The Training of Young Athletes (TOYA) Study published in 1992 - 1996, was commissioned by the Sports Council in 1986 following growing concern about the negative effects of intensive training on children. There was much anecdotal evidence at the time suggesting cases of overtraining and competitive pressure leading to young athletes premature retirement from sport through physical and psychological "burn-out", though little scientific evidence was available to validate these impressions.
The Sports Council commissioned the TOYA Study to increase our understanding of the physical and psychological pressures faced by the elite young athlete. The study, however, is equally concerned with the positive as with the negative outcomes from a lifestyle committed to sporting performance.
TOYA was a longitudinal study. The longitudinal method consists of measuring the same individuals at different intervals over a specific period of time. Although all young athletes chosen to take part in the TOYA study were seen on three separate occasions, at yearly intervals, they entered and left the study at different ages. This type of longitudinal method is called a linked longitudinal design. It incorporates five age-groups or cohorts involving pre-pubertal, pubertal and postpubertal children.
The children were selected from within a 300 mile radius of London. Such a large catchment area ensured that there was no regional bias and makes TOYA a truly national study.
The basic criteria for inclusion in the study were:
- that the athletes trained for a specific number of hours per week, and/or:
- that they had performance success to a specified level in the past or had the potential to do so in the future.
Coaches were contacted and a data-base of eligible children developed for each sport. Young athletes were then selected at random and their parents contacted by letter inviting them to take part in the study. The sample is therefore representative of what coaches consider to be elite, highly trained young athletes who participate in football, gymnastics, swimming or tennis.
The age at which young children begin intensively training varies depending upon the requirements of each sport, and therefore the design of the study had to be sensitive to these sports-specific differences. Consequently for the sample of gymnasts the youngest (born in 1979) entered the study at eight years of age and the remainder were spaced at two year intervals up to, and including, 16 years of age. The sample of tennis players ranged from 8 to 16; swimming 10 to 16 years; soccer 12 to 16 years. Because of the longitudinal nature of the research design the study will have data on pre-pubescent, pubescent and post-pubescent children whose ages ranged from 8 to 19 years.
Of a more specific nature the selection includes examples of a racquet sport (tennis), a contact team sport (football), a sport requiring local muscular endurance and stamina (swimming), and one characterised by flexibility and explosive strength (gymnastics).
In all the total sample was 453 young people; Football = 64 (male only), Gymnastics = 119, Swimming = 114, Tennis = 156
What did TOYA measure?
The following measurements were repeated at yearly intervals when the children visited the Institute of Child Health, London:
- An assessment of growth and maturation involving measurements of height, weight and pubertal stage (16). Fatness as a percentage of body weight was calculated from four skin folds. Measurements of body dimensions were also recorded.
- A medical examination recorded both the child and family's medical history. Current health and injury problems were diagnosed and classified as to whether sports related in origin. Information on the site, severity and treatment of any sports related injury was noted.
- Muscular strength was measured by evaluating the isometric strength of two muscle groups - the biceps of the upper arm and quadriceps of the upper leg.
- Flexibility of the athletes was determined by measuring the range of movement around four major joint areas, the spine, shoulder, knee and hip joints.
- An assessment of cardiorespiratory fitness involving measures of maximal oxygen uptake and lung function was recorded. Maximal aerobic power (V02 Max) acted as the criterion of cardio-respiratory fitness. VO2 Max was measured by a progressive incremental running test on a treadmill. Respiratory function was determined by measuring the size and performance of the lungs.
- The psychological status of the children and their parents was measured using a number of pencil-and-paper self report questionnaires. Psychological status involved measures of behavioural and emotional problems, self esteem and family functioning, and attitudes to eating. Additional psychological measurements included an assessment of each child's intelligence quotient (IQ), and educational attainment. These measures were only taken in the first year of testing.
- Further psychological information was obtained from a single interview conducted at home with both child and parent. Here marital relationships were assessed. Patterns of friendships, attitudes towards eating, education and sports involvement were all recorded using a semi-structured interview technique.
- A health diary was sent to all children on two separate occasions. Each diary lasted for 28 days and was used as a prospective device to monitor the frequency and severity of minor health problems - coughs, colds, and headache for example. Injuries, visits to the GP and medication were also recorded.
