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Tuesday, 29 May 2012

So What Is Developmentally Appropriate Sport?

I have written a guest blog for the sports coach UK site.  It's on a perennial, but challenging issue ofDevelopmentally Appropriate Sport.

Click on the image to directly to the site, or enter

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Sport has still got a long way to go, Mr Gove

I don't think I was the only person surprised by the tone of the recent speech by Michael Gove, English Secretary of State of Education, at Brighton College.  He took the opportunity to highlight the inequalities that remain characteristic of British society, and especially advances offered those able to attend independent schools.

"It is remarkable how many of the positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals who were privately educated."

I was surprised because Mr Gove has never struck me as someone especially bothered by our evident social biases.  A great deal of Mr Gove's speech focused on the inequalities inherent within our sports systems.  Yet, in dismantling the Physical Education and School Sport programme in English schools, and especially the School Sport Partnerships, he was directly responsible for sabotaging one of the very few national policies to successfully break down barriers to participation of state-school pupils.

And the proposed solution of 'more competitive sport in schools' would be simply laughable if it was not for its promise of reversing many of the advances we have seen during the last decade, with the negative health consequences that will bring.

Simple solutions are great for dealing with simply problems.  But even Mr Gove is starting to recognise that the problems of participation and talent development are not simple.

At Brighton he said:

Take sport – where by definition the biggest names are in their teens, twenties and thirties.

As Ed Smith, the Tonbridge-educated former England player, and current Times journalist, points out in his wonderful new book “Luck”:

Twenty-five years ago, of the 13 players who represented England on a tour of Pakistan, only one had been to a private school. In contrast, over two thirds of the current team are privately educated. You’re 20 times more likely to go on and play for England if you go to private school rather than state school.

The composition of the England rugby union team and the British Olympic team reveal the same trend.
Of those members of England’s first 15 born in England, more than half were privately educated.

And again, half the UK’s gold medallists at the last Olympics were privately educated, compared with seven per cent of the population.
All of this is true.  And it has been known from at least the 1980s.

Here is a summary of some of the social and economic factors linked to high performance in sport:

Parents achieved high standards in domain
Rotella and Bunker, 1987; Radford, 1990; Feldman and Goldsmith, 1986
Relatively high socio-economic status
Rowley, 1992; English Sports Council, 1997; Duncan, 1997
Ability and willingness to financially support participation and specialist support
Rowley, 1992; Kirk, et al, 1997a; Kay, 2000
Ability and willingness to invest high amounts of time to support the child’s engagement in the activity
Yang et al., 1996; Kirk et al., 1997b; Kay, 2000; Holt and Morley, 2004
Parents as car owners
Rowley, 1992
Relatively small family size
English Sports Council, 1997
Two-parent family
Rowley, 1992; Kay, 2000
Attendance at Independent School
Rowley, 1992

Table: social and economic influences on youth talent development in sport (based on Bailey and Morley, 2006)

These, and other, factors show why any ambition of a fair and equitable sports development system in countries like the UK will always be difficult.

Think of these data this way: imagine a child who is talented in a sport; the absence of each factor listed in the table above becomes a barrier to that child's development NO MATTER HOW TALENTED, OR COMMITTED HE OR SHE IS.

Mr Gove's speech acknowledges the unfairness of the UK sports system.  But there is another side to the matter: it is also stupid.  It is stupid because participation and advancement in sport are always undermined by factors that have absolutely nothing to do with interest or ability.

So it is a refreshing to read Mr Gove's speech.  Perhaps it will bring about renewed awareness of the problems inherent with the UK sport system (and all other Western systems).  But this awareness needs to be coupled with an acknowledgement that simple solutions will not do.

We need a root and branch re-evaluation of the whole system, and a suite of solutions based on evidence.  And we are a long way from adopting that sort of approach in sport.

Friday, 4 May 2012

How should we feel about the 'feelgood factor' at the London Olympics?

Just because you feel good

Doesn't make you right

Just because you feel good

Still want you here tonight.

Skunk Anansie, Hedonism

Prime Minister David Cameron thinks that the Olympics will create a legacy for the whole of the UK and not just London.  But, true to his earlier statements about importance of feelings and what-not, he warns that some of this legacy will be “hard to touch”.

