Jean Côté hails from Canada’s French-speaking province of Québec but teaches at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Jean was a hockey goaltender for many years, but his work now focuses on the relationships between youth athletes, their parents, and their coaches. He came up with the Developmental Model of Sport Participation in 2007, where he demonstrated long-term health benefits of sampling several sports throughout one’s childhood instead of immediately specializing in any one discipline. He admits that this model isn’t very applicable to sports where children must excel early, like figure skating or gymnastics. However, in the grand scheme of things, he has found the DMSP to be very effective in predicting a healthy lifestyle in later years. He is currently working on applying skills learned through sport to life via schooling.
Jean presented several lectures to us in April. Below is a grouping of thoughts that wandered through my mind as he took us through his world.
Relative age & birthplace effects
First, we were reminded of the relative age effect, through which children born at opportune times during the year have a greater chance at athletic success. This is prevalent in sports where athletes are divided early on based on their birth year rather than on their skill, creating a bias during team cut-off times towards those who are further along in physical development over their peers. There is a big difference between you and your 5- and 4-year-old friends when you are four and a half, a contrast that all but disappears when your group enters its young adult years. This effect was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, where he noted that 40% of the most elite NHL hockey players were born between January and March.
Through his research, Jean discovered a similar phenomenon: the birthplace effect. He found that athletes from cities with populations of under 500,000 were also over-represented in professional sports, especially those from cities of 200,000-250,000. Athletes from towns of under 1,000, however, were almost absent. This was true for team sports like baseball, basketball, and hockey, as well as for solo sports like golf. Our class hypothesized many reasons for this effect, primary among them that medium-sized cities provide ample resources for personal development — local support and solid infrastructure via facilities and clubs, unlike tiny hamlets — while simultaneously not drowning young athletes in a well of competition for a few prized elite team spots, as big cities are wont to do.
The Lockeport phenomenon
Contrary to the above evidence, Jean went on to present Lockeport, Nova Scotia as a great example of a top athlete-producing town. At just 650 residents, Lockeport has some unique characteristics that make it a hotbed of athletic activity. Owing to its small size, the community is very tight-knit and has a high level of trust within. Regarding the latter, the coach would just hand his gym keys over to any children who wanted to use the school gym outside school hours. Regarding the former, the town had lots of mixed-age practice, including teenagers playing with adults if they excelled at a sport. The town also boasted a strong sporting tradition, with children getting involved in sport at an early age and with the links between sport, families, community, and school being very tightly forged. For example, some family members would even have their own permanent seats in the school’s gyms.
Lockeport stood out from other towns in two other important ways. First, its coaching system was unique. Coaches would often stick with a team over 5-6 years, and when community members were asked to describe them they never thought of them as a “good coach”, but rather used the words “good person”. Guest coaches were often invited into the community to help run trainings, and intra-town games were often organized. Secondly, the community support went far beyond average. Whenever a home team won a championship there would be a parade — even the firetrucks were brought out. This did not matter if the title won was great or small: champions were always honoured in the city. This prime example of the big-fish–little-pond effect shows how self-efficacy can be fostered by community to produce athletes who truly believe they can do it, however daunting “it” may be.
Lastly, owing to the strong interconnectedness of everything in the community, traditional values like respect for coaches and older athletes and a duty to the community remained upheld. High-level athletes would often return to Lockeport and reintegrate into city life during off-season times. Local children would see them and would realize that, “Hey, I can also reach these levels!”
Following this presentation, we had a lively discussion on whether these small-town characteristics are unique to small towns, or can they in fact be developed in a larger city as well. Our consensus after several minutes of intense debate settled to a unanimous but careful yes, realizing this would involve the creation of little islands of community within a larger city, each with a sport facility at its core. For example, Jean cited a case where a town spent lots of money building a series of state-of-the-art stadiums, but because these were outside the city they ended up never being used. Facilities like these, Jean underlines, should be in the very heart of the city, beating with the very pulse that keeps the very metropolis alive in the first place — if not being the heart outright.
Early diversification v. specialization
Jean’s research also resulted in his advocating for early diversification in sport, with children trying on a few different hats before choosing which one to specialize in over their teenage years. I couldn’t help but notice his stages closely resembling those in Erikson’s model of psychosocial development. When I asked about this, he agreed with the similarity but explained his divisions were acquired empirically and not through reaching back to previous theories. The more subjects he analyzed, the more it became apparent that deciding milestones — points where children started investing more in their discipline, for example, or even specializing in it to the exclusion of other sports — hovered around the same points of ~12 and ~17 years old.
Several decades prior, Erikson noted the ages of 5-12 are dedicated to developing competence. It is during this time that children learn direction and productivity, moving from play to purposeful projects. Erikson warns of the child who is not allowed to find his own talents at his own pace during this time: he is immediately at a higher risk of developing lethargy and a lack of both motivation and self-esteem later in life. Looking back at Jean’s work, we quickly find support for his early diversification model in Erikson’s work.
The next milestone, according to Jean, occurs at around 17 years of age. Erikson would give this stage a range of 13-19 and would say that it revolves around a young adult’s developing his identity or, conversely, ending up in a state of role confusion. In Erikson’s model, adolescents in this stage are answering the questions, “Who am I, and who can I be?”. It is here that teenagers start forming cliques based on common interest and lifestyles. Returning to Jean’s world of sport, it makes sense that youth will start specializing at this stage because this is exactly when they are discarding who they are not and holding fast to who they are.
A very interesting potential experiment that came to mind while Jean was talking of specialization had to do with his noticing that athletes from aesthetic sports had early peaks (eg: gymnastics), and also tended to specialize earlier. It would be neat to discern when peak performance happens for all sports (eg: averaging the ages of all the world champions in any given discipline), and then work backward to find a suggested specialization age. This could result in something of a basic Geert-Hofstede model of sport characteristics, only with ready-made coaching applications built right into it.
Jean wrapped up his series by underlining something I myself have noticed since starting my degree: the current trend in psychology is highly reactive, repairing problems to bring people to the baseline instead of pushing people above it… and sport is an ideal arena where we can do just that. I call this moving from 0 to +1 instead of from -1 to 0. Jean encouraged us to use our status as health professionals to strengthen funding and research efforts in our field because sport really can develop better people.
Q & A:
We are allowed private consultation sessions with all lecturers who come visit us. Here’s what I asked Jean:
- What is your biggest career-related regret? Starting publishing articles later rather than sooner.
- What is a technique you find yourself returning to often? The circle of control.
- What is a book you would recommend? In Pursuit of Excellence, Heads-Up Baseball, and Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect.