The nine pillars of sport development

Applying the Anna Karenina Principle to sport development

A country's performance in sport depends on a lot of moving parts. Though we tend to see only the cream of the crop in international events like the Olympic Games there is a lot going on 'under the hood' of a development system that hardly anyone ever sees. One of the reasons for this is whenever we speak of a development system we tend to think of some kind of centralized control over training and performance. But in countries with sustainable high performance and frequent international success centralized control over development is rare. There is a system but it is far from centralized.

The United States has a comprehensive sport development system that consistently produces athletes who compete successfully in international games. When less successful countries look to successful ones for clues as to what they might do to improve their sporting efforts they often only see the very top of the successful country's sport system. And why wouldn't they? This iceberg illusion is common in sport when we look at individual athletes, why not when entire systems are scrutinized? However, looking only at the elite level of sport gives an incomplete picture of what is happening. When it comes to high performance athletes we are only seeing the very top of the entire development pyramid that produced them. 

The U.S. system cannot be replicated anywhere else. No system can. Each country has its own cultural and social conditions that are impossible to produce elsewhere. Integration of sport into the educational system in the U.S. makes it difficult to copy in some places, impossible in others. But there are components to the system — pieces to the puzzle — that can be implemented anywhere.

Some countries are almost but not quite at the very top of the heap and are constantly hoping for the moment when a third or second place podium finisher will have the 'next time's the charm' finish and capture a country's first gold medal. Malaysia, which I consider my second home, finds itself in this position now. Having had several athletes in silver and bronze positions in previous Olympic Games, Malaysia is now looking for gold in Tokyo.

Related resources

This research article proposes a way to compare sport systems from different countries. The SPLISS pillars that I discuss in this letter are covered in much more detail in this article:

I've written a lot about the Malaysian sport system in the past several years but this letter is about developmental systems in general. Most countries are able to build elite training programs fairly quickly because, frankly, this is easy to do. The pieces are well known: Coaching, facilities, scientific support, sport medicine, psychological training, data systems, etc. These are easy to create, it just takes money. Training top level athletes in a system like this can increase performance and help the athletes involved perform at the very edge of their ability. So what's missing?

Most countries that copy elite systems from others are missing the big picture that includes all of the support infrastructure such as lessons and physical literacy, physical education, youth sport development, and a comprehensive club structure that produced those elite athletes in the first place. Without this infrastructure the edge of an athlete's ability is not going to be anywhere near that of an athlete who enjoyed growing up in a more comprehensive system.

The SPLISS pillars

Sports policy factors leading to international sporting success (SPLISS) are being developed into a model to enable comparison of sport systems between countries. Since each country has different structures and social conditions in which their sport programs operate it's difficult to make a head-to-head comparison between nations. Thus, researchers have created nine pillars that identify a comprehensive sport development system.

Many of these items can be applied downward to clubs and regional associations as well as at the NGB level.

Financial support

Does the NGB have the necessary funds to do what it needs to do? Where does funding come from? Government, sponsors, membership fees, event receipts? This will be different depending on the sport. Soccer, for example, brings in spectator money where athletics usually doesn't.

Governance, structure, and organization

NGBs should be membership based with transparent procedure and policy. Governance should be shared with elections to office held periodically with clearly outlined duties of elected officers. The NGB must be organized in such a way so as to effectively administer the sport on a national level.

Athletes, coaches, officials, and administrators should be required to be members of the NGB and they should all have a voice in governance.

The organization of the NGB must consider regional bodies and clubs, and any other affiliated groups as also representing the sport and having a voice in how it is administered and operated.

The primary problems with sport governance around the world include:

  • Elected officials who hold their position as a means of personal power. The NGB becomes a one-man-show, thus eventually alienating a large portion of potential new members.

  • No governance representation by athletes, coaches, officials, or clubs. Members in these positions have just as big a stake in the governance of the NGB as anyone.

  • Non-transparency. Athletes, coaches, teams, and clubs need to have clear and logical procedures for qualification or selection to national teams. Likewise, financial operations have to be open to scrutiny with regular audits.

  • Corruption. Something is wrong when international competitions have more officials and administrators attending than athletes.

Sports participation

Is the sport popular to play and to watch? Sports that are played by large numbers of people have cultural relevance, which is necessary for any kind of serious development. There's a big difference between badminton in Asia and badminton in North America, for instance. In Asia badminton is highly competitive, commercially sound, and popular both as a participant activity and spectator sport. In North America it's seen more as a recreational activity. In Asia badminton NGBs have something to work with, in North America not so much.

Talent ID and development

Are systems in place that allow or encourage athletes to join, provide opportunities to learn through instruction and coaching, and compete frequently and locally in the sport?

Athletic career and post-career support

What kind of support is available to athletes at the highest levels? National team athletes are mostly prevented from holding full time jobs so some provision should be in place to support them while they represent the nation. In some countries this might also include financial or educational support following their sport careers.

Training facilities

Are training facilities available around the country? Venues for training and competition, but mostly training, have to be available in more than just big cities or towns. This is often not just an NGB function. Providing sport facilities is usually linked to government funding somehow.

Coach education and provision

As the athlete pool in a sport grows the need for coach training at all levels increases. First to be able to teach new recruits to the coaching ranks and later to advance coaching knowledge.

National and international competition

Competition is needed to gain experience at a high level. But it is also needed just to learn how to compete. Too often high level competitions are the only type of events on the calendar. More frequent, low-level competitions are essential to helping athletes develop their competitive edge.

Scientific research and innovation

Is the NGB able to keep up with advances in training and disseminate it to coaches and clubs? Are clinics and conferences held annually? Is data and scientific information easily available?

The Anna Karenina Principle

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." We're all familiar with Tolstoy's famous opening line. He would probably be amused to learn that his 19th century novel has spawned a management concept that describes a lot of what goes on in the 21st century. This concept has become known as the Anna Karenina Principle, named after the eponymous protagonist of Tolstoy's 1877 novel. The principle states that success in any endeavor requires avoiding many separate causes of failure, or to be a bit more blunt: There are a lot of ways to fail, but only one way to succeed.

What does this have to do with sport? The SPLISS pillars described above represent nine separate components needed in a successful sports development system. Trying to find success with only some of the pillars, according to the Principle, will end in failure. But getting them all right isn't necessary either. As long as components are not completely missing then NGBs are on the right track. Improvements can always be made in the future. 

Successful sporting countries have all of these components in place. Unsuccessful and unhappy countries are either missing pieces of the development puzzle or some components are just not working the way they need to. Success in international sport is the result of getting a lot of things right. This is hard, success is fragile. 

High performance athletes know that their performances depend on many things, all of which have to go right. NGBs also have a lot of things to get right in order to effectively move their sports in the right direction.


In a few weeks I'll be writing about the relative age effect. I’m hoping to be able to include a new tool from Sportkid Metrics that illustrates what the relative age quarters look like for teams or groups on specific dates.