The concept of 'hard to touch' is a strange one in an era of evidence-based policy, in which, in the words of one civil servant (presumably in thrall to the early philosophy of Wittgenstein), 'if I can't measure it, it don't exist'.  As you know, Wittgenstein abandoned his early ideas and adopted a broader view, and perhaps Mr Cameron has also been persuaded to take a more inclusive conception of reality.  Or maybe he is just worried that the only legacies of London 2012 will be immaterial.

Cameron's touchy-feeling tones when discussing the Olympics are not without precedent.  Consider this neat piece of verbal gymnastics from New Labour's Game Plan policy document, when it suggests that whilst the quantity of medals won at the Olympics is of great importance, one must not neglect the “quality” of a victory:
“‘Quality’ can be taken to be the extent to which victory produces the feelgood factor and national pride (as these are the main public benefits of high performance sport). If it is accepted that the more popular the sport, the greater the amount of feelgood which follows, then “quality” medals are those obtained in the most popular sports.”

So, according to Game Plan, the feelgood factor is a quality that can be created and changed in amount over time, and although it is admitted that it is “difficult to quantify”, there seems little room for doubting that it can have a powerful causal effect.

So what is the feelgood factor, then?  In case you thought it was something to do with happiness, or satisfaction, or well-being, or other philosophical fluff, the authors of Game Plan tell us it can all be explained with hard science:
“The biological explanation for the feelgood sensation is due to the release of endorphin in the brain. Endorphin has been called the ‘happy hormone’ and is released for different reasons, mainly physical, but also from laughter and joy, experienced by, for example, your team winning a match. Endorphin helps to reduce pain and has even been found to enhance treatment of many illnesses and diseases.”

Remember that this piece of pseudo-scientific woowoo comes from a government document; a document that is primarily concerned with justifying the future of sport in the UK, and the billions of pounds it says are needed to ensure it.

The feelgood factor has been repeatedly cited by governments and other agencies as one of the arguments for investment in elite sport in general, and the London Olympics.  In Game Plan, for example, it is listed as the first of three 'virtuous outcomes' of elite sporting success (the others are economic benefits and increased grass-roots participation).

If the Game Plan account is to be accepted, the feelgood factor really means 'improved mood'.  Perhaps you think that is a rather feeble justification for close-to £10,000,000,000,000 expenditure from London alone.

The weediness of the feelgood defence for investment in elite sport is partly due to the fact that we can easily think of more economical alternatives for generating good feelings and lifting our mood, from old episodes of Dad’s Army to Christmas with family and friends, to a smile from a secret crush.

There is a second, more fatal difficulty with the feelgood defence.  Improved mood following nice experiences is almost always short-lived.  Humans are adaptive creatures (like all creatures, in fact), and we readily adapt to changing environments.  So improved mood or satisfaction eventually results in a ‘hedonic treadmill’ by which the elevated state will not continue, even if the circumstances that promote it are maintained.

In other words, the good mood that we hope will come with the Olympic success will be short-lived, and will certainly last a lot less time than it will take to pay off the debt from the Games.

And let’s not forget that moods – like interest rates and skirt lengths – can go up as well as down.  John Steele, former CEO of UK Sport, spoke of the “the euphoria of a full Lord’s Cricket Ground … when a single Ashes test was won”.  But by the same logic, any of England’s subsequent defeats would seem destined to result in national despair.  What will happen to the feelgood factor if any of our Olympic hopefuls under-performs or is injured?

If success in elite sport (let alone second-hand, spectated success) has a potent positive effect on our mood, presumably failure has the opposite.  And if this is true, then this is a real cause for concern, as the nature of sports competition is that most players lose in the long-run.

These are not new arguments, nor particularly scholarly.  I am sure there are those among the governments and their policy makers who know that the public has been offered some pathetically weak rationale for their investment in the Games.  Personally, I’d prefer an honest explanation like, ‘Hey, it’s the Olympics.  We beat the French!’  I’d even take, ‘Look, I was a bit of a spotty geek at school; if we get the Olympics, I get to hang out with Jessica Ennis and Victoria Pendleton!'  I just wish they didn’t treat us like fools.  It doesn't feel good at all.