The Sport Psychologist, 2011, 25, 341-362
© 2011 Human Kinetics, Inc.
Henriksen and Roessler are with the Institute of Sport Science and Clinical Biomechanics, Univerisity
of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark. Stambulova is with the School of Social and Health Sciences,
Halmstad University, Halmstad, Sweden.
Riding the Wave of an Expert:
A Successful Talent Development
Environment in Kayaking
University of Southern Denmark
Kirsten Kaya Roessler
University of Southern Denmark
The holistic ecological approach to talent development in sport highlights the
central role of the overall environment as it affects a prospective elite athlete.
This paper examines a at-water kayak environment in Norway with a history
of successfully producing top-level senior athletes from among its juniors. Prin-
cipal methods of data collection include interviews, participant observations of
daily life in the environment and analysis of documents. The environment was
centered around the relationship between prospects and a community of elite
athletes, ofcially organized as a school team but helping the athletes to focus
on their sport goals, teaching the athletes to be autonomous and responsible for
their own training, and perceived as very integrated due to a strong and cohesive
organizational culture. We argue that the holistic ecological approach opens new
venues in talent development research and holds the potential to change how sport
psychology practitioners work with prospective elite athletes.
The world of elite sport presents increasing physical and mental challenges to
athletes while making ever greater nancial demands on sporting organizations.
Sport systems capable of developing athletes to the highest international levels
are likely to receive nancial rewards and recognition. For these reasons, talent
detection and development have become central challenges to all sport systems.
Applied sport psychology contributes to helping young talented athletes real-
ize their potentials, and successful talent development alongside elite performance
has been linked to psychological concepts such as motivation (e.g., Ryan & Deci,
342 Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler
2000; Vallerand & Losier, 1999) discipline and commitment (e.g., Holt & Dunn,
2004), volition (e.g., Elbe & Beckmann, 2006), mental skills (e.g., Abbott & Col-
lins, 2004; Vealey, 2007), coping (Poczwardowski & Conroy, 2002) and other
individual or group attributes.
In this paper we introduce a holistic ecological approach to athletic talent
development—one that focuses on the whole athletic talent development envi-
ronment (ATDE) rather than on the individual athlete—and present the case of a
successful ATDE. We argue that the holistic ecological approach, if adopted by
sport psychology practitioners, can change their assessments and strategies when
working with prospective elite athletes.
The link between research and practice is clearly formulated in the practitioner-
researcher model (Jarvis, 1999) and the modern scientist-practitioner model (Lane
& Corrie, 2006) that both underscore the importance of reective practice and being
an explorative researcher while doing applied work with clients. In articulating sport
psychology as cultural praxis, Ryba and Wright (2010) point out that such praxis
works with elements of theory, research and practice and thus further bridges the
gap between academic and applied work. The sport psychology practitioner must
be viewed as a researcher who relies on theory as he or she makes an assessment
of a problem and decides on a strategy to solve it. “… practitioners need to do
some work or construct problems from the fragmented and fuzzy situations that
make no sense by naming the things that are perceived as relevant and setting them
into the frame of a specic problem” (p. 20). In other words, the reections (often
based on dominating theories and research trends) a consultant brings to the situ-
ation inuences his/her assessment and thereafter the intervention strategy. As an
example, applied work with young talented athletes mirrors the evolution of talent
in sport research over the last three decades.
In this evolution one research trend has been talent detection and identication,
based on the notion that there is an innate reservoir of talent. Using an advanced
assessment of the prerequisites for athletic excellence, sporting organizations
aim to identify such talent and predict who is likely to excel (Howe, Davidson,
& Sloboda, 1998; Hohmann & Seidel, 2003). Within this line of work, the sport
psychology practitioner’s role is to assess psychological prerequisites for sporting
excellence. However, the difculties involved in such selection (Lidor, Côté, &
Hackfort, 2009) have stimulated researchers to shift the focus from traits to skills
(Durand-Bush & Salmela, 2001).
A second trend in the athletic talent research has been talent development,
which focuses on the individual athlete’s acquired skills and the quantity and
quality of training needed to reach top-level performance. As illustrated in the
Developmental Model of Sport Participation (Côté, Baker, & Abernethy, 2007),
this developmental approach itself comprises two pathways to elite performance.
The elite performance through early specialization trajectory advocates early
specialization and deliberate practice (highly structured, goal-oriented, supervised
training designed to improve performance) leading to elite performance (Ericsson &
Lehmann, 1996; Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993). The elite performance
through sampling trajectory involves a gradual move from sampling more sports to
focusing on one sport, accompanied by a gradual move away from deliberate play
(intrinsically motivating, self-organized activities designed to maximize enjoyment)
and toward deliberate practice, and is seen as a more healthy route to top-level
Ecological Approach to Talent Development 343
performance (Côté et al., 2007; Côté, Lidor, & Hackfort, 2009). In either trajectory,
the role of the sport psychology practitioner is to build skills and resources in the
athletes that underpin their long term motivation and development.
As a further trend, research into athletic careers has stimulated the sport
psychology professionals to adopt a holistic lifespan perspective (Alfermann &
Stambulova, 2007; Stambulova, Alfermann, Statler, & Côté, 2009; Wylleman &
Lavallee, 2004). The whole person approach inherent in today’s career literature
examines athletic careers as a reciprocal interaction between development in the
athletic domain and development in other areas, since key transitions in the sport
domain co-occur with transitions in the academic vocational, psychological and
psycho-social domains (Wylleman & Lavallee, 2004). The transition from junior
to senior sports is a key challenge for talented junior athletes (Stambulova, 2009).
