Sports Competition Framework

Sports Competition Framework         
Prepared by  Prepared by: Dr Ralph Richards, Senior Research Consultant, Clearinghouse for Sport, Sport Australia
evaluated by  Evaluation by: Angela Calder, Lecturer in Coaching Science, School of Health and Sport Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast (April 2016)
Reviewed by  Reviewed by network: Australian Sport Information Network (AUSPIN)
Last updated  Last updated: 15 February 2018
Please refer to the Clearinghouse for Sport disclaimer page for
more information concerning this content.

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Sport Australia

Introduction

Competition is a logical extension of sports participation and an integral part of the athlete development pathway. 

Over time, competition results serve as progressive benchmarks for comparison of an athlete’s qualitative performances (that is, technique, skills execution, approach, strategy, etc. ) or quantitative performance (improved time, distance, score, games or matches played/won, etc.).

Competition can serve as motivation for continued sports participation. If competition is misused or misinterpreted, it can drive participants away from organised sports participation.

Key Messages 

1

Competition is a key component of sports participation that is part of the athlete development pathway.

2

Competition events form part of the business structure of sports.


The concept of ‘competition’ is a pervasive aspect of life (i.e. competing to survive) and lifestyle (i.e. competing to show superiority). Our notion of what is (or is not) sport relies upon competition, in its’ many forms, as a defining attribute.

The Clearinghouse for Sport topic ‘What is Sport?’ provides more information about the many forms of physical activity that are considered to be sport.

Competition is the comparison of a performance outcome between individuals, between an individual and a known standard, or between two (or more) groups of individuals. Competition can have one or more of these characteristics, or produce one or more of these outcomes:

  • Competition can provide a standardised environment within which the performance of an individual or team can be recorded and compared. Competition facilitates a record of sporting achievement, from world record to personal best, but only if the conditions are consistent (if not exactly the same) and rules are used to define the competitive activity.
  • Competition performance can provide a benchmark, based on the criteria set by a sport’s organisational body. For example, a performance standard may be required to qualify to compete in a future event or contest.
  • Competition can provide a basis for comparison between individuals or teams, this can be used to establish a rank order.

Competition outcomes can be determined in different ways, depending upon a sport’s rules. Some sports use quantitative measures such as time, distance, accuracy, weight, etc. as a competition criterion. Examples of sports using quantitative assessment include: athletics, swimming, archery, and weightlifting.

Competition performance in some sports, such as gymnastics, diving, figure skating, and synchronised swimming is evaluated against a defined technical standard and a qualitative score is assigned. The final competition result is then determined by the rank order of scores, or the sum of scores from a number of performances.

Competition, particularly in team sports, is used to achieve a result (win, loss, or draw), and team results are accumulated over time to establish a rank order. Within such team competitions there may also be numerous evaluation criteria applied to assess the qualitative aspects of a match or game; such as the number or successful scoring opportunities, i.e. runs/goals, etc. accumulated by the team or by players within the team. Various ‘internal statistics’ can form an important part of a competition framework. Performance statistics are valid within a competition setting because the competition environment itself conforms to the required standards of the sport and will generally be the same from one competition to the next.

A sport’s competition framework is determined by a large set of factors that are used to define the conditions and outcomes under which competition takes place, and the performance criteria for outcomes occurring within the competition. The competition framework adopted by a sport may also help achieve other objectives such as: defining an athlete development pathway; showcasing the sport to the public; attracting sponsorship and media; and producing economic outcomes.

There are various theories used to explain how and why individuals engage in sport. In most cases participants must first develop their skills and ability before finally determining a long-term level of involvement. The notion of ‘competition’ between individuals or teams is a central theme within each stage of an athlete’s development. However, the exact format that competition takes at each stage, its meaning and outcome, will change to meet the athlete’s developmental needs, based upon the theoretical model for athlete development that is applied.

The FTEM (foundation-talent-elite-mastery) model is an athlete development framework that has been researched and developed by the Australian Institute of Sport; it consists of four general stages of an individual’s participation and progression. These stages are: (1) foundation, (2) talent, (3) elite, and (4) mastery. At each stage of an athlete’s development there is a distinct rationale for having a competition structure, emphasis, and outcome suited to the athlete’s needs.

Within the FTEM model, at the foundation stage an athlete is learning skills relevant to a sport. Competition structures may be informal and influenced by modified rules and equipment so that the novice athlete can focus on execution, participation, learning and enjoyment rather than a specific performance outcome. At the other end of the athlete development pathway there are competitions for elite athletes which are very formal and specific to the sport. In Olympic, Paralympic, and World Championships competition there exists well defined qualifying standards that involve competition structures and timelines. In between these extremes of the competition framework there exist many levels of local, regional, national, and international competition.  Each level is defined by rules and a competition structure specifically designed for the age or skill level of the participating athletes.

