The Sport Pathway – Has Lost its Path.

By Wayne Goldsmith

Every sporting nation – every sport and practically everyone involved in the sports industry has bought into the theory of the sport pathway.

The sport pathway is a model of athlete development designed over 20 years ago and since it’s introduction as a concept it has become increasingly popular all over the world as “the” best way to provide the right environment for young athletes to learn, to train, to compete and to become successful in sport.

Here’s the problem.

The sport pathway – no longer exists.

The sport pathway – has lost it’s path.

And here’s why.

There’s some cracks in the Sport Pathway.

There’s no doubt the theory of the sport pathway makes sense: there’s some logic to it all.

A kid starts playing football or golf or starts swimming or athletics….they’ve taken their first steps on the ‘pathway.

They learn the basic fundamentals of the sport and try to master the sport’s basic movements and skills.

They then progress along the sport pathway and experience the various aspects of training, e.g. warm up, skill development, aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, flexibility work etc. etc.

Further up the sport pathway they begin competing and learning how to challenge themselves in competitive conditions.

And eventually they progress to the point on the ‘pathway where they realize their full sporting potential and – if they’ve done the training and if they’ve got the talent – they can win.

The sport pathway has done it’s work…providing the environment and the opportunity – the “framework” for the athlete to progress from beginner to brilliant…from starter to star….from kid to competitor.

Or so the THEORY of the SPORT PATHWAY goes…because that’s all it is: a theory.

It’s a model. It’s a theoretical framework sold to governments and sports and because it fundamentally makes sense – practically everyone in the sports industry world wide has bought into it.

The ‘pathway is broken.

There’s three reasons why the sports industry’s devotion to the theory of the sport pathway needs to end…now.

1. It was never a pathway.

The pathway never existed.

It really didn’t.

No athlete “enters” the pathway as young child then progressively and systematically moves step by step along the pathway to achieve greatness.  There’s nothing linear about it. Never was.

The actual progress of an athlete from beginner to Olympian or to professional athlete looks nothing like a straight line – as is implied by the sport pathway zealots.

It’s a series of highs and lows, a series of peaks and troughs, a series of exhilarating moments and deep depressions….it was never a linear pathway.

Athletes, coaches and parents were “sold” the pathway as being a clear plan – a well defined, systematic method for achieving excellence.

Nothing could be further from the truth.


2. The sport pathway is achieving the exact opposite of what it claims to be achieving.

One of the advantages about the ‘pathway model that was sold to sports was that it would give athletes, coaches and parents a clear “path” to help the athlete realise their potential.

Sports all over the world developed their own “pathway models” – and in places like England the government actually bought into the sport pathway model to the extent that they provided sporting organisations with courses and templates and support to help them produce their own sports specific pathways.

And as England and sport in the UK is the current “flavor” of the month, Australia, Canada and other nations copied and tried to reproduce the ‘pathway model in their own backyard.

However, not surprisingly, this copying of a flawed athlete development theory from another nation – has backfired.

Either by design or through poor communication, most athletes, coaches and parents believe that if the athlete is NOT on the pathway by a relatively young age then their chances of being successful in that sport are limited.

So for example, the blind adherence to the sport pathway model in some sports has led to many athletes (and their parents) thinking, “I am not in the under 11 representative team…therefore I am not on the “pathway”…therefore I am wasting my time in this sport”.  

The subsequent impact of believing they’re not on the ‘pathway is..the child drops out of that sport OR even worse…drops out of sport all together.

In reality the only athletes benefiting from the sport pathway model are the “early developers” and the poor performance of early developing athletes in senior sport has been very very documented all over the world for the past 50 years.

The ‘pathway is – in fact – turning away the very athletes that competitive sport needs….”on-time” and “late developers”….it’s causing the athletes most likely to “make-it” to actually drop out of the sport.


3. Sport has changed: It’s not just about competition anymore.

And most importantly – sport is no longer driven by competitive pathways. It’s not. It’s a fact.

The most significant and most rapidly growing group in sport around the world are those participants who are just “doing” sport: just playing it for fun, hanging out with friends, enjoying their leisure time doing something they love doing.

The industry is facing seismic shift in the way people want their sports experiences and across the globe the decline in the number of people actively pursuing competitive sport is alarming.

Right now the focus everywhere is on growing sport, on keeping people active, on getting communities and families connected and engaged with doing things that will enhance their physical and mental health.

The ‘pathway is pointless for the simple reason is that there’s almost no one on it!

Until sporting organisations begin to honestly and effectively address the big issue – the biggest issue in sport – that of rapidly declining numbers of kids and families committing to competitive sport – it is pointless even considering to maintain the ‘pathway model.


So for all of you sports administrators, sports leaders, sports recruitment agencies etc out there, guess what?

You’ve got to start again and think differently.

Every day I see some of the sport recruitment agencies advertising for “pathway managers” and “national pathway administrators”…and it’s just sad.

The sports industry around the world is experiencing a period of such remarkable change that many things we’ve held on to as “truths” are going…many are gone already.

Some things like the sport pathway model, the “movement literacy” philosophy and the principles and practices of talent identification are holding the industry back from moving forward and from meeting the current and future needs of sports’ participants.

In coming weeks I’ll be discussing some of the other changes the sports industry is experiencing and take you through how some sports, coaches, clubs and organisations are leading the way with new thinking and better practices.

New Sport: The Future of Sport.

Wayne Goldsmith