A particularly salient risk during this transition is that of developing a one-sided
athletic identity, which jeopardizes not only the athlete’s successful sports career
but also the successful adaptation to life after sport (Lavallee, Gordon, & Grove,
1997; Lavallee & Robinson, 2007). The International Society of Sport Psychology
Position Stand recommends that sport psychology practitioners assist elite junior
athletes in relation to career planning, balancing lifestyle, stress/time/energy man-
agement and effective recovery (Stambulova et al., 2009). Although promoting a
whole person approach, the holistic lifespan perspective is still individual in the
sense that focus is on the individual athlete and the challenges he or she experi-
ences in relation to life as an athlete.
Recently there has been a call for a more ecological perspective, one that
stresses the role of interaction between the person and his/her context (Garcia Ben-
goechea, 2002; Garcia Bengoechea & Johnson, 2001; Krebs, 2009). Advocating the
integration of Bronfenbrenner’s (2005) bioecological model of human development
into research in the sport domain, these authors stress that talent development is
affected by the complex interrelationship between process, person, context and time
(PPCT model). Although these authors aptly demonstrate the potential contribution
of ecological theory to research and practice in sport psychology, the ecological
approach has been largely missing in talent research (Araujo & Davids, 2009).
Holistic Ecological Perspective in Studying Athletic
Talent Development Environments
In an effort to transform the ecological perspective into to a manageable frame-
work and methodology, Henriksen, Stambulova and Roessler (2010a; 2010b)
have introduced a holistic ecological approach, with a focus on the environment
in which prospective elite athletes develop. Such environment is called athletic
talent development environment (ATDE) and dened as
. . . a dynamic system comprising a) an athlete’s immediate surroundings at
the micro-level where athletic and personal development take place, b) the
interrelations between these surroundings, c) at the macro-level, the larger
context in which these surroundings are embedded, and d) the organizational
culture of the sports club or team, which is an integrative factor of the ATDE’s
effectiveness in helping young talented athletes to develop into senior elite
athletes (Henriksen, 2010 p. 160).
344 Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler
Two working models represent the holistic ecological approach. The rst
model is the athletic talent development environment (ATDE) working model,
which is a framework for describing a particular athletic environment and for
clarifying the roles and functions of the different components and relations within
the environment. The environment is depicted as a series of nested structures. The
young prospect athletes appear at the center of the model, and other components
of the ATDE are structured into two levels (micro- and macro-) and two domains
(athletic and nonathletic). The microlevel refers to the environment where the
prospect athletes spend a good deal of their daily life, such as the club environment
(immediately surrounding the athlete), school, friendship groups and family. The
macro-level refers to social settings, which affect but do not contain the athletes,
such as sport federations, media, the educational system and reference groups, as
well as to the values and customs of the cultures (such as national and sport spe-
cic cultures) to which the athletes belong. The athletic domain covers the part of
the athletes’ environment that is directly related to sport, whereas the nonathletic
domain presents all the other spheres of the athletes’ lives. The outermost layer of
the model presents the past, present and future of the ATDE, emphasizing that the
environment is dynamic and the athletes and their contexts are constantly changing
and inuencing each other.
The second model representing the holistic ecological approach is the environ-
ment success factors (ESF) working model, which structures factors that provide
the environment’s success and thus has an explanatory potential. The model takes
as its starting point the preconditions provided by the environment (e.g., human,
nancial and material resources), which are necessary but do not guarantee suc-
cess. The model then illustrates how the daily routines or process (e.g., training,
camps and competitions) have three outcomes: the athletes’ individual develop-
ment and achievements (acquisition of psycho-social competencies and athletic
skills), team achievements (in team sports), and organizational development and
culture. All of these are highly interrelated and inuence the environment’s success.
“Organizational culture” is central to the ESF model and consists of three levels.
“Cultural artifacts” are visible manifestations such as stories and myths told in the
environment, clothing, buildings and organization charts. “Espoused values” are
the social principles, norms, goals and standards that the organization shows to the
world (i.e., what the members say they do). “Basic assumptions” are underlying
reasons for actions that are no longer questioned but are taken for granted (strongly
affecting what the members actually do). Organizational culture is characterized
by the integration of the key basic assumptions into a cultural paradigm guiding
socialization of new members, providing stability and adapting the organization
to a constantly changing environment. The ESF working model therefore predicts
that the ATDE’s success (i.e., effectiveness in producing senior elite athletes) is a
result of the interplay between preconditions, process, individual and team devel-
opment and achievements, with organizational culture serving to integrate these
The two working models (presented in Henriksen et al., 2010a) were derived
heuristically based on a theoretical framework of ecological psychology (Bron-
fenbrenner, 2005), systems theory (Bateson, 1973; Patton & McMahon, 2006) and
cultural and cross-cultural psychology (Berry & Triandis, 2004; Schein, 1992) and
on a review of existing research on athletic talent. The models were used to guide
Ecological Approach to Talent Development 345
the research and design research instruments (interview- and observation guides).
After investigating a specic environment, empirical versions (based on empirical
data) of the models were developed that capture the unique features of the environ-
ment under study and serve as a summary of the case.
The holistic ecological approach sets new challenges for sport psychology
practitioners and also holds the potential to enrich their practice. Adopting this
approach may help the practitioners become more sensitive to the athletes’ context,
and the working models provide a framework for sport psychologists to structure
their interventions when aiming to improve an ATDE as a whole.
The present study explores a successful talent development environment in at-
water kayak racing. This case provides an example of how the holistic ecological
approach can be used to describe an ATDE and explain its success in developing elite
athletes. A successful ATDE was chosen to further illuminate the potential positive
contribution of the environment in the development of athletes. The present study
is a part of a larger research project on successful ATDEs in Scandinavia, which
includes two more cases that are the Danish national 49er sailing team (Henriksen
et al., 2010a) and the IFK Växjö track and eld club in Sweden (Henriksen et al.,
2010b) . Objectives of the current study include: (a) providing a holistic description
of a successful ATDE, namely Wang school of elite sports’ kayak team in Norway,
and (b) examining factors inuencing its success in developing prospective elite
paddlers. Based on the results we will discuss how the holistic ecological approach
can help practitioners to work more effectively with young talented athletes as well
as with entire ATDEs.
