Category Archives: Jessica Pinchbeck

Sport and Fitness Student Induction: Student Hub Live

On Tuesday 26th September 2017, as part of our induction for sport and fitness students studying at the Open University, we held a live induction event through our Student Hub Live platform. If you missed the session you can watch the full video here on the link below or you can watch the individual videos of each session below.

Session 1: Sport and Fitness Qualification Overview (Caroline Heaney and Ben Oakley)

Session 2: Sport and Fitness Blog and Social Media (Helen Owton and Karen Howells)

Session 3: The Role of the Tutor (Helen Owton and Ola Fadoju)

Session 4: E117 App Demonstration (Ben Langdown and Caroline Heaney)

Session 5: The Student Journey (Jess Pinchbeck and Caroline Heaney)

Student Hub Live: Careers Showcase

On 16th May 2017 Open University Sport and Fitness lecturers Jessica Pinchbeck and Karen Howells, along with careers advisor Ros Johnston, took part in a Careers Showcase for Student Hub Live. This event contained lots of useful information about careers in sport and fitness and our sport and fitness qualifications. If you missed it you can watch it again below.

For more information on Student Hub Live visit: http://studenthublive.kmi.open.ac.uk/

Making young children give everything to football is a bad idea – here’s why

By Jess Pinchbeck 

Many of the players at Euro 2016 will have been recruited to football clubs as children. Football has become such a big business that top clubs are under great pressure to ensure they recruit the next Cristiano Ronaldo before their nearest rival. As a result, they are taking on players very young.

British clubs commonly take advantage of the fact that they can sign players on schoolboy terms from the age of nine. And the clubs invite even younger children to their development centres and have been known to scout five-year-olds.

When a youngster signs for a big club, they and their parents sometimes have to agree not to play other sports or play for other football teams for fear of injury. This helps explain why British players who go on to become professionals tend not to participate in other sports. Yet the average age of World Cup winning teams is as old as 27.5 years. So is this early specialisation necessary?

Many specialists like myself would say it looks more like a by-product of the current talent development system rather than the most effective route to expertise. Research suggests that in sports like football where players reach their peak well into adulthood, you needn’t specialise before the age of 13; and you’re more likely to keep playing and to become an elite performer if you take part in a range of activities between the ages of six and 12.

One of the main arguments in favour of early specialisation is the hypothetical positive relationship between the amounts of time you spend practising a sport and the level of achievement you go on to attain – the idea that 10,000 hours of practice makes perfect. But this has been widely contested within sports research – and, even if this is true, it’s not necessarily an argument for concentrating on one sport.

Jack Butland.
PA/David Davies

For example the Stoke City and England goalkeeper Jack Butland, who is missing Euro 2016 through injury, played rugby alongside football until he was 16. He strongly believes the rugby helped him develop as a goalkeeper. The research evidence suggests that related team sports with similar rules, movement, dimensions and strategies to football have the most transferable benefits. Playing darts may not be quite as beneficial, in other words.

The impact of specialising early

At top UK football clubs, only one in 200 of those under nine make it to the senior team. There are obvious psychological effects on young footballers having to cope with not only the time demands and pressure of being part of a professional club but often the brutal rejection following years of commitment.

It also takes its toll on the body by subjecting young players to more frequent and intensive loads. Between 10% and 40% of football injuries among children and adolescents are from playing too much. Players under 14 incur more training injuries than older players and they develop growth-related disorders linked to overplaying because their skeletons and tissue are still growing. The evidence indicates that children are better off not training intensively, yet the UK has recently adopted an Elite Player Performance Plan that focuses on early specialisation and increases the number of on-pitch hours for youngsters per week.

For all these reasons, the compromise for numerous continental European football clubs is to engage players at a young age but not to make them overspecialise. For example FC Barcelona is Europe’s largest multi-sports club. It has four professional sections besides football – basketball, handball, roller hockey and futsal (a variant of five-a-side football). There are also six amateur sections – athletics, rugby, volleyball, field hockey, ice hockey and figure skating. Another example of this approach is Sporting Clube de Portugal, home to Sporting Lisbon.

Messi need not apply.
OK Fotos, CC BY-SA

Then there are clubs such as Belgium’s Standard Liége, which are not multi-sports clubs but do provide coaching support that develops general skills and abilities, such as agility and coordination, that can be transferable to numerous sports.

These clubs approach youth football in these ways because the reality is that early specialisation is not the most effective route to the top. Countries whose clubs operate in this way are surely more likely to end up with the better players in the long run. The UK has long had a reputation for producing very few top players from club academies. If Euro 2016 ends up being another campaign where England falls short, it needs to take this into account.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rugby: A game of risk and reward

By Jessica Pinchbeck

As a parent I fully support and actively encourage my children’s involvement in a range of sports activities. Sport can bring about so many positive developments and watching my son play rugby this season I have seen improvements not only in his physical skill level but also his psychological and social skills. For example, his decision making, concentration and attitude have all developed. Similarly, his confidence, and general maturity when talking to coaches and referees have carried forward into every aspect of his life. Despite this at the back of my mind is the knowledge that as he gets older and tackling becomes part of the game (from U9 onwards) perhaps the risks will begin to outweigh the rewards. In particular the risk of spinal injury is the scariest to contemplate. But what is the nature of such a risk and am I just being an overprotective mother?
rugby_1_inline

What is the risk?
Fuller (2008) found that “the risk of catastrophic injury in rugby union was comparable with that experienced by most people in work-based situations and lower than that experienced by motorcyclists, pedestrians and car occupants” and concluded that “the risk of sustaining a catastrophic injury in rugby union could be regarded as acceptable and that the laws of the game therefore adequately manage the risk”. MacLean and Hutchinson (2012) conducted an audit of U19 player admissions to spinal injury units in Great Britain and Ireland. They found that U19 rugby players sustained serious neck injuries requiring admission to spinal injury units with a low but persistent frequency, with the rate of admission in Scotland being “disproportionately high”. The study also highlighted the lack of a register of catastrophic neck injuries making it difficult to accurately track the number of rugby related neck injuries in U19 players. Whilst the risks involved in rugby have received a lot of media attention in recent weeks it is important to note that any sport which involves movement and force can cause spinal injury, like football, water sports, wrestling, rugby, and ice hockey (Mishra, 2010).

Although the statistics were informative as a qualitative researcher I wanted to explore this risk through people’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. In other words the real stories of the risks of rugby.

George Robinson’s Story
In July 2015 an English school boy, George Robinson (aged 17) suffered a transection of his spinal cord whilst playing rugby for his school in Cape Town. George underwent surgery in South Africa and when safe to be moved was flown home in September and is still undergoing extensive rehabilitation. At present George’s movement below the neck is limited to his right bicep and minimal movement in his left. George’s story is an inspiring one and I have followed it closely over the past eight months. The rugby community have united to provide endless demonstrations of support and encouragement to George and the positivity of the young player and his family is astounding. In particular I was interested to hear both George and his father’s views on rugby and the current debate whether to remove tackling from the school game. Talking to The Times George’s father Simon Robinson said:
“We have discussed it as a family…I would do anything for this not to have happened but I just think [that] it is the nature of physical sport. You can cross a road and get knocked over by a car or a bicycle. That is what happens in life”.

Both the family and George himself still place emphasis on the value of sport and it is captivating to hear their viewpoint. Mr Robinson stated:
“We love the values of sport; the enjoyment it gives, the satisfaction it gives, the team spirit. That has been an incredibly important part of our life and still is. We spoke to George and he supports the nature of the game. He doesn’t know how else you would have the game”.

David Ross’ Story
George and his family are not alone in their views. David Ross, who broke his neck playing rugby at 18, expresses similar opinions. David, who is paralysed from the neck down, has aspirations to play wheelchair rugby in Tokyo 2020 and is once again an example of tremendous resilience and determination. David feels that “People who get involved in rugby, … know it’s a contact sport and they know what they’re getting in for and injury is part of all sport”. As part of his rehabilitation David stresses the need to keep pushing himself to keep his body healthy to ensure he is in the best condition to aid his recovery. I began to wonder whether playing rugby perhaps provided both George and David with the mental toolkit that has led them to approach their rehabilitation with such tenacity and resolve.

Matt Hampson’s Story
Former England player Matt Hampson suffered a spinal injury in training in 2005 aged just 20 when a scrum collapsed. Hampson has spoken about how his background as a sportsman provided him with the coping skills required to deal with such an injury:
I think the mental strength comes from being a rugby player, from being at Leicester Tigers where it is a tough upbringing,”

Not only is Hampson coping with his own injury but he works tirelessly to help other sportspeople cope with theirs. Hampson set up the ‘Matt Hampson Foundation’ to raise money for his own treatment as well as helping others like George Robinson. Rugby is still very much a part of Hampson’s mentality:
My approach to rugby is the way I lead my life – always wanting to improve and always wanting bigger and better things. That is what I was like as a rugby player and that is what I am like as a fundraiser now.

The stories of George Robinson, David Ross and Matt Hampson are extremely powerful. All three players hold such passionate views about the value of sport and have demonstrated extreme levels of resilience and grit to overcome adversity that surely their voices and opinions should be the most prominent ones in this discussion.