Alignment of the competition framework with FTEM stages must take into consideration a number of factors, such as: the competitor’s age or physical maturity; gender; accumulated experience; skill level; and past performance.

More information is available in the Clearinghouse for Sport topic Athlete Development Pathways, including a comprehensive view of the FTEM Framework.

Scientific and empirical evidence suggests that a long-term approach to athlete development, using a model such as FTEM, tends to reduce the drop-out rate due to injury, psychological burnout, and the pressure of early specialisation. An important part of any long-term athlete development strategy is the specific use of appropriate competition to measure and track progress, while facilitating continued development. Successful long-term athlete development strategies balance training-time and competition-time and their relative importance. 

  • Canadian Sport for Life – Issues in Sport. The long-term athlete development (LTAD) model adopted by Canadian sports is, in many ways, similar to FTEM in that it address issues that have historically hampered the development of athletes and sports programs. Athlete development models accept the principle that competition must be suited to the developmental level of participating athletes. One of the issues discussed in this paper is the impact of unplanned or poorly planned competition programs; which may result in:
    • over-competing and under-training during critical periods when physical development and skill development are paramount;
    • the imposition of adult competition programs on developing athletes; thus increasing the psychological and/or physiological stress or pressure; and
    • too much emphasis on the chronological age of participants, instead of developmental age and accumulated experience.

Youth sport programs are generally intended to produce three outcomes: (1) performance, (2) participation, and (3) personal development. These three outcomes are often referred to as the 3Ps of sports competition. A major challenge for sports governing bodies is structuring sport programs that simultaneously achieve all three objectives. Effective sports policies balance competition with inclusive practices (participation) and long-term personal development goals, including the development of many physical skills and positive attitudes about sport participation and self-concept (this is commonly referred to as 'physical literacy').

  • Evidence-based policies for youth sport programmes (PDF  - 196 KB), Cote J and Hancock D, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, published online 26 June 2014. The authors present a global picture of youth sport policies that address the 3Ps and review the supporting evidence. Based upon the evidence the authors make ten recommendations that should be considered in the design of programs for youth, particularly for children under the age of 13 years; five of the recommendations relate to competition programming and five relate to coaching.  The recommendations related to competition include: (1) regulate the length of a season to three or four months, with a maximum of six months; (2) limit lengthy travel requirements to organised competitions; (3) introduce ‘grass-roots’ programs that focus on diversity (i.e. developing many skills); (4) adopt selection policies that are inclusive – ‘talent’ based selection should come later in adolescence; and (5) provide healthy competitive experiences, but do not overemphasise winning.
More information can be found in the Clearinghouse for Sport topic, Physical Literacy and Sport.

Competition during foundation stages

While each sport will be somewhat different because of the unique set of skills required or the established sporting culture, the general principle applied during the foundation years is that skill learning and training occurs more frequently than competition. At this stage competition, as well as training, must be interesting and ‘fun’ to engage young children. Many sports have responded to this challenge by adopting appropriate competition activities and by marketing modified sports that allow children to have fun in an environment that includes competition, but places a major emphasis on learning the fundamentals and skills of a sport.

The AUSSIE Sports program operated from 1986 through 1995. It was a nationally coordinated program of sports education and development for primary school age children. AUSSIE Sports targeted both the education and the sports sectors. The emphasis was ‘have a go’ rather than ‘win’. A key to the success of the program was the development of modified sports; introducing rules, playing areas, and equipment that suited the developmental age of children.

Primary schools and sporting clubs enrolled in the AUSSIE Sports program received supporting resources, as well as benefiting from the enhanced public profile of junior sport highlighted in a media campaign. Various resources were developed, including activity manuals for over 30 modified sports/games as well as tips on teaching techniques and drills. An introductory coaching qualification, Level 0 AUSSIE Sports Coach, was offered to teachers and parents. National Sporting Organisations, with assistance from the Australian Coaching Council, developed general and sport-specific coaching materials. Teacher training in basic sports education through the AUSSIE Sport program was supported by the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (ACHPER).

The Active After-school Communities (AASC) program that operated from 2005 through 2014 provided primary school-aged children with access to free sport, modified sport, and other structured physical activity programs in the after-school time slot of 3-5:30 pm. The AASC program was based upon the ‘Playing for Life’ approach, which uses games rather than drills to introduce the principles of a particular sport or movement skill. Sessions are designed so that the games progressively introduce and then develop a particular skill. The emphasis was on providing safe, fun and engaging activities in an inclusive environment. The primary focus of the AASC program was participation with skill development, rather than competition outcomes. However, the process of competition (i.e. a test between individuals or teams) was still a part of the AASC strategy, but with a different emphasis. Learning to compete, and developing the individual and team characteristics necessary to compete, was the objective instead of a win/loss outcome.