The present study adopts the holistic ecological approach and takes a contempo-
rary—or real time—view of the functioning of the environment. The study can be
dened as an ethnographic study grounded in a constructivist paradigm (Krane
& Baird, 2005). As such the study aims for a rich understanding of a particular
group (i.e., the ATDE), and “does not engage assumptions of value-free or neutral
observations, is historically and situationally bound (i.e., it may not be replicable
or generalizable) and realizes the inuence of the researchers on the research…”
Selection of Wang School of Elite Sports’
Kayak Team, Norway
The at-water kayak team at Wang School of Elite Sports was selected due to its
success in developing young paddlers into elite senior athletes. Indicators of this
success are the impressive results of Norwegian senior elite kayakers and the ow
of young Wang paddlers into the Norwegian senior national team. Norwegian
paddlers have won medals at every Olympic Games from 1992 to 2008, have been
represented in the nals at every World Championships since 1968, and total 123
medals at the senior European and World Championships and Olympic Games.
Wang reports a steady ow of their paddlers into the Norwegian national teams.
In the current structure Norway’s senior national team consists of a performance
and a development team, and more than half of all paddlers in this overall team are
346 Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler
former or current students at Wang. Further, it should be noted that the Norwegian
Canoe Association recommends skilled young paddlers to attend the Wang program.
The central members of the environment under study were young prospective elite
athletes who were recognized as ‘talented’ but who had not yet made it to the senior
elite level. More specically, the target group of the study is the group of athletes
who attend Wang’s kayak program and are embarking on a transition from talented
junior to elite senior athletes (age 16–19). Besides the target group of prospective
elite athletes, the environments had a number of other participants included in the
study, such as elite athletes, coaches, managers and parents.
Research Methods and Instruments
We collected data from interviews, participant observation and document analysis,
as described more fully in Henriksen (2010).
Interviews. Keeping a similar structure, separate interview guides were made to
allow for different perspectives of the participants. Young prospect athletes were
interviewed about the environmental facilitators and barriers they encountered
on their way to success and about the environment’s perceived effects on their
development. Focus was on the microenvironment and their daily activities. Coaches
were interviewed to nd out how they ensure that the immediate environment
is conducive to the talent development process, how they assess its effect on the
athletes and what is done to optimize this. They were also asked to comment on
macro-environmental inuences and daily routines. Club and school administrators
offered insights into the larger environmental system in which the club is embedded.
They were primarily asked to comment on club/school values, macro-environmental
inuences, historic dimensions, nancial and human resources and initiatives to work
with the surrounding environment. The elite athletes were asked to comment on their
own role in regard to the young prospective elite athletes’ developmental process.
Participant Observation. To achieve contextual sensitivity, emphasis was placed
on participant observation of the prospective elite athletes in the natural setting of
their daily lives as an important method of data collection. This method gave the
principal researcher a profound feel for the culture (Krane & Baird, 2005) and made
it possible to study the athletes in diverse contexts, such as at training, in competition
and at camps and social events. We structured the observation guide loosely with
predetermined areas of interest derived from the ATDE and the ESF working models.
The observations included a number of informal conversations with athletes, parents,
club administrators, the youth and senior national team coaches, the school’s sports
coordinator and a number of coaches from different clubs and nations.
Analysis of Documents. We analyzed the team’s success statistics, the school’s
mission statements and school and club web pages.
Preliminary acceptance from the athletes was gained through their coaches. Full
anonymity was offered but not accepted by the coaches and management. Instead,
Ecological Approach to Talent Development 347
it was agreed that the identity of the team could be disclosed but that names of
individuals would be kept condential. It was also agreed that the ndings would
be shown to the environment before publication. We informed the participants
about this agreement and about the objectives of the study, and that they had the
right to drop out at any time.
Interviews were conducted with ve young prospective elite athletes (repre-
senting all three year groups and both genders—in one year group there were only
male athletes), two elite athletes, the school coach, one of the club coaches, the
head of top sports at the school and one athlete’s father, who was often in the club.
The interviews lasted between 60 and 90 min and took place in available settings,
including at the school and in the club meeting room.
Observations were carried out during one standard training week in Norway
in the spring, during the Nordic Championships in Denmark in the summer, and
during an intensive training camp in Portugal in the autumn. These observations
included training on the water, weight lifting, running and alternative sports, com-
petition, transportation, and social events. During the training camp the primary
researcher also took part in meetings, meals and social trips. In total, observations
covered about 150 hr of team practice, spread out over six months during preseason,
peak competitive season and postcompetitive season. During observations the
researcher assisted the coach and athletes in setting up race courses, moving buoys
and taking video, and also participated actively in a number of weight-lifting and
Data Treatment and Interpretation
First, all interviews and observation notes were transcribed. Second, the transcribed
material was coded using a deductive-inductive approach. The deductive coding was
based on a node tree built to reect the working models and primarily involved high-
order themes. The inductive coding expanded the node tree when new categories
or ideas emerged, and primarily involved low-order themes and the content of the
themes. As this is part of a multiple case study, an interrater reliability check was
performed during the coding of the rst case. Third, interviews and observations
were subjected to meaning condensation (Kvale, 1996), whereby the informants’
statements were condensed into more precise formulations. Fourth, each node was
read several times, the main themes were listed, and a summary of each node was
written. This approach bears a resemblance to a narrative approach and is “supported
by the philosophical assumptions of interpretivism” (Smith & Sparkes, 2010 p.
