In today’s post we are very excited to be sharing with you some preliminary results from the Pathways to the Podium Research Project!
For those of you unfamiliar with our research, the Pathways to the Podium Research Project is a large investigation of the development of sport expertise involving over 600 Australian and Canadian athletes from over 45 different sports. Athletes completed an extensive questionnaire addressing a wide variety of aspects relating to the history of their involvement in sport and physical activity, and with this information we aim to identify some of the sporting experiences, training profiles, and contextual factors associated with the pathway towards international level sports performance.
The Pathways to the Podium Research Team (Melissa Hopwood, Joe Baker, Clare MacMahon, and Damian Farrow) is currently working through the mountains of data that we have collected, and over the coming months we will be sharing snippets of results that we hope you will find interesting, informative, and useful. To begin let’s take a look at some findings concerning the attainment of sporting milestones and the career progression of male Australian junior international level team sport athletes.
One of the sections within the Developmental History of Athletes Questionnaire asked athletes to complete the following tables, identifying the ages at which they reached a number of important milestones during their sporting careers (please click on the images for a larger version if they are too small or unclear on your screen):
Why are we interested in this information? Well, identifying the ages at which highly skilled athletes reach these milestones gives us an idea of the typical timescale of the ‘pathway to expertise’. This information can essentially be interpreted as a time course of career progression that has been successful for the attainment of international level sports performance (and the avoidance of burnout and dropout), and as such can then be used both as a marker to assess athlete development, and to design developmentally appropriate youth sport programs.
The results discussed in this post refer only to a small sub-sample of the athletes involved in the Pathways to the Podium Research Project – specifically, male Australian junior national team members in the sports of football (i.e. soccer; 24 athletes; average age 16.8), basketball (13 athletes; average age 17.7), and volleyball (6 athletes; average age 18.1).
Let’s take a look at the ages at which these athletes reached each of the general milestones detailed above:
Across the horizontal axis you see all of the general milestones, and on the vertical axis you see the average age at which the athletes reported reaching these milestones. As indicated by the key, the 3 coloured lines represent the 3 different sports, and the asterisks (*) and hats (^) highlight the milestones for which there are differences between sports.
So what we see in Figure 1 is that football players (who will be referred to as soccer players from here on in to avoid confusion between football codes) reach almost all of these general milestones at an earlier age than volleyball and/or basketball players. We also see that volleyball players are quite late in starting their sport compared to both soccer and basketball players.
Looking now at the ages at which the athletes reached the various team sport competition milestones:
What we can see from these graphs is that at the junior local and junior state levels of competition, soccer players reach each of the team sport milestones earlier than the basketball players, who in turn reach them earlier than the volleyball players. By the time athletes reach the junior national level of competition, the age gap between the sports begins to narrow and while the soccer players are still reaching these milestones at younger ages than the volleyball players, the differences between soccer and basketball disappear, as do the differences between basketball and volleyball. Interestingly, athletes from all 3 sports tend to make their junior international level debut and progress through the junior international level milestones at roughly the same age.
So what we can take away from the results so far is that soccer players appear to be starting at a very young age and are reaching the junior national level of competition around 13 years old. Volleyball players on the other hand don’t typically start until around age 12, so they are somewhat older by the time they reach the remaining important milestones. Basketball players are somewhere in between.
Before we discuss the results any further, let’s look at them in a slightly different way. The graphs that we have seen so far identify the ages at which the athletes reached each milestone. This gives us an indication of the absolute time course of career progression. We can also take this one step further and examine the relative time course of career progression by calculating the number of years it took the athletes to reach the various milestones following their initial introduction to the sport. In other words, regardless of how old they were when they started their sport, how long it take the athletes to progress through their career?
Looking first at the number of years it took to reach each of the general sporting milestones:
Comparing Figure 3 to Figure 1, it is very interesting that although the soccer players were a fair bit younger than the basketball and/or volleyball players when they reached the majority of the general milestones, with only a few exceptions, athletes in all 3 sports are actually taking roughly the same amount of time to progress through these important moments in their career.
Moving on to look at the number of years it took to reach the team sport competition milestones:
Once again, although soccer players reached the junior local and junior state competition milestones at younger ages than basketball players, who reached them at younger ages than volleyball players, Figure 4 shows that the number of years it took to progress through these sub-elite levels of competition was similar across all 3 sports.
We do, however, see differences between the sports when it comes to reaching the junior national and junior international levels of competition. The volleyball players and basketball players reached these levels of competition with considerably less years of experience than soccer players. While soccer players typically took 8 years to reach the junior national level, basketball players took 6 years, and volleyball players only took 3! Similarly, the soccer players did not play at the junior international level until 10 years into their career, whereas the volleyball players are made their international debut with an average of just 4 years of experience in the sport!
With all of this in mind, the bottom line and take home message of these results is that when comparing the career progression of male Australian junior national team members in the sports of soccer, basketball, and volleyball, there are clear differences between sports in the ages at which athletes are initiating their involvement in their sport and progressing through a wide variety of important career and competition milestones. More interesting though are the results relating to the relative time course of career progression. It appears that regardless of start age, progression through the sub-elite levels of competition requires similar amounts of time for all 3 sports. However, the duration of the transition from the sub-elite to the elite levels of competition varies, with soccer players taking much longer to transition from state level competition to national and international level competition than basketball players and volleyball players.
There are several implications that arise from these results. From a coaching / training perspective, we need to be mindful not only of the absolute age of our athletes, but also of the relative time course of career progression for the particular sport you are involved with. In a sport such as soccer where we have young athletes who take a relatively long time to transition from sub-elite to elite levels of performance, we really need to adopt a long term athlete development approach to make sure that the athletes stay healthy and motivated throughout the long journey to expertise. On the other hand, in a sport like volleyball where athletes are a little bit older when they begin the sport, and where progression to the elite levels of performance can happen quite quickly, we need to focus more on accelerating and fast tracking development in order to ensure that the athletes are ready to compete at advanced levels within a relatively short time frame.
The other obvious implication from these results is that they provide further evidence that the 10 year rule (that it requires 10 years of experience in order to reach the highest level of performance in any given domain – see our earlier post on this topic here) does not apply uniformly across all sports. The athletes in this small sample are currently junior international level athletes, so we cannot yet class them as ‘experts’ in their respective sports, however it has already taken the soccer players 10 years of practice just to get to the junior international level of competition let alone the senior international level. On the flip side, the volleyball players look as though they are on track to reach the top level of competition for their sport in less than 10 years.
The results discussed here are obviously limited by the fact that they represent the experiences of quite a small number of athletes from just 3 different sports, 1 country, and males only. We have also only considered participation at the junior levels of competition. The exciting news is that we will be replicating these analyses with the complete sample of Pathways to the Podium participants (600 athletes, 2 countries, 45 sports, males and females!) and extending them to include participation at the senior / open levels of competition too. We will also be looking at the attainment of these milestones in conjunction with the number of hours of practice the athletes have completed, which will add a whole new level to the discussion.
Please feel free to share your thoughts, experiences and interpretations by posting a comment below. This is only just the beginning of the conversation!
Please note: These results were first presented at the Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology (SCAPPS) Conference 2011, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, October 13-15. To see the related abstract, citation, and conference presentation slides please visit the Pathways to the Podium website here.