Conclusion
In relation to my son and his rugby, as a parent I’m sure I will continuously worry about every aspect of keeping him safe, but if playing rugby instils in him the same remarkable values and attributes that George, David and Matt demonstrate then I will be an extremely proud mother.

Details of George Robinson’s charity #teamgeorge can be found on twitter and on facebook.

This article was first published on OpenLearn

Rugby: A sport for sampling or specialisation?

By Jessica Pinchbeck

With the World Cup now upon us my household is at fever pitch and my six year old son is mesmerised by the strength, skill and speed of the players. He is a keen rugby player himself and has been attending training at the local club since he was four. However despite his passion for the sport he is yet to define himself as ‘a rugby player’ as he also participates in a range of other sports including football, swimming and golf.  This is similar to most of his rugby teammates who also take part in a range of sports from ballet to ice-hockey. However the majority of his football teammates tend to only play football, football and more football. So what is the best approach? Should my son choose to focus on rugby, the sport he excels at the most, and forget the rest? Would that make him a better rugby player and increase his chances of reaching elite level? What are the benefits and risks of such early specialisation?

Kelsey E ] via Flickr Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/kelseye/786999279

Kelsey E via Flickr Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/kelseye/786999279

Early Specialisation

Early specialisation is a hot topic at the moment with youth sports becoming more and more susceptible to commercial pressures and parents and coaches often encouraging children to participate in intensive training and highly competitive events in their specialised sport at a young age. There are various definitions for early specialisation however typically it involves continual year-round training in a single sport between the ages of 6 and 12 years with a specific focus on development in that sport. One of the main arguments for endorsing early specialisation is the positive relationship between the amounts of time spent in deliberate practice i.e. highly effortful and structured activity, and the level of achievement attained. Therefore in theory, the earlier you start practicing the earlier it is that you are likely to ‘make it’ to the top level. However this is a very simple outlook and this linear approach has been questioned in relation to sports performance. Although deliberate practice is considered important the exact requirements of the type and amount of such practice remains in question.

Currently the general consensus is that sampling a range of sports throughout childhood provides the best grounding for both progressing onto a higher level in a chosen sport as well as for continued participation into adulthood. Sampling allows for the transfer of cognitive skills and physiological conditioning to different sports. There is also strong evidence that in sports where peak performance is reached into adulthood specialisation does not need to occur before the age of 13. So how does this apply to rugby?

Rugby is a sport where peak performance is typically achieved later into adulthood. This corresponds to statistics from the previous World Cup winners where the RFU calculated average team ages of 27 (Australia), 28 (England), 27 (South Africa) and 28 (New Zealand). In their 2015 squad New Zealand have opted for experience including four players who have played in four world cups and France have just one player under the age of 25 with an average age of 29.1. Rugby players are thought to benefit from late specialisation whereby players sample different sporting activities to develop physical, psychological and sociological skills that benefit their rugby performance.

‘Rugby is a late maturation sport, further complicated by the different maturation rates that tend to apply to the different positions. There is also a wide consensus based on statistical evidence that selection for elite training and specialisation would be more effective if delayed until after maturation, that period of maximum growth and change. In practice, almost all sports begin such selection rather earlier. So the RFU and the Regional Academies must continue to encourage both early engagement and late specialisation in the sport.’ (England Rugby, 2013)

However according to rugby journalist Stephen Jones this is not happening within English rugby with Rugby Schools dominating and the quest for talent forcing children to specialise and be identified earlier. Interestingly in the England 2015 World Cup Squad Stuart Lancaster has eighteen players aged under 27 including youngsters Luke Cowan-Dickie (20), Elliot Daly (22), Maro Itoje (20) and Henry Slade (22) who have progressed through the player development pathway, which would suggest that the system is working to some extent. It would be interesting to know if these players were early specialisers. However one could also argue that the current system encourages early talent identification and specialisation which can often fail to distinguish between potential and performance and so for those players such as Cowan-Dickie and Itoje that make it to the top level many potentially elite youngsters have been disregarded. There is also evidence to suggest that early specialisation poses risks to the young athletes.

What are the risks of early specialisation?

Evidence suggests that early specialisation can lead to negative consequences, both physically and mentally. Early sport specialisation may increase rates of overuse injury and sport burnout, showing higher training volumes to be a factor in injury with injuries more likely to occur during the adolescent growth spurt. Evidence also suggests that athletes who had early specialised training withdrew from their sport either due to injury or burnout from the sport. This is particularly important for contact sports such as rugby.

As well as the physical risk of injury the main psycho-social risks of early specialisation include decreased sport enjoyment, low intrinsic motivation, compromised social development, social isolation, dropout, psychological burnout, and even the potential to lead to eating disorders in some sports. In contrast early sampling is thought to lead to sport expertise because of the intrinsic motivation that stems from the fun, enjoyment, and competence children experience through their sporting involvement (Côté & Hay, 2002).

