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date: 20 September 2018

Developing Athletes in the Context of Sport and Performance Psychology

Summary and Keywords

Talent development in sport is achieved through years of preparation and requires constant interaction between personal and contextual resources. Accordingly, extensive research has been dedicated to understanding factors that contribute to sport performance. Literature suggests the factors influencing athletic development can be classified in terms of the physical environment, the social environment, and engaging learning activities. Investigations pertaining to the physical environment suggest the importance of appropriate settings, which can relate to the sport organization or the larger community. Researchers must also cogitate the activities in which athletes take part. These considerations involve the maturational status of athletes, the volume of deliberate practice and play, and early specialization versus diversification. Finally, the salience of the social environment in relation to sport performance cannot be overlooked. Not surprisingly, the relations established with social agents (i.e., coaches, peers/teammates, parents) can facilitate or impede the developmental process. Consequently, the development of athletes in the context of sport and performance psychology extends past the individual and is influenced by several factors that must be discussed.

Keywords: personal assets, relative age effect, birth place effect, group dynamics, friendships, coaching, specialization

Factors that facilitate human achievement have been of scientific interest for centuries. Part of this interest is likely fueled by the need for group membership and inclusion (e.g., Forsyth & Burnett, 2010), as humans are consistently surrounded by other people and are constantly acquiring information with which to more accurately form perceptions of themselves and their environments (e.g., Festinger, 1950). Whereas this is true for the seemingly limitless social contexts in which humans find themselves (e.g., families, schools, the work place), sport is a setting in which competition, cooperation, and comparison are fundamental. It provides a fertile platform from which to investigate characteristics or factors that predict expert performance, and early sport-specific research (e.g., Abernethy & Russell, 1984) spearheaded what is now a stand-alone, legitimized field of study (see Baker & Farrow, 2015 for a comprehensive review).

The desire to understand contributions to athletic excellence has translated to numerous texts (e.g., Baker & Farrow, 2015), reviews (e.g., Gulbin, Croser, Morley, & Weissensteiner, 2013; Rees et al., 2016), and talent development models (e.g., Côté & Abernethy, 2012). Importantly, this surge in research coincides with the institutionalization of sport, where governing bodies around the world face the challenges of structuring youth sport systems that regularly develop professional and international athletes. As an example, United Kingdom Sport committed £355M of public funds to identify and develop potential medal winners for the Rio 2016 Olympics (Rees et al., 2016). To reach such objectives, models of development are often adapted to focus on long-term athlete development, elitism, early selection, and early specialization (Côté, Coakley, & Bruner, 2011).

Whereas research on talent development and skill acquisition has been instrumental in acquiring knowledge of the processes and characteristics needed for expert performance, a simultaneous line of inquiry that has generated substantive research has focused on overall healthy development through sport (e.g., Holt, 2016). Across countless anecdotal reports and reinforced through social media or cultural rhetoric, sport participation is perceived as inherently positive, with those involved invariably obtaining numerous developmental benefits (e.g., Coakley, 2016). Unfortunately, the mere involvement in sport does not guarantee such outcomes (e.g., Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2016), which emphasizes the importance of providing properly structured sport environments. In fact, global organizations such as the United Nations have supported this suggestion. Notably, they declared 2005 the International Year of Sport and Physical Education, soliciting sport as an avenue to promote positive values and healthy development (United Nations, 2005). More recently, the International Olympic Committee commissioned a project to facilitate inclusive and enjoyable experiences for athletes across a range of abilities. Among the recommendations advanced for youth athletic development, were creating broader definitions of athletic “success,” taking a holistic approach to athlete/person development, and reinforcing sport-life balance (Bergeron, Mountjoy, Armstrong, Chia, Côté, Emery et al., 2015).

Importantly—and contrary to conventional wisdom—youth sport programs that focus on skill acquisition or expert development and those pertaining to positive youth development need not be mutually exclusive (e.g., Harwood & Johnston, 2016). Indeed, ideal youth sport programs are regarded as those that (a) promote and facilitate talent development, (b) contribute to personal development, and (c) encourage long-term engagement (Côté & Hancock, 2016). These objectives may appear to conflict when implementing activities and programs that constitute the youth sport experience. For example, a program focused heavily on skill acquisition to develop future performance may include practice activities that reduce youth interest to stay engaged in sport. Similarly, a sole focus on increasing youth engagement could negatively impact the acquisition of fundamental skills (e.g., performance) and children’s development of psychosocial assets (e.g., personal development). The challenge of any program then, is to strike a balance between the benefits of sport engagement, while limiting the costs associated with certain types of sport involvement.

