Last week I was amazed by two incredible instances of individual and collective talent. The first was the latest viral sensation, an 11-year rugby league player, stepping and bulldozing his way through opposition players, standing out not only for his size but also undeniable ability.
The second was the overwhelming contribution that all university athletes made towards Australia’s Olympic medal tally, accounting for no less than 62% of all medals.
Somewhere between that young and impressionable ability and the success of our dual path student-athletes, Australia loses a huge amount of talent; talent the nation requires to remain competitive on the global stage, and talent our young men and women use to shape their self-esteem and identity.
So if education represents such a large part of our success at an Olympic level, how can it be used to improve athlete development throughout our talent identification programs to create not only better athletes but more resilient and confident members of our community?
Do we have elite athlete development right?
As a sporting nation, we often rush to provide our young athletes with highly structured training programs, extensive medical and coaching support and champion their efforts through sporting and social recognition. When this focus on sporting prowess is extreme, our young elite athletes can develop the following characteristics;
- Reliance on others for time management
- A sense of entitlement
- Underdeveloped social skills
- Inflated ego
Unlike many, I do not actually think that the inflated ego is the worst of these. They have worked extremely hard to be elite in their chosen sport, and as long as ‘inflated’ is not ‘arrogance’, they should have high levels of confidence in that area of their life. The issues arise when athletes rely solely on these skills at the expense of developing success in other parts of their life when the focus of sport destabilises the all-round development of the person.
Prior to the ages of 14 or 15, it is difficult for young men and women to possess the cognitive development to understand their relative abilities in comparison to other athletes or indeed other parts of their life. This age is an important milestone in sport as well as in mental development, as many elite programs being specialised talent programs at this age and start to assign meaning to the abilities of many of our future stars. It is also the same age young men and women are also expected to start to make decisions about future paths of study and potential careers.
Why is this all important?
Prior to this age children tend to inject the values and beliefs of the major influences in their life. This, of course, involves Mum and Dad, school teachers and for many athletes…their sports coaches.
As such, you would start to say things to yourself like, “Mum or Dad see me as an athlete, therefore I see myself as an athlete” or, “At school, I am rewarded more for being an athlete, therefore I want to be an athlete.”
And so we inadvertently start to shape the identity of young sports people.
Then, as individuals start to get selected into elite development pathways, if their coaches tell them that to be an elite athlete, they need to train harder than anyone else and make sacrifices to get to the top, it is likely that these ambitious young sportsmen and women start to prioritise sport ahead of other activities and often the thing to fall by the wayside is education.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem so bad, in a youth setting sport promotes great lessons in discipline, ambition and fitness. However, when our young athletes jump from big fish in a small pond to the big pond of open age level competition, the absence of broader personal development leaves them susceptible to the peaks and troughs of elite sport. As a minimum, it seriously challenges them. At its worst, throw in an injury and a few failed selection campaigns and it can rob them of their self-belief and reduce their esteem to zero.
The benefits of education in elite athlete development
Education as a dual-path development alongside sport goes a long way to resolving a lot of these potentially negative character traits;
- It places the responsibility on the athlete to manage their time around both training and study
- Adult education often levels students to the depersonalised playing field of student number alone, and in doing so, levels results to a pure assessment of performance, smashing any sense of entitlement.
- It broadens social networks making athletes develop social skills in new settings and with new types of people – including potential future employers.
- It reminds them very quickly that whilst they might be great at sport, there are still plenty of areas of life that they haven’t mastered yet.
Education reminds athletes that they are still human after all, and humbles them through their own and other people’s struggles and triumphs in everyday development.
It provides a challenge when the monotony of training starts to bore them, provides fields of victory when their sporting goals elude them, and a gym for the mind when their injured body may need rest. All of which improve resilience and increase the likelihood of athlete remaining in their chosen sport. On top of all that, based on the recent Olympic result – it improves performance!
What can we do to support elite athlete development?
So when we come across the next 11-year old superstar, as parents, friends and coaches, is our role not then to cheer as loudly for their success off the field as on it? To encourage academic improvement as much as anabolic development?
For centuries sport has been used as part of education for the broader development of character in all those who compete. In a world increasingly focusing on sport, it seems education may well be the missing ingredient to restore the balance of character.