From playground to podium: how to make an Olympian

Children need both freedom and guidance to excel at sports - and they're in danger of being denied both in today's risk-averse climate.

Paul Bickerton

Topics Politics

One of the main selling points of London’s Olympic bid is the idea that a whole host of social, even medical problems, will be tackled in the run-up to the games in 2012. But this focus on tackling junk food ‘addiction’ and obesity, exemplified by a recent speech by chancellor Gordon Brown, presents a profoundly dispiriting vision of the games, and sport in general – and it contradicts the aim of producing sporting champions.

Brown’s speech outlined a pretty unhealthy sporting vision for the UK (1). He said little about improving the development paths for our aspiring Olympians. Instead, his ideas drew more on negative attitudes to children (seeing them either as overweight or vulnerable), which is likely to end up encroaching on their free-play experiences and inhibiting the development of British sporting talent.

Hard work and free play

Producing Olympic champions is a complex process. In the past the Amadeus myth of natural genetic ability, aligned to certain physical characteristics, drove the search for future champions. However, recent advances in sports science research, particularly around talent identification and development, call for a greater focus on nurture rather than nature (2). A whole range of factors interact on the road from playground to podium, but one particular characteristic is unavoidably present in all great sportsmen and women – hours of concentrated, high-quality training, and the intrinsic psychological motivation to undertake this training.

Those ultimate moments of glory – like David Beckham’s famous free kick against Greece at Old Trafford in 2001, or Jonny Wilkinson’s World Cup-winning drop kick in Sydney in 2003 – are the culmination of endless hours of dedicated practice. As youngsters, neither Beckham or Wilkinson had been identified as the most talented performers, but both were recognised for their intense, even obsessive desire to improve. The reality of Olympic glory is brutal: a minimum of 10,000 hours of effective training, referred to in sport as ‘deliberate practice’ (3), must be undertaken for any sporting pretender to fulfil their potential. This equates to approximately three hours a day for 10 years, and, most particularly at the early stages, a large part of this practice takes place informally (4), away from any structured environment or adult interaction.

This informal development is fundamental for young sportsmen and women, but it is impossible for adults to influence it directly. During these ‘free play’ experiences, children will typically and unconsciously develop new skills through games of imagination: transporting themselves into a fantasy world where they become their sporting heroes and act out successful scenarios. The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi described this reverie state common to creative development as ‘flow’ (5) – the principle that when you discover an activity to which you feel a particular affinity, you experience a sense of almost addictive control. Such is the engaging and physical nature of sporting activity. It is little wonder so many children find themselves drawn to sport, and it has nothing to do with calorie-counting.

‘Flow’ is most keenly felt in solitude or with a group with whom one feels comfortable (6). It is for this reason that children seek to play freely so often. The key environments to their sporting development tend to be the informal ones – the street or the garden, the playground at school or in the park with their friends. Brazilian football is possibly the best example of a talent development system that revolves entirely around informal sporting environments. Such is the accessibility and profile of football in Brazil that practically any youngster will go out and play the game. At the early stages of development, this play is highly unstructured and informal but hugely successful in increasing and sustaining the pool of talent required to produce world-class footballers.

The importance of free play should in no way detract from the crucial role of formalised environments, and in particular the coaches and teachers within them. Quality teachers and coaches successfully introduce sport to children, making it accessible and allowing them to go to it, of their own accord. And for those who do, structured support and development is key to maximising potential. Formal coaching or teaching will guide and influence subsequent play and unstructured practice.

Talent pathways in sport are now being redesigned to establish a more flexible and holistic system. That’s because ‘talent’ is virtually impossible to quantify, and genetic ability on its own will not deliver. What delivers is being there, to deliberately practice, and a careful balance between the formal and the informal must be struck.

Empty parks

Unfortunately, while steady progress has been made in establishing structured sporting opportunities, other trends have worked against the development of talent: over-protective and negative attitudes towards children; a ‘risk avoidance’ culture; and the instrumentalisation of sport to counter disassociated problems such as obesity. Gordon Brown’s safety and health preoccupations are symptomatic of a climate that currently associates any unsupervised or unstructured development as potentially dangerous. High-profile child abduction and murder cases have fuelled such perceptions and have had a tangible impact. External activity and unsupervised play are increasingly outlawed due to fears about the risks associated with the great outdoors.

In fact, children are no more at risk now than they ever have been. The number of road traffic accidents has been falling steadily for well over a decade (7), violent crime has gradually decreased since the early 1980s (8), and child abduction and murder rates have remained largely unchanged for the past 50 years (9). The media furore regarding any potential incident is indicative of how rare (and tragic) these occurrences actually are.

What has changed is the freedom children enjoy in their daily lives. Nowadays, 59 per cent of 5- to 10-year-olds walk to school, whereas in the 1970s it was 72 per cent (10). It has been calculated that the free play range of children (the radius around the home to which children can roam alone) has, for nine-year-olds in the UK, shrunk to a ninth of what it was in 1970 (11). Any suggestion that children are safer as a result is ludicrous. Incidents such as abductions do not disappear when children are removed from the streets, but are simply driven elsewhere.

