number of challenges affecting the provision of a successful talent development environment. Firstly, it can be difficult to have integration between the senior elite and talent development level; in team sports, for example, academy teams rarely train with the senior first team, because the senior first team is focused on their next game. This negatively affects coherence; here, the academy teams likely operate differently from the senior elite teams, which creates a challenge for when players transition between the two. In other sports, the talent development and elite senior training sessions may be delivered in entirely different places, further harming the congruence and coherence in messaging.

Understanding some of the factors that harm our ability to optimize talent development environments is, therefore, of interest; if we know what is causing some of these issues, perhaps we can go some way to making effective changes. This was a subject of a recent study from Jamie Taylor and Dave Collins, published in the Journal of Expertise. Here, the authors focused on talent development in rugby league; a well-established and mature elite sport that has a strong academy system. The authors undertook focus groups with a total of 29 participants, who were involved in the development of players at academy level of this sport; this allowed the researchers to gain representation from every club at the highest level of the sport in England, as well as from the National Governing Body.

Following the focus groups, the researchers looked for key themes within the responses, of which they found three key thematic barriers around successful talent development:

  1. Pressures of the High Performance milieu – this was comprised of two sub-themes; business demands (e.g. owners needing rapid promotion of young players to offload older players with larger salaries) and short-termism (e.g. the head coach being more focused on the next match, as opposed to success in five years’ time).
  2. Lack of integrated working practice – this was comprised of four sub-themes. The first was a number of voices around a player, which reduced the likelihood of there being a consistent message. The second was a lack of intra-club role clarity (e.g. people not knowing who does what in talent development, and a lack of a regular review process); the third related to the impact of unhelpful inputs (again, a lack of consistency of message); and the fourth was a player’s inability to utilise support (e.g. not knowing how to utilise the support available, or being unwilling to).
  3. Failures of coaching practice – this was comprised of three sub-themes; coaches unable to meet player need (e.g., ineffective coaching); a lack of psycho-behavioural skills emphasis (e.g., not having players take responsibility for their own development); and a lack of challenge (e.g., players having it all too easy for them).

These findings demonstrate just how difficult successful talent development can be, even in environments that rely on it! From a practical perspective, the authors recommend that everyone within a club develop a shared mental model—defined as “overlapping mental representations of knowledge by members of a team”—around optimal talent development practices and behaviours. This process would have two main outcomes; a shared understanding of an athlete’s developmental needs, and role clarity for different stakeholders (e.g., who does what in talent development). This should assist in supporting long-term planning (reducing short-termism), and creating coherent messaging at all levels of the pathway. The authors also recommend no longer viewing the athlete as a passive figure, but as an active participant in their development. The TDE the athlete finds (or places) themselves in must prepare them for the realities of high performance, alternative and challenging environments, and a life outside of sport. This comes back to agency, defined as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. To do this, the TDE needs to have a focus on the skills that develop an athlete’s ability to take responsibility for their development. Similarly, regular debriefs to allow the athlete and coach to understand how they’re progressing will support the development of their agency. For those of us who have to develop younger athletes on a regular basis, this is a timely reminder of some of the things that stop us from being able to effectively achieve that—as well as providing some initial suggestions around how to overcome them.

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