- Every athlete's coach was interviewed at home during the final phase of the study. Coaching styles were determined by classifying the coaches' behaviour and beliefs. Information was also collected on the coaches' knowledge about child growth and development, prevention and treatment of injury and age appropriate thresholds of intensive training. The personality of coaches was also measured using a self report questionnaire.
- As it was not possible to visit at home children who had retired, a telephone interview was used to collect information from them. The interview was designed to establish why the child gave up, and to describe any advice given by coach or administrator to help at the time of giving up. Attitudes to future sports participation were also recorded. Children from different sports were compared and any differences established. Attempts were made to identify factors which might assist the coach to identify those who will drop out, and, where appropriate, devise strategies to discourage retirement. Read more
The following is a summary of findings from the TOYA study;
TOYA and the Identification of Talent
How and why did the young athletes become involved in youth sport? TOYA report describes the role parents, schools and coaches play in identifying talent. The cost of intensive training, the availability of facilities and the unique characteristics of sporting families are also described;
The TOYA findings suggest that talent identification in this country is heavily dependent on parents and the motivation of the children themselves. Sports clubs and coaches generally play a secondary role in identifying talent - they can only select those children who are encouraged to participate by their parents.These data suggest that there are many more children who could enjoy the health related benefits of sports participation, and who may also be talented, but parents, schools and also coaches have not given them sufficient encouragment to do so. Children with potential are not being identified and some young athletes participating in intensive training may not merit specialised coaching to accelerate development. Many children in sports like gymnastics, swimming and tennis are not identified by a professional as talented. This raises a number of questions as to whether the child is especially suited to a particular sport and whether the time, effort and cost of intensive training is worth it if they stand little chance of reaching performance goals.
Recent developments (1992) within youth sport indicate that this situation may be changing. With the introduction of mini versions of many sports it does seem as though governing bodies are giving greater incentives for more children to take part and in so doing increase the opportunity for a coach to identify performance potential. The following summarises the TOYA findings:
Parents play the main role introducing children into sport. Most parents had participated in sport themselves when younger though not necessarily in the same sport.
- With the exception of football, talent identification relies heavily on parents and the children themselves.
- The talent identification system in this country appears closed, excluding many children from entering sport at a later age.
- There are inequalities in access to intensive sports participation particularly amongst lower socio-economic groups and one parent families.
- The cost of intensive training can be considerable and is met almost exclusively by parents. Although most can afford to support their child's involvement some families experience financial hardship.
- Children have to travel considerable distances to get to the training facility and most are dependent on parents for transport. Few parents had organised a rota system to reduce the demands on their time and resources.
- The average starting age across the four sports is uniformly young, on average between 6.3 and 7.6 years. Intensive training starts 2 to 3 years later, between 8.6 and 9.5 years.
- Females tend to start sports participation slightly earlier than boys in gymnastics and swimming. In tennis the trend is reversed. On average boys start participating 12 months earlier than girls. Read more...
TOYA and Education
Most studies have tended to concentrate upon the effect of children's participation in school sports, rather than those involved in training and competition outside the education environment. This publication will describe the relationship between intelligence, schooling and academic attainment. Time spent on homework and the conflicting demands of school and training are also described.
The TOYA findings suggest that young athletes do well at school, and that anecdotal reports of adverse effects of intensive sports participation on schooling and examination results appear unfounded. Although many young athletes experience occasional absences from school due to training and competing, these do not occur on a regular basis and are unlikely to have an adverse effect on progress at school. Few described experiencing severe difficulties with homework although a significant number of gymnasts reported that they often found it hard to find time to do homework. It is interesting that very few children were able to complete homework during schooltime, an arrangement which might ease the often conflicting demands of school and training and the resulting problems described by the young gymnasts.
Despite these problems as a group the young athletes tend to produce better public examination results than a comparable group of children from the general population. A greater number of the TOYA sample obtained five or more results at grade C or better than would be expected from IQ results which fell within the normal range. These data tend to suggest that young athletes may generally do particularly well in examinations. Reasons for this remain speculative although the close parental interest in schooling and social class distribution of the TOYA sample may contribute significantly.