A recent report by the popular BBC children’s news programme, Newsround, drew attention to children’s desire to play outdoors and be active, and their increasing frustration at the limits they faced (12). Kids were questioned on a range of topics, with seven out of 10 saying they felt they didn’t get the chance to ‘play outside as much as they would like to’. ‘Adults can be very stupid sometimes’, said one particularly perceptive 14-year-old. ‘They ban everything, for health and safety reasons. If they’re going to ban such simple stuff they might as well lock all kids in empty rooms to keep them safe. Kids should be allowed to experiment and try things. Otherwise when they grow up they’ll make very stupid mistakes from not getting enough experience at childhood.’

Brown would do well to take heed of this advice. Outlawing computer games, television and junk food will not encourage more children into sport. These activities are all acceptable in their own right, and children require and hugely benefit from the freedom to make some of their own choices, even if that means they sometimes make the wrong choices. In any case, it is very clear that given the choice, children will not opt for a sedentary lifestyle. A research study conducted for Sport England in 2002 stated that 73 per cent of primary age children described themselves as ‘sporty’, and any parent will support the view that their children are positive about sporting experiences and much prefer playing in the park and playground than hanging around at home (13).

Such unsupervised activity reduces the risks to children. If children are outside, regularly unsupervised, and are comfortable interacting with predominantly well-meaning adults, then they will be far better equipped to identify suspicious and threatening behaviour. Nowadays the opposite is occurring: children are shielded from these environments and a climate has developed in which parents, teachers or coaches worry about being held to account for any incidents, lest they be tarnished as irresponsible.

The drive to formalise the environments in which children operate are actually far more revealing of adult society than indicative of any vulnerability on the part of children. It is adult fears of grown-up life that increasingly drive the approach to educating and developing our youngsters, rather than any drastic changes to their surroundings. Fines, parenting orders or parenting classes are all aimed at encouraging adults to take their responsibilities more seriously. Yet the government’s increasing interference in parental life only undermines the role of the parent in deciding what is best for their children. In sport, excessive child protection guidelines, health and safety requirements for any type of activity (however informal), and the view that intensive training is hugely damaging are not effectively protecting children, but merely serving to entrench parental fears.

Unhealthy obstacles

Brown’s sporting vision is contradictory. He calls for a national campaign on health and fitness to be the centrepiece in the build-up to the Olympic games in 2012, yet also rejects the notion of non-competitive sport and calls for extra support to talented young sports stars. The relationship between the social and sporting aims is an uncomfortable one, and two major and somewhat different obstacles emerge. Firstly, by prioritising health, sport becomes prescribed, over-institutionalised and ultimately less attractive. Secondly, viewing children as vulnerable, and sport as dangerous, debilitates the possibility of playing freely and pushing oneself to the limits.

With these two obstacles you have a contradictory perception of children – on the one hand they are overweight and lazy, on the other they are innocent, keen to run around but must be protected from risky environments (namely everyday life). Worryingly, these divergent obstacles can come together: wrap kids up in cotton wool and they will become sedentary as well as fearful, and we can kiss goodbye to the hope of any future Olympic gold medals.

Rather than paint a negative picture of the nation’s youth, the government would do better to focus its attention on shaping a society that has faith in adults to successfully rear their children. Where sport is concerned, they should support and promote the characteristics that motivate children to play sport in the first place – an inherent competitiveness, a desire to define themselves through their sporting success (or lack of it), and a sense of discovery, challenge and enjoyment.

If we are hoping to inspire a new generation of sporting champions leading up to 2012, then allow these young pretenders the freedom to explore and dream – a right that our current crop of Olympic champions and sporting superstars could not have done without.

Paul Bickerton is a sports development professional, having worked in the sector for the past six years. He has written regularly on sporting issues for a number of publications, varying from the Times Educational Supplement to specific sporting magazines. The views expressed above are his own and not representative of any organisation.

(1) Speech reprinted in the Daily Mail, 9 November 2006

(2) Trankle & Cushion. (2006) ‘Rethinking Giftedness and Talent in Sport’:Quest, 58, 265-282

(3) Ericsson, K.A, Krampe, R.T, & Tesch-Romer, C: (1993) ‘the role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406

(4) Côté J & Hay, J (2002). ‘Children’s involvement in sport: a developmental perspective’. In J.M Silva & D.Stevens (Eds), Psychological foundations of sport (pp.484-502) Boston: Merril

(5) Csikszentmihalyi, M., Whalen, S., Wong, M., & Rathunde, K. (1993). ‘Talented Teenagers: the roots of success and failure’. New York: Cambridge

(6) Piirto, J. (1999). ‘Talented Children and Adults: their development and education’. 2nd Ed. Columbus, OH: Prentice Hall/Merrill.

(7) Moorcock, K. (1998) ‘Swings and Roundabouts: the Danger of Safety in Outdoor Play Environments’, Sheffield: Sheffield Hallam University Press

(8) Home Office Crime Statistics for England and Wales (2006)

(9) Families for Freedom (1997), ‘The Kids are Alright!’, London: Families for Freedom Fact Sheets on Children’s Safety

(10) Adams, P & Osborne, S (2005) ‘What happens after school?’ Recreation, April Issue

(11) Wheway, R & Millward, A (1997) Childs Play: Facilitating Play on Housing Estates, London: Chartered Institute of Housing, 1997

(12) Story from CBBC Newsround, 2 August 2002

(13) Research Study conducted for Sport England (2002). ‘Young People and Sport in England, 2002; a survey of young people & PE teachers.’

Topics Politics


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