Monday, September 2, 2013

Athletic Development: Collegiate Model vs. Nationalism or Apprenticeships

The beginning of the college sports season is a good moment to think about college sports in a broader framework. In particular hows it exists as a model of development that competes with two alternatives--nationalist & apprenticeship.

Achieving athletic excellence takes years of commitment and is a high risk career aspiration. I want to examine three social models that have developed to further individuals on the path of becoming elite athletes. These development models emerged over time and have morphed often creating hybrids. For this discussion, I will call them the nationalist, apprenticeship and collegiate models. China, Europe and the United States epitomize them.

I want to focus on the life outcomes for the individual who sets out on these development paths. I will contend that the American model with its emphasis upon college as a final or intermediate stop for many aspiring athletes leaves the individual with much brighter long-term life prospects than an apprentice or nationalist based recruiting and training model.

A couple points to remember:

1)   The odds against succeeding as an elite athlete are very high—maybe 60,000 to 1 against a 15 year old athlete becoming a professional in the United States.

2)   Achieving elite status takes immense investment not just from the athlete but from other sources in training, infrastructure, coaching and arenas of play.

3)   Most aspiring athletes fail and are ejected from or quit the developmental systems. While sports have different peaking ages especially in the early development sports such as diving or gymnastics, the vast majority of aspirant athletes are “retired” by age 23.

4)  Athletic development begins with self-selection usually by parents + children, but quickly links to networks of scouting, recruiting and investing to push athletes along.

Athletics beckons folks as a domain of fun, achievement and reward. In some societies, it offers jackpot returns as professional players or as elite national team players in the Olympics and World Championships. The jackpots exist in terms of money from team salaries or sponsorships either as a professional or as a national or independent player. Successful elite athletes can earn glory and make good livings, become rich and be celebrities, but we need to remember  these odds resemble those of a lottery.


The easiest systems to identify are the nationalist systems that categorize sport as an extension of national identity and a tool of soft power. The Olympics epitomize this. The classic examples are  Germany or China’s huge investments in 1936 and 2008 Olympics to create center stages for states to deploy sports to strategically enhance their prestige. Olympic medal wars that media avidly followed during the cold war Olympics transformed into surrogates for claims of national superiority. 

The ultimate example of states deploying sports as a national prestige enterprise still remains East Germany. It forged a thirty-year athletic factory that produced numerous Olympic and World championships far beyond what their wealth or population could suggest. The state sponsored nation wide athletic clubs and recruited promising athletes at an early age. They segregated these young athletes into schools with intense training regimes augmented with rigorous systems of performance enhancing drugs. This resulted in Valkyrie women who dominated swimming and track and field for twenty years. It was followed by forty years of illness and side-effects to the men and women subjected to the science experiments and routines of drug usage.
In the nationalist model states scour the society and sponsor state sports clubs, teams and schools from age five and six. The modern Chinese model of juguo tizhi or "whole-nation sports system" represents the most comprehensive modern variation.  Sports authorities scout and recruit the best young athletes. The state then invests heavily in them usually from as early as age 6 and on. Usually the athletes leave their parents and go to separate schools where the children focus upon sports and may get the equivalent of a low-level high school education.

The states ruthlessly cull athletes who do not measure up. This results in tracking and sometimes moving recruited athletes off to physical education programs or simply out of the program. The athletes are segregated from society, trained as athletes and barely as students and most end up on the streets with little real education or life possibilities.

The stars are feted and pushed relentlessly as well as culled if they do not succeed. The celebrity and status come at the cost of significant political constraints upon conformity for the nationalist athletic has to represent the ideals of the country. Generations of athletes who have escaped national systems can understand the modern travels of China's Li Na who resents how she was forced to play tennis as a way to escape and now has left the system only to find herself covered, praised and excoriated for every deviation from the government's norms. Even then many world champions or Olympic competitors end up retired by age 24 with no education or skills to speak of. Often they fade back into the woodwork with low life chances unless picked up to help train the next generation.


The apprentice model starts like a free market model. No central mechanism controls or invests in the athletes. Individual kid’s talent and desire as well as parental influence pave the sports route. Parents matter a lot when they invest in and push the children.

Many kids find the sports on the street or at local clubs or schools. They end up playing in diverse social places and migrate slowly into local clubs. The entry-level costs are very low, and lots of kids and families partake here. The market competition gradually weeds out kids and parents in three ways. First, the ones who do not develop quickly end up playing in recreational leagues that are fun and enjoyable but have no future paths. Second, some will get advantages because parents will invest more time and resources in them getting them training and performance that will be noticed. Third, a group of promising kids will be seen by scouts or teachers and join a network that has some resources, teachers and the possibility of a path up and out through sports.