The results suggest that the main area of concern for these children is not the relationship between intensive training and academic attainment, but the finding that a significant number report being teased and bullied because of their involvement in sport. In primary education young athletes appear more likely to experience severe bullying than a comparable group of children. Over a third attributed being teased to their involvement in sport. Gymnasts and footballers in particular reported being teased significantly more than other children their age. Taken as a whole these data suggest that for young athletes severe bullying and teasing may be age-specific with those at greater risk being aged approximately 12 years and under.
- Training has little regular effect upon school attendance. Competition is more likely to cause occasional or episodic absences from school.
- Most young athletes completed homework either before or immediately after training. Few were able to complete homework during school time.
- Very few athletes experienced severe difficulties with homework, although a fifth of the gymnasts stated that they often found it hard to find time to do homework.
- The parents of gymnasts and swimmers were more likely to worry about the possible effect sports participation has on academic qualifications and job prospects than parents of footballers and tennis players.
- All four sports have average IQ scores which fall within the normal range for the general population.
- Although a similar percentage of young athletes achieve five or more graded GCSE results when compared to the general population they obtain much better grades. All four sports had a greater percentage of children
obtaining five or more results at grade C or higher.
- Very few young athletes played truant compared to a comparable group of children.
- A significant number of gymnasts experienced more frequent levels of bullying than other children their age. Read more ...
TOYA and Health
Little is known about sports related health problems. We in this, describe the relationship between intensity of training and emotional and physical well-being. Rates of emotional and behaviour problems within a population of young athletes and a group of control children will be compared.
The information described in this report suggests a sports-specific relationship between intensive training and the type of physical health problems likely to be encountered by young athletes. However, for most children sports participation appears to be a low risk activity. Over two thirds of the sample described their daily health as above average. Very few appeared to experience poor, or very poor health. The pattern of medication use and symptom reporting does suggest some degree of ill health but clearly not to the extent that it significantly affects general health status. It is interesting to speculate whether young athletes have more resilience to illness and infection than children who do not take part in sport because of the social incentives and reinforcement practices of the coach or parent, or because they feel that intense sports participation affords them protection from illness.
Emotionally the young athletes seemed resilient and able to cope with the pressures of the training and performance environments. In this they appeared to be helped by their family environment and parental interest. Very few appeared to experience persistent tension or anxiety about the prospect of training or competing. Further, the rate of self-reported depression is lower in athletes than in the general population, and this seems to relate to certain characteristics of the families of athletes adaptability and cohesion. It is not possible to say whether children enter and persist in sport because of their low rates of depression and positive family characteristics, or whether involvement in athletic activity has a positive effect on mood and family functioning. Longitudinal research could clarify this issue.
One major concern which influenced the study related to the eating behaviour of some young athletes. Anecdotal reports of parents and coaches forcing or pressurising the child to lose weight seem generally unfounded as most athletes made the decision to diet or avoid meals themselves. When this happened parents seemed genuinely uncertain as to how to cope. Certainly, quite a large number of children avoided certain foods, skipped meals and were dissatisfied with their weight. However, only one child was found to be at serious risk of a major eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa. Certainly there were parents and coaches who pressurised their children to lose weight, but whether this will have any effect on the eating behaviour of these children when they give up sport has not been determined. It does seem that much care needs to be taken with the diet and nutrition of the young generally but particularly for those involved in intensive training.
- Over two thirds of the sample described their daily health as above average. Very few appeared to experience poor, or very poor health during the time they completed the diary.
- Swimmers were more likely to take antibiotics for infections to the ear, nose and throat, than athletes from the other three sports. Gymnasts and tennis players appeared more likely to take pain killers.
- Most young athletes reported feeling no nerves or anxiety before training. Those who did tended to experience only mild anxiety or arousal, usually characterised either by 'butterflies in the stomach' or some feelings of restlessness.
- Over two thirds (67%) of the sample experienced mild anxious behaviour before competition and just under 10% (27 athletes) reported more severe anxious behaviour which could result in the avoidance of the competition situation.
