The importance of getting our hands dirty

I recently read an editorial in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine by Dr. Daniel Gould from Michigan State University. The editorial was titled “The professionalization of youth sports: It’s time to act” (1), and although published in 2009, the main message is still just as relevant today in 2012. The article really struck a chord with me and I wanted to share my thoughts with you.

You can access the article for free by clicking on the title above, but here is a brief summary: Gould highlights that most sport science and sport medicine professionals have very little influence on youth sporting organisations, coaches and/or parents because although we are very good at conducting research, we are terrible at disseminating the findings to these people that need it most. I particularly like this quote: “If we were operating within the private business sector, we would probably fire the marketing and public relations professionals responsible for getting our ‘‘products’’ (sport science knowledge) out to the public!”.

Gould goes on to say that since researchers are not always communicating with sporting organisations, coaches, and parents, those on the front line are receiving messages from the popular media that are often entertainment fuelled, with a focus on ‘winning is everything’. The lure of college scholarships, professional contracts, and medals, trophies, and national titles has led to the professionalisation of youth sport, and the rise of many negative youth sport coaching and parenting behaviours such as official abuse, illegal scouting, and even the use of performance enhancing drugs. Add to this, common athlete development myths such as ‘talent can be identified at an early age’, ‘early specialisation and intensive training programs are required for future success’, and ‘athletic development cannot occur in a fun environment’, and parents, coaches, and sporting organisations can carry on completely misguided.

While Gould’s main message is that the professionalisation of youth sport is “the single biggest problem” in contemporary sport, his recommendation for how to make a change to the situation is, in my opinion, even more important, as it applies to sport science as a discipline in general, and not just issues of positive development in youth sport. The article encourages sport scientists and sport medicine professionals to “get our hands dirty” – to stop talking about what needs to be done in academic forums, and actually get involved in local programs, disseminate our research findings in public sources, and even rally for political change.

I completely agree with Dr. Gould. I am in a unique position where I conduct research in an academic environment, but I interact with sporting organisations, coaches, athletes, and occasionally parents in a skill acquisition and motor learning consultant role. Although I love conducting research and solving problems, I probably enjoy the consultancy work more because I find so much value in being that translator between theory and practice for coaches and administrators who simply don’t have access to scientific publications and/or who do not receive regular sport science support. It only takes an hour at a coaching workshop or club meeting to dispel a few myths, share a few key messages, and give a couple of practical coaching tips. It doesn’t take long to prepare a short article for your local, provincial/state, or national sporting organization’s newsletter with an excerpt of your latest research findings. It only takes a few minutes to set up a Twitter account and post some links to interesting newspaper articles and blog posts every now and again.

To give credit where credit is due, with the increasing popularity of social media, a number of sport scientists have already joined Twitter, Facebook and/or started blogs, so I do think that our knowledge translation is improving, but we still have a long way to go.

Like Dr. Gould, I too would like to encourage all sport scientists to get their hands dirty and make a concerted effort to translate our research (or research of others that we find interesting) into a language that is easily understood and free of jargon, then publish it in forums that are freely accessible, and easily accessible to the people who could benefit most from the findings. Or better still, wherever possible, we should do our best to get involved with sporting clubs and organisations directly, and provide workshops, advice, and applied services to meet the organisation’s specific needs.

Now I know that this is not the first time that you have heard this message, but the fact remains that we could all do a better job of communicating with the stakeholders of our research (myself included). Thus from time to time we need a friendly reminder to put an hour or two aside and give back to the people who so often donate their time and effort to be participants in our research, and help them to make a change to their sports programs for the better.

To get the ball rolling, here are a few twitter accounts and blogs from leading scientists that I highly recommend to coaches, parents, athletes, and sport administrators to receive high quality information on anything and everything from athlete development, to psychology, perceptual skill training, physiology, recovery, and more (in no particular order!).

If you can recommend any other free access sources of sport science information, please comment below and tell us your favourite sites.

Dr. Daniel Gould

Youth sport

Dr. Ross Tucker and Dr. Jonathan Dugas

All things sport science


Dr. Alex Hutchinson

All things exercise science


Dr. Dan Petersen

Perceptual cognitive skill development


Dr. Joe Baker

Health and performance across the lifespan


Stuart Armstrong

Talent identification and development


Dr. Sian Beilock

Sport Psychology


Dr. Shona Halson



Dr. Jeff Cubos

Sports medicine / strength and conditioning / athletic development


Dr. Tim Noakes



Dr. Shilpa Dogra

Health and exercise science




1. Gould, D. (2009). The professionalization of youth sports: It’s time to act! Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 19(2), 81-82.

