Talent development and elite sport in secondary schools

October 9, 2019

The revision of the Act on Elite sport in 2004 contained two new tasks for Team Denmark. The aims of the institution are to develop Danish elite sport in a socially responsible way. Firstly, the so-called 15-year rule was abolished, which meant that Team Denmark also had the opportunity to take responsibility for recruiting and developing the youngest talents. From the law’s remarks it appeared, that “… it no longer seems appropriate that Team Denmark cannot protect, advise and support the children under 15 years who participate in intensive training when the institution is tasked with protecting the children over 15 years. Therefore, the current age limit is removed, and Team Denmark, in collaboration with the other relevant partners (parents, clubs, federation and DIF) is instructed to take care of the development of the very young talents, ie. taking into account the  development of their motor, mental and social skills”. Secondly, it became possible for Team Denmark to establish formalized colloboration with the country’s municipalities in the form of mutually binding contracts. It was emphasized in the law’s remarks that “… such contracts can, for example, include the young talents with a view to providing them with good training conditions locally and to involve them in long-term education planning ”. The “new” Act on Elite sport hereby gave Team Denmark new objectives, strategies and topics in relation to recruiting and developing more and better talents for Danish elite sport. The two new tasks were integrated in subsequent years, partly at national level with initiatives such as “Age-related Training – ATK”, sports-specific ATKs and preparation of “Common values for talent development in Danish sports” and partly at local level with mutually binding contracts with a total of 23 of the 98 municipalities in Denmark.

Team Denmark’s Elite sport municipalities – a collaboration between many players

The contracts between Team Danmark and the municipalities, which are typically concluded for a four-year period, have as a general aim to optimize the framework and promote conditions for elite sports and in particular talent development in the municipalities. The contracts are different from municipality to municipality, but the vast majority of contracts include topics such as priority sports, training sessions in primary schools, secondary schools, and higher schools; sports medicine, physical therapy, dietary guidance and sports psychology.

One of the focus topics – the collaboration between primary schools, municipalities, clubs, federations and Team Denmark on sports classes in primary schools, where children and adolecents participate in a “dual career” – is now described and discussed in the book: “Talentudvikling og elitesport i skolen”(Aarhus University Press, 2019). The book, edited by Jens Chr. Nielsen and Jesper Stilling Olesen, associated professors at DPU, Aarhus University educational psychology and educational anthropology, has been prepared on the basis of a four-year research project in the period 2013-2017. The researchers have followed a year of sports children at 4 primary schools from 7’th to 9’th grade using both qualitative methods (interviews and observation) and quantitative methods (questionnaires). In doing so, the sports children, both those who have been successful and those who have had difficulty living up to the expectations of a progressive sporting development, have followed in development and not least in the ups and downs that have brought them closer in some cases to elite sports and in other cases has brought to drop-out in elite sports.

New theories and perspectives on talent development and long-term education

The book is generally well written and introduces new theories and perspectives to the existing literature on talent development and education. And not least, a number of key controversies and dilemmas about children, adolescents and elite sports are described and discussed based on extensive empirical material. The book contains 13 chapters on i.a. talent development under change, international research on talent development, sports classes under development, educational and cultural policy initiatives, preparation for dual careers, transitions in sport, the visible talents and the transition to high schools as well as a comprehensive literature list. In particular, I would like to highlight three topics in which the book gives Danish and international elite sports new knowledge based on theoretical considerations and the practice of reality.

Sports children in a sports class – and not talents in an elite sports class

Firstly, the researchers emphasize that the target group for a combined school and sport offer in the primary schools should be defined as “sports children in a sports class”. There is no doubt that talent development has in the past decade received a lot of focus both in the education system, the business world and in the cultural and sports world. The primary reason for this development has been that talent development has increasingly been regarded as a crucial factor for smaller nations such as Denmark can compete in the international sporting race. However, there is also no doubt that too many “talents” have been “prematurely” identified in the last decade, especially in the world of sports. In my opinion, there is no greater mistake than the statement: “Everyone has talent” and it is quite a few percent of the sports children in the sports classes that can – and should – be included in Team Denmark’s definition of “… a talent that is a youth athlete with competences and skills in a sport that is likely to develop long-term as a senior athlete at the highest international senior level. ” The vast majority of sports children and adolecents, both inside and outside Team Denmark’s Elite sport municipalities, never come close to that category. For this reason, all schools, clubs, federations and, of course, Team Denmark in the future should use the term “sports children” and “sports classes” instead of “talents” and “elite sports classes” – not least for the sake of the sports children and adolecents. Similarly, it is also valuable that the researchers introduce the concept of “dual becoming” instead of “dual career”. For sports children or adolecents at the age of 14-16, this is precisely a process of becoming and not a sports or educational “career”. In my opinion, this can at most be a career, both sports and educational, after completing high school and a sport transition from junior athlete to senior athlete.

“Double commitment” – sports children who can and want to

Secondly, the researchers point out that “double commitment” is crucial as an admission card for a good talent development. Commitment is an expression of a particularly strong commitment and can be defined as a general mental state that can explain a person’s targeted actions over a longer period of time. The researcers also emphasize that commitment is a relational and dynamic phenomenon, which should ideally apply to both domains: Sport and school. The premise of being selected and staying in a sports class for three years is that the individual child has a certain level of competence within their sport, that the sport child can continue to develop this competence towards the elite level and that he or she have the will to do so. It is also expected that the sports child has professional school competence and willingness to, among other things, to do homework and deliver assignments. In other words, the sport children must “be able” and “want”, both the school and the sport. That task is solved by some sports children, but far from most. The majority of the sports children are thus often under a “cross-pressure” between the sport and the school, where different expectations and demands are set from eg. parents, teachers, coaches, peers and not least the sports children themselves. The book describes – specifically and directly – “cross-pressed” for the different types of sports children. One of the book’s few weaknesses is that it gives no answer to how large a proportion of sports children who master both competences and commitment in the two domains and how many sports students are actually “misplaced” in a sports class.

Significant differences between sports – and between girls and boys

Thirdly, the researchers often emphasize in the book that sports children in sports classes should be viewed as procedural and relational phenomena involving many different actors: the sports children, teachers, coaches, coordinators, supervisors, parents, peers, and many others. A strong talent development environment consists not only of people, but also of a number of material facilities and objects such as school buildings, sports facilities, sports equipment and props, as well as policy documents, objectives, ideologies, norms and visions. The complex and controversial topic – talent development and elite sports in the primary schools – is also clearly expressed through the research project’s descriptions and discussions of the marked differences in behavior and attitudes, both in two genders – girls and boys – and in between the different sports.

“Talentudvikling og elitesport i skolen” should, in my opinion, be a compulsory curriculum for any coach, teacher, parent, coordinator who deals with children, adolecents and elite sports – and who will follow them as best they can on their way in or…. out of elite sports.