What is the answer?

With early specialisation becoming more prominent despite the evidence documenting the risks the IOC have issued a consensus statement with a range of recommendations for those involved in youth sport. For example acknowledging that each child will develop at different rates due to varying responses to training. Developing children holistically, to provide a foundation that will help them be successful in life as well as in sport and ensuring steps are taken to prevent injury. In addition the IOC challenge governing bodies to embrace the recommendations which are based on academic evidence to ensure youth sport is healthier, inclusive, sustainable and long-term. Johnny Wilkinson is a good example of this ideal:

‘I have always loved rugby but have also been fortunate to play a whole host of different sports from a young age. I hope that all children have similar enjoyable opportunities to play and keep active throughout their lives’.

Evidence suggests that in a sport such as rugby there is no place for early specialisation and in fact participating in a range of different sports would provide a better foundation for performance as well as continued participation. So to answer my earlier question I will continue to support my son in his rugby but also encourage him to continue sampling a range of activities to promote a positive sports experience that hopefully continues into adulthood.

Siblings in the scrum: long history of brothers makes rugby a family affair

By Jessica Pinchbeck

It’s well known that family plays a key role in a child’s initial socialisation into sport and his or her continued participation. This family involvement is certainly evident on a Sunday morning at my local rugby club where siblings of both genders and all ages participate in a range of activities. Add to this the fact that as many of the mums and dads are former players who now help with coaching and refereeing, with a few grandparents thrown in as well, there can often be three generations of the same family involved.

The level of family involvement in the 2015 Rugby World Cup appears to confirm research that family influences a players’ introduction and experience of the sport in a variety of ways – from taking up the game to sibling rivalry driving performance. Being an England fan I was already aware of the two sets of brothers in the England squad – Billy and Mako Vunipola and the brothers Ben and Tom Youngs (whose father Nick was a former England scrum-half).

Tom and Ben Youngs, whose father also played rugby for England.
Steve Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images

Then there is Scotland and the Gray brothers, Jonny and Richie. Interestingly it was Jonny, the younger sibling, who first took up rugby, sparking Richie to then follow suit.

Scotland’s siblings Jonny and Richie Gray.
Jeff Holmes / PA Archive/PA Images

The Ireland squad features brothers Dave and Rob Kearney. Rob has said that his passion for rugby was strongly influenced by his father’s love of the sport though he also acknowledged the important role of mothers in today’s game – if his mum didn’t want him playing the game he wouldn’t be doing it.

What all these sets of brothers have in common is their closeness and the bond between them, as well as a healthy element of sibling rivalry. Dave Kearney explains this relationship: “If there’s someone with you it’s easier. It’s competitive too. You’re working hard against each other and trying to get the best out of each other. It was good having someone you can work with and push on.”

Owen and Ben Franks are the latest in the line of 43 sets of brothers who have played for the All Blacks over the years.
Reuters/Nigel Marple

New Zealand has a long history of brotherly participation with 43 sets of brothers having played for the All Blacks at different times. However for those brothers lining up alongside each other this figure drops to nine. This year Ben and Owen Franks make up the fraternal component of the 2015 squad. Once again it was their father who was instrumental in their rugby career, training the duo from a young age. Like the Kearney brothers, sibling competition also plays a key part and Owen revealed that: “Ben would try to bait me into fighting him because I was so much weaker and smaller but as I got older I could start to compete a little bit more.”

Springboks brothers Bismark and Jannie du Plessis.
REUTERS/Howard Burditt

Canada also join the brotherly club with the inclusion of Phil and Jamie MacKenzie as do the Springboks featuring Jannie Du Plessis and Bismarck Du Plessis. The Du Plessis brothers have spoken openly about their strong relationship and bond and even made their Springboks debut together in the same game. Their closeness is magnified by their working, living and playing together and their unified goal of playing in a World Cup final watched by their father.

Potential record breakers

At the top of the list is Samoa, which is fielding three brothers: George, Tusi and Ken Pisi, in the same squad. If all three appear on the pitch at the same time they will create Rugby World Cup history. George explained his feelings of brotherly love: “When Ken was small, Tusi and I used him for tackling practice … Later, whenever we were on opposite sides in a game, I had this extra-special feeling of just wanting to smash him.”

Samoa is fielding three brothers in this year’s World Cup: Tusiata, Ken and George Pisi.
Reuters/Paul Childs

Samoa are no strangers to family ties and the Tuilagi brothers Henry, Freddie, Anitelea and Sanele have all played internationally for Samoa and brother Manu played for England. Brother Alesana Tuilagi, a winger in the Samoan 2015 squad would therefore also contribute to the history books if he makes his Rugby World Cup debut.

