The context: more money, more medals, more pressure

It is a truism that sport can be good for young people. There is now substantial evidence that participation in organised physical activities can result in a wide range of benefits, including positive contribution to their physical, social and emotional well-being (Bailey, 2006; Siedentop, 2002). Engagement in youth sport is perceived to be so worthwhile that governments around the world invest large sums of public money in its promotion. The United Kingdom, in particular, has demonstrated great faith in the potential of sport for young people, and has probably invested more per capita than any other country; school sport, alone, has received more than £1 billion since 2003 (Green, 2006).

Policy documents tend to talk in generalities, and the ‘case for sport’ is often presented as if it refers to a relatively homogeneous group of activities. In fact, we might conceptualise sports participation in terms of three different goals: public health goals; educational goals; and, elite-development goals. Siedentop (2002) argued that there is an inevitable tension between these goals: “One can legitimately question the degree to which elite-development goals of a junior sport system can be served as part of a comprehensive system and still direct sufficient resources to achieve the educative and public health goals that are more fundamental to the system as a whole” (p. 396). Underlying this statement is recognition of, perhaps, one of the most frequently overlooked issues of sports development: financial and logistical resources are finite, and increased investment in support of one area necessarily means relatively decreased investment in the others. It is relatively obvious why governments would seek to promote large-scale participation in sport at a grass-roots level (the most common justification in recent years has been that such activities contribute to the health of the nation, and thus eases the burden on the health system (e.g. DCMS / Strategy Unit, 2002; CCPR, 2009). However, reasons for investment in elite sport remain unclear. Nevertheless, successive UK policy documents have spoken of the importance of elite sport in increasingly confident terms, culminating in the publication of Playing to Win: a new era for sport (DCMS, 2008) which placed performance and excellence at its very core. So, funding for elite sport in the UK has risen exponentially since 1997 (when the New Labour government was elected). For example, elite sport funding linked to Olympic sports was allocated £304.4 million for the Olympic funding cycle 2008-2012 (DCMS, 2008, p. 4). The level of funding has been likened to a type of ‘sporting arms race’, as governments in pursuit of more medals invest further into elite sport because rival nations do, which in turn ratchets up further investment (Collins and Green, 2007, p. 9). For the UK, the ultimate goal is for ‘Team GB’ to be placed 4th in the 2012 Olympics and 2nd in the Paralympics medal tables and sustaining that through to the 2016 Games (DCMS, 2008).

The consequences of a policy like this are clear: government officials and civil servants, national governing bodies, coaches, players and athletes will be placed under enormous pressure to achieve this ambitious goal. In fact, the nature of sporting competition means that a ‘trickle-down’ effect will take place whereby the greatest expectations will be forced on those who actual deliver success - the players and athletes. These people are, of course, already under enormous pressure from competing at the highest level, so their position is an unenviable one. Add to this the fact that the sheer quantity and duration of practice necessary to reach elite level means that many of the potential players and athletes are still legally children (Bailey, et al, in press), and questions can be raised about the ethical nature of the enterprise, yet this is not a new observation within world youth sport (David, 2005).

Questions about the ethical treatment of young people in high performance sport are not new (e.g., Brackenridge and Kirby, 1997). Paulo David (2005) argues that that:

“the promotion and protection of human rights of young athletes in the context of competitive sport has received almost no recognition and has rarely been discussed and addressed … despite the existence of a wealth of academic literature and knowledge on the impact of sport on children … Human rights and sports are historically two fields which have had only very restricted interaction.”

With reference to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), David sets out five possible sport situations that, in addition to the usual settings of discrimination based on sex, race, class and ability, can threaten the physical and mental well-being of children:

  • involvement in intensive early training (violation of Article 19 – protection from child abuse and all forms of violence, and Article 32 – protection from economic exploitation);
  • sexual exploitation (violation of Article 19 – protection from sexual abuse and violence);
  • doping (violation of Articles 24 and 33 – right to health and protection from drugs);
  • buying, selling and transfers (violation of Article 32 – economic exploitation – and Article 35 – protection from sale and trafficking);
  • restrictions on education because of involvement in sport (violation of Article 28 – right to education).

Our intention in this chapter is not to revisit these themes; our sense is that they are starting to receive serious attention from scholars already. Our concern is a related matter, and one that has received almost no academic attention at all, namely that of luck within the talent development process. In fact, the locus of our concern is implicit in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, itself. It states in Article 29(a) that “States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to: (a) the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential” (emphasis added). This statement has been interpreted by many to mean that it is possible to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate talent development. Indeed, David (2005, p. 34) himself writes that,

“Competitive sports are not systematically harmful to health and they can be practiced safely by talented young athletes, as long as appropriate safeguards are in place. Many children are gifted in a particular field – whether sports, arts, music or another subject – that they can develop in a conducive environment, and if they are properly encouraged by adults. Children with talent for sport have a right to expect support and guidance from their community.”

