Creating effective development environments for young athletes.

Updated: Jan 22

It has been remarked that all human accomplishment can be ascribed to:

“two crucial rolls of the dice over which no individual exerts any personal control. These are the accidents of birth and background. One roll of the dice determines an individual’s heredity; the other, their formative environment.”

(Atkinson, 1978 p. 221)

This quote eloquently serves to highlight the fundamentally important role that the environment plays in achieving success. While the development and eventual success of a young athlete is considered to be influenced by a complex choreography of interrelated factors (e.g. innate, psychological, behavioural, chance), the provision of an appropriate environment is thought to be a centrally important catalyst that enables young athletes to translate their potential into excellence. So much so that success is considered to be largely contingent on the environment athletes find themselves in and, importantly, the way they interact with it (Mills, Butt, Maynard, & Harwood, 2012).

Built, not born.

Supporting this notion, Gagné (2009) contends that exceptional natural abilities can remain solely as ‘gifts’ if not effectively nurtured via the developmental process into systematically developed ‘talents’. Thus, while outstanding natural abilities are an indisputably essential element, successful athletes would appear to be largely ‘built’ not ‘born’ (Mills et al, 2012).

This points toward the development environment as one of the most important and, crucially, directly controllable factors in the life of a young athlete (Martindale, Collins, & Abraham, 2007). Indeed, as Durand-Bush and Salmela (2001) note, “we cannot change our genetic make-up, but we can change our environment to make it as conducive as possible to improving performance” (p. 285).

In a study that helped inform our strengths-based model of talent development here at Model Athlete, highly successful elite coaches from a range of professional English Premier League (EPL) academies were interviewed about the strategies and mechanisms they deployed to create effective development environments for elite young players. The findings resulted in a conceptual framework (see Figure 1) that explained the dynamic interrelationships between the key factors at an organisational level (i.e. club/academy).

As displayed in this framework, it is suggested that optimal development environments are driven by the favourable interaction of four key strategic and process oriented domains. There are: (i) operating system (strategic); (ii) psychosocial architecture (process); (iii) organisational functioning (process); and (iv) physical environment (tangible).

Figure 1. Toward an understanding of optimal development environments within elite English football academies: A conceptual framework of the interrelationships between key factors (Mills, Butt, Maynard, & Harwood, 2014a).

Operating system.

At the heart of this framework lays the operating system. Fundamentally, this represents the clubs’ identity and relates to the mechanisms that collectively provide the strategic ‘beating heart’ for an effective development environment (e.g. ethos, vision, values).

Psychosocial architecture.

With the academy’s identity acting as the catalyst, the psychosocial architecture comprises the processes that ultimately foster a supportive, engaged, and motivational developmental climate. Drawing on an analogy of construction, it can be considered the psychological and social ‘scaffolding’ that is built around the athlete. A strong psychosocial architecture is built through positive and empowering interpersonal relationships between all key stakeholders involved in the development process (i.e. player, coach, parent). Examples of sub-components and strategies within this key domain include player welfare (e.g. understand players’ world-view), key stakeholder relationships (e.g. build trust with parents), involvement (e.g. encourage players’ ideas/feedback), and achievement oriented (e.g. establish an explicit pathway to the senior level).

Organisational functioning.

The organisational functioning domain relates to the specific processes and behaviours that underpin the smooth daily operation of the club. This process-oriented component is considered to act as a conduit between strategy and performance outcome. More precisely, via a favourable interaction with a coherent operating system and strong psychosocial architecture, components within this domain (e.g. effective communication, stability, adaptability) helps bring the ethos, values and vision to life, thereby, facilitating the optimal functioning of the development environment.

Physical environment.

Lastly, the fourth key domain (i.e. physical environment) represents the tangible, material aspects of the development environment (e.g. training facilities, accommodation) and demonstrates the interlinking contextual role that these material provisions play in enabling young athletes to develop optimally.

Symbiotic interaction.

By assembling these factors into a conceptual model, this preliminary research advanced our understanding of development environments by determining how these factors interact to create the optimal conditions for development. Importantly, when viewing the framework as a whole, the findings point toward the importance of having a strong, dynamic, organisational culture as a ‘keystone’ for the creation of an effective development environment.

Implications for coaches.