Developing Athletes

As much of the research on youth personal development through sport has its origins in developmental psychology, a brief summary to situate the sport literature within the larger body of research is warranted. Researchers that seek to understand the developmental benefits of sport have largely focused on positive youth development (PYD), which is a strength-based approach, suggesting that youth have the capacity to thrive when involved in formative activities and purposeful interactions with people and their environments (e.g., Damon, 2004). Generally, PYD is an approach that focuses on the personal strengths and assets of developing youth to facilitate healthy development and civic engagement (Benson, 1997). In line with this approach are two dominant conceptualizations that have been applied to sport contexts—namely, the developmental assets (Benson, 1997) and the Cs (Lerner, von Eye, Lerner, & Lewin-Bizan, 2009).

To provide coherence to PYD research, Benson (1997) outlined 40 assets, composed of internal and external categories. Internal assets involve social competencies, healthy self-identities, commitment to learning, and positive values, whereas external assets comprise constructive use of time, support, empowerment, and boundaries and expectations. These developmental assets are commonly termed the “building blocks” for human development, with a greater number of developmental assets translating to a greater likelihood of developing in a positive and healthy manner (Scales & Leffert, 1999). Although no single activity can promote all developmental assets, sport has been introduced as a fertile activity for their acquisition (Fraser-Thomas, Côté, & Deakin, 2005).

Building on the idea of developmental assets, Lerner and colleagues (2009) advanced the “Five Cs” of youth development: competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring. To tailor this approach to sport settings, Côté, Bruner, Strachan, Erickson, and Fraser-Thomas (2010) proposed a condensed “Four Cs” model involving competence, confidence, connection, and character (combined with caring). In a tautological trajectory to that of the developmental psychology literature, the assumption is that these outcomes will contribute to the desired long-term objectives outlined above: performance, personal development, and continued participation (i.e., the “Three Ps”; Côté & Hancock, 2016).

The PYD frameworks of Benson and Lerner and colleagues are rooted in relational developmental systems theory (Overton, 2015), which suggests that PYD occurs through the mutually influential interaction between individuals and their contexts. Accordingly, this article discusses the research in athlete development that can inform the development of the “entire athlete” (i.e., the Three Ps), following a relational developmental systems approach based on the ecological theory advanced by Bronfenbrenner (1999). In a similar fashion to sport-based athlete development models and PYD research (e.g., Abbott & Collins, 2004), Bronfenbrenner’s ecological system theory (1999) highlights the importance of considering the individual and the surrounding environment.

Whereas the focus of youth sport programing might be on the development of “building blocks” or the oft-referenced “Four Cs,” there are numerous considerations regarding the specific contexts that are broadly classified as youth sport. Clearly, many factors must be considered in relation to “developing athletes,” and the following text has isolated four general themes that will be discussed in greater detail—namely, the environment, the activities, the social agents, and the individual. The subsequent sections introduce research specifically focused on these themes, yet based on the theorizing by Bronfenbrenner (1999). Overall, they reinforce the idea that the influence of these larger themes and their interactions should be considered in a holistic approach to athlete development.

The Environment

Although the environment is a broad term encompassing many factors that can affect athlete development, this section involves factors related to where athletes practice their sport activities (i.e., the community) and the organizations that oversee them. Termed the macrosystem, Bronfenbrenner (1999) highlighted these structural settings as important developmental considerations.

The Community

A number of studies have demonstrated associations between the features and/or size of a specific community and “the Three Ps.” For example, Fraser-Thomas, Côté, and MacDonald (2010) demonstrated that swimmers, who were members of clubs in cities with populations of less than 500,000 people, were more committed to learning, had clearer boundaries and expectations, and experienced greater support than those from larger cities (>500,000). These authors cited the tendency for smaller communities to foster intimate relationships with important social agents (e.g., coaches, parents), leading to greater perceptions of belonging and integration. This study also demonstrated the significance of community size for sustained athlete participation, whereby dropout rates increased in larger cities (Fraser-Thomas et al., 2010). Similarly, in a longitudinal investigation of 145,000 Canadian youth ice hockey players over a period of seven years, Turnnidge, Hancock, and Côté (2014) found greater participation rates in smaller communities.