We are inclined to agree with this position (who could argue with it?). However, we would draw the reader’s attention to the final, italicised sentence of the quotation. The claim that talented players and athletes should receive appropriate support actually contains two parts: an explicit statement regarding the right to help; and an implicit presumption that such people are readily identifiable (because the concept of ‘right’ makes no sense without the associated notion that there is an evident population entitled to that right). Our contention in this chapter is, first, that this presumption is not warranted, at least in most developed countries[1]: the social and economic factors that mediate engagement, development and achievement in sport are such that it is simply not the case that children with talent necessarily receive the support and guidance warranted by their needs; consequently, these same factors mean that some young people are given opportunities beyond their gifts, due to the reinforcement of unearned privilege. Thus, aside from the more high-profile cases of unethical treatment of young players and athletes that were discussed above, talent development programmes, per se, are often unjust. Second, we frame this situation with reference to the philosophical concepts of ‘luck’ and ‘responsibility’, suggesting that it is both possible and necessary to distinguish different kinds of luck, in order to identify acceptable and unacceptable forms within the context of youth sport.

Talent Development

Many people believe that talent in sport is innate, fixed and affected only modestly by effort (Li, Lee and Solmon, 2006; Ommundsen, 2003; Dweck, 1999). A version of this gene’s-eye account of performance is also held by many coaches (van Rossum and Gagné, 1994) and academics (Klissouras, Geladas, and Koskolou, 2007; Bouchard, Malina and Pérusse, 1997; Hopkins, 2001). Sigmund Loland (2002, pp. 68-69) offers a clear statement of this position when he writes,

“I have understood talent as genetic predispositions to develop performance … talent in sport … is an individual’s genetic predisposition to develop phenotypes [an observable characteristic] of relevance to performance in the sport in question. The distribution of talent in the natural lottery is a random process. Moreover, we know that talent has significant and systematic influence on athletic performance, and that different sports require different talents.” (Loland, 2002, pp. 68-69)

If the ‘nature’ stance is perceived as one end of a continuum, at the other end lies the ‘nurture’, or environmental position. According to this view, talent is primarily the result of practice and experience (Howe, 2001). The most radical viewpoint representing the primacy of practice and environmental factors is the Theory of Deliberate Practice (Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Römer, 1993) that posits a direct relationship between the number of hours of high quality practice and the performance level achieved.

In fact, it is very difficult to find a serious academic who holds extreme versions of either of these positions. If they existed, such fundamentalist would run the risk of ignoring one of the best established findings of modern development science, namely that development is the result of an interaction of genetic and environmental factors (Bransford, Brown and Cocking, 2000). Therefore, the bone of contention between the two camps is not whether genes or experience determine performance, but which is most influential.

For the purposes of this chapter, this conclusion is important because it undermines any simple equation of talent with natural dispositions: even the most genetically endowed player will fail to achieve if she is lazy, or unable to deal with success and failure. In fact, the research literature may have created an optical illusion through its findings due to the fact that, generally speaking, psychologists have been standard bearers for the environmentalist view, and physiologists and geneticists have promoted the biological position. Therefore, the academic literature on talent has tended to pool towards either psychological or the biological data. As we have argued elsewhere, however, participant development is sport cannot be understood fully without a sociological perspective, as well (Bailey, et al, in press). There is very little discussion of the sociology of talent development, although talent is always socially situated and constructed. It is socially situated because talented individuals become so within catalysts like milieu, persons, provisions, events (Gagné, 2004), and it is socially constructed because the scope of the label ‘talent’ is defined by social and cultural values (despite the show’s name, many of the acts presented on the various national versions of Britain’s Got Talent – line dancing dogs, using an axle grinder to create sparks against a metal thong, farting along to the Blue Danube - would not generally be considered suitable for talent development programmes).

What this means for our concern here is that there are likely to be a considerable number of mediating factors between any “genetic predispositions” and actual sports performance. Many of the mediating factors are entirely beyond the control of the player or athlete, and to that extent could be said to be down to luck. From the perspective of a heavily funded activity like competitive sport, this raises important issues about social justice, because to abandon sporting opportunity to luck seems manifestly unfair. For the sports themselves it raises serious concerns that the right people might not be identified and developed at the highest levels (or indeed at any level).