The application of research into practice is a fundamental component of coach development (Williams & Kendall, 2007); and is a central to our philosophy of practice here at Model Athlete. Indeed, all our research and applied practice is fundamentally guided by the question: “How can we effectively put this theory into practice to have a positive impact in real world settings?”

With this guiding principle in mind, here’s 3 actionable ways you can look to optimise your development environment:

  • Crystalise your Identity: Take a little time to reflect on what your operating system looks like. Do you have a clear guiding philosophy that you can easily articulate to all key stakeholders? Are your core values (i.e. what you stand for) clear and effectively communicated? What is your vision or manifesto for athlete development? (i.e. what you want to achieve and how you’re going to get there). Is your vision, durable, inclusive and athlete-centric? Could you encapsulate this vision in one paragraph? Is everyone ‘in the loop’ and on-board with this vision? Once you have crystallised your identity and established an aligned focus and clarity amongst all key stakeholders (i.e. athletes, coaches, parents), you’ll be well positioned to start effectively weaving it into the day-to-day fabric of your program’s culture.

  • Focus on development experience (DX): Significant scientific support exists within both the performance psychology and mainstream coaching literature (e.g. Cronin & Allen, 2015; Miller & Kerr, 2004) regarding the importance of promoting whole-person development that caters for adolescent athletes’ holistic development. In a truly balanced approach to athletic development, clubs and coaches should strive to base their practice around optimising their athletes holistic development experience (DX). When each aspect of a young athlete‘s DX is optimised, it provides pathway programs with a powerful source of competitive advantage whereby the sport environment acts as an incubator for both athletic and personal development. Put simply, there is clear evidence now to demonstrate that a highly contented athlete is more likely to be a highly performing athlete.

  • Establish an effective ‘voice of the athlete’ (VoA) system: Do you regularly look to get feedback from your athletes regarding their experience? If yes, is the feedback you are collecting meaningful and actionable? In other words, are you able to effectively leverage this intel to iterate and improve your program? In the business world, listening to your customers (i.e. customer experience) is a crucial component of product improvement and, ultimately, a company’s success. In a similar vein, your athletes can essentially be viewed as your customers and your pathway program is the product you provide to them. In short, there appears a strong positive correlation between the quality of experience provided and the quality of athlete produced. To that end, it would seem imperative that you continually listen to your athletes. By offering them a ‘voice’ to feedback their experiences, you’ll not only discover what’s working and what’s not; but, importantly, also establish an effective ‘close-the-loop’ feedback system that addresses any blind spots and safeguards athlete welfare should they be experiencing any problems with their development. This latter aspect would seem particularly important given the athlete welfare issues that have emerged across a large number of sports in recent years. With an effective VoA system in place, these issues would hopefully have been identified and addressed early on.

These are just a few pointers that might offer some ‘food for thought’ per se. If you already have these features in place then you’re ahead of the game. Nevertheless, given the dynamic, ever-changing landscape associated with development pathways - with new athletes entering and older athletes exiting the pathway - it’s prudent to regularly review these aspects to ensure they remain both relevant and durable.

If you’d like to learn more about the research-driven development tools and solutions that we use to make an athlete’s development experience a true source of competitive advantage, feel free to reach out for a chat.


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Durand-Bush, N., & Salmela, J. H. (2001). The development of talent in sport. In R. N. Singer, H. A. Hausenblas, & C. M. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (pp. 269–289). New York: Wiley.

Gagné, F. (2009). Building gifts into talents: Detailed overview of the DMGT 2.0. In B. MacFarlane, & T. Stambaugh,(Eds.), Leading change in gifted education: The festschrift of Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

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Mills, A., Butt, J., Maynard, I., & Harwood, C. (2014a). Toward an understanding of optimal development environments within elite English soccer academies. The Sport Psychologist, 28, 137-150.

Mills, A., Butt, J., Maynard, I., & Harwood, C. (2014b). Examining the development environments of elite English football academies: The players’ perspective. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 9, 1457-1472.

Mills, A., & Pain. M. (2016). Creating effective development environments for the adolescent athlete. The Psychology of Sports Coaching: Research and Practice, Routledge Research in Sports Coaching: London, pp. 26 -37.

Williams, S. J., & Kendall, L. (2007). Perceptions of elite coaches and sports scientists of the research needs for elite coaching practice. Journal of Sport Sciences, 25, (14), 1577-86.

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