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UK Coaching Talent and Performance
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High performance athletes Developing Mindsets

Understanding the Pyramid Model

The standard model of sport development has drawn criticism from some quarters of the coaching sector. We examine if this is justified

Simply put, the Pyramid Model is a broad base of foundation skills participation, with increasingly higher levels of performance, engaged in by fewer and fewer people. 

The pyramid model of sport development is now well-entrenched and is known to many people as the sport development continuum. Fisher and Borms (1990) report that “the pyramidal system of development [is] favoured by most countries”. 

Despite popularity among policy makers, there have been numerous criticisms levelled at the pyramid approach. One line of attack has been the moral one: built into the pyramid’s design is the systematic exclusion of players, no matter how good they are, as fewer and fewer players can play at each level. 

Another difficulty raised by critics is that the logic of the model means that the quality of performers at the higher levels is dependent of the experiences and resources offered to those at the lowest levels: a poor foundation which undermines the whole system.

Three problems with pyramid thinking

Pyramid models presume that successful progression from one level to the next is indicative of later or emergent ability, while in most cases this is not accurate. Abbott, et al. (2002) present a wide range of evidence that effectively undermines confidence in the notion of ‘talent spotting’, especially during childhood.

They presume that selection for progressively higher levels within the system are based on merit, while in practice participation is mediated by a host of psycho-social and environmental factors, such as the ability to take part in the first place.

Consider, for example, the role of the family in high level sports performance. Some family-based variables associated with participation in sporting (and other) domains at high levels include: 

  • Parents having achieved high standards
  • Relatively high socio-economic status
  • Ability and willingness to financially support participation and specialist support
  • Ability and willingness to invest high amounts of time to support the child’s engagement in the activity
  • Parents as car owners
  • Relatively small family size
  • Two-parent family
  • Attendance at independent school.

Alongside the family as a key variable on participation, we might also add factors like availability and quality of coaching, availability and quality of facilities, access to funding and choice of sport.

Since young players can hardly be held responsible for the families they have, the schools they attend or the cities they live in, it seems fair to say that, to some extent, their sporting achievement (or simply engagement) is mediated by ‘blind luck’, irrespective of their ability in a sport.

It is worth noting that many of the variables associated with participant development in all its forms (which directly affect an individual’s ability to play sport) have been identified for many years.

These models take it for granted that current performance in a domain represents a players’ ability, while there are numerous reasons to doubt that this is the case. 

Some have highlighted the subjective nature of talent assessment procedures, whereby players find themselves removed from a system for rather arbitrary reasons. 

A striking example of such arbitrariness is the effect of relative age on performance. Numerous studies have shown that players born early within a selection year have a considerable advantage over those born later. This seems in part because of the relative physical size and strength and further matured coordination of players who can be up to one year older than their peers. 

Those with the benefit of extra months of development are more likely to be identified as talented and progress to the next level of the pyramid, where they would be expected to receive better coaching, play with a higher standard of team-mates and opposition and compete and train more frequently.

These problems with pyramid thinking might explain two perplexing findings that seem to raise doubts about its efficacy: the majority of young people identified as talented do not go on to elite, or even sub-elite, careers and, conversely, many adult elite performers were not identified through the standard talent pathways, nor were they precociously gifted as young children.

Related Resources

  • Understanding Balyi’s Long-Term Athlete Development Model

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  • Understanding Côté’s Developmental Model of Sport Participation

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  • Unitary vs Multi-Dimensional Model of Development

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UK Coaching Talent and Performance