With these worries in mind, we turn to the concept of luck.

Talent and Luck

Luck affects sporting performance in numerous ways. Loland (2002, p. 68) speaks about one aspect when he writes, “the distribution of talent in the natural lottery is a random process”. Many of us had the misfortune to be born to the wrong parents, at the wrong time, and in the wrong place, and so were deprived of the chance of excellence in countless activities (in fact, we were all deprived in some respect or another). Innate giftedness is the paradigm case in the philosophical literature of luck, because it is a clear-cut example of an outcome over which we have absolutely no control. Susan Hurley (2003), for example, distinguishes between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ luck, with the former being the ‘inverse correlate of responsibility’; in other words, it refers to those things for which an individual is not responsible:

“What is a matter of thin luck for an agent is what he is not responsible for, and what he is responsible for is not a matter of thin luck for him.” (Hurley, 2003, p. 107)

Thick luck, on the other hand, is not simply the inverse of responsibility. Rather, if something is a matter of thick luck it is a somewhat open question whether an agent is responsible for it or not. An example of this might be a lottery. Loland’s use of this term notwithstanding, generally speaking, we have to choose to enter a lottery. However, we have little influence over its outcome.

There are other ways in which engagement in high-level sport might be affected by elements beyond our responsibility, and social and economic factors seem especially significant in this regard. Our aim here is not to review the literature (see, for example, Bailey, et al, in press; Bailey and Morley, 2006; Toms, 2005), but merely to highlight some findings that are indicative.


Social and economic aspects of talent development: a mini-review

1) Many children exhibiting signs of high ability during early childhood do not achieve high levels of performance in later life (Tannenbaum, 1983). It seems likely that a significant number of children never fulfil their early promise due to developmental and maturational factors (Malina and Bouchard, 1991; Abbott et al. , 2002), and an inadequate or inappropriate social environment (Perleth et al. , 2000). Of course, there is no way of calculating the number of potentially talented children who were born and brought up in non-supportive backgrounds and whose gifts were never realised, but we might presume that figure to be high.

2) One aspect of the talented young person’s environment that has witnessed a considerable amount of research is the family (Côté, 1999; Kay, 2000 and 2003). In his study of 120 musicians, artists, athletes, mathematicians and scientists, Bloom (1985, p. 3) found strong evidence that no matter what the initial characteristics (or gifts) of the individuals, unless there is a long and intensive process of encouragement, nurturance, education and training, the individuals will not attain extreme levels of capability in these particular fields. Patterns emerge from the literature that suggest there are some family characteristics that are facilitative of the development of high ability in a specific area (see Table 1). As Kay (2000, p. 151) summarises, within the context of elite sport, “children are simply much more likely to achieve success if they come from a certain type of family”.

3) A considerable amount of academic research has been carried out that examines the relationship between peer influence and participation in specific activities (Brustad, 1993; Abernethy et al., 2002). Friendship seems to play a particularly significant role in decisions to invest time and effort in sports, compared with other domains. For example, Abernethy et al. (2002), reported that, in the early stages of their careers, the Australian elite athletes in their sample all mentioned having a group of friends who were also involved in sport. Research in other areas presents the relationship between high ability and peer influence as problematic (Colangelo and Dettermann, 1983; Winner, 1996). There is some evidence that the possession of a gift or talent can endanger social acceptance, and this seems to be especially the case for girls (Luftig and Nichols, 1991; Winner, 1996).

4) It seems tautologous to claim that schools influence the development of talent in youth sport: in most countries schools are the primary formal contexts for the introduction and development of sporting abilities in the young. Schooling certainly seems to be an important factor in children’s cognitive and academic development (Ceci, 1991), although individuals cited in Sloane and Sosniak (1985) attributed far greater influence to private teachers and professional artists. The limited autobiographical evidence available suggests that elite sports players are much more positive about their school experiences, with numerous high level players and athletes crediting school physical education teachers with identifying and then nurturing their talents (Gunnell and Priest, 1995; Redgrave, 2000). However, whilst responsive and supportive physical education teachers constituted a necessary factor in the development of elite sports participation, they are rarely sufficient. Côté and his colleagues (2003) cite specialist coaches as one of the main sources of influence on children as they progress through their development in sport. In the early stages, the coach’s role is generally supplementary to that of school teachers, offering structured practice activities and emphasizing basic skill development (Abernethy et al., 2002). Only later (at approximately 13 years-of-age, in Abernethy’s study) did the coach-athlete relationship become closer and more professional (Rowley, 1992).