The influence of community on performance has also been examined through the birthplace of professional athletes. Generally, there is a strong tendency for elite level athletes to be born in smaller cities than in big urban centers (see MacDonald & Baker, 2013). Indeed, results indicate that athletes born in cities of fewer than 500,000 are systematically over-represented at the elite levels, which is not the case for those born in larger cities (>500,000). For example, in their analysis of professional leagues, Côté, Macdonald, Baker, and Abernethy (2006) found the best odds of becoming a professional athlete in the United States were for individuals raised in cities with populations between 50,000 and 100,000. Although discrepancies regarding optimal city size for athlete development have been found across different sports and countries (Baker, Schorer, Cobley, Schimmer, & Wattie, 2009), birthplace significantly influences how athletes are first exposed to sports and can ultimately limit or benefit sport performance.

Barker’s (1968) behavior setting theory offers insight into the impact of community size on athlete development. Notably, Barker defined a behavior setting as a unit of the environment where physical and social elements interact to influence individual behaviors. Consistent with this suggestion, small cities appear to contain a set of unique features related to the physical environment and behavior patterns of youth that are conducive to optimal sport development. Accordingly, Balish and Côté (2014) examined how one small, successful sporting community in Canada (population, 646) facilitated athlete talent development. Generally, athletes were provided with ample access to recreational areas where they engaged in unorganized, youth-led sport activities, and they reported opportunities to sample many sports. Thus, the communities in which athletes find themselves influence the sports to which people are introduced, as well as the availability of resources and facilities for their ongoing participation. Considering this information, sport organizations, coaches, and parents should be aware of these trends so they can better structure communities that foster young athlete personal assets through sport, and eventually achieve long-term outcomes (i.e., the Three Ps).

The Sport Organization

One issue with attempting to establish associations between the community where one resides and their athletic development, is that the exact mechanisms for change are not always clear. Consequently, researchers have investigated more proximal environments, such as sport organizations or clubs. Utilizing a holistic approach, Henriksen and colleagues (e.g., Henriksen, Larsen, & Christensen, 2014; Henriksen, Stambulova, & Roessler, 2010) conducted several case studies with various successful and non-successful sport organizations (e.g., sailing, kayaking, soccer, golf). With the specific mandate to understand athletic talent development environments (ATDE; see Henriksen et al., 2010 for a thorough description), the authors identified consistent factors within successful organizations, including (a) the focus on long-term education and development rather than early and immediate success, (b) an organizational culture with clearly articulated values and mission statements understood by all, and reflected in the day-to-day activities, (c) strong relationships between teams within an organization, and (d) open cooperation and knowledge sharing, with an emphasis on the development of the whole athlete and a balanced lifestyle.

Generally, ATDEs have a history of producing elite athletes, and although they can certainly represent unique environments, the nested structures within the organization such as the social agents (e.g., coaches, teammates) or the established culture and norms work in concert to promote athlete development and performance (e.g., Henriksen et al., 2010). Interestingly, to support their previous work involving ATDEs, Henriksen and colleagues (2014) sought to contrast their findings with a less successful talent development organization. Importantly, the characteristics in this struggling organization opposed the more successful environments (e.g., lack of supportive training groups, no cooperation among the different units, disjointed organizational culture). Thus, when sport organizations are properly constructed, they offer ways to improve athletic development and increase the likelihood of elite performance.

The Activities

In relation to athlete development, the Developmental Model of Sport Participation (DMSP; Côté & Abernethy, 2012) outlines the different trajectories of sport participation, including (a) recreational participation through sampling, (b) elite performance through sampling, and (c) elite performance through specialization. Gleaned from this framework are important considerations pertaining to the activities of younger athletes. For example, whereas the second and third trajectories can lead to elite performance, the third has a greater likelihood of resulting in reduced health (e.g., overuse injury, burnout) and enjoyment (e.g., Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2016). Therefore, this section includes discussions pertaining to specializing versus sampling, and deliberate practice versus deliberate play.

Specializing Versus Sampling

The decision to specialize or sample different sports at young ages is a debated topic in sport (Côté & Hancock, 2016). Early specialization involves an explicit focus on increased training during childhood and early adolescence, emphasizing short-term performance. Some sports certainly require early and targeted training (e.g., gymnastics, figure skating), and some evidence supports this early specialization for peak performance in adult sport (e.g., Ward, Hodges, Williams, & Starkes, 2004). However, early sport specialization can also result in decreased enjoyment and increased injury, burnout, and drop out (e.g., Fraser-Thomas, Côté & Deakin, 2008). Conversely, general youth development literature reinforces the benefits of taking part in a breadth of activities (e.g., Fredericks & Eccles, 2006). Providing opportunities to try different sports not only lays the foundation for talent development (e.g., Soberlak & Côté, 2003), but also enables children to select the sport for which they are most interested, and at that point, to invest should they so desire.

