Future stars lost by judging fish on ability to climb a tree...

went to an all boys school recently as part of the “Sky Sports Living for Sport” programme as an athlete mentor, where the project leader wanted me to help a group of students prepare mentally for their provincial Schools Rugby Cup campaign for the following season.

Getting a background on the school, I was told rugby was compulsory for all in first and second year. Other sports were kept to a minimum, and realistically each boy could only commit to one sport. Hence for the majority, particularly the athletic group, this choice was invariably rugby.

My next question: How did the school do in recent and not so recent years in schools rugby competition? Terribly. Not even a contender, rarely past the first round. They had the school facilities, the access to coaching and strength and conditioning, they had training pitches and gyms, they had the reverence of the rest of the school as being on the Senior Cup Team, yet they were beaten before they took the field. The ethos and culture was to almost accept a ceiling of achievement of starting on the Senior Cup team, be a big fish in a small pond.

I was a little surprised there were still schools adopting this archaic attitude to sport, whereby one sport alone was pushed on all pupils. I am not debating the important influence of past success and history on schools and organisations. But I thought we had moved away from a “one size fits all” model in this country, especially when it seemed the school was less than successful in the past anyway. What about Johnny who was never going to make it as a rugby player, but had serious potential talent as a middle distance runner? Or Jack who didn’t have the hand eye coordination to catch a ball but had the elastic strength in his achilles to become a naturally potent high jumper?

These “future stars” are potentially lost, because they are crap rugby players. If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is inferior.

Of course kids and teenagers can join athletic and sports clubs outside of school that take their interest, but generally this talent or love of the activity is unearthed in the school environment. Not every kid has parents who throw them into various clubs to see which one they may excel in. Likewise, there may not be clubs in the area for the child to join and hone their skills.

I know if I didn’t play basketball every day in secondary school, obviously I never would’ve made the Irish basketball team, but I wouldn’t have played football for Kerry or be an international rugby player now either. Playing in school day in day out laid the foundation for my future career, even if it was in a different sport to what I’m majoring in now.

Which brings me to another debate, how early should an athlete specialise in one sport, especially if they want to make it as an elite athlete in that field? “Early specialisation” as it is termed, is basically intense training in one sport while excluding others. In recent times, youth sports participation has evolved from child-driven, recreational-free play for enjoyment to adult driven, highly structured, deliberate practise devoted to sport specific skill development.

The “10,000 hour rule” is often quoted now as a pre-requisite for any potentially elite athlete. This is Anders Ericsson’s theory that it took 10,000 hours of deliberate practise for violinists to become experts. The violinists who logged less time practising had poorer skill. This rule has been discussed and debated in various publications, and extrapolated across to sports people. Certainly my own point of view is that it cannot be generalised to all, if that were the case, anyone can become an Olympic champion, if they have a hard enough work ethic.

But unfortunately, ideas such as this one has put blinkers on coaches, parents and children alike, who believe if they are to excel they need to focus only on one sport from a very young age and practise deliberately, as opposed to for enjoyment. What research has shown is that this is actually to the detriment of the child athlete. Early specialisation leads to increased risk of injury, early retirement from the sport and eventual lack of participation in all sports, plus an emotional and social cost of playing. And besides all these risks, retrospective research has also clearly indicated that athletes who play multiple sports throughout childhood and adolescence before specialising are more likely to be successful, than those who specialise earlier in life.

Why is early diversification more advantageous? It leads to better motor development, better movement ability, better skill acquisition and talent transferability. The athlete is likely to be a lot more adaptable, the strongest of the species. They are less likely to suffer from burnout and injury, leading to early retirement. From an emotional and psychological viewpoint, they are more likely to enjoy what they are doing, while still developing, and that intrinsic enjoyment is what will motivate a certain cohort to continue and excel into adulthood.

I don’t agree with the idea that children are earmarked for sporting stardom from an early age, whether from an internal or external source. I can see the temptation, if a 10 or 12-year-old is miles beyond their peers, for them and those around them to dangle that carrot of becoming world champion in their field. However, being a professional sportsperson is not a pre chosen occupation, no matter how talented you are at 10 years of age. It is a journey, and not one for everyone. Some of those at the top of their game might reference a steely determination and sole focus from an early age, but that is only one cog in the wheel as to why they have gotten to the pinnacle of their sport now.

So if you are a parent, coach, or teacher of a budding Roy Keane, take note! Don’t exclude all other sports the child wants to play, in the hope one day they will make £100,000 a week in the Premier League and you get a mention in the autobiography. Don’t emphasise deliberate training and practice over enjoyment, and don’t pressure the child to achieve their potential as quickly as possible. Instead encourage playing for enjoyment, participation, and skill acquisition. There is plenty time and opportunity to facilitate growth and development in later years, if that is what the athlete wants.

What can schools do?

There is a massive window of opportunity to identify the potentially successful athletes of the future in our schools. Athletics Ireland launched a campaign called “New Breed”, with David Gillick as ambassador, going to schools and testing out students on 30m sprint tests, standing long jump and standing high jump tests with the aim of discovering future stars and trying to link them into local athletics clubs.

Athletics training, I only discovered recently myself, is paramount to all sports, including field-based activities. Having played sport for the majority of my life, I have to admit I only learned to run properly in the past two years, and it is still a work in progress! The amount of non athletics based athletes I see on TV who don’t run with a smooth, efficient stride is astounding, not to mind the average weekend warrior. GAA, rugby, soccer, basketball, and hockey would all benefit from the basic movement ability, agility, plyometric and sprint mechanic training hitherto associated primarily with athletics.

Hence, I think an initiative similar to the one Athletics Ireland piloted, should be rolled out across the board in schools. We have well educated talented PE teachers around the country whose knowledge and skill base are undervalued and underutilised. PE in general should be far more respected in schools. My ideal would be to have kids take athletics-style classes in late primary/early secondary school as part of PE, where they would participate in fun- based drills learning correct running style and mechanics. The benefits would go from unearthing new talent and potential Olympic champions to consolidating and complementing the skills of talented kids participating in sport, and giving self-esteem and confidence to those who avoid PE and physical activity at all costs. It might even help cut health costs down the line.

Now that is something I would make compulsory.


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