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Elite Child Athlete Welfare Handbook

Elite Child Athlete Welfare Handbook

The Symposium on which this book is based took place at Brunel University, UK on 17 and 18th June 2010. Participants included researchers from sociology, psychology and sports medicine, policy makers from national and international sport and welfare organisations, and practitioners from various national and international sport governing bodies. All are committed to promoting the best in sport and preventing the worst, and to ensuring that young athletes realise their own potential in the safest possible environment. The purpose of this introductory chapter is to set the scene for the other contributions in the book and to offer some potential frameworks for devising research and policy agendas in this field.

Recent reviews of talent identification and youth sport in the sport science literature are summarised and critiqued in relation to athlete welfare. In particular, it is argued that the ‘time-economic motive’ (Vaeyens et al., 2009) has undermined the prospects for delivering children’s rights in elite sport. The work of Coté and colleagues (2003) is used to illustrate a wider approach to welfare in sport that opens up some possibilities for re-balancing both the discourses and the practices of elite sport for children. The case of Tom Daley, child Olympic diver, is used to highlight some of the welfare challenges facing sport organisations, support staff and others in their attempts to scaffold talented young athletes.  Contradictions and tensions are set out that are intended to guide thinking on how best to cater for the welfare of the elite child athlete.

Surveying the field

With Great Britain’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games came keen national interest, in both policy circles and among the wider public, in the potential for medal success. This, in turn, led to a plethora of state-supported talent identification and development schemes across the country.  The concepts associated with talent (Bloom, 1985; Coté, 1999) are many and varied:

  • Talent pool
  • Talent gaps
  • Talent identification
  • Talent matching
  • Talent development
  • Talent promotion
  • Talent acceleration
  • Talent transfer/crossover/athlete reassignment – ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’ sports
  • Talent recycling
  • ‘Relative age effect’ (Musch and Grondin, 2001)
  • ‘Career transitions’ (Stambulova, 1994; Wylleman et al., 2004)
  • ‘Early and late specialisation’ sports
  • ‘Ten Year/Ten Thousand Hour Rule’ (Simon and Chase, 1973)
  • ‘Theory of Deliberate Practice’ (Ericcson et al., 1993 and others)
  • ‘Long Term Athlete Development’ (Balyi and Hamilton, 2004)
  • ‘Sampling years’ (Coté, Baker and Abernethy, 2003)
  • ‘Developmental Model of Sport Participation (DMSP) (Coté and Fraser-Thomas, 2006)

In a 2009 review of research on talent identification and development programmes at Olympic level (Vaeyens et al., 2009) the entire paper focussed on empirical data related to performance variables such as age, training onset, performance level, number of sports practised and so on. The dominant consideration was ‘investment patterns’ in young athlete talent. The authors pointed to estimates from Australian sport (Hogan and Norton, 2000), for example, that an Olympic medal cost about A$37m for a gold and A$8m per medal in general. The so-called ‘time-economic motive’, by which long term investment is assumed to lead to medal success, was contrasted with the ‘talent crossover’ approach, by which high performance systems can benefit from transferring already talented, mature athletes from a ‘donor’ sport to a ‘recipient’ sport. At no point in this review did human considerations of desire, pleasure, fulfilment or joy feature at all, nor was a single athlete voice reported. At no point were children’s rights mentioned. I would argue that this approach to the commodification and processing of athletic talent separates the objective from the subjective, disembodies the human being at the centre of the enterprise – the child - and undermines the prospects for delivering children’s rights in elite sport.

In a somewhat broader review of research on involvement in youth sports Fraser-Thomas and Coté (2006) assessed the benefits for youth of engaging in sport against three commonly identified outcomes: physical health, psychosocial development and motor skills. Even ‘enjoyment’ was acknowledged as “critical” despite not yet being “fully integrated in athlete development research” (p.31-2).  Unusually for literature on this subject, the authors acknowledged early in the paper that positive benefits are not automatic and went on to list research on a range of psychosocial detriments such as:

  • feeling excessive pressure to win
  • feeling unattached to teams
  • injuries
  • eating disorders
  • low self-confidence and self-esteem
  • poor sportspersonship
  • poor moral reasoning and,
  • acts of violence and aggression

The authors concluded (drawing on Gould, 1987, p. 2) that, possibly due to these experiences, attrition rates from sport are extremely high during adolescence. We know that research on abuse and harassment in sport is in its infancy, with international peer reviewed papers on the subject appearing in the literature only in the past 15-20 years. Yet even this literature was not connected with child rights discourses until very recently (Donnelly, 1997; Tymowski, 2001; David, 2005; Farstad, 2006; McCardle and Giulianotti, 2006). However, such is recent medical interest in harms to children in sport that the British Journal of Sports Medicine published a special issues on the subject in January 2010 (Caine, 2010) that addressed topics such as: heat injuries, long-term health outcomes, steroid use, violence, overweightness and disordered eating.

As other contributors to this book point out, both athlete development and child maltreatment are deeply gendered processes. It is certainly worth reminding ourselves of this, and of the other important parameters of the elite sport experience. We know virtually nothing, for example, of class, disability or race differences in this field, let alone their intersecting influences on elite child sport. In a special issue of Child Abuse Review (Kelly and Pringle, 2009, p. 370), the editors synthesised the issues facing research and practice in general in order to improve our understanding of gender relations and child maltreatment:

  1. there are both moral and practical reasons for putting the child’s voice at the centre of academic analysis and welfare practice
  2. intersectional approaches to power dynamics should be adopted in both research and practice
  3. research and practice should attend to context (space and time) in order effectively to counter child harm

These issues will no doubt help researchers in their agenda-setting for future work.

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