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Is it me, or are athletes getting younger. Come to think of it, are they getting older?!

I’m not one for hyperbole, but have you noticed how much younger athletes are achieving incredible things in certain sports? Jordan Spieth, the newest Golf sensation, is one such example. Following hot on the heels of our very own Rory McIlroy (or at least he is until he competes for Ireland at the Olympics next year!), Spieth is doing incredible things in Golf. Commentators are putting him in the same bracket as Jack Nicklaus already. Dina Asher-Smith might not be a world-beater yet, but at only 19 years of age in a sport where athletes traditionally don’t mature and achieve excellence until their mid- to late- 20s, the new British Record holder over 100m is another such example (at least if she stays injury-free!). I’ve just witnessed a 17-year old, Max Verstappen, finish in fourth at the Hungarian Grand Prix. OK, so the car has a lot to do with that, but some of the greats of Formula 1 didn’t even debut in cars at that level until their mid-20s – Jenson Button started racing before Verstappen was even born! How, just how, is this even possible?!

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the older generation are doing some great things. Serena Williams and Roger Federer are cases in point. Still winning (and getting to finals!) at an age where previous generations of Tennis players were heading to the lucrative Seniors Tour or hanging up their racquets to enjoy retirement in a non-tax paying country! The fact that Serena is on course to complete a grand slam of Tennis victories at the age of 33 is impressive, but Federer making the final of Wimbledon (not to mention his demolition of Andy Murray in the semi-final) is nothing short of a miracle, given the strength in depth of Men’s Tennis at the moment. Gianluigi Buffon is still representing Italy and Juventus, eighteen years after his first Italian cap. Of course, there have been plenty of ‘grand old men’ in the Goalkeeping brigade over the years (Dino Zoff, Peter Shilton and Pat Jennings spring immediately to mind), but to be doing what he does in an era where most professional Footballers reach their prime in their late-20s is still quite remarkable. Does the MLS in the US, with the string of recent high-profile signings such as Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo, prove that there is life in the old dog?!

So, why is this happening? I appreciate that certain sports have always had protégés and a history of success at an early age, like Gymnastics (before the rules were changed), Tennis and Swimming, whilst others have had successful older athletes, like Golf, but the examples provided here suggest that age is becoming less important as a factor in determining success in sport across the board.

I can explain the older athletes still performing at the highest level, or at least I think that I can! It’s simple really. Modern training methods, and accompanying advances in nutrition, recovery and biomechanics (that’s the study of movement, to those of you not au fait with ‘sport science speak’), have increased the shelf life of modern athletes. I often cite Ryan Giggs as an example of an athlete, often dogged by injury in the early parts of his career, who managed to play professionally at a high level until his late-30s. How? Well, there’s no doubt that those injuries, more often than not his knackered hamstrings, gave his body time to recover from other knocks, but he often talks about how a change in how he (and Sir Alex Ferguson and his team of support staff) managed his training and recovery led to his longevity at the highest level of professional Football. Sir Steve Redgrave undoubtedly received support of the highest calibre as he reached the twilight of his Olympic Rowing career. Managing Diabetes and Ulcerative Colitis required significant know-how and management of training and recovery – would the last of his five consecutive Gold medals been possible if medical science hadn’t developed an understanding of the two conditions? Even with his remarkable resolve and tenacity, I doubt it!

But younger athletes dominating their sports? Well, I’ve spoken on here before about the 10,000-hour rule of practise, and how questionable the notion is (I like to think that these young performers support my skepticism), but I really can’t explain it with any certainty. How can the likes of Verstappen, Asher-Smith and Spieth produce such awe-inspiring results in sports that traditionally take many years to master? Are they at a biological advantage – Verstappen’s father, Jos, wasn’t bad at driving fast cars! – or were they lucky enough to find sports that they excelled at at an early age – Spieth first picked up a Golf club at 18 months of age, to keep him busy when his brother was born? If anyone reading this has an answer, leave a comment because I would love to know!

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Money makes the world go round: Ingredients for success in elite sport

Bayern Munich have just won the Bundesliga title in Germany, with a handful of games to spare. Manchester City and Chelsea are vying for the Premiership title in England. Real Madrid and Barcelona, traditional powerhouses of Spanish Football, are competing with the less-fashionable Atletico Matrid for the La Liga championship in Spain. French clubs have traditionally, although not exclusively, dominated European Rugby with vastly superior wage structures to their English and Gaelic counterparts. What do all these clubs have in common? They are all stinking, filthy rich! In fact, all of the Football Clubs mentioned (with the exception of Atlético) are amongst the top 50 richest sports clubs in the World (according to Forbes magazine, at least). That’s some feat, given the fan base of American Football and Formula one teams, to name but two.