80). The constructive nature of the research was particularly evident in the analysis
of the basic assumptions of the environment’s organizational culture. We derived
these assumptions by interpretation based on the interviews, communication,
observations and practical involvement in the environment’s daily life. Fifth, and
in a cyclic approach of a continuous dialogue between our preconceived working
models, data, our interpretation and feedback from the informants (Maaloe, 1996),
we created empirical versions of both working models, based on the empirical
data and reecting the unique qualities of the environment under study. Finally,
and serving as a stakeholder check (Patton, 1990), the results including empirical
models were presented to the relevant participants, who were asked to reect on the
degree to which they considered the results an accurate portrait of their environment.
348 Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler
In the following sections we present the Wang kayak team as a case. The presenta-
tion takes as a starting point the empirical versions of the ATDE and ESF working
models, as these two models summarize the results of the data analysis. In presenting
the results of the study, therefore, we proceed from a holistic description of this
environment to an explanation for its success in developing athletes. For the sake
of conciseness the term “athletic talent development environment” will be replaced
by “environment”, “athletes that are part of Wang’s kayak team” by “prospects”,
“the kayak coach employed by Wang” by “school coach, “the coaches in Strand
Kayak Club by “club coaches”, and “head of top sports at the Wang School” by
“head of sport”.
Introducing Wang Kayak Team
Wang School of Elite Sports is a private secondary nonboarding school located in
the heart of Oslo. Wang has been a “school of elite sports” since 1984 and today
hosts approximately 500 students of which 360 are also prospective elite athletes.
These athletes participate in 20 different sports, and the school has 76 part-time
employed coaches. Secondary school in Norway takes three years and is in gen-
eral open for all and free of charge. But as a private school, Wang students have
to qualify and pay tuition fees (about 3400 $ annually). Approximately half of the
students are involved in a national youth team in their sport. The athletes at Wang
receive sports training as part of their daily school program comprising 250 hr a
year which equals 25–40% of an athlete’s total amount of training and is seen as
a supplement to the athletes’ club training. Wang training takes place from a local
kayak club named Strand, where the athletes also train in the afternoons. Flat-water
kayakers race over four different distances: 200m, 500m, 1000m and marathon,
and in single (K1), double (K2) and four boats (K4).
The ATDE Working Model Adapted to
Describe the Wang Kayak Team
Figure 1 displays the empirical version of the ATDE model adapted to present the
Wang kayak team. Bearing in mind that all the components of the environment
are interconnected and affect one another, the model depicts the most important
components and relations as well as the structure of the environment.
Microenvironment. The group of Wang paddlers comprises 11 prospects between
16 and 19 years of age with three, four and four athletes in each year group. The
group benets from having both genders represented, although only three of the
prospects are girls. This picture is general for Norwegian paddling, where male
paddlers outnumber and outperform female paddlers.
At the center of the model are the relations between the prospects and a com-
munity of current and former elite athletes, all still active paddlers and members of
the club. The community includes the school, club, and national team coaches, and
also a number of mentors. The elite athletes are proximal role models for the pros-
pects, and the interaction with this community is the main driver of the prospects’
Ecological Approach to Talent Development 349
development. The current national team athletes often take part in training organized
for the prospects, which is encouraged by the school. All athletes and coaches men-
tion “having someone to aspire to” as a central quality of the environment. A club
coach refers to the daily exchange of knowledge and ideas as osmosis, a concept
from biology that describes the diffusion of liquid through permeable membranes.
Here he describes the diffusion of knowledge between athletes in a group:
The relationship between prospects and elite athletes is immensely important.
The athletes learn training culture, technique, everything. I call it osmosis
because knowledge simply diffuses. The athletes don’t know who taught
them what, but they have learned the trade. I believe all Norwegian top pad-
dlers are a product of a little help here and there rather than one coach or one
Commenting on the importance of the elite athletes’ presence in daily train-
ing, a prospect added that “All sports have their role models. What is unique for
Figure 1 — The athletic talent development environment (ATDE) empirical model of the
Wang kayak team.
350 Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler
our environment is that I actually meet these role models every day. I try to beat
them in training and I listen to their advice”. The nature of paddling contributes
positively to this community learning. Paddling close behind another paddler on
his or her wave means an athlete can paddle approximately 30% faster, allowing
a prospect to train with a much faster athlete. From a perspective behind and to
the side of the faster paddler, the prospect watches technique, stroke frequency,
The school has two part-time coaches (a male and a female, both former
national team paddlers). Strand kayak club has a number of volunteer coaches.
The prospects have difculties naming a main coach, and the coach’s role is
described more as that of a mentor or sparring partner than that of a traditional
coach, as emphasized by a prospect: “They do not present an exact program. We
discuss training plans, how to organize a week’s training and how often I should
train with high intensity”.
Training is informally coordinated among club, national team, and school
coaches. Coordinating the programs, which some might consider nearly impossible,
runs smoothly and requires only a minimum of communication for two reasons.
First, Norwegian kayaking is built around an implicit “philosophy” about training,
and all coaches are former elite athletes raised within the system. This philosophy
will be described in more detail below. Secondly, all athletes receive general outlines
rather than specic programs, and the athletes adjust their programs to allow them
to train together. It is an implicit rule that the younger athletes adapt their program
to t that of the elite athletes.
The role of the elite athletes is reproduced by the Wang prospects toward
younger athletes, as was explained by a prospect: “Just as I stretch to reach the elite
paddlers, so these young paddlers stretch to reach me. In a hard training session,
I paddle the waves of the elite athletes, and in a slower session, the youngsters
paddle my wave”.
Wang and Strand have excellent relationships with other kayak clubs in
Norway. In fact, most athletes and coaches spoke little of the clubs and much about
“Kayak-Norway”. It is a characteristic of the Norwegian kayak environment that
many paddlers have their daily training in a club other than the one they represent
in competitions, and a paddler on holiday is always welcome to train in the local
club. This is how a prospect describes a tradition to seek out the best athletes to
become best: “I came to this club to train with the best and most ambitious Nor-
wegian paddlers. This is where I can learn the most.”
Approximately half of the athletes come from families where the parents have
been involved in elite kayaking or other sports at the elite level. These athletes
typically mention that their parents nourish an elite mentality, for example by
demanding commitment to training. The other half of the athletes have parents with
no prior experience of elite sports. These athletes nd their parents back them up
but are not particularly involved. Common for all athletes is the fact that they rely
on the parents’ nancial support. When parents follow the athletes to competitions,
they are most often assigned a formal role and given a responsibility toward the
The prospects all report having friends from inside and outside the world of
elite sport. Most of their sports friends are paddlers. For a national team-boat to
succeed, the athletes from different clubs have to meet and train every once in a
Ecological Approach to Talent Development 351
while, and friendships arise along the way. The prospects also have a number of
friends from school who are committed to other sports. With these friends they
discuss sporting issues such as basic training principles. Finally, the prospects have
friends who are not involved in sports, with whom they unwind mentally from the
sport and relax. Membership of such groups of friends is considered to be impor-
tant but also taxing, and the athletes must continually negotiate the terms of their
membership of the group, for example that they attend activities less frequently
than other members and rarely participate in parties.
The school is a central part of the athletes’ lives. The school organizes the
group and its three weekly morning training sessions, employs the school coach,
and makes an agreement with the club about the nature and content of the training.
The school has a reputation not only for having a good talent development program,
but also for providing good education. A parent commented:
Wang’s basic philosophy is to be a good school. ...They have a classical
pedagogical approach and make up for time spend on training by having
classes until late in the afternoon. And the students do well in school. (From
Coordination between the academic and sporting part of school works well.
The school teachers have a good understanding of elite sport and adjust school to
t the needs of the student-athletes, for example letting them eat during a class
or arranging extra classes rather than expecting them to do much homework. The
head of sport explained how the school is making clear that coordination between
school and sport works on the sport’s premises:
When an athlete applies for days off for camp or competition, a teacher’s
rst expression must never be “not again”, but rather “well done.” We have
to want our athletes to do well, go to competitions and be selected for camps
with the national team.
The fact that many different sports are represented in the school is seen as
a resource, as explained by a prospect: “I know which athletes are competent
in what areas of expertise. I talk to the javelin throwers about strength training
and with the sprinters about speed training and I learn a lot.” The athletes nd
the common sporting mentality very important and nd it disruptive when other
students lack sport commitment. Therefore, athletes who are no longer motivated
in sport and disrupt fellow students are asked by the school to change school,
unless this happens near the end of the three years. But this has never been the
case with a paddler.
Macro-Environment and Related Contexts. On the macro-level acting as a
cohesive force, the school management organizes relations with the club and with
Olympiatoppen’s team of experts. These experts are invited to the school to give talks
on various subjects, but the kayakers rarely use such experts in a more structured
way. The federation is responsible for all national team training. National teams
include the senior team, a challenger team that trains with the seniors but receives
less support, and youth national teams. Almost all Wang paddlers are members of
a national team. The athletes mention that being part of such a team is motivating
and a good learning opportunity.
352 Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler
The specic sports culture of kayaking is distinct, and attending a school with
many other sports makes this fact clear to the athletes. Athletes and coaches mention
openness, patience and discipline as major characteristics of the kayak culture in
Norway. Norwegian national culture is considered a resource for the development
of talent in sport. Athletes and coaches mention determination and independence
as central qualities of Norwegian national culture. A club coach explained how
Norwegian culture is linked to the country’s history: ”It all goes back to our history
as independent farmers in the mountains and shermen alone at sea. A Norwegian
mindset dictates responsibility for one’s own life. We celebrate people who are
successful in doing things their own way.”
Env ironm ent i n the Time Fram e. The time-frame depicts a basic belief
in the current state of affairs but also a willingness to develop an even more
uncompromising approach to the nurturing of the athletes’ potential, for example by
providing training in school holidays and expanding the school to lower secondary
The ESF Working Model Adapted to Explain the
Success of the Wang Environment
Figure 2 presents the empirical version of the ESF model, summarizing the most
important factors inuencing the success of Wang kayak team as a talent develop-
Preconditions. The team has limited nancial resources but benets from a
world-class natural environment in a fjord that is easy to access and provides perfect
conditions for at-water racing along with a good learning environment in which
skilled paddlers and volunteer coaches willingly pass on their knowledge. The low
budget air of the sport was observable at competitions where the athletes often sleep
in classrooms or tents. Although the nancial means are not overwhelming, they
are important to the club, as explained by a club coach:
We have no means to employ coaches. But we pay for any young paddler
who wants to go to a competition, regardless of whether he is good or bad,
newcomer or longstanding member. This goes well with our overall wish to
be an inclusive club with a focus on competitive youth paddling.
Process. The daily routines revolve around a large volume of hard interval-based
training and frequent tests and competitions. The prospects have approximately 12
weekly training sessions. Three sessions are in the morning and organized by the
school, about six are in the late afternoon or at weekends in the club, and the rest
are supplementary training, which is organized under the name “basis training”
and includes exercises for training balance, strength, endurance, speed, mentality
and other areas that are common to many sports. Most athletes also train with
the national teams. Despite little formal communication and planning, training is
well coordinated due to a rooted philosophy of Norwegian kayaking, which goes
back more than thirty years. This philosophy determines the focus of training,
for example that condition is more important than strength and the nature of the
individual training session, for example that all training should be in the form of
Ecological Approach to Talent Development 353
intervals. It also determines the structure of the overall week plan, for example
that the week should be built around three very hard main sessions and every week
should nish with a test. The philosophy leaves room for individual adaptations. In
general, training in a group and riding the wave of a better paddler is considered
more important than the exact content of a training session. Athletes train about
half of their sessions without a coach, and the club relies on its ability to teach the
athletes to do quality training on their own.