Posted in Sport Science, Youth Sport | 9 Comments

Faster, higher, stronger… and younger? Birth order, sibling sport participation, and sport expertise development

The following blog post discusses some of our findings from the Pathways to the Podium Research Project, and was presented as a research poster at the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, June 8, 2012.

Venus & Serena Williams

The number of successful sibling and parent-child pairs in high performance sport makes it difficult to ignore the role of family in the development of sport expertise. Take, for example, the Williams sisters, the Sedin twins, and the Manning family. While genetics may be a contributing factor (1), research suggests that financial, tangible, and emotional support from one’s family are critical for expert performance (2,3). Much of the research examining the family in the context of sport expertise has focused on parents (4,5). Sport-related investigations of sibling influences have typically compared first-born and later-born athletes on characteristics of sport involvement and achievement (e.g. 6,7,8,9), and/or have examined competition and co-operation between siblings within the same family (e.g. 3,10). Very little attention has been devoted to differences in sibling characteristics, behaviours, and relationships, between athletes of varying skill levels. As such, this study explored skill level differences in sibling characteristics and participation in sport and physical activity, within a large sample of athletes from a variety of sports.


 229 athletes completed the Developmental History of Athletes Questionnaire (DHAQ). Athletes were aged 15-35, represented 34 sports, and were classified into 3 skill groups: 1) Elite (senior international level athletes); 2) Pre-elite (senior national or junior international level athletes); and 3) Non-elite (athletes whose highest level of competition was senior state/provincial, junior national, or below).

Among other factors, the DHAQ addresses familial characteristics and participation in sport and physical activity. This study focussed specifically on responses relating to athletes’ siblings. For each sibling, participants provided date of birth, sex, and a rating of how frequently they engaged in general fitness activities, recreational sport, and competitive sport during the time living together. In addition, they listed all competitive sports in which each sibling had participated, along with the highest level of competition reached for each sport. Sibling characteristics and participation in sport and physical activity were compared between skill groups to explore whether any factors differentiated the elite from lesser skilled athletes. For the scientifically minded, details of statistical analyses are not provided in this blog post, but are available on request – please email

Daniel & Henrick Sedin

Key Results

  • No skill level differences were evident for total number of siblings; however, elite athletes were more likely to be later-born children, while pre-elite and non-elite athletes were more likely to be first-born.
  • Older siblings of elite athletes were nearly 2.5 times more likely to have participated in general fitness activities on a regular basis than older siblings of non-elite athletes.
  • Older siblings of elite athletes were more than twice as likely to have participated in recreational sport on a regular basis than older siblings of non-elite athletes.
  • Younger siblings of elite athletes were nearly 4 times more likely to have participated in competitive sport on a regular basis than younger siblings of non-elite athletes; and siblings of elite athletes were more likely to have participated in competitive sport at the elite and pre-elite levels than siblings of non-elite athletes. This was particularly true for younger siblings.
  • Interestingly, older siblings of non-elite athletes were 3.5 times more likely to have participated in the athletes’ main sport than older siblings of elite athletes; but among siblings who participated in the athletes’ main sport, siblings of elite athletes were more likely to have competed in this sport at the elite and pre-elite levels than siblings of non-elite athletes. Again, this was particularly the case for younger siblings.


This study provides an important contribution to our understanding of the role of family in sport expertise development, and in particular, the role of siblings. One of the strongest findings was the association between birth order and skill level. Despite having the same number of siblings as pre-elite and non-elite athletes, elite athletes were more likely to be later-born children. Previous research has indicated that younger siblings tend to be more athletic than older siblings, but older siblings tend to be higher achievers (11). Our results suggest that among athletes, later born siblings were typically more successful.

Additionally, older siblings of elite athletes were more likely to have participated in general fitness activities and recreational sport on a regular basis, but were less likely to have participated in the athletes’ main sport compared to older siblings of non-elite athletes. On the other hand, younger siblings of elite athletes were more likely to have participated in competitive sport on a regular basis than younger siblings of non-elite athletes, and were also more likely to have reached higher levels of competition, particularly in the athletes’ main sport. A number of interacting mechanisms may help to explain these results.

In the case of the elite athlete, through their involvement in recreational sport, older siblings may have acted as socialising agents, encouraging the athlete’s initial participation in sport (12). Later on, in an effort to differentiate themselves, the athlete may have selected a sport their older sibling did not play and attempted to out-perform them (13). Once successful, the elite athlete may then have acted as a role model for their younger siblings, who may have subsequently attempted to emulate their older sibling’s great achievements (10). It is likely that additional factors such as sibling rivalry and siblings as sources of instructional support may also come into play (10). As non-elite athletes were typically first-borns, the socialisation process and motivations to participate and succeed in competitive sport would have been fundamentally different to those described above. Furthermore, as non-elite athletes do not experience the same level of success in sport, they are less likely to act as role models for their younger siblings, which may explain the lower sport participation findings for younger siblings of non-elite athletes compared to younger siblings of elite athletes.

