Expert Advantage Recommended Reads: March 20, 2012

1. To kick off this week’s Expert Advantage Recommended Reads, this 5 minute clip is worth the watch. A great story proving that it doesn’t take state of the art facilities to achieve success. Thanks to Nick Levett (@nlevett) for sharing this link. Watch the video of the Panyee Football Club’s journey to success here.

2. This Universal Sports article provides an interesting read about predicting Olympic medal tallys. Thanks to sport scientist Taisuke Kinugasa at Sportsci.blog for directing me this article. Click here to read article.

3. Brooke de Lench (@MomsTeam) from the Moms Team website argues that sports training for babies and toddlers won’t give them an athletic edge, with free play a more important contributor to development. Click here to read article.

4. This piece on Jacoby Ellsbury from the Boston Red Sox provides a great example of the benefits of delayed specialisation and multi-sport participation during childhood and adolescence. Thanks to strength and conditioning coach Michael Boyle (@mboyle1959) for directing me to this article. Click here to read article.

5. As the title of this story suggests – Couch potatoes rejoice! This article in Time Ideas from Annie Murphy Paul (@anniemurphypaul) reviews research on the power of observational learning. Thanks to Dr. Richard Bailey (@DrDickB) for sharing this link. Click here to read article.

Happy reading!

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Expert Advantage Recommended Reads: March 12, 2012

As the Pathways to the Podium Research Team enters thesis and report writing mode, it is becoming increasingly challenging to keep on top of our social media feeds to continue to bring our followers tid-bits of information to assist you, your athletes, and / or your children along the path to sporting success (however success is defined for you).

In an effort to keep you informed and updated with the latest news, research, ideas, and musings related to sport expertise development, we are excited to launch a new feature here on the Expert Advantage Blog – “Expert Advantage Recommended Reads”.

Expert Advantage Recommended Reads will provide links to 5 articles or items that we enjoyed reading, and that we believe you will find interesting and informative too.

To make sure you get direct email notification when a new Recommended Read list is posted, be sure the subscribe to the Expert Advantage using the link to the right of the page.

The Pathways to the Podium Research Team will still be active on Twitter (@pathways2Podium) and Facebook (facebook.com/pathways2podium), however our presence will be a little more sporadic than in the past. We will also continue to post original articles here on our blog once every month or so.

We hope you enjoy our Expert Advantage Recommended Reads feature, and please feel free to share our links with your family, friends and colleagues. Please also send us any links that you recommend that we may have missed – just write a comment below any of our posts, email us at podium@yorku.ca, or contact us on Twitter or Facebook to point us in the right direction. While you are at it, we would love to hear what you think of the new Expert Advantage Recommended Reads!

Happy reading!

Melissa Hopwood
Lead Researcher
Pathways to the Podium Research Project
http://www.yorku.ca/podium

Expert Advantage Recommended Reads: March 12, 2012

To kick of the first edition of Expert Advantage Recommended Reads:

1. Daniel Coyle (@DanielCoyle), author of The Talent Code encourages us to think like Darwin to improve our skills. Click here to read article.

2. Nick Levett (@nlevett) weighs in on the nature vs. nurture debate and provides some practical recommendations for athlete development in this blog post from Youth Football Development. Click here to read article.

3. Axon Sports (@axonsports) reviews recent research on the home court advantage (or is that home court choke?) in this great post on their blog. Click here to read article.

4. The Sport Information Resource Centre (@SIRCTweets) provides some nice quick tips for developing coaching excellence in this brief review. Click here to read article.

5. And to wrap up the top 5, an interesting discussion by Dr. Sian Beilock (@sianbeilock), author of Choke, of some obscure research suggesting that needing to pee enhances decision making! Check out the article in Dr. Beilock’s Psychology Today blog, Choke. Click here to read article.

