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Going for gold, but what about the cost?

The 2012 Olympics is a long way off but talented, young UK athletes are already under pressure. And that's outrageous, says Gerald Haigh.

This summer, Thomas Daley, aged 11, from Plymouth, won the under-15 section of the Australian elite junior diving championships. Reporting his success, BBC Devon local news said: "Thomas is already being talked about as a gold medal prospect for the 2012 Olympic Games in London."

In fact, Thomas will receive assistance up to a value of pound;10,000 from the talented athlete scholarship scheme (TASS), one of several "talent identification" projects designed to ensure promising youngsters aren't overlooked. Thomas is the youngest beneficiary of its TASS 2012 scheme.

If you're uneasy at the idea of children carrying the hopes of the nation on their shoulders, join the club. We want our children to succeed, certainly, but don't we want the focus to be on their developmental needs? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the primary purpose of "talent identification" schemes is to serve the politically-driven need to hit our national "medal targets" for 2012.

Plymouth sports director Sam Grevett is proud of Thomas, but she ensures that he is carefully coached and mentored, and is properly cautious about looking too far ahead.

"He's very young. There's a lot of growing up to do, and there are possible injuries in the future," she says. "At the moment we just want him to be 11."

Surely, that's as it should be. But take a look at the report of the Australian diving event on the website of Sport England, one of the umbrella bodies handling the funding stream for elite athletes. Its headline reads: "2012 divers dominate elite Australian junior champs."

That label, "2012", is, inevitably, developing a life of its own, but to me it's simply outrageous to add it as a tag to the names of 11 and 12-year-olds. In December last year, for example, at a Sheffield event to promote the "London Bid", 2012-year-olds from a range of Olympic sports were each presented with what Sport England called "a 2012 gift to help fund equipment, training and transport". At the event, Don Stewart, of Yorkshire Forward, said: "Let's hope to see all of them performing at the 2012 Olympics in London."

No pressure there, then.

The whole issue of adult values pressuring young athletes is well aired in a new book, Human Rights in Youth Sport, by Paulo David, secretary of the committee on the rights of the child at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

"Elite youth sport often claims to respond to the needs and wishes of children," writes David. "Far too often, however, it exists largely to satisfy adults."

It's not just outside observers who are raising questions. Leading flat-water canoeing coach David Train, who has had paddlers in each of the last four Olympics, has fallen out with the administrators of his own sport over talent identification. Never one to mince words, Train calls it "institutionalised emotional abuse of young people" and blames the bureaucratic structure built over the top of the clubs to distribute lottery money.

"The state has moved in with a 'command and control' system," he says.

"It's like East Germany in the 1970s."

These doubts, from thoughtful people who love sport, can only grow. Dr Celia Brackenridge, ex-international lacrosse player, teacher educator and visiting professor in the centre for applied childhood studies at Huddersfield university, is working to ensure that young athletes have a voice in how they're treated.

"In sport, if you talk about participation you mean jumping up and down and getting sweaty," says Dr Brackenridge. "In other walks of life, participation means being involved in decision-making. We still have a very paternalistic approach to young people. We claim to know what's best for them."

Even the best adult athlete can wilt under the pressure of expectations.

They, though, can stand up for themselves. Children, by contrast, are vulnerable to feeling everyone's depending on them to do well. The need now is for everyone - the funding bodies, the national media, the politicians - to leave young athletes under the wing of the coaches, mentors, friends, teachers and family members who know and love them and, above all, can listen to them. Let them develop at a pace dictated by their developmental needs, free to express their own ideas and choices.

Let's all just forget about 2012 and those blessed targets for a bit. In the end they're irrelevant anyway, for if the process is right, the results will come. It's the same in school, but that's another story.

Gerald Haigh is a TES columnist and former headteacher

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