These mechanisms are, however, simply theoretical and further research is required to gain a better understanding of the relationships between sibling characteristics, sibling participation in sport and physical activity, and sport expertise development.

What do you think about the role of siblings in the development of sport expertise? Do these results support your experiences as athletes, coaches, and sporting parents? What other reasons do you think could help explain these results?

Share your thoughts by submitting a comment in the box below, or start a conversation with us on Twitter @pathways2podium, or on Facebook at We’d love to hear from you!

View our poster from the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity Conference on the Pathways to the Podium Research Project website here.

Trevor, Ian, & Gregg Chappell


  1. Tucker, R., & Collins, M. (in press). What makes champions? A review of the relative contribution of genes and training to sporting success. British Journal of Sports Medicine.
  2. Bloom B. S. (Ed.). (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York: Ballantine Books.
  3. Côté, J. (1999). The influence of the family in the development of talent in sport. The Sport Psychologist, 13(4), 395-417.
  4. Horn, T. S., & Horn, J. L. (2007). Family influences on children’s sport and physical activity participation, behavior, and psychosocial responses. In G. Tenenbaum, & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp. 685-711). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  5. Côté, J., & Hay, J. (2002). Children’s involvement in sport: A developmental perspective. In J. M. Silva III, & D. E. Stevens (Eds.), Psychological foundations of sport (pp. 484-502). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  6. Abel, E., & Kruger, M. L. (2007). Performance of older versus younger brothers: Data from major league baseball. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 105, 1117-1118.
  7. Flowers, R. A., & Brown, C. (2002). Effects of sport context and birth order on state anxiety. Journal of Sport Behavior, 25(1), 41-56.
  8. Hall, E., G., Church, G. E., & Stone, M. (1980). Relationship of birth order to selected personality characteristics of nationally ranked olympic weight lifters. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 51(3), 971-976.
  9. Sulloway, F. J., & Zweigenhaft, R. L. (2010). Birth order and risk taking in athletics: A meta-analysis and study of major league baseball. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(4), 402-416.
  10. Davis, N. W., & Meyer, B. B. (2008). When sibling becomes competitor: A qualitative investigation of same-sex sibling competition in elite sport. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20(2), 220-235.
  11. Eckstein, D. (2000). Empirical studies indicating significant birth-order-related personality differences. Journal of Individual Psychology, 56(4), 481.
  12. Stevenson, C. L. (1990). The early careers of international athletes. Sociology of Sport Journal, 7(3), 238-253.
  13. Sulloway, F. J. (1996). Born to rebel: Birth order, family dynamics, and creative lives. New York: Pantheon.
Posted in Development of Expertise, Pathways to the Podium | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Expert Advantage Recommended Reads: April 23, 2012

1. To begin I would like to give a shout out to a new blogger, Jon Roy (@jonroy16), a golf coach with the Golf Association of Ontario. In this post, he gives a wonderful description of the differences he has observed between high performance athletes and lesser skilled participants – not on their scorecards, but in their work ethic. I highly recommend this article: “Becoming rather than being“.

2. There has been much attention recently on brain plasticity and how brain structure can change which appropriate practice (see Norman Doidge’s “The brain that changes itself” for a fascinating account of this research). This article from Science Daily (@sciencedaily)discusses some sport specific research in this area, showing structural differences in the brain between professional speed-skaters and non-exercisers. Click here to read “Skaters’ brains: Specialized Training of Complex Motor Skills May Induce Sports-Specific Structural Changes in Cerebellum“.

3. In this article, basketball coach Brian McCormick (@brianmccormick) shares some observations on how children spontaneously place themselves in challenging situations, and how children’s and parents views of competitiveness differ. Click here to read “Parents’ and Players’ Concept of Competitiveness“.

4. This link comes from one of my favourite websites at the moment “Expert Enough” (@expertenough). Although some examples refer to the academic setting, the same principles can easily be applied to the sport environment. Check out “Everything you thought you knew about learning is wrong“.

5. To finish, here is something short and sweet, but a great message from strength and conditioning coach, Matt Smith (@coachmattsmith): “Coach the athlete, not the exercise“. Thanks to Ian McKewon (@IanMackers) for directing me to this link.

