Young athletes can reach the elite level in sport through many ways, and they need not necessarily have to go through national junior programmes organised by a National Sports Association, said Taisuke Kinugasa, senior manager of the Japan Sport Council's athlete pathway development project.
Clubs can also play a key role, said the 41-year-old, who lived in Singapore from 2004 to 2012 and worked with the Singapore Sports School and Singapore Sports Institute separately as a sports physiologist.
Dr Kinugasa was one of six speakers at the inaugural Youth Athlete Development Conference organised by the National Youth Sports Institute (NYSI) yesterday. About 200 people attended the conference at the Sports Hub Visitor Centre.
Japan was the top-performing Asian country at this year's Olympic swimming competition. They finished fourth behind the United States, Australia and Hungary with two golds, two silvers and three bronzes - an achievement that Dr Kinugasa attributed to the strong club-based system in Japan.
Speaking to The Straits Times after his presentation on athlete development pathways in Japan and Singapore, he said of the Japanese system: "(This is) a system that has groomed the talented swimmers; the base from the club is very strong, and the talent pool starts from the bottom of the grassroots."
Dr Kinugasa, who was a member of Singapore's Olympic Pathway Programme during his time here, also highlighted the importance of having good coaches at the local level, and raising awareness of the different pathways available to reach the top echelons of sport.
The Japanese worked with swimmer Tao Li before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and was involved in developing the national swimming programme leading up to the 2012 London Games.
Drawing on his experience, he said: "I don't think there's a straight route; I think (Singapore swimming) just needs to create the entrances to the various pathways.
"The Singapore Sports School is one and the swimming clubs will be another, so with those different pathways the kids have the choice to decide which path they want to take."
Netball Singapore's chief executive officer Cyrus Medora, who attended yesterday's conference, concurred that NSAs are not the only path to elite sport, noting: "Netball has lots of opportunities where you wouldn't have to come through the age groups (14 and under; 17 and under).
"You can just come into the 19-and-under squad if you're good enough. So there's lots of pathways for you to get into the national team... some players never went for the 21-and-under and just got into the Open team."
Also present was silat chief Sheik Alau'ddin, who is looking forward to working with the NYSI to develop Singapore's silat exponents.
Sheik, who was glad to learn of different ways to identify talent after yesterday's programme, added: "What we've traditionally been doing is starting the athletes from the lowest level, then increasing that level as they grow older.
"We have a small talent pool but I would love to go to clubs and open selection to the public... I want to work with (NYSI director Tan) Wearn Haw and see how best we can tap on the expertise and facilities available, so my management and I can put a proposal together and share it with our stakeholders."
Tan said bringing together "top leaders in the talent identification and youth development areas" for the conference would not only spark discussion on the topic, but also help the NYSI in determining what needs to be changed.
"It's not for us to do everything, but to find out what our partners need help in," he added. "And if we can't provide that help, then who do we go to around the world to find that help."
Other speakers included Dr Juanita Weissensteiner, the Australian Institute of Sport's head of athlete pathways and development, and Dr Johan Pion, the head of talent identification and development at HAN University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.