The family connections continue still beyond brothers, with other family links in the competition including Ireland’s Luke Fitzgerald whose father Des played for Ireland, Welsh back Ross Moriarty who is following in the footsteps of his father and uncle who both played internationally for Wales, and the England player Owen Farrell whose father Andy, a former England player, is also part of the England coaching staff. Rugby, it seems, truly is a family affair.

Jessica Pinchbeck, Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Parenthood and Tennis – the challenge of being an athletic parent

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss and Jessica Pinchbeck

A glance at the top seeded men and women at Wimbledon this year reveals an interesting contrast in terms of family. While Djokovic, Federer and Wawrinka all have young families none of the top ten seeded women in this year’s tournament have children. While sporting mothers are not an uncommon concept, it seems within the world of tennis motherhood and being a professional athlete are a harder combination to balance, with research in the field recognizing how pregnancy and motherhood are key reasons why female athletes may end their career. (Nash, 2011). There is no hidden reason why so few female players give birth during their career, and these are in no way unique to tennis, very few women want to harm their career in their twenties whether that is sporting or otherwise, but perhaps more importantly for an athlete is the physical impact that pregnancy and having a baby can have on a woman. For the better part of a year if not longer the competitive regime is gone, add to that the return to playing which sees huge demands on an athlete in terms of time and travel which can prove almost impossible to handle, with tennis involving if not the most travel demands of any sport.

There are however, examples of tennis players who have managed to successfully combine the two worlds of motherhood and professional tennis, one such player is Lindsay Davenport, a player who is reported to have planned her first pregnancy and only retired when pregnant with her second child. While the demands of tennis may mean it is difficult for a woman to continue to have a competitive career after children there seems to be little negative impact on actual performance. Take Kim Clijsters, who retired from tennis to have a family but made ‘The Mother of All Comebacks’ when she won the 2009 US Open a couple of years after retiring just 16 months after giving birth to Jada Ellie.

It is clear that women who do return to sport following their pregnancy come back as different athletes. Of the women who have made it to the third round of Wimbledon Dellacqua is possibly the only player to spend a night on the floor, taking a turn lying next to her son’s cot the night before a crucial 2nd round match. Dellacqua has highlighted how having her son has led to a shift in priorities and even credits being a mother as “helping me in lots of ways” saying that having another mouth to feed had only made her more focused on her career.

This change in focus is something echoed by Heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, “Before I had Reggie, it was all about me, me, me,” she said recently. “Now Reggie comes before everything else, but I’m still really competitive. I want to be there, and be at my best again.” But she also recognises that it is hard to do, “I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been days when I thought, ‘I’m not sure I want to do this, because this is really, really hard.’ I thought, ‘I’ve already become Olympic champion. Do I want all the stress again?’ But I have to give it a go. I don’t want to look back and think, ‘Oh, maybe I could have done it.’ This could explain why some women wait until they retire until they have a family as it makes the job of professional athlete so much harder. As Palmer and Leberman (2009) note it isn’t just the sleepless nights often it is the management of the multiple identities of athlete and mother that can prove difficult, with constraints such as guilt, lack of time and lack of support all being potential barriers to a smooth transition back into sport which explains why more elite female athletes choose to wait until they retire to have a family.

Although men don’t experience the physiological repercussions of having a baby, as evidenced by Federer returning to tennis 6 days after the birth of his twin boys, they are still subject to the psychological impact of becoming a parent and having to balance family life and the demands of being a professional tennis player. In the last 25 years there are only nine players that have won grand slams as fathers. Federer however has accomplished winning grand slams and holding the world number 1 ranking since becoming a father and the key to his success may well lie in the fact that his wife and children frequently travel to tournaments with him, thus alleviating the psychological stress of having to spend long periods of time away from his family. Djokovic became a father in 2014 and won his first grand slam as a father earlier this year beating Andy Murray to win his fifth Australian Open Title. Replicating the views of Ennis-Hill and Dellacqua Djokovic feels fatherhood has benefitted his career and his approach to tennis claiming ‘I think it has a deeper meaning, more intrinsic value now to my life because I am a father and a husband’. Taking advice from Federer and his methods of balancing fatherhood and tennis Djokovic’s family often travel with him to tournaments and this year he took time off before Wimbledon to spend time with his family.

This all sounds like an easy solution however it should be noted that both Federer and Djokovic became fathers while already having established careers and are typically wealthy and successful enough to travel with their family to various tournaments or to take short breaks from the sport. Other professional tennis players with less lucrative earnings aren’t quite as lucky. Ivo Karlovic has an ATP ranking of 25 but talks of the struggles he experiences spending time away from his wife and daughter and relies on Skype to keep in touch.