5) Finally, there is the role of geography: simply put, the area in which players grow up and facilities to which they have access will have a significant influence on their opportunities of sporting success. Common sense suggests that those from large urban areas, with all of the opportunities that offers, will have the most conducive environment for sporting success. Recent research, however, suggests this may not actually be the case. Côté, et al. (2006) studied the birth place of a multi-sport sample of elite North American players and concluded that children living in smaller cities have more opportunities for the development of sport expertise than peers in larger cities or the countryside.


We trust that the relationship between luck and talent development in sport is sufficiently clear: if you are lucky enough to have a particular suite of genetic predispositions that means you are able to move, react and process information significantly better than your peers, and if you have wealthy, supportive parents who send you to a certain type of school, and if that school happens to have high quality and committed teachers who excel in coaching your sport and high quality facilities in which you can train, if you live near an appropriate club or facility that can support you during out of school time, and if you are fortunate enough to have a supportive group of siblings and friends, and if you are a boy, you are much more likely to achieve sporting success than if you lack – through no fault of your own – these social advantages.

So luck matters, but so what? What follows from this discovery? We suggest a great deal follows. As we have implied earlier, it matters to us as tax-payers and members of the general public if a privileged few benefit and others are held back from sporting success for apparently arbitrary reasons. And it matters to sports national governing bodies if their pool of elite-level players have acquired their places, to some extent, due to fortuitous geography and maternity.

Moreover, we have been using the term luck in a number of different ways, and this is unhelpful. Thomas Nagel (1979) wrote that, when we add up the different types of luck, the space that is left over that is free of luck seems to shrink “to an extensionless point” (p. 35). That may be the case, but we can, at least, put some sort of order to these types of luck.

Slicing Up Luck[2]

We need to be a little cautious in our use of the word “luck” in this context. The word is used in a dazzling variety of ways in academic literature, and it seems wise to undertake some conceptual house-keeping at this stage. The best-known discussion of luck in philosophy is from a pair of articles, both called ‘Moral Luck’, by Thomas Nagel (1979) and Bernard Williams (1981), in which they comment on the notion that morality must be independent of luck in some sense. Nagel and Williams suggest that it is basic to our intuitive moral sense that what people are morally responsible for cannot depend on mere luck.

Another approach of slicing up luck is as follows (cf. Lippert-Rasmussen, 2005; Statman, 1993):

  1. Resultant Luck – the outcomes of our actions are affected by luck. E.g., training to be a philosopher of sport just prior to all the sudden creation of a number of appointments in their area;
  2. Circumstantial luck – the circumstances in which one acts introduce luck. E.g., by chance, a young athlete finds himself attending a club run by an expert coach for a certain sport, and his career benefits as a result of this.
  3. Constitutive luck – luck affects the kind of person you are. E.g., some long-distance runners and cyclists have freakishly low resting heart rates, and because of this, it makes sense to say that they were genetically lucky, within the context of cycling or running.
  4. Antecedent causal luck – there is luck in the way one’s actions are determined by antecedent circumstances. E.g., children born into ‘sporty’ and supportive families are more likely to be motivated and better prepared to engage with sport than those who are not so fortunate.

These analyses are interesting in their way, but are of limited value to us if we are seeking to distinguish different forms of luck with a mind to informing policy or practice. Another way of thinking about luck highlights what we think is closer to the central issue at stake. Dworkin (1981) and Cohen (1989) distinguish between ‘brute’ and ‘option’ luck. Option luck refers to that for which we are responsible, by taking risks, for example. But we are not responsible for brute luck. There is a significant body of literature within egalitarian and social justice theorising that suggests that their most fundamental aim is to neutralise luck (Roemer, 1998; Arneson, 1989). And this has predominantly been taken to mean brute luck (Cohen, 1989). In other words, these egalitarians aim to neutralise the influences on distribution for which we are not responsible.

John Rawls (1971, p. 104) maintained that, “no one deserves his place on the distribution of native endowments any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society”. To this we could retort that sporting success was attributable to more than innate talent, and that dedication, determination, a strong mental attitude and extremely long hours of practice were also important. Rawls, however, was ready for this counter, arguing that these qualities, too, can be seen as products of luck: “the assertion that man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon his fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit” (ibid.). So, does it follow that talented players ought to be handicapped in some way to counter-balance their natural gifts? It would certainly change the nature of sport: “two identical people playing tennis … but neither could ever win. The game would never get beyond 40-40 or perhaps since neither was the least bit better than the other, the first rally of the match would be interminable, or at least last until both players dropped from exhaustion, presumably at the same time” (Wilson, 1966, pp. 73-74). Rawls solution to this problem is that talents represent common assets that benefit all, and they are just because principles of justice are the result of “an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as a common asset and to share in the benefits of this distribution whatever it turns out to be. Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out” (Rawls, 1971, p. 101). In other words, Rawls is arguing that unequal distribution of a resource like talent can be justified if the practices that generate such inequalities operate in the long-term interests of the disadvantaged; the talented athlete has effectively been nationalised (Simon, 1991).