Tests are an integrated part of the weekly training plan. The purpose of frequent
testing is to adjust the training, to monitor progress and to motivate the athletes
to train hard. Testing also serves as mental training, which was explained by the
school coach one morning after a hard test in extremely windy conditions, during
which several athletes fell into the water: “Today they will not produce good test
results. But it will make them tough. They will develop the will to see the training
through to the end, even when the odds are against them.”
The prospects take part in 15–20 competitions every year, of which a handful
are particularly important. Competitions are also important social events, where
athletes from different clubs and nations meet and socialize. The junior national
team coach explained the policy on selection of athletes for competitions as follows:
Figure 2 — The environment success factors (ESF) empirical model of the Wang kayak team.
354 Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler
At this Nordic Championship we are represented by 40 athletes. Norway prob-
ably could have won more medals by having fewer athletes compete in more
races. But we cannot predict who will become best later in life, and we do not
want to discourage anyone. The athletes learn a lot and make many friends at
these competitions, and it is important to have a big cohesive group. (From
Group Development and Culture. Artifacts. Artifacts represent the visible
tokens of the culture. As an example, the weight-lifting room is threadbare and
basic, and most machines are homemade and constructed out of wood. On one of
the machines someone has written “Pain is fun”. On a wall, a number of newspaper
clips show the latest results of the club paddlers, and results from recent tests
display a clear hierarchy among the paddlers. Verbal artifacts are stories told in the
environment that serve to maintain the culture. One such story was about a current
Olympic champion’s lack of natural giftedness and told here in the words of a
prospect: “In his early years he was certainly not among the best. But he managed
to train hard, stay motivated and improve a little bit every day, and today he is
among the best in the world”.
Espoused Values. The club’s most salient value is to be an inclusive community
that is open to all motivated young paddlers. The school, on the other hand, clearly
espouses a philosophy of elite sport, and its homepage displays the athletes’ latest
sport results. For the paddlers in the Wang-Strand training group these different
values go well together. The paddlers adopt an elite mindset and are well disciplined
and organized. This mindset is learned in the sport but resides within the person
and manifests itself in other domains, such as school. The paddlers also manage to
build and maintain an inclusive training community in which they train their hard
sessions with more skilled athletes and also nd time to pass their knowledge on
to less skilled athletes during easier sessions.
Basic Assumptions. The analysis revealed that the group is characterized by a
culture consisting of nine interconnected basic assumptions that can be grouped
into assumptions about the group, the athletes, the goals and the talent development
system as a whole.
As a fundamental governing principle, openness and co-operation within an
open training community are at the core of the group’s cultural paradigm, a fact
reected in the rst three assumptions, all relating to the group. The rst assump-
tion reads: An open training community is a fundamental precondition for creating
high level athletes. This assumption is reected in the way training is coordinated
to allow for athletes at different skill levels to train together and in the fact that
skilled and motivated athletes are allowed to take part in the training organized by
the school. Closely related to this assumption is the assumption that: Athletes must
have proximal role models to aspire to in daily training. Training is organized to
allow for the prospects to ride the waves of more experienced paddlers and athletes
willingly travel to the training venues of the best athletes to learn the trade. The
third assumption relating to the nature of the group states that: Successful train-
ing communities are hierarchical. Hierarchy provides stability to the group, and
the respect and recognition associated with being in the top of a hierarchy plays a
part in motivating the elite athletes to include younger athletes into their training.
Ecological Approach to Talent Development 355
Two basic assumptions relate to the athletes. The rst of these states that:
A versatile sport prole is benecial to elite performance. This assumption is
reected in the way several athletes specialize late and compete in winter sports
in the off season. Diversication is supported by the coaches, as explained by the
We never tell them to focus solely on kayak. As an extreme example, we have
an athlete who last year achieved good youth results in four different sports
including kayak and cross-country skiing. Training hard and competing all
winter is perfect for his development. He turns twenty soon and I expect he
will make a choice before long. I hope he will chose kayak, but it is up to him.
The second assumption relating to the athletes regards the nature of talent
and states: Motivation, discipline and autonomy are more important than innate
potential. Although anthropometry and physical factors are important in kayak,
they are not emphasized. The ability to complete hard training sessions and tests,
on the other hand, is considered a marker of future excellence.
A third set of basic assumptions relates to the goals that govern daily activi-
ties. The rst of these assumptions states that: Sport is about winning, but to win
you need to be patient and smart. Daily training is competitive, and the prospects
do not hesitate to admit that every training session has a winner. At the same time,
winning demands patience, foresight and a focus on performance process, as
explained by the head of sport:
Our goal is to be world best, and it’s true we applaud good results. But when
a result comes, we help the athletes to ask themselves why the result came at
this moment. What were the steps that led up to the result? We try to teach a
mastery focus; a focus on the skills and qualities needed to develop in daily
training rather than a focus only on results. But we do this because we rmly
believe this approach yields results.
The second basic assumption about goals relates to the goals of the system and
states: An elite sport environment must have a clear elite sport philosophy. This
assumption is primarily visible in the school’s mission statements and everyday
The nal set of basic assumptions relates to the talent development system. The
rst reads: Never change a winning system. Any elite sport program proves its worth
only when it produces results, and if it does, there is no need to change it. The nal
basic assumption, which is also related to the overall system, reads: The training group
must be complemented by a larger and coordinated environment. This assumption is
visible in the way clubs are open to athletes from other clubs, in the coordination of
training camps between clubs, in the dialogue between school and clubs and in the
coordination between coaches from school, clubs and national team.
