Sporting milestones and career progression of male Australian junior international level team sport athletes

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):

Table 1: General milestones

Table 2: Team sport milestones

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:

Figure 1: Age at attainment of general milestones

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:

Figure 2: Age at attainment of team sport 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:

Figure 3: Relative time from first participation to attainment of general 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:

Figure 4: Relative time from first participation to attainment of team sport 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.

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About Pathways to the Podium Research Team

The Pathways to the Podium Research Team consists of: Ms. Melissa Hopwood, PhD Candidate, Victoria University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; Dr. Joe Baker, School of Kinesiology and Health Science, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Dr. Clare MacMahon, School of Sport and Exercise Science, Victoria University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; Dr. Damian Farrow, Victoria University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, and the Australian Institute of Sport, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia.
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4 Responses to Sporting milestones and career progression of male Australian junior international level team sport athletes

  1. Simon Woinarski says:

    Of course the results are also a consequence of the opportunities young people have to participate in these sports at a community level. Soccer has massive participation at very young age groups (Under 6 and in some cases below) so a soccer player usually begins his career much earlier than a volleyball player (hardly any community competitions to play in at ages below 12) and the junior soccer player participates in his sport longer before representative opportunities (at all levels)become available. Does this mean it a “requirement” for soccer players to invest this much time? Could soccer produce international junior athletes in the same time frame as volleyball if that sport had a similar community infrasructure and representative pathway. Can a talented and motivated individual could achieve success in soccer following a “volleyball” like time line?

    Excellent research and very though provoking

    • Hi Simon,

      Thanks for your comments. I absolutely agree with you, and I actually discussed the same ideas when I gave this presentation at the Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology Conference in October. As you say, there are certainly many soccer programs for children as young as 5 years old, yet you do not see too many modified volleyball programs that make the game suitable for younger athletes. The availability and accessibility of developmentally appropriate programs is definitely a driving force behind the differences in start age for the athletes involved in this study, I have no doubt. I wonder though, is this causing a snowball effect, where because so many soccer players are starting at a young age it is actually becoming a necessity to start early if you want to succeed as a professional soccer player? If you don’t start playing soccer until you are 12 years old will you be too far behind the pack who already have 7 years of experience? Particularly in a sport like soccer that has such a high participation base. I am not sure, it is a bit of a chicken or the egg scenario isn’t it! Of course there will always be the examples of the late-starting or less-experienced athlete who becomes very successful in a very short time-frame, however one of the things that the Pathways to the Podium Research Project aims to do is to took at the broader picture – what is happening on a more general level rather than a small-scale or case study level, so I am looking forward to processing these same results for our complete data set.

      Thanks again for your interest and great comments.

      Melissa Hopwood

  2. CJ Ocnic says:

    Hello,

    Basketball and volleyball players start playing later because height is needed. Kids can start playing soccer when they can walk. But it takes so long for a soccer player to get at a high level of play even if they start early.

    Do you think it takes longer because of their developmental state? A soccer player who starts at 4 won’t start with a mentality to become professional compared to a basketball player who starts at 15 and is in a state where he/she is old enough to decide if he wants to compete professionally. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hakeem_Olajuwon

    But soccer is a VERY different sport with hundreds of millions playing and most players with potential to become pro are already scouted and playing for a professional club’s youth team/academy by 15 so it will be very hard for a player who starts at 15 to get proper training. I know from experience that many soccer players who start late wont be given those opportunities but they have much,much greater hunger and desire to improve than those who started at 4 yrs old and “take it for granted”. Would they have a chance to turn professional?

    =======================================================================
    I’m actually very interested if you have any research on late – bloomers. I don’t think they can be ignored. Less – experienced athletes who start later and catch up in a small amount of time might be the answer to your research! How do they do it when they were given less opportunities to train or compete than their same age peers growing up? Is it because they are at an age when they can decide for themselves? Can a soccer player do it if he starts at 15 yrs old?

    • Hi CJ,

      Thanks for your sharing your thoughts. I agree with your comments on the scenario surrounding the soccer players, and I too am very interested the experiences of athletes who reach the international level of competition in short time frames with relatively little experience. I do not have any results from the Pathways to the Podium Research Project that relate to this area right now, but we do have a very large data set that I am hoping will shed some light on this area as we proceed through our analyses.

      With regards to the issue of height for volleyball and basketball – I wonder what would happen if more modified versions of these games were introduced so that younger (smaller) athletes were able to play game, have fun and experience success at a younger age. Particularly for volleyball. You see very few modified versions of volleyball aimed at introducing young kids to the game, but as we all know, soccer associations have no hesitation to alter the size of the playing field, the size of the goal, and the number of players on the field etc. to make it more enticing for children.

      I have many more questions than answers CJ, but I appreciate your interest and input.

      Melissa

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