This solution does not seem adequate either as it seems to overlook a number of key features of high level sports performance, such as that inequality is due to the interaction of the expression of the talent and the responses of those witnessing to it. Thus rewarding achievement reflects societal evaluations and celebrations of what some ‘lucky’ individuals do with their gifts, gifts to which they are not merely contingently attached but which may reflect their nature too (ibid.). Moreover, in suggesting that talents are in some way, owned by the community, he contravenes the intuitive view that we do, in fact, own our own minds and bodies (Nozick, 1974), and therefore ought to have some say, at least, about the services to which they are put. Finally, Rawls seems to be implying that their realisation ought to be fair. Any benefit that might be accrued to a minority of exceptional sport performers is fatally undermined if those performers earned their exulted position through underserved advantage due to, for example, parental income or school quality. In other words, whilst the possession of talents may not be equitable, opportunities for their development must be. Luck neutralisation need not, therefore, be anti-talent, but rather anti-privilege.

Hard luck and soft luck

Based on the considerations outlined above, it seems to be that luck, per se, is not of greatest concern, but rather a particular form of luck. To be clear, our concern here is the sporting context. We are equivocal about the scope of luck that ought be curtailed in the wider society, but it does seem reasonable to suppose that individual differences, which generate much of the challenge and excitement of sport, ought not be neutralised as a matter of course (step-ladders for short basketball players, handicapping of the fastest sprinters, telescopic lenses for short-sighted golfers could all be classified as luck-neutralising strategies, but seem to betray something of the spirit of sport).

Whilst we do not wish to further complicate the earlier discussion of luck, our suggestion is that there are two types of luck that are of particular relevance to this discussion: luck that is modifiable and luck that is not. Examples of the former are numerous, but include the quality of physical education, the quality of coaching and parental income. An example of the latter might be genetic inheritance. The second form of luck seems necessarily more difficult to address. The former can be called ‘soft luck’; the latter ‘hard luck’. Soft luck in avoidable and can be directly addressed; hard luck is unavoidable, and cannot be ‘corrected’ directly.

This distinction is important because it is cognisant of the nature of sport and the importance of some types of individual differences in it. At the same time, it honours the spirit of the luck neutralisation position, but only when that luck is soft (i.e., is modifiable). Therefore, this perspective does not abandon social responsibility; on the contrary, it makes an explicit case that those who benefit from privilege are not further privileged, and those who are relatively disadvantaged are supported. This seems warranted because, on the one hand, youth talent development is predominantly supported from the public purse, and the public has a right that expenditure is distributed fairly. On the other hand, even if youth sport was an entirely private affair, society would still be justified in intervening in defence of the welfare of some of its most vulnerable members.


Elite sport is costly, for society and for the players / athletes who engage in it. Unlike most other contexts of sport, those performing at the highest levels are working in a necessarily selective environment. Selection is acceptable if it is the result of an individual making the most of the innate gifts available (of hard luck). It is not acceptable if opportunities are presented to a player heavily mediated by social and environmental happenstance. In other words, we are arguing that elitism is a reasonable (perhaps attractive) element of competitive sport; exclusivity is not acceptable, if that term is understood to mean that groups are selected and not appropriately supported into or out of talent development programmes based on little more than an accident of geography or upbringing.

We are not suggested that socially fortunate players achieve sporting success entirely due to their social backgrounds. Obviously, practice and dedication are vitally important to their success. However, we do maintain that success is generally much easier for groups from fairly clearly defined social backgrounds (in the UK, these backgrounds include wealthy, white boys). We also suggest that selection onto talent development programmes for a minority (and consequently de-selection off for a much larger group) is mediated to such an extent that it is not possible to say with any confidence that the ‘winners’ are the most talented because the whole process is infused by soft luck at every point. This is unnecessary, wasteful and unfair.


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[1] It is highly likely that this contention holds in all non-Communist states (and probably also those); however, we will be citing literature from the developed world in this instance, so our claim is suitably restricted.

[2] This discussion relies on Bailey (2007)

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