Individual Development. The Wang/Strand kayak paddlers develop a number
of characteristics that are helpful to them both in sport and life. Analysis of data
revealed that social skills (the ability to build and maintain a functional community
with athletes on very different skill levels), autonomy and responsibility (developed
through often training without a coach), and a strong work ethic (always completing
356 Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler
their training regardless of whether a coach is present, whether it is raining, or
whether they are tired) were the main categories in the individual development.
The self-motivated nature of these athletes was observed during a training camp:
In the morning the athletes had done the week’s long-distance session of
approximately 40 km (three hours). After lunch they competed in the basis
training championship, which was harder and took longer than expected. Now
they were lying exhausted on the lawn as the sun set. Weight-lifting was on
the program, and the athletes slowly began to pick themselves up to go to the
gym. Impressed, I asked the coach if he would ever let them take the rest of
the day off. He answered that it would make no difference. As if to prove a
point he tells the athletes they are free to do what they want. A few exhausted
athletes go to their rooms to rest, as does the coach. The majority do a one-
hour program. (From observation material)
An elite athlete summed up by saying: “They [prospects] learn to acknowledge
that there are no short cuts, only hard training; no money, only sacrices for the
sport; and never enough time, only efciency and discipline.”
The Environment’s Success. When the school evaluates its success, the primary
parts of the equation are results, school grades and recognition. Results are most
important and the school has statistics on all results created by their athletes while
enrolled and also all senior results created by former students. It is important
for the school to manage a successful combination of school and sport, and the
school’s grade average is among the best schools in Norway. Finally, the school is
recognized by its surroundings, a fact that is visible in its impressive waiting lists.
The holistic ecological approach to talent development in sport emphasizes that
development is inuenced by the context in which it takes place (Garcia Bengoe-
chea, 2002; Krebs, 2009). Talent development is inuenced not only by the imme-
diate microenvironment, but also by the interrelated system of microenvironments
(e.g., school and club), by settings in which the athletes are not actively involved
(e.g., sports federation), and also by larger cultural patterns. The results of the cur-
rent study support that to understand the complex nature of talent development,
researchers and practitioners must look beyond the individual athlete and include
the environment in their investigations and practice.
The holistic ecological approach provides researchers with two working
models that were derived heuristically and designed before the onset of the data
collection. These models appeared helpful in the investigation. In terms of data
collection, the models served to guide the researchers’ attention when designing
instruments as well as when working in the eld. This proved very important, as
the all-encompassing nature of the research subject might be expected to lead to
overwhelming amounts of data. In terms of analysis, the two working models proved
a good foundation for presenting the case. Empirical versions of the models were
adapted based on the data to capture the unique features of the environment under
study. Overall, the working models served to translate the background theories into
Ecological Approach to Talent Development 357
a manageable framework to describe an ATDE and summarize factors inuencing
its effectiveness in the talent development task.
Holistic Ecological Approach and Applied Work
With Athletes and ATDEs
The holistic ecological approach stimulates the sport psychology practitioner to be
a researcher-practitioner. To be effective, the practitioners must collect information
about their clients. They are in a sense applied researchers (Lane & Corrie, 2006),
who construct problems and design interventions based on elements of theory,
research and practice (Ryba & Wright, 2010). Adopting the holistic ecological
approach stimulates the practitioners to broaden their view and become more aware
of contextual factors, and also presents them with a key to structure this work. The
two working models can direct the attention of the applied researcher and help him
or her describe an environment, which is important when working with athletes
belonging to the environment as well as with the environment as a whole.
Two empirical models of the Wang kayak team (see Figures 1 and 2) allow
us to provide the following summary of the environment, which is (a) ofcially
organized only as a team of prospective elite athletes but in fact centered around
the relationship between these prospects and a community of former and current
elite athletes; (b) ofcially organized as a school team but helping the athletes to
focus on their sport goals; (c) a small, tight environment but open and enrolled in
‘Kayak Norway’, which allows athletes to train in any club in Norway; (d) teaching
the athletes to be autonomous and responsible for their own training but supportive
in helping the athletes acquire the skills necessary to take on that responsibility; (f)
limited in nancial resources but a world-class natural environment with a good
infrastructure; (g) deeply rooted in a philosophy that demands large volumes of
training but also teaches the athletes to listen to their body (h) intent on winning
but acknowledging that a strong work ethic is more important than innate potential
and therefore supportive of the athletes’ long-term development; (i) fragmented in
that it offers training in a variety of settings but perceived as very integrated due to
a strong and cohesive organizational culture; and (j) condent in the current state
of affairs but willing to be uncompromising to meet future demands.
Research based on the holistic ecological approach further provides practitio-
ners with a set of features of successful ATDEs. This list of features can help the
practitioner asses the ATDE and present a strategy to increase the effectiveness of
a less successful ATDE. Although more research is needed to strengthen and rene
such a list, a number of features derived from this study and supported by those of
Henriksen et.al. (2010a; 2010b) are worth to mention.
One such feature is the relationship between prospects and a community of
more elite athletes, which was at the heart of the environment. The elite athletes
were really visible as role models, and arguably training with the elite level ath-
letes may prepare the prospects for the next phase in their athletic career and so
ease their transition. A second such feature relates to the athletes’ experience of
living in an integrated and coordinated environment. Where some athletes may
feel trapped between conicting demands from parents, school, and sport, the
kayakers experienced an integrated set of “pulls”, which they attributed to a good
coordination and communication among different components in the environment.
358 Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler
For example, the school teachers supported the athletes’ going to camps and com-
petitions. A third feature is the way in which the environment allowed space for
the athletes to have other personal identities than their athletic one (e.g., a student,
a friend, a mentor of younger athletes) and encouraged them to develop qualities
and skills applicable not only in sport but also in other spheres of life. An overall
glance at the empirical version of the ATDE model clearly shows that the environ-
ment is skewed in the sense that importance was attributed to more components
in the athletic domain than in the nonathletic one, which would often stimulate
athletes to develop a predominantly athletic identity and thus put the athletes at risk
for jeopardizing a successful transition out of elite sports (Lavallee & Robinson,
2007), but the support of multiple identities in the environment made the weighting
toward the athletic domain within the structure of the environment less problematic.