More information about the legacy of these programs can be found in the Clearinghouse for Sport AUSSIE Sports and Active After-school Communities (AASC) topics. 

Competition during early development stages

As children develop movement skills and confidence in sporting activities, they will naturally want to test themselves individually and in group settings. Appropriate competition is usually integrated into the program design. Three examples are drawn from the sports of Australian Rules Football (Auskick), Netball (NetSetGO), and Tennis (Tennis Hot Shots).

  • Auskick. The Australian Football League has developed a skills based program for boys and girls from age 5 to 12 years (note: the upper age limit may vary in some States). Auskick has no tackling and modified rules to provide a fun, safe, and age appropriate way to get involved in Australian Rules Football. From age 5 to 8 years the emphasis is on learning the fundamental skills required to participate in Australian football; and from age 9 to 12 years participants can test their drop punts, hand passes, and marks through simulated match activities and drills that allows players to experience a variety of positions on the playing field.
  • NetSetGO. This is a modified sport program of Netball Australia that incorporates skill activities, minor games and modified matches in a fun and safe environment. Objectives of the program are to:
    • provide every primary school aged child in Australia with the opportunity to experience netball;
    • deliver a national junior development program that promotes netball participation;
    • address the issue of childhood obesity by providing a low cost, easily accessible and community based exercise option for primary school aged children, in particular young girls;
    • provide primary school aged children, especially girls, with the opportunity to meet and interact with elite netball role models;
    • provide a skill development program that allows young girls to experience a team environment, develop self-esteem, and learn movement skills, and;
    • provide opportunities for children and their parents to get involved.
  • Tennis Hot Shots. Tennis Australia introduced the ‘Hot Shots’ program just for children. Modified equipment includes a smaller court, lighter racquet, and low compression balls that don’t bounce too high; this makes learning tennis fun and easy for primary school-aged children and allows them to start rallying and having fun right from their first lesson. There are three stages – red, orange and green to help children develop skills and confidence. The program allows participants to progress at their own pace, moving on to the next stage only when they are ready.

Examples of modified sports programs that are age and developmentally appropriate for children are featured in the Clearinghouse Modified Sports topic.

More information about why sports develop a sport-specific and age-appropriate structure and pathway for athlete development can be found in the Clearinghouse for Sport Junior Sport Framework topic. 

Competition through school sport

During the school years, children are exposed to different opportunities within the school environment to engage in physical activity (unsupervised play during recess and active transport to/from school), physical education (learning movement skills and becoming physically literate), and sport (organised school sport programs). Naturally, competition is a major component of school sport at both intra-school and inter-school levels.

Most school sport competition structures adopt an individual age or an age-group model. For example, swimming (as a school sport) uses single-age category (or sometimes an under age category, such as 10/under) in each event to provide a more uniform level of competition. Team sports usually adopt an under-age grouping, such as an under/14 or under/16, to provide sufficient numbers of participants, often selecting multiple teams based on performance measures.

More information about the underpinning rationale for school sport can be found in the Clearinghouse for Sport topic, Sport in Education.

Sporting Schools launched in July 2015. This program aims to strengthen the connection between schools and sport (NSOs, SSOs, and their club networks). The program is part of Australia’s sports participation strategy. The aim is to engage more than 5,700 schools through partnership arrangements with sporting organisations to provide school sport programs with access to trained coaches, sporting infrastructure, and expertise.

Competition and relative age effects

Many sporting organisations structure their junior competitions on the basis of age grouping, for example under-10, and 11-12, 13-14 or 14/under, etc. School sport competitions are typically organised by a student’s age at some cut-off date in the school year. The obvious problem with grouping participants in this manner is the significant physical differences that may exist because of different rates of maturation. Differences in physical size and strength are particularly evident at or around the age of puberty (approximately 11.5 years for girls and 13 years for boys). This can result in a competition advantage for some participants in some sports.

Athletes can benefit from height, weight, and strength advantages because of their maturity. Early maturing athletes are more likely to advance in representative sport because they are selected due to ‘relative age effects’. To counter this phenomena sports can use other criteria for grouping children for the purpose of competition, or they may use single-age, rather than age-groups, to lessen the relative age effects. Australian Swimming changed their age-group competition structure in the mid 1980’s, moving away from an age-group format that had survived for almost 100 years, to a single-age (13/under, 14, 15, 16, 17 years) competition program at the National Age Swimming Championships. Several years later Swimming Australia also modified this program to group 17 and 18 year old athletes together, to accommodate student-athlete’s during their matriculation year and ease the transition into senior competition.