- Young athletes appeared to be less at risk of depression than children in the general population, having significantly lower depression scores than an age matched control group.
- For many young athletes the close, supportive family environment played an important role in protecting them from depression . The young athletes perceive their families to be closer, more supportive and more adaptable to change than do a comparable group of ordinary children.
- Although a number of young athletes, particularly girls, avoided food, were dissatisfied with their weight and had menstrual irregularities probably related to limited food intake, only one athlete was at serious risk of a clinical eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, and this was about the number expected from a population of the size studied.
- Finally, although they were not investigated, during the course of the study a number of concerns were expressed about the psychological health of brothers and sisters, 'in the shade' as a result of the success of the elite young athlete and perhaps relatively neglected by parents. This should be the focus of further research. Read more ...
TOYA and Lifestyle
TOYA and lifestyle examines the relationship between intensive sports participation and lifestyle issues such as smoking rates and alcohol consumption. We also explore the effect intensive training has on leisure time and friendships. The TOYA findings suggest that in the four sports studied intensive training had a significant effect on the lifestyle of the young athlete and his or her family. These young people devoted a considerable amount of their free time to training but not to the extent that it affected their ability to make or retain friendships. It also appears that children participating in sport are less likely to watch as much television as other children, again probably because of the time spent training.
The health-related benefits of intensive training appear considerable. Young athletes are less likely to experiment with smoking and consume less alcohol at an early age. Unfortunately these benefits are not open to all young people. Social class and family type were found to exert considerable influence upon the opportunity to participate in sport, particularly amongst lower socio-economic groups and one parent families.
- Social class and family type exert considerable influence on young people's opportunities to participate in elite sport.
- Young athletes perceive their families to be closer, more supportive and more adaptable to change than children who do not take part in sport.
- Intensive training affected the lifestyle of the whole family as parents became involved in various supporting roles.
- Despite having to make sacrifices many parents felt their involvement in sport strengthened family relationships as family members spent more time together.
- Young athletes spend a considerable amount of their leisure time training and competing. Because of their active lifestyle, they are less likely to spend as much time watching television as children not involved in intensive training.
- There is no evidence to suggest that intensive training affects the young athletes' ability to make or retain lasting friendships. Most reported being popular with peers and having a good friend or friends.
- Children involved in intensive training were less likely to experiment with cigarettes and alcohol at an early age. Read more...
TOYA and Intensive Training
The intensity of an athlete's training regime is usually determined by the number of hours he or she trains per week. In order for a young athlete to maximise potential, whilst minimising harmful effects, it is of increasing importance that coaches in particular, but also athletes and their parents have a shared understanding of what quality and quantity of training is appropriate for young people. The lack of any agreed standards which can be used as guidelines when developing training programmes pose a risk, not only to the health and well¬being of the athlete, but also interferes with the development of potential. Information from the interviews with coaches will be used to identify age-appropriate thresholds of intensive training. Coaches definitions of what constitutes 'intensive' training are also described.
Information provided by coaches indicates considerable discrepancies within each sport as to the age when children should start intensive training programmes, and the number of hours young athletes should train per week. The lack of any agreed standards or governing body recommendations increases the risk that some children may be exposed to inappropriate training regimes. For some this may mean over-training, which may result in physical or psychological problems, whilst others may be under-training, which may affect the development of potential.
It is also important to establish the external factors which can affect the development of training programmes for the young. There are many factors to take into account when defining and designing an intensive training programme; the availability of suitable facilities being one cited by many coaches. Of course different coaches experience different constraints, but most share the desire to develop young athletes who are capable of competing at the highest level. To achieve this goal needs continuity of effort so that a child's progress in sport is a series of smooth transitions rather than episodic bursts of intense physical, technical and psychological effort. What is clear from these data is that there is a need for a shared understanding of what quantity and quality of training is required to develop the potential of all young athletes, and high achievers in particular. This not only safeguards the physical and emotional health of the young child, but it also identifies areas outside the coaches' immediate sphere of influence which the governing bodies of sport may need to address.
- Considerable differences emerged between coaches of the same sport in their estimates of the number of hours young athletes should train per week.