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Expert Advantage Recommended Reads: April 17, 2012

As I prepare this weeks Expert Advantage Recommended Reads from my base in Toronto, Canada, the Coaches Association of Ontario is celebrating Ontario Coaches Week. Ontario Coaches Week is “a week long campaign that aims to recruit, develop and celebrate community coaches around the province”.

For my contribution to Ontario Coaches Week, I thought I would devote a Recommended Reads list entirely to coach education. I realise that many of our Recommended Reads are useful for coach development, but this week all five articles are targeted towards helping coaches enhance your own performance in order to enhance the performance of your athletes.

Do your bit for Ontario Coaches Week and share these links with all the hard working coaches you know!

1. First up, a short and sweet message from Coach Vern Gambetta (@coachgambetta) on teaching athletes ‘what to do’ not ‘how to do it’. Click here to read the article on Coach Gambetta’s blog Functional Path Training.

2. Here is an interesting report from the Ohio Youth Soccer Association North quantifying how much time soccer players spend in possession of the ball during matches compared to games. To wet your appetite, here is a great quote from the report: “attending well planned training sessions for six months can produce the same number of ball possessions as six years of playing 100 games per season”. Click here to read the full report. Thanks to Pavl Williams (@CoachManualPav) for directing me to this report.

3. Ever had multiple players on your team wanting to play the same position? Baseball coach Dan Clemens (@coachclemens) provides tips for how to deal with situation on his great blog. The blog is baseball specific, but the messages can be applied to a variety of youth sports. Click here to read “Players Learning Several Positions Solves Many Coaching Dilemmas” on Coach Clemens blog.

4. Want to help your athletes learn faster? Try raising the stakes. Author of the Talent Code Daniel Coyle (@DanielCoyle) shares an idea that can be adapted to any environment to challenge learners and maximise practice time. Click here to view “To learn faster, raise the stakes”.

5. Last but not least, here is a blog post from Stuart Armstrong (@stu_arm), Development Lead Officer for Talent at Sports Coach UK. In this post Stuart recounts a recent Sports Coach UK ‘Talent Coaches Breakfast Club’ (doesn’t that sound awesome!) in which England Women’s Cricket Coach Mark Lane shared some of his experiences throughout his journey to becoming a World Class coach, as well as some of his current coaching practices. Click here to read the article on Stuart’s blog Developing Sporting Talent.

Happy reading!

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Expert Advantage Recommended Reads: April 10, 2012

1. “Great coaching is like driving in the snow“. Brad Stoffers (@CoachEducation) from Athletic Coach Education provides a great analogy describing 5 ways in which coaching is similar to winter driving. This may seem like an unusual analogy but the messages are clear. A very enjoyable read.

2. The Coach Enhancement Platform from Sports Relations is a new online tool for coach development whereby coaches can upload videos of themselves coaching for analysis. We use video feedback all the time to enhance athlete performance, why not use it to enhance coach performance too? This short video featuring sport scientist Mark Upton (@uppy01) describes more about the Coach Enhancement Platform and how you can be involved. Follow the Coach Enhancement Platform, Sports Relations, and Mark Upton on Twitter to find out more about this great coaching tool.

3. This interesting article and video describe how the English Institute of Sport (@eis2win) are applying advanced sport science techniques to help their athletes recover from injuries in time for the upcoming Olympic Games. With a home Games and a world-class sport science / sport medicine unit, I have a feeling the Great Britain team are going to be hard to beat come July (as much as I don’t want to admit it being a proud, patriotic Australian!).

4. Although directed towards a swimming audience, the Swimming Science blog do a nice job reviewing the research relating to music and sports performance in this recent post. This is an interesting read applicable to all sports, not just swimming. You might even get some ideas to play around with yourself!

5. To finish up today’s Recommended Reads, here is a fun video of Rafael Nadal and Cristiano Ronaldo going head-to-head on a tennis court – Rafa with a racquet, and Ronaldo with his boots! Although I am sure this video has been manipulated to entertain, the same ‘battle’ could be incorporated into your own practices to develop a range of generic, tennis-, and football-specific skills. You could also come up with other similar multi-sport contests to work on a wide variety of physical and perceptual skills, and to encourage creativity and adaptability in your athletes.

Happy Reading!

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A look back at Linsanity (in case you missed it)

Prepared by Young-Bin Cho – Pathways to the Podium Research Assistant.