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Literature Review: The Path to Excellence – A comprehensive view of development of U.S. Olympians who competed from 1984 to 1998

Today’s Expert Advantage blog post is a guest post written by Young-Bin Cho. Young-Bin is a 3rd year student at the University of Guelph-Humber, Ontario, Canada, working towards a Bachelor of Applied Science in Kinesiology. Young-Bin is currently completing a fieldwork placement as a research assistant with the Pathways to the Podium Research Project, and has been contributing to a wide range of tasks. In this post, Young-Bin reviews some of the literature that inspired the Pathways to the Podium Research Project.

The Path to Excellence was a study undertaken by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) in an attempt to describe and understand the factors that contributed to the development of U.S. Olympians (1). This study presents a number of practical findings relevant to athlete development and talent identification that are along similar lines to those being investigated in the Pathways to the Podium Research Project.

816 male and female Olympians were recruited to participate in this study; all of whom competed in either the Summer or Winter Olympic Games between the years 1984 to 1998. All athletes completed a detailed questionnaire regarding the history of their involvement in sport, and their experiences throughout their journey to the Olympics. Some of the main findings that I found particularly interesting and applicable to coaching and athlete development are outlined below.

The Important Qualities of a Coach

What do athletes look for in a coach? The Olympians were asked to identify and rank the characteristics they value most in a coach. Here are the results:

1. Teaching ability
2. Ability to motivate or encourage
3. Training knowledge
4. Strategic knowledge of the sport
5. Skill competence
6. Personality

Figure 1 - Important qualities of a coach for male and female Olympians (Source: Gibbons et al. 2002)

Olympians rated the ability to teach and the ability to motivate or encourage as the most important qualities of a coach. It’s interesting that skill competence and strategic knowledge of sport were ranked secondary to the above-mentioned qualities. It seems as though athletes were less concerned with technical knowledge of a coach and more with their ability to communicate and teach effectively, along with the ability to motivate and encourage.

Factors that contributed to long-term improvement

Another section of the study focused on what Olympians thought contributed to their long-term success. Essentially, what factors helped propel them to an elite level?

The top 6 factors identified by the athletes were:

1. Dedication/commitment
2. Mental focus
3. Competitive success
4. Family
5. Coaching
6. Training environment

Figure 2 - Factors for long term performance progression in male and female Olympians (Source: Gibbons et al. 2002)

Olympians ranked dedication/commitment first, followed by mental focus and competitive success. These results suggest that it takes a conscious effort from the athlete to make sacrifices and devote oneself to constant self-improvement in order to become an expert in their sport.

It’s no secret that the path to becoming an elite-level athlete is long and arduous; it is a journey that is often travelled at a tortoise-like pace. So it perhaps comes as no surprise that dedication/commitment was ranked as the most important factor.

However, it is noteworthy that the first three factors were all related to intrinsic factors – characteristics that came from the individual athlete. These three intrinsic factors were then followed by three external factors. Family, coaching, and training environment all pertained to the environment in which an athlete grows and is cultivated.

These data indicate that a complex set of factors contribute to the success of an Olympic-level athlete. The character of the athlete appears to play a primary role; however, it is not the sole contributor to an athlete’s success. The athlete’s environment and social support structures play a vital (albeit secondary) role as well.

Interestingly, financial incentive and reward was ranked last among all of the factors suggesting that Olympic athletes were not driven by monetary or material awards.

Factors that contributed to the dropout of peers of Olympians

The researchers were also interested in knowing why the peers of Olympians were not able to achieve the same degree of success. People are always curious to know why some athletes succeed while others do not. The top 6 reasons were ranked by Olympians as follows:

1. Conflict with other life pursuits
2. Financial pressures
3. Failure to improve
4. Conflict with work
5. Time pressure
6. Injury

Figure 3 - Factors thought to be the cause of drop out in the peers of Olympians (Source: Gibbons et al. 2002)

Conflict with other life pursuits was ranked as the number one reason peers of the Olympians discontinued their sport. In fact, three of the top six factors were related to conflict issues (conflict with other life pursuits, conflict with work, time pressure). It seems as though conflict with demands outside of sport is a major and fundamental reason why competitive athletes discontinue with their sport.