What about Olympic sports? Well, the five best-funded sports of Team GBs 2012 Summer Olympic campaign were (in no specific order) Cycling, Sailing, Rowing, Athletics and Swimming. The most successful Summer Olympic sports? You’ve guessed it, …Cycling, Sailing, Rowing and Athletics (you’ll realise if you follow the UK sporting scene that Swimming have had a funding cut as a result of under-performing at the games, but you get the idea!)!

So, is funding the only factor in determining success in elite sport? Not quite, but it certainly helps! For example, Nevill et al (2013) purported that legacy (Manchester hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2002) and increases in funding were the main reasons for the significant improvement in results at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Given my background, the case for a highly specialised Sport Science and Medicine programme has to be considered too. It cost a lot of money to host the 2002 Commonwealths, and to pay for the Sport Science, so the argument surrounding funding is both compelling and intuitive. Of course, home advantage (in the case of Manchester 2002 and London 2012) probably had an effect too, but not as much as you’d think. Nevill et al (2013) report that only seven of the extra eighteen medals won by Team GB were in subjectively, measured sports (where home advantage has been statistically shown be an advantage).

Several attempts have been made to identify the factors that lead to producing athletes with the best chance of being successful at an elite level. Broadly speaking, these factors can be classified as contextual factors (such as appropriate funding, …there it is again!), processual (for example, talent development models and unambiguous policy) and specific (sport science, competition structure etc.) (Houlihan and Green 2008). Of significance here is that some of these factors are controllable, while others are uncontrollable. We can’t do anything about the uncontrollable factors (obviously!), so controllable factors have been the focus of research in recent years. I, for one, am more interested in the controllable (after all, that’s what Sport Scientists do!), but it is important to acknowledge that uncontrollable factors will always have an influence (the huge populations of the US and China will always lead to them winning lots of medals with all other things being equal!).

One of the more evocative and thorough pieces of research examining the ‘recipe for success’ in elite sport is that of De Bosscher et al (2008), a six-nation research study that explored these controllable and uncontrollable features of performance environments. Using a qualitative research design, interviewing athletes (1090), coaches (253) and performance directors (71) across able-bodied, disabled, Summer and Winter Olympic sports in all six countries, the study found some interesting and important findings that are equally relevant today as they were when published six years ago. It would appear that late adoption of an elite sports policy (UK Sport initiated much of their strategy following an abysmal performance at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996) and having a large (ish) population and a lot of money (being a member of the G7/8 seems to have its benefits!) were all significant features of being successful. Being able to send athletes to warmer climates in the Winter, attractive positions for coaches from around the World to come to the UK and Government support all seem to be important too.

So, coming back to the original question, is it really all about the money? A more detailed examination of the Winter and Summer Olympic medal tables, using alternative secondary analysis like comparing against Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and population size, would suggest that in the majority of cases it really is! One obvious drawback is that, if funding is really the ‘be all and end all’, successful sports will always be successful (because funding generates success, which generates more funding) whilst other sports will fall further and further behind if this risk. Is it worth investing in sports who aren’t likely to be successful and/or benefit society (much debate has taken place in recent weeks about this as a result of the money invested in Winter Olympic sports vs the cuts in funding in other sports such as Basketball and Volleyball)? Australia seemed to have followed a ‘Here’s some funding and resource, let’s see if you can be successful’ approach and it certainly paid dividends in the 90s and early noughties, when they were a dominant force in World sport. Additionally, an over-saturation of funding at the elite end of the performance pyramid will (eventually) result in a drying-up of the talent pool (try picking an elite athlete from a bunch of overweight, under-active, poorly-resourced schoolchildren). None of these argument are original ones, but important nonetheless.

My opinion? Let’s just say that I’ve experienced providing support to elite athletes without resource and it achieved very little in the medium- to long-term. Equally, I’ve watched in awe, envy and amazement as British Cycling have gone about their pursuit of the Tour de France with a dedication to detail, organisation and support that would put some military operations to shame! How have they achieved it? One word, …Sky (oh, and some of the most talented managers, support staff and athletes in the World!).