In apprentice systems that dominate European sports especially soccer, clubs scout extensively and recruit young players into their feeder clubs and then leagues. These young players become very young professionals by American standards getting food, lodging travel and training and playing time plus stipend by age 14-17.

Athletes move up in the system through different degrees of play and coaching. A severe culling can occur here as competition increases. In many areas, international players from Africa, Latin America and the United States end up playing in the systems. The competition gets very intense among very young professionals who parse out to many different levels of professional teams and leagues. While soccer typifies the model it is the substructure of most team sports such as volleyball or crew or basketball.

The apprentice system gives very little weight to non-sport or formal education. Because so many players come from the working class or below, few have families that push formal education. Some clubs make erstwhile efforts to encourage education, but once on the road and training for elite status, formal education falls by the wayside.

This has the advantage of culling talent earlier and creating immense number of hours and expertise earlier. Apprentice systems produce higher quality younger players, but trade off formal education and long term life changes. When players leave or are left by the apprentice system or clubs, they have no real formal education and no occupational training except their sport. You can see this in the USA national soccer team coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s announced preference for recruiting young Americans raised and trained in Germany rather than those who actually go to college.

The cast offs of the system have few real career options or training for higher education and end up at 22 ill prepared to advance. The results are large numbers of failed apprentices with few life possibilities or skills beyond finding some place in the existing sports system. The professionals in such systems can have longer careers because of the higher number and gradation of leagues. So a class of travelled second level elite players inhabit the worlds of international apprentice based soccer but also basketball, volleyball, cricket and similar sports sustained by apprentices and sponsored European corporate teams or professional teams. But the vast majority of ambitious athletes who commit to the system end up retired early without formal education and limited life possibilities.


Here the often-maligned American collegiate system can shine. Most American elite athletes channel through higher education. Young athletes in most sports aspire to college scholarships rather than going professional. Even those seeking to be professionals usually go through college to get there.

This collegiate model possesses a distinct advantage for the athletes. The athletes filter into different divisions of elite play, but still get to compete in the sport they love. They find appropriate levels of competition and experience the joys, challenges, problems and dimensions of intense athletic competition but also college education. They can graduate with a higher education degree that opens up a much higher level of work paths and higher income.

The American system can accommodate strong Olympic and national team feeders. In most sports the ultra-elite of American college athletes can go on to be on national or Olympic teams or take time off to compete. In addition, many sports such as gymnastics, swimming or diving and track and field and end up offering scholarships to players after their Olympic competition possibilities have peaked. 

At the same time wannabe Olympians or professionals need not go this route. Large numbers of swimmers, skiers, gymnasts, tennis or golf players take independent parent or sponsor financed tracks to compete and forgo college. This happens exclusively in many winter sports such as various forms of skiing and X sports.  Many top golf and tennis or soccer players never end up in college and bypass directly for professional leagues at a very early age. Similarly the major-league baseball systems provides a European club style developmental track for high school graduates, but it ensures they got through high school first.

There are more rational ways to get to colleges. But given a choice, I would rather have an aspiring athlete aiming for a college scholarship rather than aiming to enter a professional apprentice track at age 14. At college they have the chance to develop as athletics but also develop as persons and acquire deeper social and intellectual capital. This makes it makes it a much richer and more defensible developmental approach for athletes.  The college approach has profound strengths for the development of the individual person given the low probability of any elite athlete of making a career out of it. 

International student athletes who come to the United States provide some insights. I remember one international rower telling me, “I can come here and perfect my rowing and get a degree in accounting. At home I would never get a chance to go to school given my national team commitments.”  Another mentioned, “at home I had a choice. Play and take the chances to become a professional or quit and go to school, if I could afford it. I came here, played for five years, got a good degree and realized I would never be a pro.”

Meeting and working with international athletes and students changed my view of the American system with its focus on helping athletes become students; its capacity for people to compete at multiple level; and the outcome of elite athlete aspirants who end up with degrees and life chances beyond their sports.

To me as an educator the real success and advantage of the American college athletics systems lies in the outcomes for the person. When it works, and it works well the vast majority of the times, 90,000 athletes each year graduate with college degrees and have experienced four years of elite play at their appropriate levels; have had the chance to gain an education and mature with peers and in the classroom; have learned to carry themselves as a person and student as well as an athlete. Their life chances and callings remain far more open and challenging than the young athletes who are retired by age 23 in the nationalist or apprentice based systems.

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