Moreover, although financial incentive and reward were not ranked as motivating factors for the elite-level athletes, financial pressures were ranked as a main reason why peers of Olympians discontinued their sport. Although this may seem contradictory, it suggests that while athletes are not motivated by money, they do require some sense of financial security in order to pursue excellence in their sport.

Yearly training hours for Olympians

The athletes were asked to report their yearly training hours as they progressed through their athletic careers. Results are presented in Figure 4 below:

Figure 4 - Yearly training hours for male and female Olympians (Source: Gibbons et al. 2002)

The general trend for the Olympic athletes was to gradually increase their training load over an extended period of time. The athletes reported a long, extensive period of training before reaching the top levels of their sport. On average, athletes in this study progressed from 200-300 training hours per year in the developmental stages to more than 1100 training hours per year at the Olympic level.

Factors motivating athletes to participate in their sport

The Olympians were asked to rank the motives as to why they originally decided to participate in their sport. Here is what they said:

1. Challenge/love of competition
2. Fun
3. Desire to be successful
4. Competitive outlet
5. Intrinsic value of sport
6. Acquisition of skill

Figure 5 - Factors that motivated male and female Olympians to participate in their sport (Source: Gibbons et al. 2002)

Competitive factors played a large part in motivating athletes to participate in their sport. In addition, fun and a desire to be successful played a role as well. These results suggest that youth sport programs should emphasize fun, enjoyment and a healthy level of competition in order to develop a solid foundation from which athletes can build upon and grow.

Conclusion

There are many practical applications from these results that can be put to use by both athletes and coaches.

Since athletes ranked the ability to teach, motivate and encourage as the most desirable qualities of a coach, program coordinators should hire coaches with these attributes. In addition, current coaches should look to augment these qualities in order to improve both their own, and their athletes’ performance.

Olympians felt that dedication/commitment was the most important factor contributing to their long term development and success. Along with other intrinsic factors, they also felt that environmental factors played a key role. Peers of Olympians who were not able to achieve the same degree of success seemed to be held back by a conflict with other life pursuits. Interestingly, monetary factors did not play a role in motivating Olympians; however, a lack of financial support blunted the development of peers of Olympians.

This study also highlighted that in order to achieve Olympic success, a gradual increase in training load should be applied over a long period of time. In other words, the athlete should not be overwhelmed with their sport at an early age. In fact, results suggest that youth sport programs should emphasize fun and enjoyment (along with a healthy level of competition) in order to best develop young athletes.

In terms of the process and factors that precede the development of an Olympic-level athlete, perhaps researcher Benjamin Bloom summed it up best in his book Developing Talent in Young People (2): “…no matter what the initial characteristics of the individuals, unless there is a long and intensive process of encouragement, nurturance, education, training, the individuals will not attain extreme levels of capability in the particular fields.” This seems to suggest that in order to become an expert in a particular sport, a long, intensive, industrious journey is required that depends not only on the athlete, but also on a nurturing environment and support group.

What do you believe are the most important qualities of a coach and the most important contributing factors to long term development? We’d love to hear your thoughts so add your comments below or contact us on Twitter (@pathways2podium) or Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/pathways2podium).

References

1. Gibbons, T., Hill, R., McConnell, A., Forster, T., & Moore, J. (2002). The path to excellence: A comprehensive view of development of U.S. Olympians who competed from 1984-1998. United States Olympic Committee.
(Report can be accessed here: http://assets.usoc.org/assets/documents/attached_file/filename/4604/Olympian_Report.pdf )

2. Bloom B. S. (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York: Ballantine Books.

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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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Elite performance via talent transfer

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 - Olympic medallist speed skating and cycling

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

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

UK Sport

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!

References

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.

Posted in Development of Expertise, Pathways to elite performance, Talent identification | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Elite performance via diversification

Welcome back to our series on pathways to elite performance. The last post in this series addressed elite performance via early specialisation, and the bottom line of the article suggested that early specialisation is recommended primarily for sports in which peak performance is reached prior to, or around puberty. So what about sports in which peak performance is typically reached during the late teenage or adult years? What is the recommended pathway to elite performance for these sports?

