Catch them young: A glimpse into the making of an Olympian

The best world-class athletes often dabble in a range of sports when young before rising to the top of their game in one, a new analysis found. Emphasis is to be laid on play, not competition, to gain enthusiasm, coordination and eventually, trophies.
Catch them young: A glimpse into the making of an Olympian


The world’s top athletes, including Olympians, rarely start competing at a young age or specialise early in the sport that will make them champions, according to a provocative new study of the athletic backgrounds of thousands of successful athletes. Instead, the study finds, most world champions sample one sport after another as children and gain mastery in their chosen activities considerably later than other, more focused young athletes whom they eventually go on to defeat. 
The study, which involved male and female competitors in a wide range of sports, offers lessons and cautions for parents, coaches and child athletes about how to understand talent, manage expectations, build an athletic career and recalibrate the long-term importance for 7- or 8-year-olds of making — or missing out on — select teams in children’s leagues. 
If you are a sports parent, though, it is difficult not to believe that athletic success for your children requires early specialisation. Most of us are all too familiar with the tropes about tiny sports prodigies and their outsize success, such as Tiger Woods making tee shots at age 2 or Venus and Serena Williams slamming tennis aces while still in elementary school. 
The belief that early specialisation and frequent repetition contribute to physical mastery was likewise bolstered by research in the 1990s into expertise by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who died in 2020. He and his colleagues found that youthful musicians who choose an instrument at a young age and spend multiple hours in tutoring and rehearsals — sessions that he called “deliberate practice” — gain the greatest musical mastery. In this research, innate talent plays less of a role in achievement than practice, practice, practice. 
But other scientists since have questioned the advisability of shunting youngsters into one activity early on, especially in sports, because early specialisation and intense practice can increase the risk of injuries and burnout. In this estimation, children are better off playing multiple sports, with an emphasis on play, not competition, to gain enthusiasm, coordination and, eventually, trophies and medals. 
However, few large-scale studies have looked into the backgrounds of successful athletes at all levels of sports to see whether early specialisation generally bolsters or hinders someone’s chances of earning a podium spot at the Olympics or starring on a high school team. 
So, for the new study, which was published in July in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of exercise scientists and sports psychologists from Germany and the United States decided to gather as much intelligence as possible about how great athletes got that way. They began by combing databases for research that documented successful athletes’ training histories via extensive interviews or questionnaires. They wound up with 51 relevant studies covering 6,096 athletes, including 772 Olympic or world champions. Some of the athletes competed in team sports and others in individual events. Some collected victories and accolades as children or teenagers; others as adults; few as both. Some peaked with wins at international events; others at local or regional contests. The athletes represented, in essence, the gamut of sporting careers, from supernova prodigies to late bloomers to flame-outs. 
The researchers then aggregated the data from the studies and started comparing athletes’ pasts and results. They quickly realised that early sports specialisation benefited certain athletes, but only briefly. 
World-class junior competitors, the scientists found, who stockpiled international medals while still in their teens tended to have settled on a single sport before about age 12, a year or two earlier than most of their competitors, including other young athletes who excelled at the regional and national levels. What separated great young athletes in this group from the good, in other words, was picking a sport young and practicing it fiercely. 
But at the senior or adult-sports level, the impacts of specialisation flip-flopped, the data showed. (Most senior athletes are in their 20s or 30s, although each sport sets its own age cut-off for junior and senior divisions.) The world’s best adult athletes, including Olympic and world champions, typically took up competitive sports of any kind a year or two later than other players, and practiced fewer hours throughout their careers. Most also dabbled with multiple sports, usually three or four a year, often not settling on a primary activity until their mid-teens or so, several years after most of their later competitors. And few garnered much immediate attention or acclaim from coaches and officials, rarely joining select teams at the start of their careers. 
“Most of the adult, world-class performers were not prodigies as kids,” said Arne Güllich, the director of the Institute of Applied Sports Science at the Kaiserslautern University of Technology in Germany, who conducted the new study with his American colleagues Brooke N. Macnamara of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and David Zach Hambrick of Michigan State University. 
These patterns held true for men and women, boys and girls, and in team and individual sports. The results do not explain, though, how a slow start and early sports sampling might contribute to later athletic excellence. But Dr. Güllich believes late bloomers probably experience less stress and burnout than single-sport young superstars and gain a greater ability to learn and progress physically by training in a variety of sports. 
The study has other limitations. It is associational, meaning it shows that top adult athletes rarely specialise early but it does not prove that approach caused their success. In addition, it did not consider genetic, familial, financial, psychological or other factors that could influence athletic careers. It also focused, by and large, on the world’s premier athletes, a group that is unlikely ever to include most of us or our offspring. 
But, still, the results seem cheering for all those young athletes who enthusiastically dabble in a variety of sports. “Kids should do the sport they most enjoy doing, in which they are looking forward to each session, to having a good time with friends and the coach,” Dr. Güllich said. “If enjoyment constantly declines, perhaps it’s time to try another sport.” 
The writer is a journalist with NYT 
The New York Times

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