The foundation of an athlete’s development is formed through their early developmental experiences. Thus, in this study we explored the early sport and play experiences of elite New Zealand hockey players from rural and regional communities. In our examination of how smaller communities contribute to the development of New Zealand’s top athletes, this research has a particular focus on the athletes’ early sport and play experiences and the influence of people around them during their growth and development. In this qualitative descriptive study, we employed semi-structured interviews to gather data from eight current and former elite New Zealand hockey players. The study’s findings contribute to the ongoing debate regarding whether early specialisation positively or negatively influences young athletes’ development. Furthermore, it provides evidence supporting the benefits of a developmental and delayed specialisation pathway to elite performance. Surrounded by a physical, social, and cultural environment that supported freedom and responsibility alongside unstructured, outdoor, risky play experiences, the participants of this study benefited from their early developmental experiences, which supported their pathways to elite level.


early specialisation, deliberate play, family support, semi-structured interviews, developmental model of sport participation

Author Bio(s)

Robert J. Newport is a lecturer in sport and recreation at a tertiary institute. His interest in this topic stems from his rural upbringing and regional age group success as a hockey player and athlete. Simon R. Walters, Sarah-Kate Millar, and Geoff Dickson are lecturers in sport and recreation, with specific interests and expertise in the sociology of sport, sports coaching and athlete development and were supervisors of the initial master’s study. Andrew Lenton is a research assistant who was involved in developing the original master’s study to a manuscript format and the final editing process. All authors are passionate about young people’s experiences in sport and have a collective interest in creating more supportive environments for young athletes. Please direct correspondence regarding this article to Robert J. Newport at bnewport@northtec.ac.nz


Hockey New Zealand, Elite male and female hockey players involved in the study

Publication Date


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.





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