The next two posts in this series will discuss elite performance via diversification, and elite performance via talent transfer, as these pathways have both been shown to be effective for the attainment of sport expertise in sports with a later age of peak performance. First let’s take a look at elite performance via diversification.

What is diversification?

Diversification is also sometimes referred to as sampling or delayed specialisation, however all three terms refer to the same concept – participation in a variety of different sports before deciding to concentrate all efforts on the pursuit of elite performance in one single sport. The progression from involvement in multiple sports to a single sport is often gradual as the athlete tries their hand at a number of different sports before narrowing down their choices to 2 or 3, and then ultimately the one they most enjoy and/or show the most promise in achieving success. The age at eventual specialisation varies, but research has indicated 15-16 years as an average age for specialisation following a period of diversification (1,2).

(NOTE: The Pathways to the Podium Research Project will be investigating a variety of different factors relating to diversification as a pathway to elite performance, however preliminary analyses suggest that the average age at specialisation may be later than 15-16 years. Subscribe to The Expert Advantage via the links in the menu bar on the right hand side of this page to receive notification of future posts that will include discussion of results arising from The Pathways to the Podium Research Project.)

Diversification ≠ disadvantage

Numerous studies have highlighted that delaying specialisation until at least mid to late adolescence is not a disadvantage when it comes to elite sports performance. In fact, many investigations delving into the backgrounds of national and international level athletes have identified that these highly skilled athletes participate in 3-6 different sports before specialising in their main sport (1, 3-5).

Furthermore, when the sporting backgrounds of more highly skilled athletes are compared to lesser skilled athletes, the highly skilled athletes typically report participating in a greater number and/or a larger volume (in terms of total hours of participation) of other organised sports than the lesser skilled athletes (6,7). In addition, looking specifically at hours of participation in their eventual sport of specialisation, it has also been shown that differences in the number of hours invested into practice and competition activities actually do not differ between more highly skilled athletes and their lesser skilled counterparts until after approximately 10 years of involvement (3,8).

Interestingly, participation in a variety of different sports prior to specialisation has also been associated with fewer hours of involvement in the athlete’s main sport before being selected for the national team (3), a longer period of tenure on the national team (9), and a longer career overall (9).

What are the benefits of diversification?

So why do all these positive associations between sport expertise and diversification arise?

In one respect, diversification develops a wide repertoire of skills that can be transferred from one activity to another. Research suggests that several different elements can transfer between sports (see 10 and 11 for good reviews on the issue of skill transfer):
• Movement elements (e.g. the skills of a spike in volleyball and a smash in badminton are technically similar)
• Conceptual elements (e.g. box lacrosse and ice hockey are played on a similar sized field of play, with a similar number of athletes on the field of play at any one time, and the goal of both sports is to pass the ball/puck down the field of play and into a goal at either end)
• Perceptual elements (e.g. field hockey and soccer both require athletes to anticipate the actions of their opponents and make decisions in order to intercept the ball, make a break, execute a pass, or score a goal)
• Physiological elements (the aerobic requirements of distance running and cycling are similar)

Given the transferability of all of these elements, participation in a variety of sports may accelerate skill development rather than hinder it.

Additionally, diversification avoids the negative consequences of early specialisation discussed in our last post, which lead to burnout and dropout. The benefits of this are two-fold in that it can both increase enjoyment and motivation for sport and physical activity, as well as prolong participation.

What are the negative consequences of diversification?

As with all good things in life, the picture isn’t completely rosy. Diversification does involve a small number of (relatively minor) negative consequences. Let’s face it, participation in a number of sports can be a logistical nightmare – particularly for parents, and even more-so for families with multiple children, each with different interests and extra-curricular activities. If athletes are participating in more than one sport at the same time then schedule clashes are inevitable, and transport to, from, and between commitments may be an issue. Not to mention that registration, coaching, and competition fees, plus equipment costs associated with participating in multiple sports may put a strain on the family budget.

