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Monday, April 11, 2011

Why do "slow developer" children go on to become elite athletes while "fast developers" tend to fall short?

  1. Why do some children do more training from the age of 9 to 15?

    They are either pushed by parents into training, or they choose to train in response to success in a given sport.  That success might be driven by early physical development.  Meanwhile, some children train and compete less because they're late developers, or because they simply don't need the same training volume in order to compete.

  2. What happens in that period from 15 to 18, where there is a clear change in what the elite athletes do compared to those who will go on to become near-elite?

    The ceiling comes into view.  That ceiling is determined by the genes, and some teenagers have an innate ability for a particular sport that tells them that they can "make it".  Some cannot, and they drop off in training volume, going on to become near-elites, or finding new sports altogether.  If you simply measured "intrinsic motivation" at this stage, you'd find that some teenagers have lost it, but this is not because practice is harmful, but because they aren't as successful anymore - a 16 year old is pretty savvy at picking this up!

    The fact those who did less training when younger go on to do more training now suggests that they may be developing physically to the point where they are now competitive and successful, or that they had superior ability to begin with and now respond to higher levels of competition by training more

  3. Why do the elite athletes continue to maintain training volume while the near-elites decline further from 18 to 21?

    They respond to success - they recognize that the ceiling is high, and the fact that they're now in a much more competitive environment necessitates more training.  But that is worth it, because they have the capacity to succeed at the very high level.  Their behaviour (more training) is the consequence of physiology.
 Please take time to read the full article and discussion here, then read my observations below, thanks.
I think Tucker and Co. have pretty much nailed the debate as to why so many promising young athletes fail to kick through to senior levels in sport - as much as a 99% attrition rate.  This is essential reading for parents of precocious child athletes and their coaches.

The sad fact of the matter is this: 99.9% of promising young athletes fall short of their early ambitions such as representing their country.  So, as parents and coaches, we should think very carefully before pushing a child into hard training and competition that may come to nothing other than conflict and disappointment.

It is easy to get astonishing performances from a child athlete because of the responsiveness of their physiology to training which gives big gains for relatively little input.  Children also have inherently high power to weight ratios which give deceptive performances.  Training hard may delay the onset of puberty which preserves this power to weight ratio well into teen years; but such delays are a lost cause and merely set the child athlete up for future frustrations and disappointment.  At some point puberty sets in and the child athlete with delayed puberty sprouts literally overnight to become a physically mature male or female.  With this spurt in growth, there is a consequent loss of coordination, agility and power to weight.  Further gains in performance may be frustratingly slow and there may even be a loss of performance.  What once came easy now requires much more effort.

"Its Allometry Dear Watson"
(Sherlock Holmes)

Probably the leading mistake of sports coaches and sports scientists who work with young athletes is their failure to understand the effect of allometric scaling.  Basically, the rule of allometric scaling is that power increases at only the rate of 2/3rds of any increase in mass.  This explains why a 50kg weight lifter can lift proportionally much more than a 100kg lifter and why a mouse can leap many times its height, while an elephant can not jump at all.  This explains why a diminutive prepubescent runner who ran 800m in 2m 20s only manages to run 10s faster four years later, despite sprouting to almost twice her prepubescent height.

Please go here for an earlier article I wrote about allometric scaling.

Hard training and competition do not sit well with puberty at the best of times.  During puberty there is huge demand for nutrients to fuel rapid growth, let alone the demands of sport.  Sleep is in hot demand while growing and early mornings in the pool can prove difficult.  Symptomatic of this is the "Tired teenage Athlete" who may eventually succumb to ailments such as glandular fever.

Injury is a high possibility for the adolescent athlete, either from overuse or violent impact.  The rapid growing body may lack strength, while bones, ligaments and tendons are soft and easily strained, torn or broken.   Career limiting injuries, such as to the knee ligaments, are common during adolescence.

Allometric scaling, chronic fatigue and career limiting injuries may help explain why early high performers generally fail to kick on as teen years tick closer to the 20's.  Combine these with the factors Dr Tucker writes about, including the loss of interest as a consequence of no longer winning easily, and you have wholesale failure.

On the other hand, the athletes who took it quite easy earlier on, while learning the intrinsic value of enjoying physical activity while getting on with a social life - will come through late in the game.

Why push or thrash a child athlete when it is known that physical and emotional maturity is not achieved until 26 years of age, or even later?

So, my advice to parents of promising young athletes, is to concentrate on developing a wide range of physical skills and abilities across a range of sports while ensuring that there is enjoyment inherent in the act of "doing".  Ensure optimum nutrition to ensure robust growth during puberty.  Generally do not allow specialisation until puberty has come and pretty much gone (that's about 18yrs of age).  Do not place the young athlete at risk of injury until the skills and strength are well in place and the bones and joints are strong.  For girls this is from about 18 years and about 21 or 22 years for boys.

Further Reading
Intrinsic motivation to train, compete and win is what makes a champion: If you want to get inside the mind of a multiple Olympian and Olympic medalist, to get an idea of what it takes from childhood to make it to the top, I still have some copies of my sister's autobiography "On the Wings of Mercury" for sale. This book is written  by her and not a Ghost Writer.

Safety Guidelines for Parents and Coaches and you might like to read this report I wrote a few years ago about the Prime Minister's Scholarship for Athletes.

Please post your reactions by using the "post a comment" tab below this article, thanks.

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