The increasingly well funded and high-tech world of talent development (TD) represents an important investment for most sports. Reflecting traditional concepts of challenge and focus, the vast majority of such systems expend a great deal of effort maximizing support to the young athletes and trying to counter the impact of naturally occurring life stressors. In this article, we suggest that much of this effort is misdirected; that, in fact, talented potential can often benefit from, or even need, a variety of challenges to facilitate eventual adult performance. Our argument is built on evidence that such challenges are more common in athletes who reach the top, together with a critical consideration of the modus operandi and impact of psychological/character-focused interventions such as mental toughness and resilience. In conclusion, we explore some implications for the design and conduct of optimum academies and TD environments.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
UK Sport. World class performance programme [online]. Available from URL: http://www.uksport.gov.uk/pages/wc-performance-programme/ [Accessed 2012 May 13].
Seligman M. Building resilience. Harvard Bus Rev 2011 Apr; 89(4): 100–6.
Dweck CS. Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Random House, 2006.
Clough P, Earle K, Sewell D. Mental toughness: the concept and its measurement. In: Cockerill I, editor. Solutions in sport psychology. London: Thomson, 2002: 32–45.
Jones G, Hanton S, Connaughton D. A framework of mental toughness in the world’s best performers. Sport Psychol 2007; 21: 243–64.
MacNamara Á, Button A, Collins D. The role of psychological characteristics in facilitating the pathway to elite performance. Part 1: identifying mental skills and behaviours. Sport Psychol 2010; 24: 52–73.
MacNamara Á, Button A, Collins D. The role of psychological characteristics in facilitating the pathway to elite performance. Part 2: examining environmental and stage related differences in skills and behaviours. Sport Psychol 2010; 24: 74–96.
Gullich A, Emrich E. Evaluation of the support of young athletes in the elite sport system. Eur J Sport Soc 2006; 3: 85–108.
Armstrong L. It’s not about the bike: my journey back to life. New York: Putnam, 2001.
Cleary T, Zimmerman BJ. Self-regulation differences during athletic practice by experts, non-experts and novices. J Appl Sport Psychol 2001; 31: 461–6.
Durand-Bush N, Salmela JH. The development of talent in sport. In: Singer RN, Hausenblas HA, Janelle CM, editors. Handbook of sport psychology. New York: Wiley, 2001: 269–89.
Gould D, Greenleaf C, Chung Y, et al. A survey of U.S. Atlanta and Nagano Olympians: variables perceived to influence performance. Res Q Exerc Sport 2002; 73: 175–86.
Ollis S, MacPherson A, Collins D. Expertise and talent development in rugby referees: an ethnographic enquiry. J Sports Sci 2006; 24(3): 309–22.
Abbott A, Collins D. Eliminating the dichotomy between theory and practice in talent identification and development: considering the role of psychology. J Sports Sci 2004; 22: 395–408.
Collins D. Talent development: the game between the ears. Invited keynote presentation. Science for Success Conference; 2011 Oct 11–13; Jyväskyla.
Helsen WF, Hodges NJ, Van Winckel J, et al. The roles of talent, physical precocity and practice in the development of soccer expertise. J Sports Sci 2000; 18: 727–36.
Van Yperen N. Why some make it and others do not: identifying psychological factors that predict career success in professional adult soccer. Sport Psychol 2009; 23: 317–29.
Fogarty R, Perkins D, Barrell J. The mindful school: how to teach for transfer. Highett (VIC): Hawker Brownlow Education, 1992.
Marini A, Genereux R. The challenge of teaching for transfer. In: McKeough A, editor. Teaching for transfer: fostering generalization in learning. Mahwah (NJ): Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995: 1–19.
Meichenbaum D. Cognitive behavioral modification: an integrative approach. New York: Plenum Press, 1977.
Meichenbaum D. Stress inoculation training for coping with stressors. Clin Psychol 1996; 49: 4–7.
Rosenbaum M. Learned resourcefulness as a behavioral repertoire for the self-regulation of internal events: issues and speculations. In: Rosenbaum MCM, Franks CM, Jaffe J, editors. Perspectives in behavior therapy in the eighties. New York: Springer, 1983: 54–73.
Rosenbaum M. Individual differences in self-control behaviors and tolerance of painful stimulation. J Abnorm Psychol 1980; 89:581–90.
Rosenbaum M, Ben-Ari S. Cognitive and personality factors in the delay of immediate gratification of hemodialysis patients. J Pers Soc Psychol 1986; 51: 357–64.
Carey MB, Carey KB, Carnrike CL, et al. Learned resourcefulness, drinking, and smoking in young adults. J Psychol, 1990; 124: 391–6.
Rosenbaum M. A schedule for assessing self-control behaviors: preliminary findings. Behav Ther 1980; 11: 109–21.
Rosenbaum M, Rolnick A. Self-control behaviors and coping with seasickness. Cognit Ther Res 1983; 7: 93–8.
Collins DJ. (1990). Character building by sport and for sport, an outdated concept? AIESEP World Congress; 1990 Jul 20–25; London.
Lovell GP, Collins D. Applied interventions for improving team effectiveness. In: Steinberg H, Annett J, editors. Workshop report on teamwork. Leicester: British Psychological Society, 1996: 57–65.
Danish S, Fazio R, Nellen V, et al. Teaching life skills through sport: community-based programs to enhance adolescent development. In: van Raalte JL, Brewer BW, editors. Exploring sport and exercise psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2002: 269–88.
