Early Success in Sports: Does it Predict Future Success? (Updated)

Early success in sports rarely leads to success at later ages.  Why is this?

Let’s look at the work of Dr Arne Gullich who is the Director of the Institute of Applied Sport Science at Kaiserslautern Institute of Technology.

He reported recently at the 2016 Youth Athlete Development Conference that there is no correlation between success in youth sports and success in sports as an adult.

“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.”

These results were indicated across all types of sports.

Further his researchers determined that those who succeeded in some sports were actually those who were behind in their early or preteens.

So, why is this? Why do some young athletic stars who achieved early success never reach the highest level of their sport?  Some of the most famous athletes have biographies filled with tales of failures and challenges during their youth.  Is this significant?  Why are there so many late bloomers finding professional and national team success?

We don’t fully know the answers to these questions yet, but emerging research points at some answers to these questions.

Played Multiple Sports

One of Gullich’s findings was that those who succeeded as adults had played multiple sports when younger.

The research leaves many questions about the best age to begin specialization and elite selection not only for long term success, but also for long term retention.

At his presentation at the World Rowing Youth Conference in 2013 he also posed a question about coaching.  He wondered whether it was more helpful to have a coach with specialized knowledge about your sport. In fact, he indicated that free play or peer-led play during early years of sports had more impact on higher level success.

Many people believe that the ‘theory of deliberate practice’ applies to young athletes in sport, which suggests that through repetition and correction of one single activity success is more likely, that is whether starting rowing at an early age and making it one’s sole focus, with adequate coaching and support will be more likely to lead to success. Gullich however disagrees citing a more recent ‘diversification theory’ as the route to a successful elite sporting career. This theory supports a child’s participation in multiple sports and sporting leisure play in long-term performance development.

Gullich focused his presentation on examples of athletes from specialised (coach-led) backgrounds with those who had a diverse, peer-led sport pathway in their athletic development. What he illustrated was that at youth level, early specialisation is more likely to lead to results at junior level in sport. However, at a higher level it was the athletes who had participated in multiple sports at a young age who ultimately achieved higher results.

It’s interesting to note here that athletes who specialize early do have success during their junior level.

This can create the impression that it’s a good decision to have invested early in elite programs or specialized coaching.

It may be, but the research so far does not mean that you will then go on to the elite or professional level later.

Steve Smith writing at Challenge Success provides further evidence for this view.

“Evidence suggests that children who specialize in one sport later had greater athletic success. Although it is true that a child who specializes early will have greater short-term success, the long-term benefits of later specialization are relatively clear.”

You need to know your own goals and intentions as you make decision.

Talent Selector or Talent Identifier

John O’Sullivan writing at The Changing the Game Project raises another interesting variable.

He makes a distinction between youth coaches who are selecting talent based on current ability versus those identifying potential talent and future performance.

Talent selection is the culling of players with the current ability to participate and be successful in events taking place in the near future. Talent identification, on the other hand, is the prediction of future performance based upon an evaluation of current physical, technical, tactical and psychological qualities. Talent selection is pretty simple; talent identification is an art. One yields great results today; the other builds elite athletes and winning teams for the future.

This makes the interesting point that maybe the lack of correlation really indicates that we are selecting the wrong people at 14.

If we got the the identification process correct would there be as little correlation between youth and adult success?

His entire column is worth the read.

Managing Adversity

early success

Then there is the work by Mustafa Sarker and David Fletcher that looks at the profound role mental resilience plays in determining athletic success.

An article at Psychology Today credits adversity with being a key factor in each athlete’s success.

The lack of early success provided an opportunity for some young athletes to develop the strength required to succeed.

Paradoxically, not being selected for major international competitions was frequently cited by Gold Medalists as the foundation for increased endeavour and exertion. Competition losses were viewed as learning opportunities, enabling future improved performances. Set-backs were re-interpreted in ways which meant they merely re-doubled their efforts, and didn’t become disheartened.

Failure didn’t break them; it made them.

Lindsay Horan, the 24 year old star of the USWNT describes her motivations after being cut from a regional team early in her career:

Over the coming years, she’d occasionally reiterate her ambition. And after one regional coach literally laughed at it, she pursued it compulsively. After a youth national team coach cut her, leaving her in tears for three days, she became almost possessed. She’d rise with the Rocky Mountain sun for 7 a.m. training, rearranging school schedules to accommodate dream-chasing. After her last class of the day, she’d zip to practice with the academy boys from 3-4:30 p.m. Then she was off to her own team.

Another interesting finding is that great athletes don’t view the time devoted to the sport as sacrifice, but rather as a powerful and positive choice.

These are just a few potential reasons that early success does not lead to greatness later on.

By taking a look at them we can craft smarter pathways for athletes.

You can read further about Gullich’s presentation to 2016 Youth Athlete Development Conference here.

I’ve also written about how athlete’s manage stress and Ray Allen as an example of an athlete who works at his craft.

Articles of interest–Updated Regularly

Annals of Coaching: On Identifying Talent (& How That Shapes Coaching Decisions)

Early Specialization vs. Early Sampling vs. The Lannisters: Who Wins?

Athletic Skills Model

Patrick Mahomes became the NFL’s best quarterback by refusing to specialize in football (WaPo)

Too much, too soon injures young bodies

Podcast: Different Cultures, Similar Issues (Learning in Developtment)

Podcast: Finding True Talent and Interview with Paula Jardine (Gaincast)

I recommend you read this editorial by Mark O’Sullivan in The Irish Times. He writes about the role the youth coach plays in developing both the person and the player.

The club has a part to play in the child’s broader education; the values, attitudes and behaviour that are cultivated through sport can be positive influences over the course of an entire life-time and if they like playing the game then that should be encouraged too. But it is vital to get the balance right and with this in mind we need to pay more attention to educating the educators.

The role of the youth coach is a more challenging concept than ever. They play a key role in developing and motivating the children they come into contact with. But there is an ever increasing obsession with identifying talent at an ever earlier stage, with many of the changes to children’s sport, however they might be presented in public, tied into these goals.