Linsanity. Over the course of two short weeks in February, Jeremy Lin became one of the greatest stories in sports of the past decade. His story took North America (perhaps the world?) by storm and it seemed everyone was jumping on the Linsanity bandwagon. Simply put, he is the classic underdog story. An Asian-American basketball player goes unnoticed out of high school after winning a state championship. After graduating from Harvard (not exactly a basketball powerhouse), Lin goes undrafted out of college. He is waived by two NBA teams before finally signing with the New York Knicks. And even then, he was a bench player up until early February.

Then came his breakout performance on February 4, 2012 versus the New Jersey Nets. His performance ignited the Knicks’ 7-game winning streak and his play soared to extraordinary levels, including a dramatic game-winning basket against the Toronto Raptors:

And while Linsanity has died down a bit in the past few weeks, Lin continues to perform at level sufficient to keep his name on the starting roster.

But why was Jeremy Lin’s rise to stardom so unforeseen? How had he gone unnoticed for so long? Here we take a look at Lin’s story as it unfolded in the blogosphere, and we present some of the differing explanations behind the Linsanity phenomenon.

Some have suggested that this was simply a long, arduous journey of perseverance and a testament to Jeremy Lin’s character. His hard work and dedication to his craft—two qualities that are so often seen in successful athletes—eventually culminated in his achievements. Howard Beck, of the New York Times reviews Jeremy’s story here in this article “The evolution of a point guard”.

Others suggested the decision-making of the NBA’s management is flawed. Dave Berri from Freakonomics, Wired Science journalist Jonah Lehrer, and Ron Dicker of the Huffington Post each touch on this idea while discussing some of the flawed paradigms that are currently employed by NBA teams during the NBA draft:

Freakonomics – Why did the NBA miss on Jeremy Lin?

Wired Science – What Jeremy Lin teaches us about Talent

Huffington Post – Jeremy Lin’s unexpected success

Or perhaps the talent scouts were right all along, and Jeremy Lin’s success can be attributed to him being a late bloomer. Maybe he simply wasn’t that good in college and in his early days in the NBA but his skills just developed over time. Basketball coach Brian McCormick suggests that Jeremy Lin’s perseverance and will to overcome rejection and obstacles are the main things to learn from this remarkable story:

Brian McCormick – The missing storyline from Linsanity

Alongside this tale of success, there are some who believe the buzz of Linsanity will be short-lived, and that his play will eventually drop to average or even below-average levels. Psychology Today’s Nate Kornell & Evan Schwartz of Sports of New York suggest that Jeremy Lin’s play of late will be unsustainable as the season progresses:

Psychology Today – Why is Jeremy Lin so good?

Sports of New York – Linsanity needs to stop

So while Lin’s play may decline over time and he may eventually come back down to earth, I sure hope it doesn’t. While teams will undoubtedly try to exploit his weaknesses (his tendency to drive right and to commit a lot of turnovers) in the near future, this corner will definitely be rooting for him to adapt and achieve even greater success. For the sole reasons that Jeremy Lin is a reminder that dreams are never too insane (unknown high school player to NBA star?); that we should always be prepared because you never know when your chance may come; and that dedication, commitment and hard work should never be underestimated. Here’s to Linsanity!

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Expert Advantage Recommended Reads: March 26, 2012

1. “The myth of the skilled basketball player”. If an athlete is able to perform many skills in practice, coaches can be quick to label that player as skilled. However, it is important to make the distinction between motor skills and perceptual-cognitive skills. An athlete may be able to perform all the drills in practice perfectly (e.g. in straight lines and/or with no opponents), but may struggle during game situations. Check out basketball coach Brian McCormick’s (@brianmccormick) thoughts on this topic here.

2. This next article from Alexandra Sifferlin at Time Magazine discusses the power of perception and how visual illusions can help get you out of a slump. Imagine the target is bigger than it really is! Thanks to Stuart Armstrong (@stu_arm) for directing us to this great article. Click here to read article.

3. Every coach, athlete, parent, scientist, and armchair expert seems to have an opinion on what matters more, talent or practice. Check out the plethora of experts chiming in on this great debate at the Creativity Post (@creativitypost). Click here to read the introduction to the debate.

4. In this Wall Street Journal article Jonah Lehrer (@jonahlehrer) discusses some of the flaws with the NFL combine. Some of the measurements may actually mislead coaches, while leaving out some important qualities in athletes. Click here to read article.

5. With the 10,000 hour rule entering the mainstream, it is important to note that this is not a simple formula for success. Author of the Talent Code Daniel Coyle (@danielcoyle) provides a brief overview on the importance of quality, not just quantity, when you practice. “If you count hours, you’ll get hours. But if you find a good way of measuring your intensity, or measuring your improvement, that’s what you’ll get.” Click here to read article.

Happy Reading!

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