Roth JL, Brooks-Gunn J. What exactly is a youth development program? Answers from research and practice. Appl Dev Sci 2003; 7: 94–111.
Duckworth AL, Peterson C, Matthews MD, et al. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. J Pers Soc Psychol 2007; 92 (6); 1087–101.
Crust L. Mental toughness in sport: a review. Int J Sport Exerc Psychol 2007; 5: 270–90.
Crust L, Clough PJ. Relationship between mental toughness and physical endurance. Percept Motor Skills 2005; 100: 192–4.
Masten AS, Best KM, Garmezy N. Resilience and development: contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity. Dev Psychopathol 1990; 2: 425–44.
Winfield LF. Developing resilience in urban youth. Oak Brook (IL): Urban Monograph Series, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1994.
Doll B, Lyon MA. Risk and resilience: Implications for the delivery of educational and mental health services in schools. School Psych Rev 1998; 27(3): 348–263.
Judkins S, Reid B, Furlow L. Hardiness training among nurse managers: building a healthy workplace. J Contin Educ Nurs 2006; 37: 202–7.
Maddi SR, Harvey RH, Resurrection R, et al. Hardiness as a performance enhancer in firefighters. Int J Fire Ser Man 2007; 17: 208–19.
Maddi SR. Relevance of hardiness assessement and training to the military context. Mil Psychol 2007; 19(1): 61–70.
Orlick T, Partington J. Mental links to excellence. Sport Psychol 1988; 2: 105–30.
Duckworth AL, Seligman MEP. Self-Discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychol Sci 2005; 16(12): 939–44.
Tsukayama E, Toomey SL, Faith ME, et al. Self-control as a protective Factor against overweight status in the transition from childhood to adolescence. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2010; 164(7): 631–5.
Duckworth AL, Tsukayama E, Geier AB. Self-controlled children stay leaner in the transition to adolescence. Appetite 2010; 54: 304–8.
Duckworth AL, Tsukayama E, May H. Establishing causality using longitudinal hierarchical linear modeling: an illustration predicting achievement from self-control. Soc Psychol Personal Sci 2010; 1(4): 311–7.
Deinstbier RA. Arousal and physiological toughness: implications for mental and physical health. Psychol Rev 1989; 96: 84–100.
Eubank M, Collins D, Lovell G, et al. Perceived anxiety influence and the temporal patterning of hormonal concentration. J Sports Sci 1996; 14(1): 26–7.
Eubank M, Collins D, Smith NC. The influence of anxiety perception on processing bias. J Sport Exerc Psychol 2000; 22(4): 292–306.
Nicholls AR, Holt NL, Polman RCJ, et al. Stressors, coping, and coping effectiveness among professional rugby union players. Sport Psychol 2006; 20: 314–29.
MacNamara Á, Collins D. The role of psychological characteristics in managing the transition to university. Psychol Sport Exerc 2010; 11: 353–62.
Duckworth AL, Grant H, Loew B, et al. Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intention. Educ Psychol 2010; 31: 17–26.
Bath N. The Chelsea FC academy performance plan. London: Chelsea FC, 2011.
Crust L, Clough PJ. Developing mental toughness: from research to practice. J Sport Psychol Action 2011; 2(1): 21–32.
Martindale RJJ, Collins D, Daubney J. A critical review of talent development and implications for sport. Quest 2005; 57: 353–75.
Breslau N, Chilcoat HD, Kessler RC, et al. Previous exposure to trauma and PTSD effects of subsequent trauma: results from the Detroit Area Survey of Trauma. Am J Psychiatry 1999; 156(6): 902–7.
Breslau N, Anthony JC. Gender differences in the sensitivity to posttraumatic stress disorder: an epidemiological study of urban young adults. J Abnorm Psychol 2007; 116(3): 607–11.
Seligman MEP. Learned helplessness. Annu Rev Med 1972; 23: 407–12.
Maier SF, Seligman MEP. Learned helplessness: theory and evidence. J Exp Psychol Gen 1976; 105: 3–46.
Abramson LY, Garber J, Seligman MEP. Learned helplessness in humans: an attributional analysis. In: Garber J, Seligman MEP, editors. Human helplessness. New York: Academic Press, 1980: 3–35.
Mineka S, Zinbarg R. A contemporary learning theory perspective on the etiology of anxiety disorders: it’s not what you thought it was. Am Psychol 2006; 61(1): 10–26.
Collins D, Bailey RP, Ford P, et al. Three worlds: new directions in participant development in sport and physical activity. Sport Educ Soc 2011; 1–19.
Baker J, Horton S, Robertson-Wilson J, et al. Nurturing sport expertise: factors influencing the development of elite athlete. J Sports Sci Med 2003; 2: 1–9.
Collins D, Martindale RJJ, Button A, et al. Building a physically active and talent rich culture: an educationally sound approach. Eur Phys Educ Rev 2010; 16(1): 7–28.
Kamin S, Richards H, Collins D. Influences on the talent development process of non-classical musicians: psychological, social and environmental influences. Mus Educ Res 2007; 9(3): 449–68.
No sources of funding were used to assist in the preparation of this article. The authors have no conflicts of interest that are directly relevant to the content of this article. The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of several colleagues, particularly Angela Button and Russ Martindale, in the evolution of these ideas.
About this article
Cite this article
Collins, D., MacNamara, Á. The Rocky Road to the Top. Sports Med 42, 907–914 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03262302
- Performance Domain
- Positive Youth Development
- Young Athlete
- Talent Development
- Proactive Coping