- Using data provided by coaches as age-appropriate thresholds of intensive training, fewer older athletes from all four sports had weekly training totals which put them above these thresholds.
- Governing bodies of gymnastics and swimming (1992) do not appear to provide any recommendations or guidelines as to when young children should enter sport.
- Significant discrepancies emerged between coaches' estimates of when children should start intensive training and the actual ages of the TOYA athletes. In all four sports, young athletes taking part in the study started intensive training between one and three years earlier than the average expected by coaches.
- There appears to be little agreement within each sport as to when young athletes should start intensive training. In sports like swimming and tennis there was a range of ten years.
- There was widespread variation in coaches' understanding of intensive training. Some described it in terms of physical, technical or psychological skills and attributes, whilst others described the number of hours young athletes should train per week. Many were not prepared to attempt a definition.
- In swimming and tennis fewer than 50% of young athletes involved in structured training programmes were described by their coaches as training intensively. Read more ....
TOYA and Sports Injuries
Concern has been expressed that participation in intensive training may increase the risk of injury. In this publication we describe the rates of injury in the four sports studied, and identify the location where injuries occur most frequently during training, competition and those sustained outside sport.
The site, severity and frequency of injury will be described and injury patterns from the four sports compared. This report also describes where injuries were treated and by whom and looks at the provision of medical support.
The results of the TOYA study show that the majority of injuries experienced by the young athletes were due to acute trauma rather than overuse. However, it was found that overuse injuries tended to be more severe than acute injuries. An earlier report commissioned by the Sports Councilreviewing sports-related injury problems centred on the fact that the growing child involved in training for a single sports discipline was thought to be at an increased risk of overuse injury, a previously rare phenomenon in childhood. In this study it was found that 15% of all the athletes sustained overuse injury. However, further research is still needed to establish the likely causes of this greater risk of overuse injury as no relationship was found between incidence of injury and intensity of training. Although a number of overuse injuries were sustained by the athletes it is not possible to say whether the athletes were more or less at risk than the general population, as no data is available for comparison.
Although the prevalence of injury amongst the athletes studied was lower than might have been expected, it must be stressed that even one preventable injury is one too many. However, it is also important to balance the negative effects of sports injury with the many social, psychological and health benefits that a serious commitment to sport has brought these young athletes, as documented in other reports in this series.
Additional research is now necessary as the impacts of intensive training at an early age could manifest themselves in later life. Repeat surveys on the athletes in adulthood could help to establish and complete the picture of sports injuries caused by intensive training during childhood.
In conclusion, the findings from this study suggest that children and youth sports were relatively safe and that the great majority of injuries occurring were minor and self-limiting.
- Just over half the subjects reported being injured in a two year period. A quarter of the injuries sustained by athletes occurred outside their specialist sport and in swimmers this accounted for 50% of the total incidence of injury. Of the injuries that occurred outside the specialist sport, over half were the direct result of some other sporting activity.
- The majority of injuries sustained by gymnasts, tennis players and swimmers occurred during training, in contrast to footballers where the majority of injuries occurred during competition.
- There is no evidence to suggest that males are more likely to be injured than females in any of the sports.
- When grouped on the basis of intensity of training, no difference was found in the number of injuries reported. Those training less intensively had the same chance of being injured as those training the most intensively.
- The majority of the injuries reported were of the acute type. Less than a third were due to overuse. Only in swimming did overuse injuries account for the majority of sports injuries.
- Severity was assessed in terms of days lost from training with footballers suffering the most severe injuries and swimmers suffering the least. A third of the injuries caused no loss of days' training, while another third caused the loss of less than 14 days. Overuse injuries were more severe than acute injuries.
- Nearly a quarter of the injuries sustained did not require any sort of treatment. Of those injuries that did require treatment over three quarters were treated at the time of injury, with the majority being treated by a physiotherapist (50%). Twelve per cent of injuries received attention from coaches. Nearly half these injuries required further treatment, again usually by a physiotherapist.
- Apart from those of gymnasts, most injuries were treated privately, with less than half the subjects receiving any financial assistance. Only in football did the majority of injured athletes receive assistance. Read more ...