In a 1984 study of analysing magazine articles on leading male and female professional tennis players for males the status of star professional athlete superseded other statuses such as husband and father, however for the women players the status of female took priority over the status of athlete. However after watching and reading the Wimbledon media coverage the role of the father has become more prominent in male tennis with increased media coverage on stars such as Nadal and Federa and their role away from the court as fathers and husbands.

John McEnroe admits that having children brought out the best in him, describing how often on the tennis circuit players lose touch with reality but having children changes that. Karlovic acknowledges that having a child does change things for a father stating that before having a child everyone is a little bit selfish but once you have a child life completely changes and everything is about the child. Research also suggests that fatherhood ‘may lead to a decrease in the output of cultural displays (behaviour used by males to compete for potential mates, such as the competitiveness in sport) which could have a negative effect on sports performance. Studies also document that married men and in particular married fathers have lower testosterone levels but to date there is no research on the effect of this on tennis performance. There is also a lack of sufficient data on fatherhood and the role that social and familial status has on sporting performance.

So whether you are a professional tennis player and a mother or a professional tennis player and a father it would appear that parenthood brings about change and challenges men and women in different ways. Some of the change incurred has a positive effect on a player’s career and some of the transitions to being a parent may be difficult to manage alongside the lifestyle of being a professional athlete.

Where have all the teenage tennis prodigies gone?

By Jessica Pinchbeck

Over the years tennis has seen many teenage stars grace the courts and defeat their more senior competitors. One of the youngest teenage tennis prodigies was Jennifer Capriati who turned professional and had attained top 10 status by the age of 14 in 1990. However following her successful teenage years of tennis Capriati experienced many issues away from the court and ended up taking a year out of the game in 1995. Following this she resumed her career and won three grand slam titles before retiring in 2005. Martina Hingis also reached great heights at a young age becoming the youngest ever player to win a match in a grand slam at 14 and at 15 the youngest player to ever win at Wimbledon in 1997. Injury forced her to retire at the age of 22. For both of these cases one must surely question the physiological and psychological implications of achieving excellence at such as young age. Monica Seles and of course Serena and Venus Williams also spring to mind when thinking of teenage tennis prodigies, all of whom specialised in tennis from a very young age. However it would appear that teenage prodigies are few and far between in the modern game and in Wimbledon this year 18 year old Belinda Bencic and 17 year old Ana Konjuh are the youngest top ranked players to watch.

This decrease in the number of teenage prodigies hitting the top world rankings is also replicated, possibly even more so, in the men’s game. In the past we have seen Boris Becker win Wimbledon at the age of 17 in 1985 and Michael Chang taking the title at Roland Garros aged 17 in 1989, with other teenage stars such as Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal winning Grand Slams under the age of 20. However top ranked male tennis players under the age of 20 are becoming rarer in the modern era and this year Borna Coric aged 18, is currently ranked at 40 but failed to take his Wimbledon journey any further after losing to Andreas Seppi in the second round.

So why is this the case?

The age at which children should ‘specialise’ in one sport is always a discussion point and early specialisation has frequently been fuelled by Eriscsson’s 10,000 hour rule with early specialisation in one sport being reported as the only way to accrue this amount of practice and achieve expertise. With the majority of research on 10,000 hours conducted outside of the sports domain Ericsson’s theory has received some criticism within sports research with the majority of studies concluding that early specialisation is not an essential part of elite athlete development. Instead sports can be classified as either early specialisation or late specialisation sports which is dictated by the age at which peak performance is typically attained. Those sports classified as early specialisation sports include diving, figure skating, and gymnastics where early sport-specific training around the age of 5 to 7 is traditionally seen as the route to achieving excellence. Late specialisation sports consist of all other sports including racket sports, where there is no advantage at specialising in just one sport at an early age.

Back in 1988 Carlson investigated the development of 10 elite tennis players in Sweden and remarkably found that non-experts engaged in more tennis during early adolescence than the expert group. The results showed that the non-experts specialized in tennis by age 11, while the experts did not specialize until age 14, concluding that ‘early life specialisation did not benefit the development of elite tennis players’. So is the current lack of teenage prodigies due to the combination of evidence and common sense prevailing and young tennis stars being encouraged to sample a range of sports and specialise in tennis at a later age?