DE BOSSCHER, Veerle, BINGHAM, Jerry, SHIBLI, Simon, VAN BOTTENBURG, Maarten, and DE KNOP, Paul (2008). The global sporting arms race: An international comparative study on sports policy factors leading to international sporting success. London: Meyer & Meyer

HOULIHAN, Barrie and GREEN, Mick (2008). Comparative elite sport development: systems, structures and public policy. London: Butterworth-Heinemann

NEVILL, Alan M., BALMER, Nigel J. and WINTER, Edward M. (2013). Congratulations to Team GB, but why should we be so surprised? Olympic medal count can be predicted using logit regression models that include ‘home advantage’. British journal of sports medicine, 2012 (46), 958

Cause for concern, excitement for the future, or is it all just a matter of opinion?

Having sat and watched the England football team play out a fairly drab one-nil win over Denmark on Wednesday, I thought I would plough-in with my thoughts on the squad that I would take on the plane to Brazil (via the US) for the World Cup in June and July. I realise that this is all complete conjecture, and personal opinion, but it makes a change from my ‘soap box’ views on more serious issues, and good fun too!

Before detailing my squad, I’d like to express my views on three important characteristics of my squad of 23; firstly, I believe that there should be at least two players in every position (expect Goalkeeper, where there should be 3). I realise that the formations that are successful in modern international Football (i.e. 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3) suggest some flexibility in that, but to travel to a World Cup without at least four out-and-out Centre Forwards/goal scorers and at least four recognised Centre Half’s is, in my opinion, rather balmy! The whole ‘Seven or eight defenders versus eight or nine midfielders’ debate is redundant to me.

Secondly, the calls for players to come ‘out of retirement’ (John Terry, anyone?) suggests a lack of confidence in the current players. How would you feel if you were a Defender or Midfielder and you were over-looked for Jamie Carragher (great player, by the way) or Paul Scholes (even greater!), like Fabio Capello did in 2010 (although Scholes obviously declined the invitation)?

Finally, I am a believer that the Manager/Coach picks the team, and that you support whoever represents the side regardless of your views. The futile attempts by some ‘followers’ (they aren’t fans) to select the team for Roy Hodgson, the England Manager, is just a little bit pathetic not to mention disrespectful. I’d like to see any of the 12,500 that signed the ‘Don’t select Tom Cleverley’ petition (http://tinyurl.com/k864d9x ) cope with the rigours of playing at Old Trafford in front of 75,000 fans every other week (although Cleverley doesn’t make my squad!). Right, on to my squad…

Goalkeepers

I would contend that one of the first names on the team sheet is Joe Hart, so won’t provide any further comment on him. I’d have liked to have seen Fraser Forster get more International game time, but his big-match experience in the Champions League is a good substitute for this. My first, slightly debatable pick is Ben Foster. Anyone to turn their backs on International selection doesn’t really deserve a second change (IMO), but his form is good enough and he looks more confident (to me) than John Ruddy.

Joe Hart: Manchester City

Fraser Forster: Celtic

Ben Foster: West Bromwich Albion

Defenders

I’m going to hedge my bets a little here. Assuming that the first-choice back four will be Baines (shoe-in), Cahill and Jagielka (again, I can’t see any other combination at Centre-Half) and one of Johnson (who I thought was excellent last night) or Walker at Right Back, that leaves a position for reserve Left Back and two Centre-Half’s. Whilst opinions are divided on Ashley Cole, and the merits of giving the experience of a World Cup to Southampton’s Luke Shaw, you can’t beat that level of experience so he’s there for me. I’ve opted for Phil Jones (who can do a job at RB and/or as a holding Midfielder too) and Joleon Lescott at Centre-Half. I don’t think that Lescott will be selected, but I rate him as a Centre-Half more highly than I do Smalling of Manchester United or any of the others avaialble. I’m also disappointed to see Michael Dawson, who has done an excellent job for Spurs and gets lots of game time, overlooked.

