Do we really need elite sports training in schools?

Elite sports training is starting earlier and earlier – but is this always a good thing? School sport image from www.shutterstock.com

A short conversation with a parent a number of years ago made me realise the extent of the problems we have in youth sport. This parent wanted advice on how to make his child faster and stronger to ensure he would become a professional soccer player.

After advising him that the services he required would be expensive, he replied: “don’t worry about the cost, my son’s career will be my superannuation”.

This left me astounded. The child was nine years old.

Sport is an integral part of the social and cultural landscape of Australia, and its physical and psychological benefits are well-documented. However, where once sport was considered a pastime, it has now evolved into a potential career choice. The catch is there are only a relative few who can make a career out of sport.

Sports science has had some bad press of late. And now a series of reports surrounding elite sport in schools, including the Scots College sports science unit, has added further fuel to the anti-sport scientist fire.

The school has been accused of “buying” athletic students with scholarships, giving supplements to students and providing over the top high-tech sport equipment. The school’s new high-performance centre has a resident sports scientist and a “hypoxic chamber” – a device to simulate training at high altitudes.

The traditional role of sport scientists is to maximise the potential of athletes whilst ensuring the risk of injury is minimised, whether that injury is physical or psychological.

So it’s not the involvement of sport scientists in schools per se that is the issue – injuries can be reduced and programs can be systematically monitored. After all, over-training among young athletes is a common problem. But the benefits of a sport science unit can be all be for nothing if the focus is purely on servicing the elite and not ensuring all students are able to fulfil their potential.

It all boils down to the reason we have sport in the first place. Somewhere in time, many parents, coaches and schools have got confused, and started to believe that the goal is to be elite. This concept of “elite” has then seemingly become a selling point for certain schools. They have created professional facilities in order to sell parents and students the dream of becoming a future professional athlete.

Otherwise why would a school have an hypoxic altitude chamber? If it is there to impress prospective parents and justify extensive fees – a kind of pricey marketing tool – then it could be understood.

But from a sport science perspective spending significant money on gaining a minimal, if any advantage, from an altitude chamber demonstrates a poor understanding of sport science and even poorer understanding of what is required to become an elite athlete. It is nearly laughable that school aged children would be using such equipment when so many basic changes can be made to improve performance.

There is a real concern that this kind of equipment is not really about enhancing the student but more about making an impression.

It is also a concern that many seem to want youngsters to stick to one sport early on, or what we call “early specialisation”. The reasoning is that this will give them the best chance to be “elite” with the mythical 10,000 hour rule often quoted. This rule suggests you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become elite. Nevermind that this rule is based on research completed on chess players, violinists and pianists, not sportsmen.

The problem with early specialisation is the distinct decrease in exposure to a variety of movement patterns. If you are only solving the one movement puzzle we can be assured that we will have athletes of lower quality and increase the risk of injury through overuse.

And with all the focus on being school sport “elite”, who is there to pick up the pieces when the dream of being a professional sportsman is shattered? What is the psychological cost when they get to 17 and do not fulfill the elite dream? What has been the cost to their schooling, their family and to their basic social development by chasing a dream that, in most cases, is not possible and may not have even been their own.

Rather than focusing on the elite, we should focus on the 99% that won’t make a living from sport, and ensure they are physically active for life.

We should always promote the desire to fulfil ones’ dreams but the concern is that with all the time spent training, the dream may become blurred, particularly when the dream is really that of the parents, coaches or the schools.