Competition and talent development

Most National Sporting Organisations (NSOs) operate under a federated organisational model; that is, a representative organisation exists in each State and Territory, referred to as State Sporting Organisation (SSOs). Athletes and teams are usually registered with clubs for the purpose of competition and training. Clubs are then affiliated to an SSO, and in some sports there may also be intermediate regional associations. One of the primary roles of SSOs is to deliver a competition program within their jurisdiction and then link with other SSOs, under the direction of the NSO, to facilitate higher level competitions. In most sports, competition programs are similar from State to State, with minor variations due to local conditions and seasonal variations.

The majority of all sporting competitions take place at local or district level, utilising the club network. A competition pathway identifies the responsibilities of clubs, SSOs and the NSO. Each sport will determine criteria for entry into successive levels of competition. A clear competition pathway helps to identify sporting abilities so that SSOs and NSOs can direct their resources appropriately to develop future high performance athletes.

Each sport will establish specific qualifying criteria that directs athletes into higher levels of competition. Team sports may also impose geographic qualifying criteria. One of the primary considerations when structuring a hierarchical system of competitions is the provision of a competition pathway that allows athletes to progress based primarily upon skill and ability.

State Sporting Organisations (SSOs) manage the competition pathway. SSOs provide a wealth of information on their respective websites regarding competition programs, athlete development, and administrative support; a few examples include:

Competition and mature-age participation

Play on: the report of the masters sport project on mature aged sport in Australia (PDF  - 13.7 MB), Confederation of Australian Sport/Australian Sports Commission, published in 1992, summarised the status of mature-age sport in Australia by stating:

Sport has the potential to contribute to an extended period of meaningful activity in the later years of our lives. Many researchers contend that a fit, active 65 year old has the physical capacity of a more sedentary 35 year old and that many of the so-called effects of ageing are more the results of disuse than of time. Sport can also provide the stimulus of social contact with people of a similar age and with similar interests. [Play on: the report of the masters sport project on mature aged sport in Australia, Confederation of Australian Sport/Australian Sports Commission, 2002, p.2.]

  

Masters competition, also referred to as ‘seniors’ or ‘veterans’ competition is usually structured for mature-age persons who wish to remain competitive, but do so outside the mainstream elite performance pathway. Structuring competition specifically for mature-age persons allows greater flexibility to accommodate a range of fitness characteristics and motivations of the participants. The social aspects of competition usually receive greater emphasis.

Many masters’ competitors have participated in their chosen sport at a younger age, although this is not always the case. Masters athletes frequently take on a new sport for various fitness, social, and lifestyle reasons. Many NSOs recognise the potential for growth in their sport by including mature-age competitions within their overall competition framework. Other sports have developed separate organisational structures to govern mature-age competition, with varying degrees of independence from their kindred NSO.

Modifications to the sport may be needed in some cases to make the activity safe and appropriate for seniors. These modifications may include: reducing game time, field dimensions or competition distances; offering a handicapping system so that multiple age classifications can compete together; limiting the amount of physical contact; and modifying equipment.

The Australian Masters Games is a biennial sporting event that is the largest multi-sport festival in the country, attracting over 10,000 competitors in over 50 sports. In addition, numerous regional and/or state events for seniors are staged annually.

More information can be found in the Clearinghouse for Sport topic, Mature-age Sport and Physical Activity

Competition structures at the developmental and junior levels are significantly influenced by a ‘top down’ approach. If a sport has a national league structure, this elite or professional competition tier will probably influence at what time of the year lower tier competitions are held. The top down influence is the result of media, sponsorship, and marketing strategies of the NSO that leverage the exposure given to a sport by a professional league. It is hoped that the professional or elite level of competition will generate interest and increase participation at the grass-roots level. Lower tier competitions usually align their season with the professional league to take advantage of this exposure. For example, cricket and most of the football codes align their junior programs to coincide with professional leagues or international matches.

Decisions that sporting organisations make are also influenced by the competition between sports for participants. There are several traditional Australian sports that use outdoor grass fields, and these sports must compete for available space, particularly when ovals are maintained by local governments. The expansion of Australian rules football into New South Wales and Queensland, the traditional home of rugby (i.e. primarily rugby league, but also rugby Uunion), has increased the demand on facilities and their use. The participation increases seen in junior football (i.e. soccer) have also added pressure on facilities in many communities. There is intense pressure to recruit participants and secure the best venues. Only Football Federation Australia’s A-League departs from the top down model by scheduling a summer season for its professional tier and junior programs that span seasons. Although the scheduling of junior football seasons can vary from state to state, it is not aligned with the A-League (men's football) and W-League (women’s football) schedules. On the other hand, AFL and the rugby codes deliver their junior programs during winter to maximise their exposure and recruitment of participants.