Leighton Baines: Everton

Ashley Cole: Chelsea

Gary Cahill: Chelsea

Phil Jagielka: Everton

Joleon Lescott: Manchester City

Phil Jones: Manchester United

Glen Johnson: Liverpool

Kyle Walker: Tottenham Hotspur

Midfielders

Whilst certain players have guaranteed seats on the plane, …Steven Gerrard and Hodgson favourite Jack Wilshere, …much debate surrounds the other midfielders. Is taking both ‘senior’ players, in Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick, too much of a risk? Should the young tyros, like Jordan Henderson, Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, be given places in the squad? My decisions are based on a combination of reliability, potential and form. The toughest decision for me was how many Central Midfileders to take because, as you can see below, I’ve opted to list my wide midfield/forward players separately. As a result, I’ve opted for four Central Midfielders who I believe could, at a push, do both ‘jobs’ (i.e. could sit in front of the defence and/or play in a slightly more advanced role). As a result, Lampard misses out as does Liverpool’s Henderson. Oxlade-Chamberlain makes it into my squad as a wide player. I have watched a lot of Everton this season, and there is an argument (although a slightly tenous one) that much of Barkley’s form has come about as a result of the performances of Gareth Barry. I rate Barry very highly, but my squad needs to be more versatile coming forward than he is, so he misses out!

Steven Gerrard: Liverpool

Michael Carrick: Manchester United

Ross Barkley: Everton

Jack Wilshere: Arsenal

Wide Players

The toughest decision for Roy Hodgson, and not that easy for me! I’ve not found a place in my squad for Andros Townsend, a revelation at the end of England’s qualification campaign but not getting much game time at Spurs, and have opted for James Milner, in and out of the Manchester City team but a player who could ‘do a job’ at Right Back (at a push), Central Midfielder and/or as a Wide Player. Adam Lallana can do the same sort of jobs, …his performance on Wednesday gets him the nod over Townsend, …and Raheem Sterling is in the form of his life!

Raheem Sterling: Liverpool

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: Arsenal

Adam Lallana: Southampton

James Milner: Manchester City

Forwards

The difference between winning and losing at International level is taking chances. With this in mind, I have picked my Forwards on the basis of who I would most trust to find the back of the net from six yards. Because of this, I have left Danny Welbeck out of my squad. Many believe that he is a Hodgson favourite, and I can see why, but I have gone with the proven record of Jermain Defoe for my fourth Centre Forward. Rickie Lambert ‘gets the nod’ because of his relationship on the pitch with Adam Lallana, and that he is something different to the other players in the squad.

Wayne Rooney: Manchester United

Daniel Sturridge: Liverpool

Rickie Lambert: Southampton

Jermain Defoe: Toronto

Reserve Players

Given that I’m not selecting the squad, and can therefore do whatever I like, my reserve players (I’ve picked seven) are those who I feel have been unlucky not to make my squad and/or given the chance to prove themselves under Roy Hodgson. No need for a reserve Right Back, …I’ve got Phil Jones and/or James Milner in my squad for that!

John Ruddy: Norwich City

Luke Shaw: Southampton

Michael Dawson: Tottenham Hotspur

Jordan Henderson: Liverpool

Gareth Barry: Everton

Andros Townsend: Tottenham Hotspur

Danny Welbeck: Manchester United

Clearly, if Lescott doesn’t get any game time between now and the end of the season, Smalling will get the nod (even though my preference would be Dawson). Cole is at risk, owing to a lack of minutes on the pitch, but his fitness and experience can’t (surely?!) be ignored. Other players with susceptible injury records, …Barkley, Wilshere, Sturridge to a certain extent, …mean that the door is not closed in my squad! So, let the debate begin!

Is 10,000 hours of practise really enough?

As recently as yesterday, the BBC journalist Ben Carter wrote an article (I’m tempted to write yet another article!) about the theory of deliberate practise (http://tinyurl.com/ourq6fc), often referred to in the talent development literature as the ’10,000-hour or ten-year rule’. Describing a man’s attempt to go from complete novice to expert golfer by completing 10,000 hours of practise, even giving up his job in pursuit of this goal (go to http://thedanplan.com to see how he’s getting on!), the article presents some of the contrasting views on this ‘magic number’. Popularised in contemporary books by Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers), Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code) and Matthew Syed (Bounce) amongst others, the theory of deliberate practise describes the methods by which experts are created.

In summary, the theory answers the question of ‘how much practise is enough?’. Early work in this area, primarily in chess players (Chase and Simon 1973) and concert musicians (Ericsson et al 1993; http://tinyurl.com/2dvmuf) found that many of the differences between experts and novice/intermediate performers was as a result of the type of practise that they completed, coining the phrase deliberate practise in the process. Much has been made of this in sport, with researchers such as Starkes and Ericsson himself exploring the same ideas in the coaching literature. After all, what sports coach wouldn’t want to know how to increase the speed of development of their athletes? Of course they do!

