Analysis: research suggests that challenges experienced in the sporting context are important for later development

By Jamie Taylor and Ger Barry, DCU

The journey taken to achieve high performance has long been a topic of widespread interest amongst journalists, researchers, coaches and the general public. Unfortunately, this fascination has also led to the proliferation of some pretty dodgy concepts, such as the 10,000 hour rule, 'he/she is born with it' etc. While useful for selling books or attracting social media followers, these concepts have hindered the practical application of high quality research.

In the last decade, more and more attention has been paid to the role of challenge as being a key factor in how athletes develop. A 2012 article by Dave Collins and Áine MacNamara offered the perspective that the athlete development pathway "should not be a comfortable place to be, rather, it should offer a variety of lessons to be learnt through both explicit and implicit means".

This view contrasts with the suggestion that traumatic, or adverse childhood experiences are necessary for later elite performance, a controversial idea that has become prominent in some media outlets. In contrast, our research would suggest that challenges experienced in the sporting context, often experienced as traumatic, are important for later development. The high and lows, if you will.

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From RTÉ Sport, profile of Brian Fenton, 2018 Footballer of the Year

As an example of this phenomena, Brian Fenton, six time All-Ireland champion and two time footballer of the year, wasn't always an indomitable force in the middle of the field. In fact, he failed to make the Dublin minor football panel as an 18 year old. Reflecting on this after winning his first footballer of the year award, Fenton told Dublin City FM that "It was something like an innate stubbornness in me that drove me on to say: 'listen, this isn't the end for me.' Alright, it's not working out now but I still had to pursue it."

Similarly, current hurler of the year Limerick's Gearóid Hegarty never made the minor grade. Although he featured on the extended hurling panel for two years, his career never took off as he envisaged. After winning the Hurler of the Year award last year, Hegarty told the Irish Times that "looking back on it now, those were the best things that ever happened to me…You’ve just got to learn from your failures and that’s something as a teacher that I try and teach my kids. Failure is not fatal. It’s just feedback to get it right in the future".

This presents something of a paradox. The highs are more likely to help athletes be confident and motivated, something we clearly want! In contrast, the lows seem to promote deep reflection and energise future action, again something very desirable. But highly emotional experiences come at a cost. Humans have evolved to adjust to stress and potentially benefit in the short term. However, it is potentially harmful in the longer term.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, Alan Cawley and Feargal Brennan discuss Cristiano Ronaldo's return to Manchester United and the Premier League

So what is it that helps someone benefit from these times of difficulty or a 'rocky road'? Our research would suggest that young athletes with an appropriate psychological skillset are more likely to benefit from stressors in terms of learning and development. Unfortunately, negative consequences can occur without these individual resources, or if stressors are prolonged. This means that the coaches of young players have a number of things to weigh up, especially as the sporting world grapples with athlete welfare concerns.

Take, for example, recent discussion about the role of Walter Smith in the development of Cristiano Ronaldo. In this interview, Darren Fletcher describes how Ronaldo's long-term progress benefitted from Smith, who was coaching Manchester United at the time, allowing other players to foul him. Fletcher goes on to attribute the approach of Smith as changing Ronaldo’s game and being a significant factor in the player that he later became.

Experiences like this have been examined in some of our other research where we have looked at the transition for a young player into a senior team. It showed that players who had a difficult time, and had an appropriate mental skillset seemed to benefit from the highs and lows of elite sport. These emotions were generated by a variety of different experiences, deselection, poor performance and feedback from coaches - or, on the flipside, selection and validation from coaches, other players, and pundits.

For a coach to be supportive of progress, there is a need to recognise that their role is more than offering lots of positivity

All this points to an important dimension of coaching and the development of talent. For a coach to be supportive of progress, there is a need to recognise that their role is more than offering lots of positivity. Rather than seeing emotion as something to manage away, the coach's role should utilise and provoke a range of emotional responses to engage each individual, offering varied points of reflection from which to maximize learning.

To be crystal clear, this in no way validates abusive coaching, the sustained or repetitively inappropriate emotional response to an athlete. The core role of the coach is to consistently offer the athlete an emotional experience that meets their needs.

As pracademics who coach and research, we believe this phenomena offers an important future angle of research for all coaches looking to enhance athlete development and welfare (something we discuss on this podcast).

Dr Jamie Taylor is an Assistant Professor in Elite Performance at DCU where he works with members of the elite sport community from around the world on the Professional Doctorate and MSc in Elite Performance programmes. He is also a Senior Coach Developer at Grey Matters Performance working across professional and Olympic sports. His background is as a rugby coach at Leicester Tigers and continues to coach at Loughborough University in the UK. Ger Barry is currently undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Elite Performance in DCU. He is also a post-primary school teacher and development coach.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