By Dirk Smith, MSc, CSCS, SDL (He/Him)

The Gay Games are built upon three tenants, participation, inclusion and personal best. Inclusive grassroots sport has evolved from this established foundation and has made great strides in creating a sport space is built upon participation and inclusion but clubs and teams are often lacking in the athletic development toward “personal best”. Achieving one’s own personal best in sport, or anything for that matter, is based upon measuring your performance against your own baseline measures. That is, where are you now, compared to where you were. This can be measured from the smallest accomplishments, such as feeling less tired when climbing a flight of stairs, finding you can perform a new skill that you previously couldn’t, up to the bigger scale such as achieving a faster time in a running event or lifting a heavier weight at the gym. Everybody’s personal best is unique to them, their goals, actions, and are dynamic based on your unique self but the feelings of achieving new PBs are common among all, regardless of how you measure it. When you achieve a PB, you feel more confident, excited, happy, self-esteem goes up, feelings of accomplishment, and other positive emotions that help motivate you.

This is where sport has the power to enact positive change because it builds confidence, self-esteem, mental, physical and social health, empowerment and authenticity through the development of personal best.

We all join sports clubs and teams for different reasons, our goals are unique to us. People join for the social, mental and physical benefits that sport has to offer. Sport is great for meeting new people, improving health, exercising, learning new skills, shifting focus away from other life stresses and so much more. A common misconception of sport is that it’s all about competition, and while competition is part of it, the root of sport comes down to the expression of oneself through performance. When you perform, you are putting yourself out there to show the world what you are capable of and share a part of who you are. This is where sport shares a common ground with music, arts, theatre, and other performance outlets as well. Regardless of who your audience is, we all want to be able to express who we are and be ourselves.

At a recent event, I was approached by leaders of different sports clubs who asked me why they had a hard time recruiting and retaining new participants to their teams. I asked them what their club offered in terms of athletic development, but they struggled to respond. These clubs were so focused on building a space upon participation and inclusion, that without the emphasis on personal best, new members lost interest after a few sessions and left. Achievement goals theory reminds us that goal setting must strike a balance between capability and difficulty. That is if an athlete finds a task to be too easy, they will get bored and quit, whereas if they find the task difficult, they will become overwhelmed and quit.

For these clubs, the emphasis on participation and inclusion at the expense of personal best became detrimental to building an inclusive sports club. Within grassroots sport, athletes who come in often range in their experiences with the sport, from beginners to seasoned athletes. So, the athletic development of the club must adapt to the baseline established from the participants who show up and build it up from there. You can build an inclusive club that doesn’t just survive but grows and thrives through focus on athletic development built around an empowering climate that empowers athletes to achieve their personal best. Empowering your athletes to see for themselves what they are capable of spurs growth, accomplishments are celebrated and shared while self-expression and authenticity are further enhanced through performance. This has a cascading effect because the word will get out about the positive impact your club is having on the athletes, people will pay attention, see what you’re doing and want to find out more. In turn driving participation and building representation through inclusion that allows your club to achieve growth that effects positive change on your community.

To do sport, just like music and arts, is one of the fundamental components of the human condition and serves as a platform to impact ourselves and the world around us. We’ve seen how sport impacts everything from personal growth, community development, to societal change. The person on your social media network who is celebrating finishing their first triathlon/running race, teams like Team Trans Hockey that has built an entire hockey team of trans/gender non-conforming people, organizations like Pride Cheerleading Association that raises thousands of dollars for charity, and events like Gay Games that has spurred the development of the entire LGBTQI sports movement while changing greater society’s perceptions of LGBTQI people in sport. These organizations are examples of how athletic development through an emphasis on personal best, has spurred growth in participation and inclusion to thrive.

All of this, simply through the act of doing sport.

Thus, athletic development is an important component to the success of any athlete and team. Athletic development focuses on training four key elements that are unique to each sport. The following is a generalization on the four components inherit to athletic development through the concepts of psychological, physical, technical, tactical training. These four components work together, built upon the health of the athlete, to enhance their athleticism and capability within sport.

As a shameless pitch, Dirk Smith, works with athletes and teams across a wide range of sports with focus on the psychological and physical development, and for competitive swimming, the technical and tactical development as well.

  • Psychological Development.

Psychological development covers everything from how athletes see themselves in relation to others, social identity, sense of purpose, community, feelings of belonging, ability to regulate emotions, judgement and decision-making behaviors, ability to focus, perceive and process information, etc. These are all important skills that athletes should learn in sport, particularly as it relates to the unique demands of that specific sport. In turn, participation in sport enhances things like motivation, self-esteem, confidence, and has shown to improve mental health.

  • Physical Development.

Physical development refers to physical fitness and conditioning, which should not be confused with aesthetics. There is a stereotype that to be “athletic” is to have a muscular and fit looking body. However, while certain body types might offer advantage in sport, the physical development is more focused on physical capability above all else. Improving physical fitness, in whatever unique form based upon the sport and the athlete that might take, is important to be successful in sport. This includes conditioning based on energy system performance such as aerobic vs anaerobic vs sprint; neuromuscular performance such as building coordination, balance, stability, mobility; and motor system performance such as building strength, power, speed, agility, and endurance.

  • Technical Development.

Technical development is specific to the skills required of each sport that are trained for the athlete to simply be able to play the sport. Baseball players need to know how to throw and catch a ball, soccer players focus on kicking and dribbling with feet, swimmers learn the different swim strokes and cheerleaders learn choreography and stunt work. Technical development focuses on teaching these skills and improving upon the technique to help each athlete learn how to execute said skill most effectively.

Another important aspect of technical development is to coach athletes in improving their spatial awareness to process the information they perceive within their dynamic environment and be able to respond to it promptly and appropriately to help influence a positive outcome. Successful athletes can understand their position as it relates to the environment around them and then take advantage to the affordances available to them to achieve a positive outcome.


  • Tactical Development.

Tactical development is rooted in understanding the “rules of the game” and the constraints of the environment their sport is based round. Even if the athlete has the psychological, physical and technical know-how, they still need to know how to play the game. What is the desired outcome of the game? What are the goals for the team/athlete? How do you strategize for your next game? It is an important consideration to teach your athletes how play and again, constantly improving upon and refining on these skills to develop the tactics within the game, including their judgement and decision-making skills.

In Conclusion

While we all have our own reasons and goals when it comes to sport, we generally join our local teams and clubs to find the social, mental and physical benefits of playing that sport with a group of people for whom we share that common interest. This initial motivation is further driven by a shared sense of purpose and goal within that group that offers guidance and direction for everybody within to motivate themselves and each other to strive further and empower growth. As humans, we thrive in environments that challenge us within reason where we can flex our capabilities and discover new things to learn from. This is what sport offers for all of us that ultimately is the entire reason why we bother to do it at all.