Many parents have difficulty in walking the fine line the between ‘guiding’ and ‘pushing’ their talented children into programs that aim at developing them into elite athletes.

As the parents of a talented up-and-coming skier / tennis player the last few days my wife and I have been attending try-outs with our daughter for an elite sport’s school & tennis academy. It has brought home two things:

1) How the burgeoning field of sport science has now integrated itself into every aspect of sport, across sports – down to the most junior level.

2) How this is killing the dreams and aspirations of a generation kids (and their parents) that in my opinion need to be supported and told ‘aptitude means nothing if you don’t have dedication, determination and desperation to be the best at whatever you pursue.’

The first eye opener was after my daughter was selected for try-outs to attend an elite sport’s academy at high school level.

It was explained that in order to be successful she would have to pass two rounds of trials to ‘identify superior individuals through a range of tests demonstrating aptitude for sporting excellence’, which would justify the investment in their sporting potential over the next four years.

Reasonable enough. But what followed was baffling.

The trials were held at a basketball court where up-and-comers were put through a series of drills that suggested to me they were looking to develop future Harlem Globetrotters or Cirque du Soleil members.

We then had the recruitment officer come over and explain my 11 year-old doesn’t have much natural co-ordination and would most likely benefit from a lot of dedication in the gym as her body shape doesn’t have a lot of core strength.

Now this assessment, given by a qualified and no doubt intelligent human being, was staggering not only for its total inaccuracy (as anyone who has ever seen Zali play tennis will attest), but the absurd manner in which it was reached.

No one had even watched her ski or seen her hit a tennis ball!

At the age of 11 we have programs dismissing kids in their chosen sports because they can’t juggle. Now this is not a blog about my daughter, who qualified on external criteria and would be fine (perhaps better off) even if she didn’t.

But it is the kid with big dreams that gets cut on the basis of such tests that I feel for. The hard worker or the ultra competitive personality on the small side physically who is told you don’t have a future in elite sport on the basis of tests involving balance beams, coloured hoops and juggling tasks.

I don’t have a modern sport’s degree, but I don’t need one to know something is seriously amiss if the above criteria is what is being used to judge potential champions.

Loretta Harrop (former World Champion and Olympic Silver Medallist) brought elite women’s racing into a new era of competitiveness. Not only was she the worst performer in most of the tests at the AIS, but she was sometimes unable to pass the internal Triathlon Australia ‘fitness test’ before races.

Ben Bright (former World Junior Champion, Olympian) had a long and distinguished triathlon career and earned respect from anyone who ever competed against him. But if Benny had to rely on physical aptitude tests his career in professional sport would have been over before it ever began.

Kieran Perkins (Multiple Olympic Gold Medallist) one of the greatest swimmers of all time, did terribly in all his tests and was so weak that his coach (John Carew) would joke his mother had to carry his swim bag for him. But put him in the water and he was an absolute powerhouse.

These are the first three examples that come to me, but I could list at least 10 off the top of my head and I’m sure you’ve got your own.

The other point I’d like to make follows my experience attending the Swiss Federation Tennis Academy. Zali, to her great excitement, was recently invited to hit with members of the Swiss Davis Cup squad with other up and coming junior players.

Now Zali is built like a feather and because she has grown 9cm in 6 months has to wear knee braces because of growing pains. Her tennis style? Different. Really different. No forehand, plays the back-hand off both sides, does not slice volley and hits the ball off the wrong foot. It is unorthodox, awkward looking and terribly, terribly difficult to play against – she keeps winning tournaments.

Yet within five minutes the Federation coaches are pulling this awful style apart ‘change this, change that. Great potential but we need to fix this and (again) get her in the gym right away.’

Now apart from pulling apart the confidence, there is a lesson here that many coaches (from all sports) would do well to adhere. The right technique for an individual will not always correlate with the textbook. Being unorthodox or eccentric is not something that needs to be ‘fixed’ or ‘corrected’, but coached. What works for the individual is what works.

So in conclusion if your kid is showing interest or talent for triathlon or whatever their chosen sport is and they have a burning desire (their own desire – not your own) that will be backed up by determination don’t let any one tell you that it’s a waste of their time.

There are a hell of a lot of people walking around out there, very average people physically, that can call themselves World Champion. They call themselves that because of their heart, their courage and their ability to ignore all who wrote them off.

It takes more than a juggling test to define that.

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