There are both men’s and women’s professional basketball leagues in Australia; the National Basketball League (NBL) and the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) are both summer programs. When the NBL and WNBL were originally formed, in 1979 and 1981 respectively, they were winter competitions.  However, in the 1998-99 season professional basketball shifted its competition to summer, this released some of the media and marketing pressure of competing with the football codes. The move of Australian professional basketball to a summer schedule also allowed some media link with the National Basketball Association (the professional basketball league in the United States) and its world-wide exposure of the sport. However, junior basketball programs in Australia are spread across seasons.

The growing competition among sports for influence in the school curriculum also places pressure on State Sporting Organisations to provide infrastructure and technical expertise to underpin many school programs. This puts pressure on limited resources, both facilities and the workforce, to service club and school competition schedules. Each year, more sports want to get their programs into schools and encourage more young people to try their sport by joining a club program outside of school hours. Consideration must be given to the athlete's developmental needs when school and club competition schedules conflict. 

Optimal competition model for the Women’s National Basketball League (PDF  - 7.6 MB), Basketball Australia and Australian Sports Commission (2014). The Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) is the longest running elite women’s competition in Australia, established in 1980-81. This review looks at the state of the WNBL and makes recommendations to help build and grow a sustainable competition model into the future.

The WNBL is closely linked to community participation, there are over 100,000 registered female basketball players is Australia. The League showcases the sport’s elite players and helps to underpin the continued success of the Opals, Australia’s national representative team, at Olympic Games and World Championships. This competition review considered 12 areas critical to the League’s sustainability: (1) Basketball Australia’s (BA) strategic priorities and the role of the WNBL; (2) the number and location of League teams and the quality of facilities; (3) length of the season; (4) club ownership and operational structures; (5) playing squads, including the number of National Team representatives and overseas players; (6) operations – competition resourcing and personnel; (7) BA’s high performance athlete development pathway; (8) participation pathways – community basketball, state associations and leagues; (9) customer reach – the consumer environment in which WNBL clubs operate; (10) marketing and promotion of the League; (11) assets and revenue streams; and (12) cost structure – what investment is required to grow the competition.

All recommendations made in this report are cognisant of the particular circumstances created by a semi-professional league and the impact playing and training commitments may have on a player’s education, employment, and family commitments. The review consisted of detailed analysis of the current landscape and objectives of BA and involved market research and stakeholder consultation. Key elements of WNBL operations were benchmarked against other domestic sports, as well as international basketball competitions. The recommendations put forth reflect an ‘optimal competition model’ that targets long-term sustainability and growth.

In Australia, basketball has a good participation rate at the grassroots level, it’s the second most popular team sport according to Australian Bureau of Statistics reports. BA’s objectives are three fold – use the WNBL to support/deliver consistent high performance results at international level; support participation among women and improve player standards (across all levels of the sport); and showcase the sport to drive commercial opportunities. A total of 53 recommendations are made in this report, some of the key recommendations are:

  • Basketball Australia must adopt a leadership approach to advance the growth of the WNBL, incorporating the WNBL into its overall strategy, operations, resourcing and budgeting.
  • BA must identify how the WNBL is used as a platform to drive its objectives for participation and high performance.
  • In the short-term the League should remain at 8 teams, but growth must be planned for a 10 or 12 team competition (based on similar competitions in other countries).
  • BA must carefully consider the placement of teams, with a priority given to Brisbane and a second team in Melbourne and then Sydney.
  • The length of the WNBL regular season should be shortened, to improve spectator numbers.
  • The Grand Final series should be over three games and the semi-finals played on a home-and-away basis with aggregate score determining the winner.
  • BA should look at new revenue streams, such as an ‘All Stars’ game, touring teams or a ‘Champions League’ competition with other international representative teams.
  • BA needs to provide individual plans to support National Team players, so that their workloads are managed and balanced.
  • The WNBL should move to a winter (April through June) timeframe for its regular season to align with community basketball schedules and not compete with European women’s basketball leagues.
  • BA needs to develop a consistent and long-term playing calendar for elite players which Incorporates the WNBL season, National Team commitments, training camps and other domestic leagues.
  • WNBL teams should play only once per week, eliminating player welfare issues created by back-to-back matches and travel.
  • Matches should be scheduled to maximise attendance, including double headers with NBL clubs.
  • Player contracts should be a tri-partite agreement, incorporating BA, the League, and club.
  • Club licence agreements must be consistent with the strategic direction of the League and BA.
  • The WNBL Commission should be replaced by BA operational management with accountability and responsibility to the BA Board. The Board would appoint a General Manager for the WNBL.