Possible solutions to these barriers to diversification include seasonal participation where the athlete plays one sport during the summer months and another sport during the winter months, and/or involvement in deliberate play. Deliberate play refers to those informal sporting games that we play spontaneously with our friends and family in the backyard, on the street, or at the park, where the focus is on fun rather than performance improvement (12). Examples include pick-up basketball, backyard cricket and street hockey. These activities do not require expensive equipment, proper facilities, or much organisation, but they have been shown to be highly influential on sport expertise development. We will discuss deliberate play and sport expertise in a future post, but for now I just wanted to whet your appetite and highlight that if diversification is not an option for you or your athlete, there are other alternatives.

What we don’t know

Despite the strong association between diversification and sport expertise, there are in fact a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to more specific recommendations regarding diversification “best practice”. Research has not yet identified any guidelines relating to the most effective number of sports to participate in, the time commitment required for each sport in order for involvement to be beneficial, the degree of similarity between sports required in order for involvement to be beneficial, the relative timing of participation in different sports, the list could go on. So for now, we know that diversification is an effective pathway toward elite performance, but more research is required to flesh out the specific characteristics of diversification for optimal development.

The bottom line – diversification as a pathway to elite performance?

For the large majority of athletes in the large majority of sports, diversification is the recommended pathway to elite performance. The positive associations between participation in multiple sports and career achievement and longevity, coupled with the avoidance of the negative consequences of early specialisation, make diversification a healthy and effective option for most aspiring athletes.

The third instalment in this series on pathways to elite performance will be posted in a few weeks, but in the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences relating to diversification and other pathways to elite performance by submitting a comment below. Discussion is welcome and encouraged!

References

1. Côté, J. (1999). The influence of the family in the development of talent in sport. The Sport Psychologist, 13(4), 395-417.

2. Soberlak, P., & Côté, J. (2003). The developmental activities of elite ice hockey players. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 41-49.

3. Baker, J., Côté, J., & Abernethy, B. (2003). Sport-specific practice and the development of expert decision-making in team ball sports. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 12-25.

4. Gulbin, J. P., Oldenziel, K. E., Weissensteiner, J. R., & Gagne, F. (2010). A look through the rear view mirror: Developmental experiences and insights of high performance athletes. Talent Development & Excellence, 2(2), 149-164.

5. Hill, G. M. (1993). Youth sport participation of professional baseball players. Sociology of Sport Journal, 10(1), 107-114.

6. Berry, J., Abernethy, B., & Côté, J. (2008). The contribution of structured activity and deliberate play to the development of expert perceptual and decision-making skill. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 30(6), 685-708.

7. Carlson, R. (1988). The socialization of elite tennis players in sweden: An analysis of the players’ backgrounds and development. Sociology of Sport Journal, 5(3), 241-256.

8. Helsen, W. F., Starkes, J. L., & Hodges, N. J. (1998). Team sports and the theory of deliberate practice. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 20, 12-34.

9. Barynina, I. I. & Vaitsekhovskii, S. M. (1992). The aftermath of early sports specialization for
highly qualified swimmers. Fitness and Sports Review International, 27(4), 132–133.

10. Baker, J. (2003). Early specialization in youth sport: A requirement for adult expertise? High Ability Studies, 14(1), 85-94.

11. Baker, J., Cobley, S., & Fraser-Thomas, J. (2009). What do we know about early sport specialisation? not much! High Ability Studies, 20(1), 77-90.

12. Côté, J., & Hay, J. (2002). Children’s involvement in sport: A developmental perspective. In J. M. Silva III, & D. E. Stevens (Eds.), Psychological foundations of sport (pp. 484-502). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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Elite performance via early specialisation

One of the hottest topics being discussed on coaching blogs around the world at the moment is whether it is necessary to specialise in a single sport from an early age in order to maximise sporting potential. While we’re all pretty clear on the message that early specialisation comes with a lot of risks that in most cases outweigh the benefits, a series on pathways to elite performance would be incomplete without addressing elite performance via early specialisation. To put a slightly different twist on early specialisation in sport, this post will discuss not only the benefits and risks of early specialisation, but also how we are encouraging early specialisation despite being fully aware of its negative consequences.