It could be argued that much of the popular literature has perhaps over-interpreted some of the original authors’ findings. Indeed Ericcson, the lead author on the research that led to the 10,000-hour rule being conceived, has said so himself. However, despite this, there is still much confusion as to how this theory can be communicated and translated more effectively. So, what do we know? What isn’t conjecture from our knowledge of sport and preparing athletes for competition?

First and foremost, there are always athletes who will reach the top of their sport without completing 10,000 hours (or 10 years) of practice. For example, our very own Lizzy Yarnold. Yes, she was already a talented and trained athlete (in Heptathlon), but she’d never participated in the Bob Skeleton prior to 2008 and was an Olympic Gold medallist within five and a half years! Clearly, there are always going to be examples of prodigies that don’t ‘fit’ into a theory, but delving into the literature more deeply would suggest that 10,000 hours is the minimum number of hours for expert performance. As such, I would contend that the premise behind the theory is flawed on this evidence alone.

Secondly, the theory of deliberate practice suggests that practise should not be inherently enjoyable! Who doesn’t enjoy training for their sport? I thought so! The cathartic effects of exercise, physical activity and sport training are widely-documented. Comparing scales on the violin or piano to practising a golf swing or doing a passing drill in rugby just doesn’t seem to make too much sense to me. I don’t disagree that other important aspects of the definition of deliberate practise, such as intent to be successful and not practising for practice sake, are really important but enjoyment is the over-riding reason why we take up sport, we practise hard and we aspire to be successful!

Finally, and something I don’t feel has been adequately explored and/or explained to date, is that two very different types of training are required for success in sporting endeavours. Physical training, …the ‘hard yards’ in the gym, on the track etc., …are an absolutely essential element of success in sport. Without being physically ready, not to mention being resistant to injury, an athlete wouldn’t be able to develop technical skills and tactical understanding (i.e. the very essence of deliberate practise). The jury is still out…

Bad Journalism, Poor Assumptions and the England Football Captaincy

First published on my Blog ‘Discussing the World of Sport’ in June 2012, I thought that I’d share this piece with you. To give some context to this post, Stuart Pearce (the then England U21 football coach) was asked to select a squad and team for a friendly against the Netherlands in February, following the resignation of Fabio Capello (now the coach of the Russian Federation) and before the Football Association appointed Roy Hodgson as the full-time England Manager. His decision to select Scott Parker, then of Tottenham and now of Fulham, as his captain caused consternation in my house and raised a few eyebrows in the media. This blog was the result! Not that I feel the need to say ‘I told you so’, but I did. So there!

I feel compelled, having read a number of articles recently about the decision by Stuart Pearce to select Scott Parker as his captain, to comment in this blog. As recently as this evening (http://tinyurl.com/2ek48ea), BBC Sport’s Chief Football Writer has suggested that Steven Gerrard was over-looked for the captaincy when England played the Netherlands in February of this year. I disagree completely. I would contend that Pearce, one of the proudest and most patriotic of former England internationals, selected Parker because the player had a good chance of completing 90 minutes and the caretaker manager didn’t want to create an armband ‘merry-go-round’ that had become prevalent in previous England international friendlies.

Gerrard had just come back from injury, had played 120 minutes against Cardiff at Wembley that weekend (in the Carling Cup Final) and Pearce knew that the chances of the player completing 90 minutes was somewhere between slim and none. Indeed, given Gerrard’s recent injury record, it would have been surprising for the player to have been given more than 45 minutes anyway (he actually managed 33 minutes before being replaced by Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge).

In my opinion, the decision wasn’t based on form or leadership qualities. I have no doubt that Parker possesses excellent leadership skills and, given his form at the time, was a ‘shoe in’ to play against the Dutch in the centre of midfield but to suggest that he was a better candidate to captain the national side is pure silliness.

Steven Gerrard is, as he has demonstrated unequivocally in the past two weeks, the most gifted midfielder of his generation. Granted, his performances are arguably a shadow of his lung-busting performances for Liverpool (who will ever forget his almost single-handed rejuvenation of his side in the 2005 Champions League Final against AC Milan), but to suggest that Roy Hodgson would consider any other member of his squad to be captain? Not in my lifetime!