In 1996 the Standing Committee on Recreation and Sport (SCORS), which was made up of representatives from federal, state and territory government departments responsible for sport and recreation policy and program implementation, commissioned the first in-depth look at the impact that national leagues have on their respective sports in Australia. The terms of reference for this study defined a ‘national league’ as an elite sporting competition coordinated through an administrative body and comprising teams from at least three different states and territories. The study looked at national league structures in professional, semi-professional, and amateur competition and assessed their performance in relation to three key themes: grassroots development, elite athlete development, and the financial viability of the league.

National League Impact Study (PDF  - 4.1 MB), Standing Committee on Recreation and Sport (SCORS), 1996. Key findings from this study include:

  • Leagues receiving extensive television coverage (principally AFL and NRL) have an impact upon the grassroots participation numbers in their sports. In leagues without media exposure, there was only a moderate correlation with increased participation numbers.
  • Almost without exception, the introduction of a national league, or a national league team, has had a negative impact upon the existing state league.
  • There is a link between a national league and the development of elite athletes and the performance of Australian representative teams in international competition. The strength of this link depends upon the sport.
  • Effective feeder systems are essential to maintain the high standard of players and competition in national leagues.
  • The most successful national leagues, in terms of financial viability, have a fundamentally sound product which is fun to play and watch on television, and a competition that is evenly balanced.
  • Planning in relation to financial management, strategic focus, market research, and human resource management are key ingredients to successfully running a national league.
  • It is likely that there is a saturation level at which Australian capital cities can no longer support additional teams; and unable to support additional leagues. Any general economic downturn will negatively impact upon sport sponsorship and the health of a national league.

The SCORS study concluded that no ‘best practice’ model exists in the Australian context; although AFL was seen as the most successful model. Strong state or regional feeder systems are seen as an advantage because of limited resources. The Australian sporting environment offers many challenges to the sustainability of a national league – a small national population, high travel costs, reliance on television exposure to attract sponsorship, and the sponsorship ‘hubs’ of Sydney and Melbourne disadvantaging other cities. There is also the recognition that even with television exposure and large corporate sponsorship, the local supporter base is still fundamental to the success of a national league.

Sports leagues in Australia include those with fully-professional athletes, as well as those with semi-professional or unpaid athletes; some of the sports include:

Professional leagues in some sports have a direct connection to National teams that represent Australian in international competition, primarily in world championships and international test matches. Olympic sports, such as basketball, football, hockey, and water polo must also prepare teams on a four-year Olympic cycle; netball competes in the Commonwealth Games every four years.

A number of reviews have been conducted since 2000 by sports facing domestic, international, and professional competition challenges. Providing suitable competition that contributes to a sport’s domestic development, while accommodating the needs of National teams and professional leagues, is an ongoing issue. The following reports identify how several national governing bodies have assessed these challenges.

