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Bridging the Gap

Working with a team of our dedicated researchers, England Athletics are now on the right track to success.

Developing, conditioning and retaining young athletes to give them the best opportunities to succeed are key challenges faced by the sport. So in 2011, England Athletics asked us to undertake a study to ensure that their efforts were being invested with the long-term interests of young athletes in mind.

Our researchers began by looking at secondary data to identify the age athletes achieve peak performance, retention rates in young athletes and progression rates. They also used the Power of Ten database – England Athletics’ athlete performance information system – to track young athletes from 2005–2010 to quantify retention and progression as measured by improved relative performance and improved absolute performance.

In addition, they interviewed current athletes, former athletes and current coaches about their early experiences, their training and competition environment, their training commitment and their support networks and systems. This enabled them to find 'softer' meanings, such as why some people progress whilst others drop out.

Our research provided a basis for England Athletics to evaluate and inform existing as well as future policy. The report our analysts produced provided a retrospective justification for certain actions that have been taken in previous years – notably around the UKA Athlete Development Model.

The report also provided a basis for more confident strategic planning in the future. Our analysis of the critical success factors revealed some interesting insights into what athletes and coaches consider to be important to success. Of paramount importance is the human infrastructure surrounding an athlete. The starting point must be that the motivation to achieve an athlete's potential comes from within. Assuming the motivation is there, potential can be realised by effective coaching and a supportive network of family and friends. Whilst access to facilities, support services and funding are also identified as being important, they are less important than the human infrastructure.

As a result of our findings, England Athletics now has a much clearer research agenda in terms of what it needs to know in order to develop strategies that are in the best long-term interests of the sport.

Impact

Bridging the Gap was presented to England Athletics in March 2011, and published on their website the following month. Simon Shibli and David Barrett were subsequently invited to present their findings at England Athletics' National Coach Development Programme workshops across the country and the SPLISS conference. The report formed part of the governing body's Whole Sport Plan submission to Sport England, which resulted in an increase in funding for the sport of £1.6m.

This research and approach are new in the context of elite sport generally and athletics specifically. It is therefore likely that the results pose more questions than answers and both England Athletics and SIRC acknowledge this point. This piece of research is the first step on a journey to help inform the optimum way to develop and retain young elite athletes so that they are able to achieve their full potential in the sport. Plans are already in place for subsequent phases of the research whereby new lines of enquiry will be followed as a result of the questions raised by this initial work.

Bridging the Gap provided both detailed insight and interactive analysis into the major factors affecting transition from junior participation to senior success in what is traditionally a late development sport. The report has helped to inform, underpin and proof our existing and future policies/programmes aimed at coaches, competitors and clubs with long-term athlete development at the forefront of our minds.

Chris Jones, chief executive at England Athletics Ltd

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