A thesis that helps us understand the role of place of early development in talent development in team sports

Tor Söderström
The Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, GIH
Umeå University

Niels Nygaard Rossing
“Local Heroes”: The influence of place of early development in Danish handball and football talent development
112 pages, paperback.
Aalborg: Aalborg University Press 2018
ISBN 978-87-7210-171-2

Niels Nygaard Rossing’s thesis from 2018, Local Heroes. The influence of place of early development in Danish handball and football talent development, investigates the relationships between athletes’ place of development and the development of elite athletes in handball and football. In his thesis, he puts a particular focus on community density and proximity to talent clubs in an ambition to provide a more sensitive understanding of the role of context in talent development in team sports.

The compilation dissertation builds on three empirical articles and an eight-chapter introduction. The first two chapters in the introduction offer readers the dissertation’s place in the field of talent identification and talent development in sport. In the introductory chapter, Rossing highlights that talent development research ta a large extend is focused on various performance-based variables or practice-related variables. He argues that, although this research has provided insight into the generally required sport specific skills (e.g., type and amount of practice, technical, tactical etc.), broader organizational context and dynamics have partly been overlooked in talent development research. However, an emerging body of research has investigated athletes’ place of early development (i.e., the location in which children spent their developmental years), which is also what Rossing in his thesis is interested in. The overall aim with Rossing’s thesis, “to examine how players’ place of early development influences their development to expertise” follows, in this sense, this emerging line of research.

Chapter 2 introduces us to talent research in sports from three perspectives, biological, training and environment, that take into account either genetic pre-dispositions, training of skills and competencies, or interactions between individuals and their environment. Although Rosing divides research into these clear categories, he points out that they are constructed entities since talent development is multidimensional. Rossing ends the chapter by emphasizing his analytical focus – the interaction between athletes’ location and their development process. In the third chapter Rossing presents his pragmatic approach – that practice is a complex interweaving of social agency and temporality. Rossing’s ambition that the project should be useful for different practices – through encouraging practitioners to critically reflect on their commonsense knowledge – can also be understood from this pragmatic perspective.

In chapter 4 he presents the methods used in the different papers but also the process of inquiry that guides the research process (e.g., the choice of methods, and the feedback from practitioners). Here he begins with a description of the organization in which athlete development is embedded. He describes the Danish sport system, and the Scandinavian tradition of facilitating both mass participation and elite sport, as well as the football and handball systems investigated in the thesis. Rossing used a mixed methods approach, both descriptive statistical analyses and qualitative interviews, to, as he say, capture more aspects of the complexity and increase the understanding of the role of place in sport.

Rossing’s ambition that the project should be useful for different practices – through encouraging practitioners to critically reflect on their commonsense knowledge – can also be understood from this pragmatic perspective.

Chapter five of the introduction summarizes the three papers included in the thesis. Overall, by reading his articles one gets to know that the place of early development effects in Danish handball and football are significant although no optimal community size or density was found across sports. The first paper explored ‘birthplace effect’ in elite handball and football players who developed in Denmark by exploring the use of community density instead of simply population size. The results give support for the concept of birthplace effects but also highlight the influence of cultural context when describing the environmental factors that can influence an athlete’s likelihood of becoming an elite performer. This first study also indicated a link between the probability of reaching the elite level as an adult and talent or elite clubs in a region, which was further investigated in paper two.

Study 2 showed that the probability of becoming an elite youth football player was related to population size and density of the player’s place of early development. For example, rural youth players were underrepresented at the elite youth league and the national youth level. Moreover, the study showed that communities located near a talent club had higher proportions of elite youth football players. The third paper examined coaches and talent managers’ view on possibilities and barriers in youth football players’ development pathways. The paper considers how place (e.g., community, club or team level) affects development pathways and the link between the player’s early development and the talent identification phase. The result show that place seems to affect how coaches perceive the players, which has consequences for what coaches perceive as the characteristics of talented youth players and the players’ opportunities to be included in a talent program.

In Chapter 6, Rossing discusses the findings of his thesis in the broader context of international work in this area. Rossing points out that the organization of a particular sport impacts the development of expertise, for example proximity to talent clubs or national centers of excellence. Rossing also highlights the barriers that remoteness creates for a club and a team. He discusses this in relation to Canadian research and suggests possibilities to overcome barriers in a Danish context, for instance by making talent coaches aware of raw and trained players or by involving coaches with expert knowledge to increase the knowledge of the rural local coaches. The chapter ends with a discussion of how perceptions of talents is linked to players’ place of early development. The penultimate chapter concludes the thesis with applied perspectives for practitioners to encourage reflections for player development across communities and clubs, but also several suggestions for future research.

In sum, Niels Nygaard Rossing’s particular focus on community density and proximity to talent clubs help us to understand the specific context(s) of elite athlete development in Denmark. The thesis offers readers a view of birthplace and community effects and how the influence of place can be understood. It gives an opportunity to open up for reflections among practitioners and researchers regarding place of early development in relation to player development across communities and clubs. It also contributes with new research questions about the influence of place of early development and further athlete development.

Copyright © Tor Söderström 2020

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