Professor, Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences (GIH)
Selection, cherry picking certain individuals over others, is a self-evident practice in elite sport. It is part of the game that adult athletes are deselected, left outside, filtered out or cut from a team. All national teams, for example, consist of carefully chosen athletes considered to be the best, and everyone agrees that the team managers should choose some over others. When selection practices are discussed, which does happen, the discussion is about whether it is really the best athletes that are included in the team, not whether selections should be made. A selection practice that is much more problematic is that of children in sports.
Swedish club sport for children and youth is grounded in a sport for all policy. Accordingly, sport should be accessible for everyone. Children’s sport, i.e. for those under age 13, should be playful and competitions are to be conducted on children’s own terms, and little attention should be paid to the result. Nevertheless, selection does not only occur in elite sport. Children as young as eight and nine are also subjected to selection processes, meaning that the coach selects those individuals that are considered to be better for the moment, or have better prospects than others, in an existing group. These children are placed in a specific group or in a special team that is provided with more resources, such as extended training and competition time or specially trained and educated coaches.
In some sports, such as football (soccer), gymnastics and tennis, selection under the age of 13 is relatively common.However, the fact that it is common does not mean that it is generally accepted. The question engages youth coaches, arouses strong emotions, and there are conflicting views on whether early selection of children should take place or not. So, what is the problem choosing some children over others? Apart from the fact that extensive research shows that it is not possible to predict which children will become successful, early selection is problematic for several other reasons. In this text, I will provide some answers to the above question.
1. Selection of children does not lead to optimal sports development
Among those who advocate early selection, the argument is that it is necessary in order to produce senior elite athletes. In some sports it is part of the so called talent development to select those children that are seen as ‘the best’ and give them better resources, for example better coaches, venues, more allocated training time and individualized training programs. Selection is seen as an instrument through which the most ‘talented’ children get a chance to reach their full potential.
However, the extensive research that exists on talent identification shows that it is not possible to predict which children will be the best athletes as adults. If the long-term goal is to produce athletes who can reach the elite level, other pathways lead there. Creating a safe environment where young people can develop as athletes and children is a recipe for success, rather than ‘looking for talent’.
Studies of Swedish national team athletes show that there are varied and different paths to the top. The Swedish sports model is largely characterized by late specialization and elite investment, and it is suggested to be similar in other countries such as Denmark and Germany. Unfortunately, many coaches in Sweden seem unaware or uninformed about this. Short-term successes, which selecting the best players and increasing training for the few chosen might result in, is seen as justification for the method.
2. Selection of children is made on unclear grounds
Selecting children means taking an ethical stance. Ethics are about what is right and wrong, good or bad, and in the case of selection, what is good or bad performance and the right or wrong attitude to sports. Early selection also involves a clear exercise of power: selection of children, who are subordinate and vulnerable, is usually made subjectively by adults who have a superior position. Such judgements must be made with great caution.
The definition of ‘selection’ given in the Swedish National Encyclopedia (NE) is “to carefully choose according to certain conditions for a certain purpose”. In order to do this, the selection must be made with great care, according to the given premises and for specific reasons. This is rarely the case with the selection of children in Swedish youth sport. Instead, studies show that they are made on unclear grounds and that assessments of children’s athletic performance are based on the discretion of individual coaches. Concepts such as talent, desire and attitude are used to justify the selections.
For the sake of comparison, it is possible to draw parallels to the Swedish school system and the rigorous assessments that teachers are supposed to make of children’s performance before grading. Grades are high stakes as they could have an impact on young people’s future prospects. Accordingly, in order for grades to be as fair and equal as possible and reflect the student’s level of knowledge, there are laws and regulations that teachers are obliged to follow.
In club sport, children are even more vulnerable than in school. There are no regulated steering documents that can support coaches when assessing which children should be placed in which team or group. The guidelines in the form of policy documents and key instructions are rarely widely known among coaches, and besides, they state rather the opposite: children should not be subjected to serious judgements about their performance at a young age.
Yet, high stakes selections are made since many coaches believe that they can distinguish between good and bad performances, correct and incorrect movements – between talented and untalented children. A number of national as well as international studies show that such distinctions are difficult to make. Extensive research points to the fact that coaches tend to confuse ‘talent’ with physical and social maturity.
The relative age effect, the phenomenon that children born in the early portions of the selection year are over-represented in most sports, is a clear sign of this confusion between talent and maturity. The validity of the assessments, its relevance as well as its reliability, is highly questionable. The obvious conclusion is that selection should not take place early.
3. Selection teaches children if they are good or bad
The judgements made in connection with selection also have a pedagogical dimension – meaning that those subjected to selection processes learn something about themselves from it. It is an old saying that taking part in sport is socializing; it builds character and creates well-being. It almost sounds as if that kind of fostering goes by itself – as if club sport automatically leads to young participants getting a good education in democracy and participation, as if they are learning valuable life skills such as cooperation and fair play, just from playing in a team. Of course, those kinds of values do not come automatically. What sport nurtures and what children and young people learn from playing sports depends on how it is designed and organized, as well as on how coaches act in specific situations. The question is how children are affected by being involved in selection processes – what do they learn about sport and about themselves and their abilities?
The outcome, to be chosen or not, can be seen as an indicator of what is rewarded in a specific context. In other words, sporting children can learn something about what club sport is all about, and about their ability in relation to what is valued. The selection process will be a proof of whether they are good and capable or not – in the children’s own words, whether they are ‘good enough or suck’. What implications this learning has for children’s willingness to participate in sport and exercise in the longer term is hard to predict. More studies are needed, but available data shows that it can have a detrimental impact on a young person’s self-esteem to be excluded from a team or a training group.
4. Selection of children does not align with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
That children can be adversely affected by early selection may be due to the fact that selection is closely related to a concept so cherished in other contexts, namely inclusion. The children who are not selected are excluded – not always from belonging to a team, but often from extra training sessions, more competitive situations and access to trained coaches. Being included, fitting in, feeling valued and competent is something we all strive for. We want and seek confirmation that we are good enough. Consequently, many of us can recall and reflect negatively upon occasions when we felt excluded and ‘not allowed to participate’.
From exclusion, the step is not far to another concept – discrimination. According to NE, discrimination means “distinguish, special treatment”. In the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child one of the first articles reads: “All children are equal and have the same rights. No one should be subject to discrimination”. Where the limit is on what kind of special treatment is right and reasonable and what is unjust is difficult to determine, which is another problem with the selection of children. Not least in view of the fact that the Convention on the Rights of the Child has recently become part of Swedish legislation, the issue is relevant and important.
Swedish media has already speculated that selection of children under 13 is ‘illegal’ in light of the legalization. If and how the law will be applied and the impact it will have on the design of children’s and youth sport remain to be seen. In research, however, it has long been noted that both early selection and early specialization are questionable from a child rights perspective.
Conclusion: Early selection should be avoided
Finally, early selection has no support in research as a method that leads to optimal sports development. Early selection of children is problematic also for other reasons. Selection concerns issues of ethics and morality (who can determine what is a good/bad performance), power (children are subordinate and vulnerable), pedagogy (what do children learn from being or not being selected), and children’s rights (are all equally valuable). The conclusion is that the selection of children in sports is inappropriate and should be avoided.
Copyright © Karin Redelius 2020