As a nal feature, we would like to emphasize that although the prospects were
already specialized within their sport, training was still organized to allow for some
measure of diversication. For example, the kayakers raced distances from 200 m
to 40 km and had swimming and cross-country skiing as part of their off-season
program, even entering competitions in these sports throughout their careers. This
kind of sampling, undertaken to support the athletes’ development within a sport
is described by the athletes as highly motivating, and must be seen in the light of
kayaking being a late specialization sport.
In sum, these features support the general notion that talent development and
career development are linked in such a manner that the purpose of talent devel-
opment is to build up the athlete’s resources to cope with the demands of career
transitions inside and outside sport (Stambulova et al., 2009). The transition from
junior to senior often involves high life stress and the risk of identity foreclosure
(Lavallee & Robinson, 2007; Pummell, Harwood, & Lavallee, 2008; Lavallee et
al., 1997). Athletes making this transition face demands of managing their time and
energy, nding their own path in sport, managing potential relationship problems,
and balancing life inside and outside sport (Stambulova, 2009). Our assessment is
that the environment under consideration helped its athletes develop resources to
cope with the transition demands. Coordination with school that allowed athletes
simultaneously to pursue their education and their sporting ambitions minimized
the risk of one-sided development. No athletes mentioned team rivalry or problems
in regard to having meaningful relationships. The athletes all felt they learned to be
structured in their approach to sport and life and to manage their time and energy.
In the same way the environment emphasized the athletes’ autonomy and gave
them a chance to nd their own path in sport.
As a nal practical implication, the holistic ecological approach stimulates the
researcher-practitioner to investigate the organizational culture of the environment
in which he/she is going to intervene. This may be done with the purpose of nding
intervention strategies that match the team’s culture, or in the case of less success-
ful ATDEs as a stepping stone for an intervention aimed at creating a culture that
better promotes talent development.
In sum, the holistic ecological approach taken in this study presents a clear
plea to the sport psychology practitioner not to stick with the mental toolbox when
working with talented athletes but to understand and if necessary to optimize the
entire environment around athletes. As a practical example, the rst author nds
that, after adopting the holistic ecological approach, he more often follows the
Ecological Approach to Talent Development 359
athletes to their training venue and less often invites them to his ofce; more often
informs coaches and physiotherapists about his work with athletes; more often
talks to parents, schoolteachers and other persons outside the immediate sport-
ing environment about their role in supporting the athletes; and more often helps
sporting environments investigate their own organizational culture and thereupon
designs interventions to make this culture more cohesive and more conducive to
Methodological Reflections and Future Research
Recent reections on the applicability of ecological approaches to sport psychol-
ogy and talent development (Araujo & Davids, 2009; Beek, 2009; Krebs, 2009)
have voiced a need for theory-driven research that is ecological in nature and
also adapted to the world of sports. There has been a suggestion that, due to the
relatively unexplored nature of the eld, this research should have an exploratory
rather than a conrmatory design. Indeed, the current study has been exploratory
and has aimed to develop a concrete version of a theory-driven framework for the
holistic ecological study of ATDEs in sport. Acknowledging that sport psychology
researchers and practitioners should be able to choose from various ecological
frameworks, we suggest one adequate methodological approach to the investigation
of ATDEs: a case study design based on the ATDE and the ESF models; the use of
qualitative methods; looking at the real-time functioning of the environment; and
the use of multiple sources of evidence. We further expect that practitioners will
nd the holistic ecological approach practical and useful in collecting information
and structuring their work with talented athletes and ATDEs once they adopt this
way of thinking about athletes and their environments.
The qualitative nature and explorative design of the current study (and similar
ones) also entail limitations. Particularly, it is not possible to establish a rigorous
causal relationship that would allows us to point out exactly which qualities of the
environment are responsible for its success. This should not be considered simply
a weakness in design, but a natural consequence of the complexity of the ATDE
and of the theoretical framework.
The present study, along with those of Henriksen et al. (2010a; 2010b), have
investigated successful ATDEs in individual sports that allow athletes to peak late in
their careers and within a Scandinavian context. Although these studies have demon-
strated the adaptive power of the holistic ecological approach, especially through the
transformation of working models into empirical models capturing unique features
of each ATDE, we argue for further studies in different sports (e.g., team sports and
sports in which athletes typically peak early, such as gure skating or diving) and
various countries to determine the degree to which highly successful environments
have similarities in structure, role of components, organizational culture, etc. or to
make sport and context specic recommendations. A particular challenge would be
to apply the holistic ecological approach to the study of environments in which senior
elite athletes continually manage to produce top level results. Investigating successful
elite performance environments (EPE) may reveal to what degree successful ATDEs
differ in essence from successful EPEs and thus increase our understanding of the
particular challenges facing athletes on the verge of a transition from junior to senior
elite athlete and thus from an ATDE to an EPE. We also recommend future research
360 Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler
to combine a holistic life-span perspective and a holistic ecological approach, by
investigating in parallel the development and transitions of individual athletes within
an ATDE and how the environment develops over time to accommodate the needs
of the athletes.
Finally, the perspective and the frameworks presented in this paper can also be
applied to the investigation of problematic sport environments that, despite favor-
able preconditions, have limited success in helping prospect athletes to develop.
Intervention research would be a natural continuation of such efforts. Designing
a program to develop and strengthen talent development environments in sport
and measuring the effects of such an intervention provides a challenge for future
research and may be of great benet to practitioners in the eld.
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