07 Feb 2017

Singapore’s National Youth Sports Institute held their first Youth Athlete Development Conference in late 2016. Some of the research presented looked to topple conventional practices in sport.

by Wade Townsend

Talent identification programmes are a common element of national sporting organisations. A pool of players are hand picked and guided to become world class senior athletes. Time, money and resources are devoted to facilitating their development. The programmes are based on the premise that future potential sporting ability can be identified at a young age.

But is this premise even true?

At the 2016 Youth Athlete Development Conference research on the correlation between junior and senior success was presented by Professor Dr. Arne Güllich, Head of Department of Sport Science and Director of the Institute of Applied Sport Science at Kaiserslautern University of Technology.

His findings? The probability of being able to positively identify talent that will go on to become an international senior athlete is 0.2 percent; that is in the best case scenario. That’s right; a 1/500 chance that the correct athlete was identified.

“Junior success is a poor indicator of long-term senior success. Their success at the age of 10 had a zero correlation with their success as a senior. Same was true with their success at 11-14, 15-18. We have a zero correlation. That means, those who were better at a young age were not those who were better at an older age.” Professor Güllich

It would seem that talent identification is a myth.

The results were in no way specific to certain types of sport.

“This also applies to different types of sports – CGS sports (where performances are measured in centimetres, grams and seconds), games sports, combat sports, artistic composition sports. The results are all the same across all different types of sports.” Professor Güllich

There is therefore no reason to suspect that table tennis would be any different.

So what exactly is going on when these pools of athletes are being made?

Frequently talent is not being identified; often it is merely birthdates.

The Relative Age Effect, a bias where participation is highest among those born early in the selection period, is consistently apparent in sport. A six year old that was born in January will be 17% older than their December counterpart. The difference in physical development and motor skills between these two will be significant.

In some sports you can find athletes in junior and youth categories where those born January to March are selected at rate five times higher than those born November and December.

Selectors are not identifying talent, they are simply identifying which athletes are older.

While studies in table tennis are few and far between, there are examples in tennis that we can turn to when it comes to talent identification and development.

In 2006 a US-wide identification system was implemented. 100 girls aged between eight and nine years old were identified as having future success potential. These girls were given enhanced training and guidance. By age 16 only about two or three remained near the top of the sport.

The programme was discontinued and Anne Pankhurst, who set up the identification system, concluded making any type of selection at a young age is pointless.

A similar investigation was carried out over a larger world wide cohort. Between 1994 and 2002, 1,000 junior tennis athletes aged 12 to 13 were tracked for their progress through the junior ranks. What it found was that the athletes that went on to become Top 100 players were training less and playing fewer matches in their adolescence than their unsuccessful counter parts.

In fact, it is relatively common across nearly all studies in the area.

Individuals who only go on to become near-elite athletes will train more hours per week before the age of 12 than those who go on to become elite athletes. It is after the age of 15 that the elite group begin to train more than their near-elite counterparts.

What were these athletes doing with their time? In the majority of cases they were playing other sports.

Professor Güllich drew attention to this at the Youth Athlete Development Conference. He noted that German Olympic medallists played two or three sports at a high level before focusing their attention on their primary sport at 20.

“The world-class athlete differs from those who made it only to national class, not by having engaged in more sports specific training in their main sport, this was indifferent, but consistently, they engaged in more activity in other sports.” Professor Güllich

Early specialisation seems at best to have no affect, and at worst a negative one.

A surprising 44 per cent of Olympic medallists have changed sport at some point in their career, and in the United States 88 per cent of college athletes are multi-sport participants as children.

Encouraging juniors to be multi-sport athletes looks to be a winning strategy for producing senior sporting champions.

With national sporting organisations looking to find the best avenues for investing their limited funds, it would seem that early talent identification programmes should be reassessed. Professor Güllic concluded his presentation by proposing that selection of athletes should be made at later ages and a varied sporting experience should be promoted rather than early specialisation. Resources could certainly be better spent than attempting to make predictions in which there is a 1/500 chance of being correct.

Sports Science