While the above paragraph demonstrates how sampling contributes to enhanced personal development and long-term participation, parents and coaches might be resistant to this approach, as it does not intuitively address performance. Nevertheless, many reviews of the available literature show that sampling does not hinder elite performance in sports where peak performance is achieved after puberty (e.g., Bergeron et al., 2015; Côté & Hancock, 2016; Rees et al., 2016). In fact, the activity profiles of elite athletes involve sampling many sports in childhood before transitioning to one or two sports in adolescence. Thus, it is advantageous to promote early sampling in most sports, as this facilitates personal development and long-term participation, and by extension, improves performance.

Deliberate Practice Versus Deliberate Play

Another important consideration with regard to activities involves deliberate practice and deliberate play. Deliberate practice is highly structured, requires effort, is not immediately rewarding, and has a primary objective of improving performance (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993). Originally, it was believed that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice were required to achieve expert status (Ericsson et al., 1993)—perhaps explaining the desire for early specialization. Recently, however, it has been shown that athletes can attain expert status with fewer hours than originally indicated (Hornig, Aust, & Güllich, 2016). In fact, this 10,000-hour rule can be met by combining deliberate practice, deliberate play, and involvement in other sports. Deliberate play is a term used to describe activities that are fun and inherently designed to maximize enjoyment and intrinsic motivation (Côté, 1999). For athlete development, research supports the relationship between time spent engaged in practice/play/other sports and elite performance (e.g., Helsen, Starkes, & Hodges, 1998). Both highly and less skilled athletes report engaging in similar amounts of unstructured activities (i.e., play) during their development, and although skilled athletes eventually took part in more structured activities (i.e., practice), they emphasized the importance of unstructured activities such as deliberate play for their expertise achievement (Coutinho, Mesquita, Davids, Fonseca, & Côté, 2016).

The unstructured environments where children have fun, are creative, and learn the sport appear to drive the benefits of high amounts of deliberate play. Specific benefits include enhanced autonomy, intrinsic motivation, implicit learning, and enjoyment. In such environments, athletes enhance personal development (e.g., learning problem-solving skills associated with increased autonomy), increase the likelihood for continued participation (e.g., building intrinsic motivation through enjoyment), and improve performance (e.g., engaging in implicit learning without coaching or parental intervention).

Surrounding Social Agents

Based on the DMSP, athlete development can be impacted by different sport activities. However, one cannot overlook the importance of the social agents that surround participating youth. Indeed, children may find themselves in an early specialization trajectory, composed predominantly of deliberate practice, which might predispose them to overuse injury or burnout. If, however, a supportive coach, or a united and inclusive peer group surrounds that child, they could very well have an enriched sport experience translating to long-term sport involvement. Not surprisingly, research supports the salience of social interactions in sport (e.g., Petitpas, Cornelius, Van Raalte, & Jones, 2005), and in fact, a recent review revealed the increased attention pertaining to social influences (Pynn, Neely, & Holt, 2015). In this section, social agents are separated into coaches, peers, and the family.


Coaches represent central figures in shaping athlete performance, participation, and personal development (e.g., Côté, & Gilbert, 2009). Beginning with the seminal work by Smith and colleagues (e.g., Curtis, Smith, & Smoll, 1979; Smith, Zane, Smoll, & Coppel, 1983), researchers have established that sufficient and appropriate instruction, infrequent punishment, and more supportive behaviors are most conducive to athlete development (see Erickson & Gilbert, 2013). In addition, recent work indicates that the appropriateness of the behaviors in relation to the context is of great importance. Behaviors should be consistent and predictable, must be tailored to individuals, and be linked to the context in which they occur (e.g., competition vs. practice; e.g., Erickson, Côté, Hollenstein, & Deakin, 2011; Smith, Shoda, Cumming, & Smoll, 2009).

In addition to utilized behaviors, an extensive body of literature has focused on coach–athlete interactions, highlighting the significance of fostering close, caring, and supportive relationships (e.g., Camiré, Forneris, Trudel, & Bernard, 2011). In fact, a recent systematic review of social support in youth sport identified coaches as the most prevalent providers, shaping motivation and participation (Sheridan, Coffee, & Lavallee, 2014). Through an extensive line of research, Jowett and colleagues (e.g., Jowett & Ntoumanis, 2004) identified three specific dimensions that are encompassed within the coach–athlete relationship: closeness, commitment, and complementarity. A series of studies investigating these relationships has provided support for their importance in relation to sport experiences, ranging from improved satisfaction (e.g., Jowett & Ntoumanis, 2004), greater perceptions of team cohesion (e.g., Jowett & Chaundy, 2004), and collective efficacy (e.g., Hampson & Jowett, 2014).