What is early specialisation in sport?

To make sure that we’re all on the same page throughout this discussion, let’s define early specialisation in sport. First, specialisation in sport refers to year-round participation in a single sport, at the exclusion of other sports and activities (1). Early specialisation is further characterised by an early start age of participation, early involvement in competition, intensive involvement from an early age, and an early focus on performance improvement and achieving success (2). So we are talking about young athletes devoting large amounts of time and effort towards a single sport, with a targeted focus on high performance.

What are the benefits of early specialisation in sport?

Most articles relating to early specialisation in sport concentrate on the risks of intense engagement in a single sport from an early age, but at the same time, we must acknowledge that it is not all bad news.

Remember back to my earlier posts on deliberate practice and the 10 year / 10,000 hour rule. The 10 year / 10,000 hour rule states that it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to reach the highest level of performance in a given domain, and the theory of deliberate practice extends this to suggest that these 10,000 hours of practice must be highly effortful and specifically focussed on improving performance in order to be effective. While my earlier post suggested that 10 years and 10,000 hours of practice were not essential pre-requisites for international sports performance, early specialisation certainly gives you a head start on accumulating those hours. Essentially, the underlying assumption is that early engagement in intense, highly focussed practice and competition activities allows young athletes to reach higher levels of performance more quickly than athletes who delay specialisation (2). This is important, because there are a number of positive outcomes that arise following early success in sport, including an increased sense of competency, self-confidence, and self-worth, increased recognition, and increased potential for selection for high performance squads and collegiate athletic scholarships (6,7).

Early specialisation is particularly beneficial in sports where athletes reach their peak before or around puberty (6). Sports like gymnastics and figure skating require intensive involvement in practice and competition from an early age because athletes are often competing at the international level from as young as 12 years of age, and typically find themselves with the title of World, Commonwealth or Olympic Champion by around age 15 (8). In these sports, early specialisation is considered essential, regardless of the risks. Speaking of the risks…..

What are the negative consequences of early specialisation in sport?

I am pretty sure that I am preaching to the converted, but it would be irresponsible of me not to mention the dark side of early specialisation in sport. Although yes, early specialisation can lead to early success in sport, the benefits are typically short-lived, and before too long, negative consequences of working so hard towards a single goal begin to show their ugly face.

From a physical perspective, participation in a single sport from an early age actually restricts the athlete’s skill repertoire (1). To reverse the old adage – athletes who specialise early tend to become a Master of 1 trade, but Jack of none i.e. they become very good at their sport of interest, but lack the basic motor skills to participate in other sports. I like to use myself as an example for this one: I started gymnastics when I was 5, retired on a Friday when I was 12 after competing regularly at the national level; I started diving the very next day, and competed at the national level in diving from age 12 right through to age 23 when I rolled up the chamois and hung my towel out to dry. Aside from 2 or 3 seasons playing on my high school netball and water polo teams, I did not train or compete in any other sports. I can do both a forward and a backward somersault on demand, but ask me to throw, catch, or hit a ball, and I am completely lost! On top of this, high intensity training before physical maturation increases risk of injury and can delay physical development (2,7). Together, restricted motor skill development and a high potential for injury may limit the athlete’s opportunities for participation in other sports at a later age, both competitively and recreationally, once their career in their main sport is over.

Psychologically, early specialisation in sport is often accompanied by increased pressure to succeed. After devoting significant amounts of time, money, and effort, parents, coaches, and athletes set high expectations, which can unfortunately result in a sense of failure when these expectations are not met (2). In addition, as mentioned earlier, intense involvement in sport limits the time that the athlete can participate in other organised activities and even free play (7). Time constraints, increased pressure to succeed, and psychological distress make sport less enjoyable, and can contribute to emotional and physical exhaustion, or even complete withdrawal from the activity (1,2,7).

