The final instalment in this series on pathways to elite performance will discuss elite performance via talent transfer. For this post I will take a slightly different approach to the previous articles in this series – rather than review the scientific literature, I am going to discuss three specific case studies that I think you will agree provide convincing evidence supporting talent transfer as a viable pathway toward elite performance. If you are interested in reading more about the science of talent transfer please refer to references 1, 2 and 3 below.
As the Pathways to the Podium Research Project focuses on athletes from Australia and Canada, I’ll first discuss successful Canadian speed skater and cyclist Clara Hughes. I’ll then share the story behind Australia’s female skeleton team, and finally, as an international powerhouse in talent identification and development, I will also provide an overview of some of UK Sport’s successful talent transfer initiatives. But, before we get into these case studies, let’s define the concept of talent transfer.
What is talent transfer?
In simple terms, talent transfer occurs when an athlete ceases or reduces their involvement in a sport in which they have invested significant time, hard work, and resources, and concentrates their efforts on a sport that is new to them, but involves similar movement skills, physiological requirements, and/or tactical components to their earlier sport. A common example is the switch from gymnastics to diving. Similarity between sports is a key component of talent transfer as the focus is on capitalising previously learnt skills to fast track development in the new environment.
Talent transfer frequently occurs informally, whereby the athlete initiates and co-ordinates the switch between sports themselves. Often, the switch is prompted by an injury, a plateau in performance, a reduction in motivation, or retirement. Talent transfer can also occur through formalised talent identification and development programs that are co-ordinated by sporting organisations and/or institutes of sport. In these structured programs, “existing high performance athletes are targeted and their athletic ability is transferred to another sport” (4).
In either case (formal or informal), talent transfer athletes have typically experienced some degree of success in their first sport before making the switch to a new sport, and will often also experience quite rapid success in their second sport.
The benefits of talent transfer as a pathway to elite performance will be discussed in more detail shortly, but let’s now take a look at these case studies…
Talent transfer case study 1: Clara Hughes
Clara Hughes is an exceptional example of a talent transfer athlete. Not only has Hughes participated in multiple sports at the international level, but she has been wildly successful in two sports at the international level, AND competes in these sports simultaneously!
For those unfamiliar with Clara Hughes, I’ll do my best to provide a brief biography of her sporting career. The statements made here are primarily drawn from Clara’s official website (5), along with a collation of media reports I have read on Hughes over the last few years.
As a child Clara sampled a variety of sports including ringette, hockey, volleyball, soccer, softball, and track and field (according to her website, Hughes played “whatever my friends were doing and what was available in the community for my Mother to keep me out of trouble”). Then whilst watching the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympic Games, she was introduced to speed skating. For a year and a half Hughes trained as a speed skater before being invited to attend a cycling camp by the head coach of the provincial team after seeing her skate. The coach convinced her to concentrate on cycling, and 6 years later Hughes stood on the Olympic podium twice, after winning bronze medals in the road time trial and the individual road race at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games.
Her success at the Atlanta Olympics was not a fluke. Clara also won numerous medals at National Championships, Pan-American Games, Commonwealth Games, and World Championships. She even returned to the Summer Olympics in 2000, before heading back to the ice immediately after her second Olympic campaign. Sixteen months later, Clara again found herself on the Olympic podium, only this time it was at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games after winning bronze in the 5000m speed skating event. This achievement hailed Clara as the first Canadian to win a medal in both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, and I believe one of only 5 athletes to ever do so. But her achievements didn’t stop there. Clara continued on to the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, winning Gold and Silver medals for the 5000m and the team pursuit respectively, and then won bronze again for the 5000m in front of a home crowd at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.
Clara’s journey is not over, as she is currently in the saddle vying for selection (and success) in cycling at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
Talent transfer case study 2: The Australian Women’s Skeleton Team
This second case study profiles not a single athlete but rather a formal talent transfer program conducted by the Australian Sports Commission. The information contained in this case study is drawn from my own personal experience working with the team, and a highly recommended journal article by Nicola Bullock and her team: “Talent identification and deliberate programming in skeleton: Ice novice to Winter Olympian in 14 months” (4).
In 2002 the sport of skeleton was re-introduced to the Winter Olympic Games after a 54 year absence. If you are wondering what the sport of skeleton is, think luge, head first. You lie on your stomach on a sled, and you hurtle down the bobsled track at speeds of up to 140 km/hr, with no brakes and no mechanical steering mechanisms. Experience what it looks like to complete a skeleton run with this head-cam point of view footage of the Lake Placid track in New York:
At the time of its re-introduction to the Olympics, the number of skeleton racers (or ‘sliders’) around the World was very small. The Bullock et. al paper estimated that around this time, there were only approximately 100 registered female skeleton racers in the world, only half of whom had experience at the World Cup level (4). Given the low number of competitors, the scientists at the Australian Sports Commission and the Australian Institute of Sport saw the re-introduction of skeleton to the Olympic Games as a unique opportunity to break into, and make an impact in the sport at the international level, within a relatively short time period.
The scientists then got to work to identify the characteristics required for a gold medal winning skeleton run. They found that a large proportion of the variability in finish time at World Cup races could be attributed to the athletes start time. In skeleton start time refers to the period in which the athlete runs alongside their sled, giving it a push, before jumping on and assuming the aerodynamic prone (face-down) position, ready for the first corner of the track. Previous research had also shown that running speed whilst bent over pushing the sled correlated highly with upright running speed. Therefore, the Australian scientists underwent a nationwide search for track sprinters and beach sprinters who had the guts and determination to become an Olympic athlete in the somewhat obscure sport of skeleton!
After a series of initial tests and a rigorous selection process lasting approximately 7 months (see reference 4 for more details), Australia entered its first team in the World Cup skeleton circuit. During the 7 month selection process 67 hopefuls were whittled down to 4 national team members based on a variety of physical aptitude tests, sport specific skill assessments, and subjective evaluations. These athletes then received World Class coaching and sport science / medicine support as part of a carefully planned training and competition program, with the major goal of achieving Olympic selection and success. The 4 national team members included a two-time Junior World Champion in the beach sprint event for surf lifesaving, an international level track sprinter, a national level beach and track sprinter with surfing experience, and an athlete with national level experience in both beach sprinting and gymnastics.
In the first season of competing on the World Cup circuit, Australia achieved 4 top-6 finishes, and placed 6th overall as a nation – all with less than 14 months on-ice experience. In fact, none of these 4 athletes had ever even been to the snow before the skeleton program! The team qualified one athlete (the beach sprinter / gymnast) to compete in the 2006 Torino Winter Olympic Games, and she placed 13th. Shortly after the Olympic Games, another team member became Under 23 Years World Champion (interestingly, this athlete was the former Junior World Champion beach sprinter). One Olympic cycle later, now with 5 years sliding experience, Australia qualified 2 athletes for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games (the U23 World Champion and the track sprinter / beach sprinter / surfer), and improved on their last Olympic campaign coming home with 10th and 12th place finishes.
The Australian Sports Commission has coordinated a number of similarly successful talent transfer initiatives over the last 10 years or so. Unfortunately the National Talent Identification and Development Program is undergoing a major re-structure at present, and so their website is currently unavailable. For more information on other successful talent transfer examples from Australia please see references 1, 2, 6, and 7.
Talent transfer case study 3: UK Sport Talent Identification and Development
Following in the footsteps of Australian talent transfer programs such as the skeleton example above, UK Sport has implemented a number of similar talent transfer initiatives. Fuelled by the announcement of London as host city for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, UK Sport established a Talent Identification and Development division, and even though the Olympics are still a year away, their programs have already produced a number of remarkable results.
According to the UK Sport Talent Identification and Development website (5), since 2006 over 7,000 athletes have applied to be involved in talent development programs with catchy titles like “Pitch 2 Podium”, “Girls4Gold”, “Tall and Talented”, “Sporting Giants”, and “Fighting Chance”. While some of these programs do not require previous sporting experience, the majority of athletes selected are typically transferring their skills from one sport to another. Take for example the “Pitch 2 Podium” program. In this talent transfer initiative, athletes from soccer and rugby who have been unsuccessful in obtaining professional contracts are tested and directed to new sports such as rowing, cycling, and skeleton. “Fighting chance” encouraged athletes in a variety of martial arts and combat sports to try their hand at taekwondo, while “Girls4Gold” called for females with regional level experience or above in any sport to try out for selection to a variety of sport programs including cycling, rowing, modern pentathlon, sailing, and once again – skeleton.
From the 7,000 applicants, over 50 are now involved in Olympic or Paralympic training squads, and already the programs have produced 54 medals at major international events such as World Championships, World Cups, and European Championships (5). For more information on the UK Sport Talent Transfer initiatives, including a variety of individual athlete case studies, check out their website at http://www.uksport.gov.uk/pages/talent-id/.
What are the benefits of talent transfer?
The benefits of talent transfer are numerous. At the most basic level, talent transfer allows athletes to extend their sporting careers. If the switch to a new sport was prompted by reduced enjoyment of their earlier sport, the challenge of a new sport can renew motivation to continue involvement in competitive sport rather than dropping out. If the switch to a new sport was prompted by a plateau in performance or limited opportunities for further development (e.g. an athlete who participates in a non-Olympic sport who dreams of wining Olympic gold, or an athlete in very high participation sport who is finding it difficult to break through to the next level of competition), transfer to a new, yet similar sport may lead to the attainment of greater success at a higher level. If the switch was prompted by an injury preventing continuation in the athlete’s initial sport, participation in a new sport can relieve some of the psychological consequences of being prematurely forced out of sport due to unexpected and uncontrollable circumstances.
In addition to this, athletes transferring from a similar sport often advance quickly in their new sport, as skills from their previous sport are put to use to help to accelerate progression through the stages of development. Subsequently, talent transfer athletes typically experience success in their new sport in relatively short time-frames (4,6). Two less obvious, but notable benefits of talent transfer highlighted by the Australian skeleton researchers are that talent transfer minimises adolescent maturational issues associated with talent development, and also maximises return on investments made to the athlete’s involvement in their earlier sport (4,7).
The bottom line – talent transfer as a pathway to elite performance?
The benefits described above make talent transfer a highly attractive pathway to elite performance for adult athletes. As seen in the case studies, talent transfer is particularly worthwhile for athletes who have already experienced somewhat successful careers in a previous sport. Furthermore, the disadvantages or negative consequences of talent transfer are virtually non-existent.
While the examples above primarily refer to formal talent transfer programs, as mentioned earlier, athletes can certainly take matters into their own hands without the need for structured testing and analysis. All that is required is a critical look at what sports might incorporate similar skills and capacities to your current/former sport, and a willingness to try something new.
In this post I have only just scraped the surface of the talent transfer possibilities that exist. Who are your favourite talent transfer athletes? What are your experiences with talent transfer? What sports have you seen athletes transfer successfully between?
Alternatively, if there is another pathway toward elite performance that you would like to read more about, I’d love to hear your suggestions. I hope you have enjoyed this series, and I look forward to discussing something new next time!
1. Gardner, A.S., Martin, D.T., Gulbin, J., Doney, G.E., Jenkins, D.G. & Hahn, A.G. (2002). Laboratory and velodrome sprint cycling power in female cyclists in response to 6 weeks of training. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 35(5), Supplement 1: S337
2. Halson, S., Martin, D.T., Gardner, A.S., Fallon, K. & Gulbin, J.P. (2006). Persistent fatigue in a female sprint cyclist after a talent-transfer initiative. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 1, 65-69.
3. Oldenziel, K., Gagne, F. & Gulbin J.P. (2004). Factors affecting the rate of athlete of athlete development from novice to senior elite: how applicable is the 10-year rule? Abstract presented at the Pre-Olympic Congress, Athens, 6-11 August, 2004.
4. Bullock, N., Gulbin, J.P., Martin, D.T., Ross, A., Holland, T. & Marino, F. (2009). Talent identification and deliberate programming in skeleton: Ice novice to Winter Olympian in 14 months. Journal of Sports Sciences, 27(4), 397-404.
5. Hughes, Clara (2011). Clara Hughes: O.C., O.M., Olympic Athlete. Retreived from http://www.clara-hughes.com/
6. UK Sport (2011). Talent Identification & Development. Retrieved from http://www.uksport.gov.uk/pages/talent-id/
7. Gulbin, J. & Ackland, T. (2009). Talent identification and profiling. In Ackland, T., Elliott, B. & Bloomfield, J. (Eds). Applied Anatomy and Biomechanics in Sport, Champaign IL, Human Kinetics, p. 11-26.