Is money what it takes to become an elite athlete?

By Tammy Hardiman

What specific roles do significant others play in determining elite status at the youth sport level? This is a question that Dr. Basil Kavanagh, assistant professor in the School of Physical Education and Athletics, has been trying to answer for the past two years. He has designed and conducted a study to determine the characteristics associated with an athlete's rise to elite status in Newfoundland and Labrador. Dr. Kavanagh defines an elite athlete as one who competes in national sports events while still in high school or junior high.

"Through my own experience as a Canada Games coach, and my interest in athletes, I have found that athletes are participating in sports at an elite level based on economics, or for financial reasons, rather than on pure natural ability and skill. This goes back to the amount of support they receive from their parents, coaches, significant others, or from their community," Dr. Kavanagh said.

It was this observation, plus his desire to have an instrument capable of measuring the reasons why an athlete becomes elite, that prompted Dr. Kavanagh to develop the study. The study was used to identify significant others, as well as the type and frequency of support and opportunities provided and its importance to the athletes.

The study focused on two aspects: social/psychological support and opportunity sets. Three groups of participants were involved: an elite athlete group, parents and coaches, and a group of experts made up of representatives of sport governing bodies and Canada Games coaches. People from each group were asked what type of social/psychological supports a child needs to participate at the elite level, and what kinds of opportunities were provided. One hundred and twenty-two factors were identified that contributed to an athlete becoming elite; this list was further reduced to 25 factors as a result of a ranking process.

Two subscales were created with a total of 75 items that identified who significant others were, and the type and frequency of support they provided. This scale, known as the Social-Psychological and Opportunity Set Inventory (SPOSI), was administered to 700 athletes throughout the province. The athletes were classified into three categories: elite athletes, competitive athletes, and recreational athletes. They were specifically asked who provided opportunities for them, what opportunities were provided, and how important these opportunities were to them.

Approximately 550 questionnaires were returned and the results were analysed using statistical techniques that included principal component analysis, multi-variate analysis of variants (MANOVAS), and discriminant function analysis, revealing four factors which determined the differences between recreational athletes and elite athletes. The factors included social/psychological supports, opportunity sets, management functions, and general supportive behaviors.

"Where a person lives, how many sports they participate in, the number of sports which provide training, and the number of competitions they take part in each year - all determine whether an athlete becomes elite," explained Dr. Kavanagh. "The biggest single variable deciding if an athlete achieves elite status is whether they get access to elite coaching and facilities; their place of residence comes second. If athletes live in rural communities in Newfoundland they will not have access to elite coaching or facilities; consequently, they might not receive the type of support from significant others they need to attain elite status."

When the provincial government or any sports governing body spends money on providing training opportunities, invariably those who already have access to this training receive the bulk of the funding. The best athletes don't necessarily go to national competitions - athletes from middle to high-income families go; in such cases, participation at national championships becomes a function of economics and privelege, rather than skill or ability, Dr. Kavanagh said. "Sport becomes a function of economic means," he observed.

The results of Dr. Kavanagh's study are now being analysed in terms of the differences between individual sports such as tennis, gymnastics, rowing, and curling, and group sports. The premise is that individual sports cost a lot more to participate in, leading to even greater differences between these elite athletes and others. Finally, a gender study is being undertaken to determine differences between males and females in their rise to elite status.