The Great British Medalists project: What do we know about developing the world’s best?

How did Adam Scott develop the skill to sink a 12 foot birdie putt to win the 2013 US Masters? How can Roger Federer continue to find a way to save break points in Grand Slam finals? How do cricketers, such as Steve Smith and Virat Kohli, continue to make centuries year-in-year-out?

Understanding how sporting talent is developed is a tantalising topic. It’s a topic that often dominates many pub conversations.

Over the past two decades, researchers from all over the world have attempted to disentangle the talent development issue. A recent article published in Sports Medicine reviewed scientific literature on ten factors that influence talent development in sport. The authors also rated the quality of study designs, the consistency of the evidence and the directness of the evidence.

The key findings are summarised below. Quotes have been taken directly from the article.

1. Birthdate

Relative age effects exist but may not be robust across all sports.” The study design quality was considered moderate; consistency of evidence was low and the directness of evidence was moderate.

2. Genetics

“Genetics may influence and thus limit the development of performance. Performance cannot, however, be well predicted from genetic factors. Caution should be urged for ethical and societal reasons when considering genetic selection methodologies.” The study design quality was considered high, consistency of evidence was moderate and the directness of evidence was moderate.

3. Anthropometric and physiological factors

“Anthropometric and physiological factors are important for performance. However, caution should be urged when using anthropometric and physiological tests for talent selection purposes with adolescents because of variation in biological maturation.” The study design quality was considered high, consistency of evidence was high and the directness of evidence was high.

4. Psychological skills and motivational orientation

“Psychological factors (e.g. motivation, confidence, perceived control, mental toughness, resilience, coping with adversity, resistance to ‘choking’, mental skills) appear to be important contributors to the development of super-elite performance.” The study design quality was considered moderate, consistency of evidence was high and the directness of evidence was high.

5. Personality traits

“Super-elite athletes are conscientious, optimistic, hopeful and perfectionist.” The study design quality was considered moderate, consistency of evidence was moderate/low and the directness of evidence was high.

6. Birthplace

“Small-to-medium communities provide favourable environments for developing athletes. Talent hot spots may exist.” The study design quality was considered moderate, consistency of evidence was high and the directness of evidence was high.

7. Support from parents, family, siblings and coaches

“Super-elite athletes have benefitted from supportive families, coaches and networks during their development. The subtleties of the provision of support are not well understood.” The study design quality was considered moderate, consistency of evidence was moderate and the directness of evidence was high.

8. Athlete support programmes

“Early success is a poor predictor for later super-elite success, and thus for early talent identification purposes. Super-elite success is mostly preceded by relatively late entry into organized support programmes.” The study design quality was considered moderate, consistency of evidence was moderate/low and the directness of evidence was high.

9. Volume of sport-specific practice and training

“Super-elite performance develops from extensive deliberate practice, but the applicability of the 10 years/10,000 hours ’rule’ to high performance sport is limited. Play may also be relevant, as may implicit/automatic and incidental skill learning.” The study design quality was considered high/moderate, consistency of evidence was moderate and the directness of evidence was high.

10. Early specialization vs. sampling and play

“The key to reaching super-elite level may be involvement in diverse sports during childhood and appreciable amounts of sport-specific practice/training in late adolescence and adulthood.” The study design quality was considered moderate, consistency of evidence was moderate/low and the directness of evidence was high.

Reference

Rees, T., Hardy, L., Güllich, A., Abernethy, B., Côté, J., Woodman, T., … & Warr, C. (2016). The great British medalists project: a review of current knowledge on the development of the world’s best sporting talent. Sports Medicine, 46(8), 1041-1058.

 

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