The Olympic Journey

Since I was young, the Olympic Games have always seemed to me an aweinspiring spectacle of sporting endeavour. To athletes in most sports, the games are the big one, the event that they completely commit themselves to, and as such the competition is always dramatic. Nowadays it’s the stories and understanding the journey that leads athletes to the games that keep me enthralled.

Remembering Kathy Freeman’s 400m victory always reminds me that elite athletes are still human. The hopes of the home nation rested on her shoulders and when she won all she could do was crouch down and cry – such was the emotion she felt. Perhaps this is a poignant reminder of the pressure for those British athletes preparing to win gold in front of a home crowd at London 2012?

When I watched Steve Redgrave win his fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal, I didn’t really appreciate how outstanding an achievement that was and how his
journey had been shaped over the preceding 20 years. I didn’t even understand the sport, which was ironic considering how involved I have
subsequently become in rowing! All I understood was that he had been champion on a number of occasions but that this time lots of people didn’t think he could manage it. What I now understand is that his journey, his story, is a fascinating and unpredictable one.

So the stories are what the Olympics mean to me, and I am intrigued by the nature of the athletic journey as a pathway of development. Gould et al. (2002) found that at the highest levels of sport, psychological characteristics were greater predictors of successful performances than physiological characteristics. So the journey is in large part psychological. What, then, does the journey of a future Olympian look like?

Most sports governing bodies now have a player pathway based on the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model (Balyi, 1990). This model considers what the pathway of a future Olympian might look like and attempts to break this down into different stages of development.

Planning to become a champion, rather than leaving it to chance, is so important that having an LTAD plan is now a prerequisite for receiving lottery funding for many governing bodies (Abbott et al., 2002). However, this model has received criticism (Black & Holt, 2009; Martindale, 2008), and these are focused on the lack of empirical evidence for the stages and the assignment of athletes to stages based on chronological rather than developmental or maturational age.

The model is principally based on physiological development and was designed to give governing bodies and coaches a guideline for how to structure long-term development from a primarily physical perspective. The growth of other disciplines, including sport psychology, has led to the incorporation of these fields
into the LTAD. However, the model was never designed for this purpose, and as psychologists we should be cautious of excessive criticism of the LTAD. Instead we can also look to other sources for guidance on how we might account for the developmental pathway of future Olympians.

For example, Coté’s (1999) model is perhaps more appropriate for describing psychological development. This was based on Bloom’s (1985) earlier work investigating more generalised talent development across multiple domains, which included sport. Coté proposed that there were three discrete stages of development: sampling, specialising and investment; each of which was characterised by different environmental and psychological qualities. In short, Coté
proposed that athletes began by sampling many sports at a young age, before reducing this number as they specialised and didn’t commit to one sport until they invested at a much later stage. Unlike Balyi’s (1990) model which only considers the development of athletes through one sport, Coté attempts to consider the broader athletic experiences of children and thus is perhaps more able to account for the development of psychological
skills and qualities.

Ultimately the journey of any Olympic athlete is unpredictable and complex, and any attempts to model this journey are going to be problematic. Arguably, it is
impossible to completely account for the complexity of the world in which an athlete develops. However, in attempting to understand what makes Olympic athletes and how they come to be competing at this level, we perhaps begin to ask better questions about the nature of athletic development and how we might begin to help future Olympic champions.

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