Coaches are also able to facilitate participation and performance by manipulating the team environment. For example, the motivational climate of a group represents the views of the emphasized goal structure—often dictated by the coach—in an achievement setting (Duda, 2001). Motivational climate has its roots in achievement goal theory (e.g., Nicholls, 1984) and includes two achievement-based dimensions: (a) task-involving climates, which focus on individual progress, learning, and self-based achievement, and (b) ego-involving climates, where the focus is on comparison and superiority over others. This is significant as a recent systematic review (Harwood, Keegan, Smith, & Raine, 2015) not only highlighted numerous adaptive intrapersonal outcomes associated with a task-involving climate (e.g., self-esteem, performance, moral attitudes) but also several negative outcomes associated with ego-involving climates (e.g., negative affect, antisocial attitudes, and lack of motivation). The coach is an active agent in this process, and their facilitation of task-involving climates results in improved team cohesion (Eys et al., 2013) and athlete engagement (Curran, Hill, Hall, & Jowett, 2015). In addition, coaches involved in interventions geared toward facilitating task-involving climates had athletes who reported greater perceptions of cohesion in comparison to those in a control condition (e.g., McLaren, Eys, & Murray, 2015). In other words, coaching behaviors toward the entire team influence individual athlete development, and a critical finding is that these behaviors can be taught.

Researchers in youth sport have also utilized the Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2002) as a framework from which to evaluate coach influence on athlete motivation. The extent to which coaches provide their athletes with input, rationalize their decisions to involve them in the learning process, and acknowledge their feelings and perspectives, have been associated with many positive psychological outcomes (e.g., Mageau & Vallerand, 2003). Across five European countries, and a sample of more than 7,000 youth (Mage = 11.56), Quested and colleagues (2013) demonstrated that athletes who felt their coaches provided autonomy support experienced improved basic psychological needs (competence, autonomy, and relatedness) and more enjoyment and had fewer intentions to drop out.

Thus, it is clear that regardless of the city, sport organization, or the type of activity, the behaviors of a coach and their relations to their players will influence athletes’ personal assets and the Three Ps. In fact, this is highlighted by a comprehensive definition of “effective coaching”: “The consistent application of integrated professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge to improve athletes’ competence, confidence, connection, and character in specific coaching contexts” (Côté & Gilbert, 2009, p. 316).


The desire for affiliation and belonging are powerful motivators for youth participation (e.g., Smith, 2007), which is not surprising considering that most sport involves teammates and peers. Even sports historically perceived as individual pursuits (e.g., swimming, tennis) are riddled with social interactions (e.g., Evans, Eys, & Bruner, 2012). As such, the relationships that emerge in sport can favorably influence PYD, and can also act as mechanisms to facilitate continued sport participation (Knight & Holt, 2011) and performance (e.g., Bruner, Munroe-Chandler, & Spink, 2008; Martin, Wilson, Evans, & Spink, 2015). At their most basic form, the interactions inherent in sport provide outlets for social comparison and evaluation, which often serve as the basis for competence perceptions (e.g., Passer & Wilson, 2002). Furthermore, sport facilitates both cooperation and competition with peers, while also exposing them to alternative perspectives they otherwise might not have considered (Smith, 2007). An important consideration when discussing peers as social agents is that these relationships involve consistent interactions between similar individuals—in this case, young athletes—which represents but one level of a hierarchical social order (e.g., Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 2006). At the more intimate end are friendships that represent a quality and mutual dyadic relationship between two individuals, while at the other, are the group-level perceptions of the relationships represented across a team (e.g., cohesion; Rubin et al., 2006). Both will be discussed in relation to athlete development.


Research involving sport peers has highlighted the influence of friendships for enjoyment and commitment (Weiss & Smith, 2002), self-determined motivation, and continued participation (e.g., DeFreese & Smith, 2013). In addition, increased opportunities to socialize with peers are related to more enjoyable sport experiences (Bengoechea, Sabiston, & Wilson, 2015). Similarly, when athletes perceive increased support from teammates, it facilitates the transition to elite sport (Bruner et al., 2008), as well as the continuation at the current level (Le Bars, Gernigon, & Ninot, 2009). Finally, and specifically in relation to older youth, norms for productivity and effort can be translated through small group friendships (e.g., subgroups), which contribute to both individual and team performance (Martin et al., 2015). Consequently, peers play a critical role in developing the Three Ps among young athletes.