Interestingly this shift at the top does not appear to be preventing early specialisation from occurring. A study of 519 US Tennis Association junior tennis players found that 70% began specializing at an average age of 10.4 years old. There are also reports in the media of young child prodigies such as Jonah Ziff who appeared in national papers aged 2, 8 year old Diego Quispe-Kim and 9 year old Gabby Price. Of the young Wimbledon stars this year Bencic remembers playing tennis at the age of two with her her father (and coach) and at just 4 years old began training at the Melanie Molitor tennis school. Ana Konjuh started playing tennis at 5 years old and left home at the age of 10 to develop her tennis career. Borna Coric also started playing tennis at age 5. So in Wimbledon this year we have a few examples of early specialisers that have managed to break through and it will be interesting to see the path that their careers take as a result of such early specialisation. However the question remains as to what is happening to the rest of our young tennis stars?

Assessing the evidence there would appear to be two possible answers to this question. The first explanation attributes the lack of youngsters at the top of the sport to the increased speed and strength of the modern game whereby players, particularly in the men’s game, need to be physically mature to be able to cope with the demands of the game. In addition careers are now lengthier with improved training methods and advancing sports science knowledge keeping players injury free and physically and mentally match-fit for longer. The second conceivable answer is that intense specialisation at an early age is having a detrimental effect on the performance of young tennis players and may even be causing young tennis stars to burnout and dropout before they reach their peak performance age. Studies show that youth sport is becoming increasingly competitive which in turn has led to children taking part in extensive training, specialising in one sport at a young age, and playing large numbers of competitions at young ages. The result of this is an increasing occurrence of overuse injuries and burnout. John O’Sullivan author of ‘Changing the Game’ reveals in the US that a shocking 70% of children drop out of sport by the age of 13!

So whether it is due to the increasing demands of the current game creating a longer road to the top or the fact that tennis continues to encourage early specialisation at the risk of future champions losing motivation and burning out or withdrawing from the sport, either way it is highly unlikely that the pattern of teenage champions as young as Hingis, Becker and Capriati will repeat itself any time soon.

‘This girl can…’ with the right balance of inspiration and support

By Jessica Pinchbeck

‘I used to love playing netball at school’ is the standard response I get when I happen to mention to a female friend or colleague that at the age of 34 I still play netball. This response is typically followed by a few minutes of reminiscing about their school experiences and what position they enjoyed playing. However when it is suggested that they join a local club or come to a training session, among the all too familiar barriers of time and family commitments, I have frequently observed a lack of confidence and even fear of taking the plunge to return to sport . For many women I talk to there appears to be something scary and intimidating about playing competitive sport and it is possible that this mind-set is contributing to the current figures and insight on female participation in sport. However, where does this ‘mind-set’ come from and what else might hinder a woman’s involvement?

It is quite well known that there are fewer women participating in sport in the UK. Indeed, the latest Sport England (2015) research shows that 40.9% of men play sport at least once a week, compared to 30.3% of women, but 75% of women would like to participate more, so what might the barriers be and how can we increase the number of women playing sport?

Campaigning and role models
Sport England are investing £10 million in national campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’ and £2 million to extend local campaigns such as ‘I Will if You Will’ to attempt to close the gender gap that exists in sport participation. Close to my own heart is the ‘Back to Netball’ campaign where over 60,000 women have taken part since 2010. Netball has seen increases in participation in England each year in all age groups of the Sport England Active People Survey, showing a more positive outlook moving in the right direction. The weekly TV coverage of the Netball Superleague on Sky Sports has helped to raise the profile of our top netballers such as Pamela Cookey and sisters Kadeen and Sasha Corbin to provide positive role models for women, but its reach is limited to those who subscribe to Sky. With the growth of netball and England’s recent Europe Championship win more media attention needs to be given to women’s sport to promote these positive female role models more widely.

Not only do national campaigns and media coverage need more development and attention to raise the profile of women’s sport to inspire participation, there is also a need to address the logistical, financial and emotional support required for many women to play sport at any level. Family responsibilities can often take precedence because women are still typically regarded as the main caregivers.

The importance of family
Parents provide the early opportunities for children to be active and a child’s experiences of sport and their enjoyment of it are often shaped by the family influences which determine participation later in life. In a research project on 1507 pupils aged 8-16 years the influence of the family played a central role in the children’s attitudes towards sport and physical activity. There are also certain stages in life where participation is most vulnerable. For teenagers family support is essential to maintaining participation at what are termed ‘key transition phases’ with the transition from childhood to adulthood being a crucial risk time for dropout. In a study investigating girls and young women’s participation in physical activity the majority of participants who always played sport lived in households where parents and siblings also regularly participated in sport, with many examples of family members acting as role models. Therefore the importance of the family in encouraging and supporting girls to play sport is a key strategy to ensure the future generation of women continue to participate into adulthood.

