Factors affecting engagement and talent development in a school-based sports program

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School-based sports programs provide important early sports experiences for children and young athletes, with opportunities to participate in recreational sport, or invest in developing skills required to achieve excellence. However, the suitability of school programs to balance long-term sports engagement with opportunities to develop excellence is not yet known. Four related studies were used to investigate the factors influencing sports participation and talent development in a school-based sports program. Firstly, in a cohort of 501 adolescent sport participants from 25 different sports, Study 1 showed physical and motor competence profiles to be very similar between sports in young athletes, before becoming more heterogeneous with increasing age. Participants at higher levels of competition also reported a delayed engagement in their primary sport. Study 2 employed a multidimensional approach to examine the factors influencing talent selection in adolescent soccer players (N=214), revealing fitness, technical ability and motor competence to be important for talent selection, while players seemed to be guided into playing positions based on maturation, anthropometry and physical performance. Study 3 employed a mixed model approach to examine the factors influencing match activity in youth soccer, showing playing level, playing position and individual fitness characteristics to all influence both match running and skill involvements during match-play. Finally, Study 4 employed a two-year cohort-longitudinal design (N=172), showing players selected into lower playing levels to be more likely to drop out of the school-based soccer program. Additionally, the program did not seem to support retention of motor competence. Collectively, these studies suggest development opportunities may be confounded by the talent selection process, and the school environment may not be suitable for the retention of motor competence. However, schools may also provide an ideal setting to implement a sampling pathway, which may be the most suitable for early sports involvement, improving motor competence, long-term engagement, and development of excellence.
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