While working with a National Sport Organisation I was approached by a parent who suggested that National Sports Organisations shouldn’t be involved in the development of their sport.
Paraphrasing Upton Sinclair’s quote it was difficult for me to accept his argument when my salary depended on him being wrong*.
Over the duration of my employment I began to realise he might be correct: National & State Sports Organisations shouldn’t be the primary source of development of the Athletes in their respective sports, not directly anyway.
7 Reasons NSOs shouldn’t directly be involved in Athlete Development
For the sake of this article I will use the term ‘NSO/SSO’ to refer to National or State Sports Organisation; and ‘funding’ interchangeably with ‘scholarships’ or ‘selection’.
I also differentiate between Athlete Performance (e.g. the National team) and Athlete Development (aka the ‘pathway’).
1) Our (Path) Way or the Highway.
Whether it’s through the National Head Coach or High Performance Manager, typically the NSO/SSO will have only one pathway for development. And the attitude seems to build that anything outside of that pathway is wrong or, worse, ‘contra’ to what they are trying to achieve.
This Pathway often has very few entry points.
Athletes that don’t fit this Procrustean Bed are often neglected or left behind.
2) Targeted Athletes have the Inside Lane. Again. And Again.
Wild cards into events… Team selections… Extra funding…
Athletes who have been given funding early on tend to get second and third chances.
In fact, many observers note that sometimes it is harder to get out of the ‘system’ than it is to get in.
Of course, this is understandable on two fronts. Firstly, the decision maker who first offered the Athlete the funding wants to be shown to be correct. There is a certain amount of pride on the line.
Secondly, and probably most likely, the Decision Maker will have a better relationship with that Athlete, have a better understanding of their journey and possibly have a greater commitment to their improvement.
3) All on Same Page (or Increasing Fragility) .
It’s every NSO/SSO’s objective to ‘get everyone on the same page’.
As one of my respected colleagues once whispered to me ‘What if it’s the wrong page?‘
This is a particularly valid question: why do the Decision Makers imply there is *only* one page for success?
Who is to say the Decision Maker encouraging everyone to follow them is going in the correct direction (bearing in mind that this direction will naturally include certain Athletes and exclude others)?
Something interesting to note is that the Page often changes, not with the addition of new information but with a change in Decision Maker.
In other words, the Page is more about the Decision Maker than it is about the current information.
Heuristic The only people who need to be on the Same Page are those that are immediately surrounding the Athlete: Coach, parents, S&C, psychologist, etc. – and even then, some fresh ideas from ‘other pages’ are most likely a good thing!
4) Only Athletes that fit the Description get Funded.
Often, a NSO/SSO will have a certain paradigm of the Athlete they are looking for. This paradigm could be physical (a certain shape or specific abilities), psychological (for example, competitive or relaxed), technical or tactical.
This Ideal is usually based on the current world leader/champion. If this is indeed the case, at best the NSO/SSO will get a copy of an original.
How many tennis coaches wanted their players to hit ‘heavier’ when Nadal was at his peak? Or how many rugby players were instructed to kick like Johnny Wilkinson post the 2003 Rugby World Cup?
Rephrasing the same questions: how many tennis players and rugby players were discarded from their national programs when they couldn’t mimic Nadal or Wilkinson in their respective sports?
Often, in similar cases to those mentioned above, the focus is on what the Athlete cannot do relative to the world leader/champion rather than what they can do.
5) Athletes Train but not Compete.
Some NSO/SSO set their programs up where the Coaches train the Athletes then release them to play for other clubs or teams. In other words, the Coaches are not accountable for the performances of the Athletes.
The worst, but all too often, scenario is that Coaches start to coach towards KPIs/Excel spreadsheets, ensuring ‘Gym Numbers’ go in the right direction with little consideration of the Athlete’s performance.
I once had a phone call from a NSO/SSO Coach informing me a mutual Athlete had to decrease his skinfolds. The fact this Athlete had been presented four consecutive Man of Match awards did not interest the Coach – his Excel sheet showed the Athlete was above the average in skinfolds measurements and this was deemed more important (Read Darren Robert’s excellent Q&A here about this very point).
6) It’s not just the Athletes… Coaches too.
When there is a ‘Our Pathway or the Highway’ paradigm, not only do a certain type of Athlete have the inside lane but certain types of Coaches too.
Independent thinkers are seldom valued in these systems.
Coaches who coach in a particular way choose Athletes who compete/look/play/train in a particular way.
The underlying message is clear: it you don’t fit our mold you’re on your own. This mantra often gets translated into ‘be like us, or be against us’.
7) The ‘What About Me?’ Complex
“She got selected into the program but I beat her at Nationals”… “My ranking is higher but he got the funding”… “They gave us some money but I heard they gave them more”….
The final reason that NSO/SSO shouldn’t be the primary deliverer of Athlete Development Programs is not the fault of the NSO/SSO but a natural, almost inescapable consequence.
When funding, wild cards & selection are not based on black and white criteria, and is based on someone’s perception (i.e. grey and fuzzy) there is bound to be some backlash from those who missed out.
To sum up the above 7 points, when the NSO/SSO take on the responsibility of Athlete Development it immediately becomes a ‘Top Down’, instead of a ‘Bottom Up’ scenario.
It becomes Fragile (when we should be chasing Anti-Fragile).
And the younger the Athlete the NSO/SSO aims to get in their program the exponentially worse each of the above points are.
* For those interested, after much thought, I agreed with this Parent while still employed by the NSO.
I even proposed a similar version of this article (with a strategy that would eliminate these criticisms) that would have made my position redundant.