  • Report of the Task Force into the structure of a new National Soccer League competition, (PDF  - 826 KB), NSL Task Force (2003). A total of 53 recommendations were made in the report, several are related to competition structures. One of the recommendations was that League fixtures should align with the Socceroo national team program; the playing season should be conducted during the summer months (October to May). The national federation should develop and coordinate a comprehensive domestic representative program for Under 17’s (Joeys), Under 20’s (Young Socceroos), Under 23’s (Olympic Games Team) and the Socceroos to provide players with greater incentives to remain playing in Australia longer. The Federation should also develop a policy which provides for the selection of domestically based players for the Under 17’s and Under 20’s. The Federation and the League should introduce methods of creating greater links between clubs in the new League and grass roots junior clubs.
  • Review of High Performance Pathways in Australian Basketball (PDF  - 366 KB), Fairweather J, Australian Sports Commission (2008). Beyond the National Intensive Training Centre Program (NITCP), national junior teams and AIS program, player development largely relies on the competition pathway both within Australia and overseas. A point often raised during this review was that while there were numerous competition opportunities, the quality of competition is not always complementary to the development needs of athletes. If the ultimate aim of the high performance pathway is to develop players capable of performing at the highest level for Australian national teams, it is essential to provide a pathway of the highest level competitions that are aligned to a daily training environment that provides excellence in the development of game specific skills and abilities. The major issues relating to the competition pathway for developing Australian basketball talent have been identified as follows:
    • The quality of junior competition varies from state to state. In the larger states there is criticism that competition is inclusive rather than tiered to encourage excellence in the standard of competition. In smaller states and at schools level there is not always the depth and quality of competition required to challenge a talented athlete.
    • At the junior level, the relationship between coaching, skills training, and match play instruction and feedback is often disjointed. Skills training in the NITCP program may not be linked to the competition environment. Quality of coaching can be variable.
    • The roles of and links between the various state and national leagues are ill-defined.
    • At higher levels, the structures of each of the ‘national’ competitions (ABA, WNBL and NBL) are all different and connections between the competitions are poor.
    • The identified ‘gap’ in the pathway for male athletes aged approximately 18 – 22, between national junior level and national senior leagues and teams.
    • Ensuring high quality national leagues, including high level coaching and daily training environment.
    • There is criticism that the structure and rules, particularly around the men's competitions, hamper excellence and even encourage mediocrity.
    • Overall national coordination - Scheduling and timing of competitions relative to: each other; the broader Australian sporting season; international competitions; and national team commitments.
    • Overseas competition opportunities, as a resource for player development, are not well managed.
    • Opportunities for the national teams to play as a team are not being optimised.
Volleyball in Australia does not have a national league structure, but National Teams (men's and women's) compete in the World Volleyball League.  In addition, elite beach volleyball players take part in an international circuit of competitions. A review of Volleyball Australia conducted in 2011 looked at how a strong domestic competition could be sustained along with international representation by teams and individual players. 
  • A sustainable future for elite Volleyball in Australia (PDF  - 913 KB), The Lonsdale Group, a report for Volleyball Australia (2011). This report recommends that the scheduling of men’s and women's domestic competition should be more consistent, to allow high performance athletes to participate when not required for National Team commitments. Volleyball Australia should also establish a semi-professional national Beach Tour; as a minimum the tour should offer 6-8 high quality events on an annual basis to ensure it provides both competition experience and access to prize money. The Men’s National Team should reduce the amount of time spent overseas on tour and the number of games on tour. A figure of 30-40 international games per year is unlikely to result in a drop in rankings and may help to retain players.

