Why a focus on participation sport does not mean a reduction in elite performance?

Today saw another one of our players break into the England set up, this is the second of our players to have received an international call up and joins a plethora of other elite level achievements amongst our long standing members. But how can this be the case as we have no elite player pathway, we have no focus on elite sport and we do not ability band our players? At the last count we have had 20 players play at elite level and apart from 2 of them not one entered the academy system until past their 14th birthday, in most cases not until past 16 years old.

I think the most pertinent point in the aforementioned is that we do not focus on elite sport in fact quite the opposite, our whole reason for being is to instil a love of sport to increase the likelihood of lifelong participation. Whilst a hugely complex issue, too much too soon is certainly one of the contributing factors of drop out in youth sports. What we do know is that around 80% of children drop out of sport by aged 16, and in most cases never return. Therefore the facts are that we are selecting our elite performers from a talent pool of only 20%. What would that talent pool look like if we were to be able to reverse that and select from the 80%, would our elite national teams be better off?

To be frank, I literally couldn’t care less about the national team the issue is far greater than the top 0.0001% of performers. Don’t get me wrong come the summer when the World Cup gets started I will become as Nationalistic as the rest of the country and will probably even bring out my 1980’s England shirt, I will be hoping as everyone that this year might just be our year and probably be just as disappointed as usual. But other than the huge tournaments I am not really interested in elite sport, sport has a far wider role to play than feeding that tiny pinnacle of achievement.

We know that ours and many other nations around the world are moving less and less. We know that this, connected with diet, is killing more people than ever, in the UK obesity related disease is now the number one killer and the World Health Organisation is describing this issue as a ticking time bomb. So I suppose the question is, what is more important keeping people fit, active and healthy into adulthood or winning an international tournament? Here is an extreme thought why do you have to choose?

My area of research is why children drop out, and whilst hugely complex there are a number of key issues that would have a huge impact. The number one issue remains negative adult behaviour both from parental and a coaching perspective. If we were to change just that one important aspect what would the impact be on long term participation? What would happen if we didn’t band children, and instead just let them play games? What would happen if every weekend instead of huge and complicated league systems all local facilities were open to all children for free to play and enjoy movement and sport? What would happen if we removed all adult agenda and just allowed children to be children? I know it sounds crazy but is it?

There is a rather interesting book, that if you have yet to read it I would recommend it. It is called The Goldmine Effect and whilst it is Faction, there are some very important and pertinent points in relation to the phenomenal success of Brazilian footballers. The fact is that Brazil has produced more World Footballers of the Year than any other nation. Another fact is that it has virtually no organised grassroots system and no academy system until much later. On asking why the professional clubs do not follow Western Culture with regards early selection it was quoted:

“Why would we select at the youngest ages and train young children? The favelas and pick up games in and around every Brazilian city already does the job for us”.

“Why would we select at the youngest ages and train young children? The favelas and pick up games in and around every Brazilian city already does the job for us”.

So as an organisation we will continue to focus on participation and instilling a love of sport with the hope that we can positively impact as many children as possible. In fact our aim is to be able to improve the lives of 1 million children per week. By instilling a love of sport and keeping children playing into adulthood, we believe this will not reduce elite performance in fact the opposite. If we keep more children playing for longer the talent pool from where we should be selecting will by its very nature grow and therefore elite performance will mirror this. In the meantime lets create as many environments as possible to foster a love of movement and allow children to play.

I quote Mark O’Sullivan and call for the following:

“The most possible, for as long as possible in the best environment possible”.