The Team

To provide examples of how the team environment can influence athlete development, two constructs involving the unity demonstrated by the team in regards to the task or social objectives (i.e., cohesion), and the extent to which an individual’s identity is influenced by the team (i.e., social identity), are discussed.

Cohesion, defined as “a dynamic process that is reflected in the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of its instrumental objectives and/or for the satisfaction of member affective needs” (Carron, Brawley, & Widmeyer, 1998, p. 213), has been described as the most important small group variable (Dion, 2000). The development of age-appropriate questionnaires has facilitated its investigation in younger athletes (e.g., Eys, Loughead, Bray, & Carron, 2009), leading to research indicating heightened perceptions of cohesion to translate to greater athlete satisfaction and self-efficacy (e.g., Martin, Carron, Eys, & Loughead, 2013), psychological need fulfillment (Taylor & Bruner, 2012), improved intentions to participate (e.g., Donkers, Martin, Paradis, & Anderson, 2015), and greater personal and social skills (Bruner, Eys, Wilson, & Côté, 2014). Finally, a bidirectional relationship has been identified with performance (Carron, Colman, Wheeler, & Stevens, 2002), and thus, when taken as a totality, it appears that cohesion positively contributes to the Three Ps.

Another construct that has received attention in youth athletes is social identity. The tendency for individuals to define themselves based on the groups to which they belong has been examined extensively (e.g., Brown, 2000; Tajfel & Turner, 1979), yet only relatively recently has its influence pertaining to athlete development been identified. First, Murrell and Gaertner (1992) demonstrated a positive relationship between perceptions of social identity and team performance (i.e., winning percentage) in high-school athletes. In addition, more recent work indicates associations with the tendency to deviate from harmful team goals (Tauber & Sassenberg, 2012) and to treat teammates in a prosocial manner (Bruner, Boardley, & Côté, 2014). Finally, when athletes experience heightened team identification, they feel better about themselves, are more likely to exert greater effort, and are more committed to their team (Martin, Balderson, Hawkins, Wilson, & Bruner, 2016). Therefore, the identities formed through sport appear to influence an athlete’s character (e.g., development), participation (e.g., commitment), and team-level performance. In summary, peers, both through dyadic quality relationships and the team more broadly, are important considerations for athlete development.


Considering that the family represents one of the more prominent social institutions for many children, it is typically their first point of socialization into sport (e.g., Côté, 1999). Within the family unit, parents (e.g., Kirk, 2005) and siblings (e.g., Raudsepp & Viira, 2000) represent salient figures that influence the values and beliefs that children acquire during their introductions to sport.


The study of sport parenting has garnered growing research interest, both from the perspective of how they influence young athletes (e.g., Bois, Lalanne, & Delforge, 2009), and of what it is like to be a sport parent (e.g., Dorsch, Smith, & McDonough, 2009; Holt, Tamminen, Black, Sehn, & Wall, 2008). Across this literature, it is clear that parents can positively or negatively contribute to athlete experiences (e.g., Harwood & Knight, 2015; Holt, Tamminen, Black, Mandigo, & Fox, 2009). To facilitate a brief overview of the literature in this section, parent support, expectations, and modeling (cf., Woolger & Power, 1993) are discussed.

Parents support young athletes in numerous ways, ranging from providing comfort and reassurance during stressful times (e.g., Fraser-Thomas et al., 2008) to sharing sport-related tips to facilitate skill acquisition (Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2016). However, as children age, they become less interested in parental feedback (Knight, Neely, & Holt, 2011), and parents struggle to find the proper balance in terms of their support (Harwood & Knight, 2009). This is significant as parents certainly seek to optimize their contributions, yet one of the most influential types of support they can provide is the tangible support that enables children to take part in sport. Indeed, participation is often contingent on a parent’s ability to invest both time and money (Coakley, 2009).

Due to the myriad of benefits purported to arise through sport participation, parents are often keen to enroll their children (e.g., Quarmby, 2016), both to provide the best opportunities for healthy development (Wheeler, 2011) and to portray success as “good parents” (Wheeler & Green, 2014). Regardless, these motives often translate to expectations, which are directly related to child sport success and enjoyment (Fredericks & Eccles, 2004). Unfortunately, when expectations are too great—or unrealistic—they become a source of pressure and stress (e.g., Fraser-Thomas et al., 2008) and can influence a child’s level of effort, performance, and decisions to maintain involvement (e.g., Eccles & Harold, 1991). Parents appear to have the capacity to align their objectives with the capabilities of their children, yet their verbal behaviors are not always aligned with those expectations (Dorsch, Smith, Wilson, & McDonough, 2015).

In addition to providing support and transmitting expectations, parents guide athlete development through modeling. The way parents behave at sport facilities plays a role in their child’s sport disposition (Quarmby, 2016) and can serve to espouse important values ranging from work ethic, resilience, emotional regulation, and prosocial behaviors (e.g., Fraser-Thomas & Côté, 2009; Knight et al., 2011). Alternatively, parents who demonstrate poor communication skills, improper values for achievement, and lack of responsibility and respect can negatively impact athlete development (e.g., Gould, Lauer, Rolo, Jannes, & Pennisi, 2006). In fact, close to 15% of parents have conceded to yelling at officials and angrily criticizing their children in sport settings (Shields, Bredemeier, LaVoi, & Power, 2005). Research suggests a continuum of sport-parenting behaviors, ranging from praise and encouragement to more negative and derogatory in nature (Holt et al., 2008). Importantly, sport policies (e.g., the team being penalized for inappropriate crowd behavior) appear to temper some of the less appropriate parenting behaviors (Holt et al., 2008). Consequently, as the behaviors demonstrated by parents have the potential to be mirrored by their children (e.g., Elliott & Drummond, 2013), it is important for parents to model the behaviors that are most likely to contribute to positive athlete development.


Although the impact of siblings on athlete development is less known in comparison to other social agents (e.g., Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2016; Hopwood, Farrow, MacMahon, & Baker, 2015), and numerous factors (e.g., birth order, gender) make this a difficult population to investigate, there is nonetheless growing interest in understanding their unique role. Notably, descriptive studies highlight the associations between greater participation in physical activities and number of siblings (e.g., Raudsepp & Viira, 2000). In addition, elite athletes are more likely to be later-born children, and siblings of elite athletes are also more likely to have participated in higher levels of competition (Hopwood et al., 2015). Given that sibling relationships are the longest and strongest throughout an individual’s life (e.g., Conger & Kramer, 2010), it is also interesting to note certain identified issues such as rivalry, competition, and jealousy (e.g., Côté, 1999; Davis & Meyer, 2008). In an investigation that interviewed individuals whose older siblings had participated in NCAA Division 1 sport in the United States, it was clear that sibling sport experiences transcended the family (Blazo, Czech, Carson, & Dees, 2014). Whereas the younger siblings identified positive experiences such as close relationships and pride, they were often compared to their siblings and made efforts to differentiate themselves. There were also experiences of jealousy and abandonment because of their older sibling’s athletic success. Clearly, siblings represent impactful agents with regard to sport experiences; however, further research is needed to more thoroughly understand the complexities of these relationships as they relate to the Three Ps.

The Individual

Many factors contribute to athlete development, and a key agent in this process is the individual athlete. The ecological systems theory advocates the consideration of the individual, within the context of the specific activities and the surrounding environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1999), particularly an athlete’s physiological and mental characteristics. Without question, strength, endurance, focus, and perseverance are important for athletic success. Fittingly, these fields of study have garnered extensive attention elsewhere (e.g., Malina, Bouchard, Bar-Or, 2004; Weinberg & Gould, 2015). However, these influences are important for specific performances, whereas the preceding portions of this article focused on global aspects of athlete development. As such, the focus in this section is on individual influences that affect athletic development at a global level. Specifically, relative age effects and sport motivation and interest are highlighted.

Relative Age Effects

In sport, relative age effects exist when athletes possess participation or performance advantages due to their birth dates (Cobley, Baker, Wattie, & McKenna, 2009). Generally, these advantages are for athletes who are relatively older than their peers (i.e., born early in the selection year for their respective sports). The effect is particularly prevalent in male, team sport, though it exists across sexes, sports, and countries (e.g., Cobley et al., 2009). The concern with relative age effects is how something seemingly innocuous (one’s birth date) can profoundly impact athlete development. Certainly, it can be argued that being relatively older results in earlier maturation, creating advantages for some athletes (Sherar, Baxter-Jones, Faulkner, & Russell, 2007). In presenting a model to explain relative age effects, however, Hancock, Adler, and Côté (2013), argued that the effect had little connection to physicality and maturation and, instead, was a result of how coaches and parents perceive maturation to be linked to talent (regardless of whether their perceptions were correct). Based on this model, Côté and Hancock (2016) suggest that sport be structured in a way that delays talent selection decisions until adolescence, which they posit would limit the relative age effect. In doing so, more athletes would be retained (i.e., increased participation) and would be given time to acquire sport skills at a developmentally appropriate pace (i.e., sport performance). Importantly, Hancock (2016) discovered that, once selected to teams, athletes did not differ on any of the Four Cs (i.e., personal development) based on relative age. Thus, if relative age effects can be reduced, personal development would remain consistent, yet participation and performance could be improved.