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Resources & Reading

  • Annual age-grouping and athlete development: a meta-analytical review of relative age effects in sport, Cobley S, Baker J, Wattie N and McKenna J, Sports Medicine, Volume 39, Number 3 (2009). Annual age-grouping is a common organisational strategy in sport. However, such a strategy appears to promote relative age effects (RAEs). RAEs refer both to the immediate participation and long-term attainment constraints in sport, occurring as a result of chronological age and associated physical differences as well as selection practices in annual age-grouped cohorts. This article represents the first meta-analytical review of RAEs, aimed to collectively determine the overall prevalence and strength of RAEs across and within sports, and possible moderator variables. A total of 38 studies, spanning 1984-2007 were examined. Overall results identified consistent prevalence of RAEs, but with small effect sizes. Effect size increased linearly with relative age differences. Follow-up analyses identified age category, skill level and sport context as moderators of RAE magnitude. Sports involving adolescent (aged 15-18 years) males, at the representative (i.e. regional and national) level in highly popular sports appear most at risk to RAE inequalities.
  • 'Birthdate and basketball success: is there a relative age effect?' [abstract]. Hoare D, 2000 Pre-Olympic Congress, paper presented at the Sports Medicine and Physical Education Conference, International Congress on Sport Science, 7-13 September 2000, Brisbane, Australia. Evidence of a skewed distribution in the birthdates of athletes selected in representative sporting teams has been described as the 'relative age effect'. This systematic bias has been proposed as a factor in the withdrawal of late birthdate athletes from junior sport involvement. This study investigated the relative age effect in national level male and female junior basketball players along with current Australian NBL and WNBL players.
  • Competition is a Good Servant, but a Poor Master (PDF  - 849 KB), Way R and Balyi I, Canadian Sport for Life (2007). Competition is a critical issue in all sports, especially team sports. Unfortunately, the system of competition in many sports was never properly designed; it simply ‘evolved’ on an improvised basis without consideration for the sport science of athlete development. Now many competition schedules are considered part of the tradition of certain sports, and these habitual patterns are passionately adhered to. ‘This is the way we have always done it!’ This report raises a number of issues and challenges the existing structure of competitive sports in Canada.  The report proposes a number of changes to competition structures, based upon current ‘best practice’ and the science of athlete development.
  • Equal Opportunity in Sport: what you need to know about holding single-sex competitionsVictorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission, (July 2012). While equal opportunity law, like sport, is about promoting opportunity and participation, there are times when the law allows participation to be restricted to one sex to help ensure everyone has a fair go. The Equal Opportunity Act does this in a number of ways – through special measures, exceptions and temporary exemptions.
  • Growth and Development of Young Athletes: should competition levels be age related? Baxter-Jones A, Sports Medicine, Volume 20, Number 2, 1995. Two major concerns arise from the use of age related competition; the possible decrease in the long-term motivation for sports participation, and the use of performance results to identify talent.
  • Organisation of sport in Australia (Wikipedia)
  • Organising fixtures & competitions: What information do I need to know? (PDF  - 354 KB), Sport England (2005). This publication is part of Sport England’s ‘Running Sport’ series that provides resources for sports organisations.
  • Physiology of growth and development: its relationship to performance in the young athlete (Abstract), Roemmich J and Rogol A, Clinics in Sports Medicine, Volume 14, Issue 3 (1995). Proper groupings of children for physical activity and sport is important for injury prevention and competition. Several of the classification systems presently used were reviewed, as are the physiologic underpinnings of pubertal growth and development as they relate to the accrual of strength and power. During adolesence the greatest physiologic differences exist, mainly because of the wide variations in the timing and tempo of the pubertal growth spurt in normally growing boys and girls. Maturity-based categorisation, especially in contact and collision sports, would heighten the competition and may lessen rates of injury.
  • Play On’ Report of the Masters Sport Project on mature-aged sport in Australia (PDF  - 13.7 MB), Burns R, Australian Sports Commission (1992). The Clearinghouse for Sport holds this report as a print publication. Executive Summary also available (PDF  - 3.5 MB). 
  • The relationship between professional tournament structure on the national level and success in man’s professional tennis (PDF  - 673 KB), Crespo M, Reid M, Miley D and Atienza F, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Volume 6, Number 1 (2003). This study looked at the top 30 nations in men’s professional tennis; based upon the ATP rankings of players within the top 200. Results showed that nations with a high number of men's professional events are best positioned to provide for more professionally ranked players. However, having a high number of tournaments is not a prerequisite to having a group of players ranked among the game's most elite (i.e. top 10). It can be concluded that competition is an important factor in player development and that countries who want to be successful at the professional level should try to provide thebest competitive progression for their players.
  • The relative age effect in Australian Football League players (PDF  - 99 KB), Barnett A, Queensland University of Technology (2010). Youth sports teams are usually grouped into yearly age groups based on a fixed cut-off date. Children born just after this cut-off will be the oldest and most mature in their age group. This may give them an advantage in competitive sport; an advantage which could persist into adulthood. We examined all AFL players in the 2009 season excluding foreign-born players. We compared the observed number of players’ born in each month with the expected number based on national statistics. There was a marked and statistically significant seasonality in players’ dates of birth. There were 33% more players than expected with dates of birth in January, and 25% fewer in December. It appears that players who are relatively older in youth AFL teams have a better chance of turning professional.
  • School Sport Australia - Position Statement on the Provision of School Sport Competitions (PDF  - 21 KB), January 2012. School Sport Australia (SSA) conducts secondary school championships in 17 sports and primary school ‘exchanges’ (i.e. the equivalent to a national championship) in 11 sports. SSA endorses these competitions as part of a school sports education program: intra-school, inter-school, school sports carnivals, school sports days (multi-sport), zone competitions, district competitions, regional competitions, state knock-out competitions, state championships, interstate championships and exchanges, state champion school competitions, national champion school competitions, national championships, Pacific School Games, and international sports tours.
  • So what is developmentally appropriate sport? Bailey R, Sports Coach UK (2012). Developmentally appropriate sports attempt to put into practice what we have learned about human development. That is, if we want children to enjoy sport and to continue to participate throughout their lives, we’d better acknowledge some of the basic facts of their development. This article identifies these structural deficiencies in many sports programs: (1) children playing full (or nearly full) sided games, or following adult-designed rules; (2) children being selected for teams based on their relative age or physique; (3) later sporting performance being predicted from early childhood, and; (4) the concept of ‘early specialisation in a sport’. None of these practices can be described as developmentally appropriate.
  • Youth sport specialization: How to manage competition and training?, Capranica L and Millard-Stafford M, International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, Volume 6, Number 4 (2011). Prevailing thinking in many sports, and practical application, is that elite performance requires early childhood skill development and high training volume. Debate continues whether children specialising early, training and competing in a single sport, have a significant advantage compared with those who sample various sports early and specialise later in adolescence. Retrospective analysis of the childhood sport’s history of elite performers and numerous case studies suggest a variety of pathways can yield elite status later in life. Relatively little sport specific evidence exists regarding the long-term effects of rigorous training and competitive schedules on children. It is clear that more prospective studies are needed to understand the training dose that optimally develops adaptations in youth without inducing dropout, overtraining syndrome, and increase the risk of injury. Such a research approach should also be gender based. Until such evidence exists the debate will continue.

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