TOYA, Physical Fitness and Growth
This TOYA (1992) report addresses the effect intensive training has on physical fitness. It concentrates on four main areas of fitness: strength, flexibility, body composition (physical characteristics) and cardio-respiratory fitness. This report also examines how intensive training affects a child's physical growth and development. Rates of maturation will be compared between boys and girls within the different sports and compared to non-exercising children. Emphasis will be given to describing the effects growth and maturation have on the development of fitness. The effect sport specific training regimes have on fitness will also be described. The report will emphasise that biological maturity should be an important consideration when evaluating the physiological performance capacities of growing, intensively trained children.
The TOYA findings suggest that in the four sports studied intensive training was having a sport-specific effect on growth and physical fitness. Gymnasts were found to be smaller and lighter than those involved in the other sports, as well as a reference group of untrained children. Gymnasts were also found to be reaching sexual maturity at an older age. However, it is not known whether this was a result of their training regimes or a genetically inherited characteristic. The positive relationship between mother's and daughter's age of menarche did suggest that some sort of genetic cause was operating, but the findings are not conclusive in this respect.
The health-related benefits of intensive training appear considerable. Gymnasts were found to have lower levels of body fat than untrained children and they were also physically fitter in terms of strength and flexibility than the other athletes. Swimmers and footballers were found to have considerably higher levels of aerobic fitness than untrained children and adolescents of the same age. Although tennis is not a predominantly aerobic sport, tennis players were found to have slightly higher values than those found in untrained children and adolescents. It was also found that in the latter stages of pubertal development males had a significant additional increase in aerobic fitness over and above the effect of the training being performed. In females there was no evidence to suggest that maturation was affecting aerobic fitness levels.
- Gymnasts were smaller and lighter than the other athletes and untrained children. By the age of 17 years male swimmers and tennis players were taller than footballers and gymnasts.
- Pubertal development needs to be taken into account in the assessment of aerobic fitness. In males there was an increase in aerobic fitness towards the end of puberty, an effect over and above that caused by growth and training. In female athletes no such effect was found.
- Gymnasts were late developers, reaching sexual maturation on average two years after the other groups. Both male and female gymnasts showed patterns of aerobic fitness similar to those observed in untrained children. After differences in body weight had been taken into account gymnasts were found to be stronger than the other athletes. They showed considerable flexibility in their lower limbs, less so in the upper limbs.
- Swimmers had considerably higher aerobic fitness levels than children participating in the other sports and untrained children of the same age. They showed the greatest generalised flexibility.
- Male tennis players had levels of fitness similar to those found in untrained male children. The aerobic fitness of female tennis players tended to remain constant with age, in contrast to untrained female children whose aerobic fitness declined with age after body weight had been taken into account. Tennis players generally showed a possible sport-specific adaptation of flexibility to the playing arm.
- Footballers had an increase in aerobic fitness after the age of 14 years which is not seen in untrained males. Read more...
TOYA, and Fair Play
Historically sport has been seen as an accepted and permissible outlet for aggression. The carthartic role of sport has been suggested or implied since Victorian times. In today's sport there is concern about the effect that sporting aggression may have upon the young participant. This report looks at young athletes ideas about aggression in sport and everyday life and describes the sport-specific nature of athletic aggression. The pressures on the young athlete to cheat or bend the rules are also described.
The TOYA data suggest that although many young athletes describe themselves as aggressive competitors, very few felt that they resorted to violent or dangerous behaviour during competition. Most described competitive aggression in terms of determination, concentration and a will to win. Young footballers felt they were more likely than any of the other three sports to display physical aggression, yet this was defined as 'going in hard' or winning 'fifty-fifty' balls rather than trying to physically injure other players. Only a very small number advocated cheating as a means to increase the likelihood of winning.
It is important to emphasise that this study produced findings on attitudes and beliefs, not on actual behaviour. Bearing in mind the well-known fact that, in surveys of this type, respondents are likely to give a more socially desirable reply than one would expect if one observed them in real life situations, it may well be that rates of cynical and angry aggression in competition are higher than the survey suggests.
