“Is early reliable TID possible? No. Is it necessary? No, it is not.” - Prof Dr Arne Güllich
Tiger Woods, introduced to golf by his father, was putting and swinging by the age of 2. He won the Junior World Championships six times successfully before turning professional at 17, and was number one in the world at 21.
Donald Thomas, a college basketball player, started doing high jumps for the first time at 22. He went on to become the world champion in high jump at 23, after a mere 16 months of high jump practice.
Both players were highly successful at their sport, although they specialised at vastly different points of their sporting career.
So are athletes that specialise early the norm and the early diversifiers the exception, or vice versa, among world class athletes?
This was a question brought up by Prof Dr Arne Güllich on 5th November 2019, at the NYSI Youth Athlete Development Conference. About 140 people attended the conference at Level Up, Clarke Quay.
Prof Güllich is the Head of Department of Sports Science and Director of the Institute of Applied Sports Science at Kaiserslautern University of Technology. He spoke about the talent development system in Germany.
Does early specialisation lead to senior success?
Looking at performance development, Professor Güllich said that 0-34% of successful junior athletes achieve an equivalent success level at an adult age, while only a minority 6 to 42% of successful adult athletes had the same success at a junior age.
“It signifies that the population of early success for juniors and the population of related successful seniors are not identical. They are part of a disjoint population,” he said.
This emphasises that there are multiple pathways an athlete can follow.
We have the early specialisers such as Tiger Woods that started at the age of 2 and those who did multiple sports at a young age, such as Roger Federer, Michael Jordan, and Michael Phelps.
Taking a closer look at the world class athletes, Professor Güllich said, “the vast majority, 76% of the adult world class athletes, participated in various sports.”
He believes that there are some explanations as to why playing multiple sports is more beneficial for long-term performance development, compared to just one sport.
Firstly, playing multiple sports increases the probability of choosing a focus sport that an athlete is particularly talented in.
Secondly, overuse injuries are less likely to occur over the years, lengthening the athletes’ sporting lifespan. Professor Güllich said, “Engaging in various sports facilitates prolonged engagement compared to competition-related engagement in just a specific sport.”
Lastly, there is a “higher probability of emergence of athletes’ functional modes of learning. And thereby, they may become more adaptive and thereby smarter learners in the future.”
Predictors for junior/senior success
Acceleration breakers included starting age, age of reaching performance related milestones, such as achieving one’s first international championship, and being selected for a selection team for the first time.
Based on his research findings, Professor Güllich said, “Starting earlier and reaching milestones earlier predicts higher junior success, but starting later and reaching milestones later predicts adult success.”
Looking at the amount of coach-led practice, a higher amount of accumulated coach-led practice in the athlete’s main sport predicted higher junior performance.
However, comparing adult world class and national class athletes, the world class athletes actually accumulated less main sport practice than their national class peers in their entire career.
“More coach-led practice in other sports predicts higher long-term performance in adults and lower performance in juniors,” said Professor Güllich.
“Those patterns of participation that facilitated rapid performance inhibited long-term development of adult performance. While those patterns of participation that facilitated long-term development of adult performance do not facilitate rapid junior performance,” he added.
Talent Identification and Development
Other than looking at accuracy while evaluating the talent identification and development system, we also have to consider the base rate of the entire population.
Professor Güllich said that even if we raised the accuracy of talent identification from the current 70% to 90%, higher than ever recorded, the effect that has on the number of athletes we actually identify correctly is still negligible.
The next factor to consider is the athlete turnover. Although the typical turnover rates are relatively high at even more than 50% at national levels, data from German youth soccer academies have shown that out of “all the athletes who were in the program at age 11, less than 10% were still in the programme at age 18.”
Similarly, only 6% of all national players were from the under 15 team.
“So what we can conclude from this is that most early selected athletes will not become successful senior athletes.
When we compare the more successful and less successful senior athletes, the more successful athletes have typically been selected at a later age than their national or less successful peers.
“So, the question is, is early reliable TID possible? No. Is it necessary? No, it is not,” said Professor Güllich.
Social environmental factors on performance
Firstly, the athlete services provided to the athlete should be tailored.
“Rather than the amount or type of service provided to the athlete, a current study showed that rather, it is the individual adjustment of the services to the individual athletes (that matters),” said Professor Güllich.
Secondly, similar to athlete services, it is not about the quantity of social support the athlete can get. Athletes do not necessarily require immediate social support to overcome challenges and problems and they should be left to overcome them on their own.
“A smooth sea never made a good sailor. Facing challenges are a good way to develop an athlete’s personality and character,” said Professor Güllich.
The balance between school and sports is a concern for many student-athletes and Professor Güllich discussed how school takes precedence over the sport as the athlete gets older.
”Empirically, up to the age of about 15, we don't find stressors between sports and school. We do find that stress goes up from the age of 16,” said Professor Güllich, as the school demands end up restricting the athlete’s time for his/her sport.
Research on youth motivation has shown that “intrinsic components of achievement motivation are more sustainable in terms of sustainable engagement and performance development than extrinsic motives in childhood and adolescence.”
Professor Güllich said some of these intrinsic components include overcoming of obstacles and uncertainty of the outcome.
“The hurdler does not overcome the hurdle because it's in his way. No, he puts the hurdle in his way in order to overcome it. A player is not overcoming his opponent in a tackle, because he is in his way. No, he put him in the way in order to overcome him. Sport is giving yourself a task, and at the same time, putting obstacles in the way that you fulfil the task,” said Professor Güllich.
He also commented that the act of competing is a situation of uncertainty, “and it's the uncertainty that makes the stimulus in competing”.
Conclusion of youth athlete development
Early talent identification is not possible, and it is also not necessary.
The best talent identification system is a good competition system with mass youth participation, that has to be a social event for the kids
Social support and athlete services is not about delivering a standard program that is imposed on any athlete but should be highly individualised.
Our role should not be to overcome obstacles for our athletes immediately. If they are unable to overcome challenges on their own, then we are ready to help if needed.
Intrinsic components, like overcoming of obstacles and uncertainty of outcome, lead to more sustainable engagement and performance development.