Sport Motivation and Interest

From engagement in recreational sport programs to intensive training and competition, motivation and interest include the forces that act on and within an individual to direct behaviors and intentions toward a specific goal (Renninger & Hidi, 2016). Interestingly, despite the frameworks that describe optimal forms of motivation (e.g., authentic, self-selected, or self-endorsed motivation; Mack, Sabiston, McDonough, Wilson, & Paskevich, 2011) and outline internal processes that contribute to engagement over time, motivation is often neglected in models of sport expertise.

To keep athletes involved in sport—for lifelong participation or elite performance—it is important to identify the motivational processes that sustain an athletic career from childhood to adulthood. Accordingly, Sansone and Thoman (2005) identified interest as a key component of the self-regulatory process. Whereas motivation can be framed in terms of achievement goals and their expected values (e.g., Nicholls, 1984), interest can be conceptualized as the active ingredient driving the development of optimal sport experiences and talent development in sport. Consistent with this perspective, achievement goals and expectancy values are considered to facilitate the progression of deepening interest and internalized motivation in a reciprocal manner.

The four-phase model of interest development (Hidi & Renninger, 2006; Renninger & Hidi, 2016) conceptualizes interest as a series of progressive stages. Through triggered situational interest, stimulation, liking, and enjoyment lead to short-term changes in cognitive and affective states. Continued support from the environment, either through tasks or other involved individuals, may develop a connection to this activity, resulting in maintained situational interest. An emerging individual interest develops when an individual begins to seek repeated engagement with the activity that is not contingent on external supports. Finally, an enduring predisposition to re-engage with the activity forms a well-developed individual interest.

Because children are inherently attracted to new experiences and interests are developed in line with preferences reflecting perceived strengths and weaknesses (Gottfredson, 1981), the four-phase model of interest development could inform models of athlete development to foster the Three Ps. For instance, childhood is the optimal time to trigger and maintain situational interests in various sports. Adolescence then, is a period in which triggered and maintained interests for specific sports can be fostered through continued social and environmental support, feelings of choice and competence, and internalization of relevant values. Indeed, interests may be appropriately stimulated and nurtured according to the central tenets of the DMSP. In sum, to effectively develop sport talent, supports for interest could be incorporated into sport activities in a developmentally appropriate manner (e.g., Côté & Hancock, 2016).

Article Synthesis and Conclusion

Despite the anecdotal accounts and common assertions that sport inherently contributes to healthy athlete development, evidence suggests otherwise (e.g., Coakley, 2016; Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2016). Sport participation in and of itself does not guarantee such outcomes, and consequently, understanding the factors that facilitate athlete development are an important prerequisite. In addition, an investigation of the current state of youth sport highlights the disparate objectives for many involved, and this article described the literature from a holistic athlete development perspective. Throughout, the intention was to reinforce the ideal objectives for youth sport programs, which should be to enable personal development and maintain participation, while also contributing to improved performance (Côté & Hancock, 2016).

To synthesize the article, the information provided was presented in a way that—in line with Bronfenbrenner’s theorizing—can be utilized by any sport organization or club hoping to facilitate athlete development. For example, the size of the community or city impacts athlete development, yet these are difficult findings, as athletes are unlikely to relocate solely for sport-related purposes. As such, sport organizations in larger cities, for example, should consider the various systems or themes that interact to influence athlete development. Such an organization could tailor their programs to align with the ATDE model described by Henriksen and colleagues (2010). They could also emphasize early sport sampling and could provide opportunities for both deliberate practice and play, prior to allowing athletes to specialize. Working with the numerous social agents that interact with participating athletes is another avenue that could be explored, as coaches, peers, and families can all enrich or hinder the sport experience. Finally, focusing specifically on the individual, finding ways to alleviate the relative age effect or to trigger the development of interest could significantly improve the likelihood of continued sport participation, personal development, and improved performance.


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