Finally, early specialisation in sport can have sociological consequences. The hefty time commitment required for training and competition can lead to social isolation as the athlete has limited opportunities to interact with others outside of sport (1,2,7). Participation in a single activity can also lead to the development of a narrow identity whereby the athlete cannot disassociate themselves from their sport (1,7). Together, restricted social interaction during childhood and adolescence, and a self-identity that is strongly related to a single sport can make it difficult athletes to cope with new situations following retirement.

Are we making matters worse?

Having read a number of blogs on the topic of early specialisation in sport, and throughout my time engaging with coaches in my work as a skill acquisition specialist, I get a clear sense that most of us are strong advocates for delayed specialisation. However, there still appears to be an increasing number of athletes who are participating in highly focussed elite performance programs in a single sport from a young age. There are a few reasons that could explain this:

1) The commercialisation of sport and the media glorify sporting champions and glamorise their lifestyles, which entices young athletes to aspire to emulate their heroes (3). The fame and fortune that comes with being an international superstar like Kobe Bryant or Serena Williams can provide extrinsic motivation to young athletes to work harder than ever to try and one day be as successful as their hero.

2) Parents are becoming increasingly committed to providing their children with ample opportunities to excel, wanting to ensure that their child can be the best that they can be. Private coaching, training camps, expensive equipment, and even organising family schedules and holidays around sporting commitments are commonplace in the households of young athletes who show promise or the desire to become a professional athlete (3,4,5).

3) The number of paid coaching positions is increasing at all levels, and staying in these jobs depends upon their team’s success. When job security is on the line coaches will unashamedly encourage their best athletes to commit to their sport year round in order to improve performance, win championships, and get another year’s extension on that coaching contract (3).

There are a whole range of other factors that could inadvertently be encouraging early specialisation in sport even though we know better. In the interest of space and time, I will leave my list at 3, but I would love to hear your views on what else could be contributing to increasing rates of early specialisation. Post a comment below and let me know your thoughts.

The bottom line – early specialisation as a pathway to elite performance?

Considering the risks associated with early specialisation, this pathway to elite performance is recommended primarily for sports in which peak performance is reached prior to or around puberty. As you will see in upcoming posts on the Expert Advantage, early specialisation is not essential for success in most sports, and there are a number of other pathways to elite performance.

As parents, coaches, and sport administrators, we should carefully consider not only the benefits and risks of early specialisation before making decisions regarding young athletes’ involvement in sport, but also how our behaviours may be unintentionally promoting early specialisation.

Please leave a comment and share your views on elite performance via early specialisation. Don’t forget to subscribe to the Expert Advantage using the links in the side menu bar to receive automatic notification when the next post in the series on pathways to elite performance is published.

References

1. Wiersma, L. D. (2000). Risks and benefits of youth sport specialization: Perspectives and recommendations. Pediatric Exercise Science, 12(1), 13-22.

2. Baker, J., Cobley, S., & Fraser-Thomas, J. (2009). What do we know about early sport specialisation? not much! High Ability Studies, 20(1), 77-90.

3. Hill, G. M., Simons, J. (1989). A study of the sport specialization on high school athletics. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 13(1), 1-13.

4. Developing talent in young people (1985). In Bloom B. S. (Ed.), . New York: Ballantine Books.

5. Côté, J. (1999). The influence of the family in the development of talent in sport. The Sport Psychologist, 13(4), 395-417.

6. Côte, J., & Fraser-Thomas, J. (2007). Youth involvement in sport. In P. R. E. Crocker (Ed.), Sport psychology: A Canadian perspective (pp. 266-294). Toronto, Canada: Pearson Prentice Hall

7. Hecimovich, M. (2004). Sport specialization in youth: A literature review. Journal of the American Chiropractic Association, 41(4), 32-41.

8. Law, M. P., Cote, J., & Ericsson, K. A. (2007). Characteristics of expert development in rhythmic gymnastics: A retrospective study. International Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 5(1), 82-103.

Posted in Development of Expertise, Pathways to elite performance | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments