I’d like to start this blog entry with a pause for your own thoughts and also to watch a classic Monty Python clip. Firstly consider YOUR sporting journey and what social factors (school, parents, family, peers, geographical location, clubs etc) had a mediating effect on it. Secondly, consider that these factors are rarely considered in the understanding of talent and performance, and that there is a belief that this can only be found through the application of scientific principles on sportspeople. Finally, watch the 3 minute sketch, and keep it in the back of your mind throughout the blog post: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arCITMfxvEc

So, we may well acknowledge that sport does not occur in a social vacuum, and that there is a need to understand our social history to understand performance, but what evidence is there? As a talent and participation sociologist it is fair to say that there is little evidence. Does that mean there is no evidence? No, it means that we have become obsessed with ‘machines that go ping’ and the use of scientific measurement to determine talent, performance and also potential, and forgotten about the individual involved. That is not to say that the use of science does not have its place, in fact it is VITALLY important, however, we need to understand the whole story of the individual (and we are only beginning to look at the ‘social’ aspects of this).

So, the issue of talent development is one that causes a huge amount of political rhetoric, sporting ideals, ill-informed judgement and ‘sciencey’ sounding ideas (as the concept of 10,000 hours highlights – see also the work of Bailey & Collins here). However, what all of these issues show is an unwavering belief that a positivistic approach is the only answer. More recently however, the SCUK Participant Development Literature Review by Bailey et al (2010) suggests that a Bio-Psycho-SOCIAL (with emphasis added) approach is just as important. Consider that many of the key models adopted by the UK are ‘socially’ flawed. For example, Côté’s DMSP involves stages that can be linked to the three stage Canadian education system. There’s nothing wrong with this – apart from the need to be aware of this social context and consider how it applies in the British two level system.

OK, what next? Well, how about understanding a little more about how these social factors affect talent and performance in context? A study I am engaged in with colleagues at the PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) is an interesting example, as it the work being developed by the Pathways to Podium team in Canada and Australia. For my work, we have ‘profiled’ 1,500 PGA assistant professionals (all of whom have turned professional). And the results – well, that will be for a later post – but suffice to say as an example, there is an over-representation of players who are the youngest of 2 siblings with an older sister. Does that mean that because of this they have a genetic advantage to play golf? Unlikely – but this must mean there are important familial social dynamics that we need to take into account in their development as young performers.

So? This blog entry does not intend to suggest that sports science is wrong in its approach, but that it does not tell (nor consider the whole story). It also means that many potential performers (of all levels) are missed, left behind or drop out because their social needs and backgrounds are ignored.

The answer? A bio-psycho-social approach to every aspect needs to be considered before a truly inter-disciplinary understanding of participation can take place, after all – we coach the person not just the body. Oh yes, and a healthy dose of thin and thick luck (c.f. Bailey & Toms, 2010)……

Bailey, R. & Toms, M. (2010) Youth Talent Development in Sport – Rethinking Luck and Justice, in Hardman, A. & Jones, R. (Eds) The Ethics of Sports Coaching|, Routledge, London, pp 149-164. ISBN: 978-0-415-55775-7.

Bailey, R.; Collins, D.; Ford, R.; MacNamara, A,; Toms, M. & Pearce, G. (2010) Participant Development in Sport; An Academic Review, SportsCoach UK, Leeds. www.sportni.net/NR/rdonlyres/991FF96E-C6DB-4700-A900-F4DF2732E81A/0/ParticipantDevelopmentinSport.pdf