“… 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.” – Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler in Riding the Wave of an Expert (2011)

Climbing needs to up its game.  Lately, I’ve been reading talent development studies to understand what researchers of more established sports are doing to understand the factors which contribute to success.  One approach these researchers use is looking at the overall environment, as opposed to the specific individual, to understand success at the elite level.  Today, I’m going to tell you about an easy-to-use questionnaire that can help us better facilitate success in our sport’s athletes – both at the elite level and below.

The Talent Development Environment Questionnaire (TDEQ) is a tool used by researchers and practitioners to assess whether the athlete’s environment can be more supportive than it currently is.  I found it useful because there are 59 questions, and each question is based on peer-reviewed research with supporting evidence.  Below I’m going to provide you with instructions for the questionnaire as well as some potential uses.  But first, here’s a look at one part of the questionnaire:

TDEQ Russell
Figure 1 – an image of some of the questions from the paper Dr. Martindale and his team published in 2010

The first step is to provide the questionnaire to an athlete.  Each of the 59 questions is classified under 7 different overall headings, called “factors.”  The factors are:

  • Does development facilitate long-term success;
  • Quality preparation;
  • Communication between coach and athlete;
  • The coach’s understanding of the athlete;
  • The athlete’s support network;
  • The challenges and supports in the environment, and;
  • Key features of the foundations of development.

Each question is answered on a 6-point scale from “agree strongly” to “disagree strongly”. Several of the questions are reversed, however, so that an answer of “Strongly agree” actually ranks a higher score (6) rather than a lower score (1).  A lower overall score is better.  In theory it’s possible to score as low as a 59 (all questions scored as a 1) or as high as a 354 (all questions scored a 6).

I spoke with Dr. Russell Martindale by e-mail, the researcher involved with developing the questionnaire.  He recommended the easiest way to use the questionnaire is to have the athlete fill it out and then go over any items that are answered in a concerning way (e.g. such as a “5” or “6” on the scale) which may indicate weaknesses or areas for improvement.  He also recommended highlighting which areas are strengths for the athlete.

I gave this questionnaire to a few of my athletes, scored them, and then sat down with them.  They said it took about 15-25 minutes to complete.  Scoring their answers took me only 5 minutes but speaking with them about 10-20 of those answers took about 1-2 hours.  As a result, there is ample opportunity to turn this into a great multi-session opportunity to improve the athlete’s overall environmental structure of success.

I was primarily concerned with answers in the 4, 5, and 6 range, which usually (but not always) were associated with disagreeing with the question.  On a few items, like “My coach is good at helping me to understand my strengths and weaknesses in my sport,” one of the kids who I consult with only “agreed a little” – a score of 3.  This athlete has multiple coaches and I happen to pride myself on analysis of strengths and weaknesses.  I was expecting a 1 or a 2 and instead had a rude awakening.  Surprised I admitted this?  Please don’t be.  The Beta Angel Project prides an open culture to improve.  It turned out, I had been teaching this athlete advanced concepts but had neglected to provide them feedback on what they were good and bad at.  Mea culpa.

You don’t necessarily need to score the entire questionnaire to make use of it.  In fact, coaches can simply read the questions to get an idea of what they could be doing differently without ever handing it to one of their students.  This questionnaire provided a significant amount of personal reflection for me.

One challenge you may come across is trying to figure out how to prioritize the weaknesses or areas of improvement.  Possibilities to prioritize include:

  • Prioritizing within factors. Look at the order of questions.  The questions are ranked based on a statistical method called “factor analysis”, which essentially determines how important each question is to the factor.  If you have two questions which ranked poorly, and one is the first question and the other is the tenth question, then consider prioritizing the first question.
  • Another area of interest may be comparing between athletes or comparing athletes between sports if you happened to have scores from other sports. This may help us determine what environmental problems are more prevalent in climbing.
  • Comparing between factors. If you score each of the factors separately, you might be able to get a sense of the relative priority.  However, you would at the very least have to change each score into a percentage to compare due to differing numbers of questions per factor, and even then, it’s not what’s called an “apples-to-apples” comparison so consider this option last.
TDEQ UK Football
Figure 2 – Mean Scores, Standard Deviations, and an Image of the TDEQ used in the sport of Soccer. Image from “Examining the Development Environments of Elite English Football Academies: The Players’ Perspective”, a 2014 paper from Mills, Butt, and Maynard.

I wanted to know whether it would be acceptable to use this tool with climbers, so I asked Dr. Martindale.  Dr. Martindale wrote to me: “Although it is clear that there are sport or context specific elements of development environments, the TDEQ is not designed to capture these. The only caveat to that, is that climbing wasn’t one of the sports that was used to develop the questionnaire. However, until there is something else more applicable, then I would say it is useful to use it.”

Dr. Martindale gave me a few papers on how researchers are diving into specific environments in order to analyze the elite level of a particular sport.  These research studies include soccer (sorry, Dr. Martindale, U.S. audience) where researchers in the UK used this questionnaire to analyze the characteristics of that particular sport; and kayaking, where Danish and Swedish researchers used one analytical lens to describe the kayak-specific environment, and a second analytical lens to identify what factors provide the specific environment (in this case, a kayaking school) its success.

To make a long story short, researchers in the climbing world now have a new tool to analyze climbing success and coaches have a new tool to help their athletes.  I recently provided the questionnaire to James (name changed to protect the innocent), a head coach at a climbing gym.  James and I had a phone call discussion after he had gone through the questionnaire with some of his athletes.  James not only found highlighting the strengths of an athlete’s environment to be particularly helpful, he was able to identify trends for improvement across multiple athletes.  I was pleasantly surprised at several innovative approaches and resources he developed for his program as a result of using the questionnaire.

We have a great opportunity to keep pushing our sport and validated research can help light the way.  It’s not perfect for our sport yet, but who knows, maybe an enterprising researcher will read this and decide to change that.  Perhaps it’s my next project.  Dr. Russell’s research is available to be read for free at this link.

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