Similarly at certain phases during adulthood participation is ‘at risk’ such as moving into full time work and having children. At times such as this encouragement and support from family to help balance work and life commitments is essential to being able to maintain participation. Playing competitive sport is less flexible than other fitness pursuits such as going to the gym and so an extra layer of organisation and commitment is often required. This is where a good support network is invaluable to maintaining participation.

So for me encouraging more women to play sport requires two key strategies in addition to the national campaigns and media hype. The first is to educate parents on the importance of providing opportunities and positive sports experiences for their daughters growing up to ensure continued participation later on in life. This will ensure that women’s sport plays a key part in future generations. The second is to inspire and empower women to seek much needed support to help overcome the barriers of work and life commitments that often prevent competitive sport participation. If we get both of these right then surely more women will feel inspired and supported to play competitive sport throughout all of life’s more difficult transitions.

The perfect partnership or a conjugal catastrophe?

By Jessica Pinchbeck

In the Commonwealth Games all eyes will be on husband and wife team Chris and Gabby Adcock who will be competing in badminton mixed-doubles. The couple pose a serious gold medal threat in Glasgow following their victory at the Hong Kong Open beating China’s Cheng Liu and Bao Yixin in the final. While there are many examples of married couples successfully competing in elite sport, including skeleton stars Shelley Rudman and Kristian Bromley, Paralympic athletes Rik Waddon (cycling) and Natalie Jones (swimming), Barney and Dame Sarah Storey, none of these work as closely together in a team like the Adcock’s. So how does their relationship work on and off the court?

Being an elite sportsperson involves enormous dedication often involving long periods of time away from home separated from family. For many athletes the support of their partner or spouse forms a critical component of their sporting career. If a partner is not supportive or resents aspects of the athlete’s sport then problems can arise and this can often impact performance. Gabby explains how their relationship alleviates some of the stresses involved in professional sport:

‘I think we’re quite lucky that we get to travel the world together because there are a lot of people in the squad that miss their partners while they are away.’

Athletes benefit from an effective social support network often including their partner or spouse. Social support can act as a ‘stress buffer’ for athletes provided the type of support offered is appropriate to the stressor itself. So for social support to be effective partners need to be able to provide the appropriate support at the right time. This is no easy task and for those individuals to which the elite sport environment is unfamiliar it may be a struggle to understand the type of stress placed upon the athlete resulting in poor or inappropriate support. Unhelpful support, such as trying to reduce the importance of an event or even avoiding talking about an event, can be detrimental to the athlete’s performance. An athlete needs to feel secure that support is available at times of need and this is crucial to an athlete’s psychological well-being and ability to cope with stress. The Adcock’s feel that their off court relationship enables them to understand each other better in pressure situations on court making it easier to help one another cope with stressors.

GB Hockey Olympic bronze medallists Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, who married in 2013, agree that being married to a fellow sportsperson, and in this case teammate, has had a positive effect on their sporting career. Kate explains the benefits of this dual relationship:
‘It helps when your partner understands hockey and what it takes to play at that level – to know that when you’re going off training again, getting up at a stupid time, or only talking about hockey, it’s because you love it.’

Although there are undoubtedly benefits to this scenario combining the two relationships may not always be trouble-free. Potential difficulties include a lack of distinction between the two roles where personal and professional issues become intertwined. Personal conflicts may infiltrate into the sporting environment or performance issues may impact on the athletes’ personal relationship at home. Either way maintaining a good work life balance is key in this situation. It is imperative that both partners are able to segregate the two aspects of sport and home for such a relationship to be successful in both domains.

For some professional athletes forming and maintaining relationships can often be a challenge due to the constraints placed on their lives by strict training regimes and competition schedules. The culture of certain sports may also impact on an athlete’s relationship with one study showing male athletes tended to use power and control in their relationships as a result of their sporting profession. Conversely relationships can effect an individual’s sport performance with Farrelly and Nettle (2007) reporting that professional male tennis players performed significantly worse following the year after their marriage compared to the year before, with no such effect for unmarried players of the same age.

All relationships have their complexities yet within the world of professional sport these difficulties appear even more intricate and diverse. Personal relationships and their associated complications will undoubtedly have a bearing on an athlete’s mind-set. Andy Murray’s poor performance in his match at Wimbledon against Dimitrov was followed by rumours linking this to a dispute with girlfriend Kim Sears immediately before the match and Tiger Woods certainly experienced a dip in form since his very public divorce. Intriguingly, since their split in May this year, both Caroline Wozniacki and Rory McIlroy have seen their careers soar with Wozniacki winning the WTA Istanbul Cup and McIlroy becoming the Open champion.

Social support from a spouse or partner and an understanding of when and how to offer this support seems to be the key to a successful sports marriage and so it will be interesting to see how the couple fair in Glasgow and whether Chris and Gabby Adcock may just have found the perfect partnership!