With this proviso, these data seem to suggest that fears surrounding the decline in standards of fair play in children's sports may be unfounded. Many athletes wanted to change their level of aggression but by improving 'mental skills'. The findings did suggest that in some cases adults had an important part to play in influencing the decision to change or improve competitive aggression. Yet it appears that most parents and coaches were not condoning cheating or playing in a violent manner: rather, they pointed to areas such as concentration or determination which they wanted the young athlete to improve.
It does appear that although the concept of aggression is sufficiently general to be understood by both laymen and professionals alike, it is actually understood by very few, and by those few in very different ways - especially depending on whether the term is being used to describe everyday life situations or competition. Questioning young athletes about their understanding of aggression allowed important distinctions between types of aggression to be described and understood. The survey cannot answer the question as to whether children in sport are at greater risk of displays of everyday aggression or violence than other children. Two other important unanswered questions are, firstly, given the pressures experienced by many young athletes during competition, why aren't many more children angry or destructively aggressive?; and secondly, what role, if any, does sport play in the development of self-control in young athletes?
- The great majority of young athletes did not perceive themselves as aggressive in their day-to-day lives.
- Tennis players were more likely to describe general aggression in terms of anger, whereas footballers and swimmers thought aggression was more cynical - involving cheating, manipulating or intimidating others.
- Across all four sports the young athletes were far more likely to behave `aggressively' during competition than in their daily lives. Regardless of sport most athletes perceived competitive aggression to be performance or skill related. This related strongly to the different definitions of aggression in the two settings.
- Although many athletes were fairly happy with their level of competitive aggression there was a significant number who wanted to be more aggressive. For many of these children changing aggression meant increasing determination, confidence or the will-to-win.
- The type of sport had a significant effect on young athletes' attitudes towards winning. Nearly three-quarters of the gymnasts and over half the swimmers thought they could enjoy competition even if they lost. Footballers and tennis players appeared to take winning more seriously. It may be that in the former improved scores or personal best times may compensate for the loss whereas in tennis and football there are no other performance indicators used by coaches, parents, or athletes themselves. Read more...
TOYA and the Identification of Talent (2)
So are champions born or made? This report looks at the physical and psychological characteristics associated with elite performance. The relative contribution of family background, psychological well-being and body dimensions such as height and weight and cardio-respiratory fitness will be explored.
Although the TOYA study was not designed to predict performance outcome, some important and relevant results have emerged. These may be summarised as follows:
- The measurement of factors relevant to sporting performance is a feasible exercise. While it is obvious that it is possible to measure various physical and psychological factors such as intelligence, it is a good deal less obvious that factors such as attitudes to competition failure, depression and family functioning may also be measured.
- In looking at factors that differentiated high from low achievers in our study, we must remember we are dealing with comparisons within a talented group already involved in at least reasonably intensive training. The results may have been different and the variations between high and low achievers probably more marked if we had started from a random sample of the general population of children. Nevertheless it is of interest that within talented groups, in footballers, female gymnasts and both male and female swimmers, physical factors are poor predictors of outcome. In male gymnasts, lighter weight, lower skinfold thickness and larger arm circumference are associated with higher achievement, but the differences between the two groups are not great. Some negative findings in female gymnasts are also of interest, and it is notable that, within this group already selected for small stature, height, weight and age of menarche were not associated with later success.
- When the athletes are looked at as a total group, certain psychological factors, especially a reduced tendency to depressed mood, and a feeling of serious upset after competition failure, are associated with higher achievement. In contrast, measured intelligence is of little importance and is probably not worth assessing in future studies. This is a finding of some significance, since IQ assessment, if carried out properly, is time-consuming and expensive.
- Family functioning did not seem to be of direct importance in the prediction of high achievement. However, it should be noted that high levels of family cohesion and adaptability are associated with low levels of depression and, as a reduced tendency to depression was associated with high achievement, family functioning should not be ignored in future studies.
- Although this was only our impression, it seemed likely that various factors we did not measure accounted for a significant part of success. We can only report our anecdotal impressions here, but we feel it is worth recording these.
Our impression formed by discussions with coaches, parents and children themselves, but not from systematic evidence, is that the personality characteristics of the athletes are very important. Top-ranking athletes need to be extremely resilient when faced with the stress of performing. Competitive situations often confront the athlete with unexpected problems - the event does not go as expected, the weather is inhospitable or there is a concern about a minor injury. There are a multitude of unexpected events that can occur, and athletes who are resilient and flexible in their approach are likely to have a considerable advantage.
Persistence and concentration are other invaluable personality characteristics. Acquiring impressive skills demands sustained effort over an extended period of time. Consequently training is often boring, and it is difficult to maintain the motivation to keep training year after year in the face of all the other attractions and distractions that face young people today. Successful athletes must have some built-in mechanisms to maintain constancy of purpose and think of ways in which they can maintain their excitement and interest. Consistency of performance is obviously another requirement for success and this is only likely to be achieved if the young athlete has powers of concentration that are well above average. Finally, determination and the will-to-win, even in circumstances when defeat seems inevitable, are personality characteristics without which it is improbable that major success will be achieved.
- A child born early in the selection year is at an advantage in all four sports.
- The availability of financial resources from parents increases the chances of high achievement even after travelling distance to the training venue has been taken into account.
It should also be noted that if a serious attempt is to be made in the future to achieve a reliable and valid way of screening out potentially highly successful athletes, an improved research design specifically geared to answer these sorts of questions will need to be in place. The value of a screening instrument depends on its sensitivity (capacity to identify accurately true positives - in this case promising athletes who are later successful) and its specificity (capacity to identify accurately true negatives - youngsters who show promise but fail later to make the grade). On the basis of our findings it would seem likely that a successful screening instrument (if it is possible and desirable to develop one) would include certain psychological as well as physical assessments, and that sensitivity and specificity might be enhanced if family functioning is taken into account. Read more...
TOYA and Retirement
Little is known about why children retire from sport or change their involvement. This publication examines the reasons why children decide to retire. Different sports are compared and we describe the role parents, coaches and also injury play in the decision to retire.
The results of the survey suggest that most young athletes appear to cope very well with retirement from sport and find it a positive experience. Most chose to withdraw voluntarily, after giving the matter some considerable thought.
Overall the results of this study suggest that it is inaccurate to talk of retirement or drop-out', as a significant number changed their involvement and took up new sports or activities. The results do seem to support the theory that retirement from intensive training is a natural part of the sports participation process as for many retirement did not involve total withdrawal but a re¬defining of the scale of participation.
One important finding was that the feelings associated with withdrawal, for example whether frustration or release, seem to depend on several important factors. One is whether the decision to retire is made voluntarily or because the athlete is forced to withdraw because of illness, injury or economic factors. Another factor which appears to facilitate coping is the support of family and friends. Many young athletes seemed to draw great comfort from parents when making the decision to withdraw. A further factor is the degree to which the athlete felt he or she had reached their performance potential.
The survey also indicated that there may be 'sensitive' periods when a young athlete may be more vulnerable to making the decision to retire, perhaps prematurely. One such time may be the period immediately prior to, during or after public examinations; a second may be after leaving school when they must decide on full-time employment or a full-time career in sport; and a further time may be after a long lay off following injury. These athletes may need particular encouragement from the coach and parents.
From the perspective of sports administrators, coaches and governing bodies who sponsor and support elite young athletes, retirement indicates a loss of talent from an already small pool. For many young athletes retirement was a positive step with the prospect of a more relaxed approach to sports participation in the future. There were, however, a small number who would have continued their careers had they not been prevented from doing so by lack of money, and in some cases proper coaching. It is important that those involved in youth sport become aware of these specific difficulties so that in future retirement is the result of reaching potential rather than frustrated ambition. Read more ...
See also: Rowley's literature review (1986)
Editor's comments - [ This (1992) TOYA research is not without methodology and method problems, yet and partly because of these it provides some interesting critique possibilities for students. What it does do, is suggest some thematic directions for further study by students of sport, not least because it attempts to explore the lived experiences of young people in (first stage) performance sport that will have resonance for many young athletes.
Please do not reference this Ruff guide, rather you should reference the study upon which it is based; see the links throughout and for further information see our performance and coaching sections. ]