In just over a week 10,000 of the world’s best athletes will compete across 42 sport disciplines in the Rio Games. But what got them there in the first place?
Senior Lecturer in skill acquisition and sports psychology at the University of Sydney, Dr Steve Cobley, said it can be hard to distinguish fact from fiction when it comes to influences on sporting success.
“Research in the sports sciences is relatively new when considered against the history of sport, but we have come a long way in understanding factors that impact athlete development and elite performance,” said Dr Cobley, author of Talent Identification and Development in Sport.
Genetics and inherited characteristics play a role in athlete development and can make individuals more suited to particular sports, but the idea of being ‘a born athlete’ is outdated and too simplistic according to Dr Cobley.
“If you want to try and understand exceptional performance, you have to think about the genes, the social and environmental factors and how these interact together.”
It’s a common misconception – in part perpetuated by sports academies – that you need to start early if you want to pursue a professional career. Instead research reveals that those who specialise intensively too early, around 12 or 13 years, often don’t last more than three years in a specific sports system, running out of steam or suffering injury years before professional contracts are on offer.
“Later specialisation or late transfer between sports is becoming increasingly popular,” said Dr Cobley.
“I’d recommend not investing in highly specific regimented training at a young age. In the early years it’s much more important that kids are healthy and enjoy what they are doing, so they get the social and psychological benefits of sport.”
There’s no denying that it takes practice to get to the top, but suggesting that time-on-task can explain exceptionality fails to acknowledge that sport comprises more than one skill, said Dr Cobley.
"It takes a lot of training, but not just simply turning up and doing repetitive kinds of behaviours. It also involves a lot of psychological work including problem-solving, decision making and analysis to make practice beneficial.”
Parents of children born later in the year often worry about their chances of sporting selection due to maturity differences. Dr Cobley said this wouldn’t be a problem if sports systems better acknowledged the influence of growth and maturation, and that the relative age effect disappears in the long-term.
“Our research shows that relative age is a big influence in the early years and during selection at around 13 to 16 years-of-age, but by 17 to 18 years when growth and development ceases it tends to equalise, and actually there is a tendency to see later developers comes through in some team sports.
“The challenge is keeping the relatively younger kids engaged in sport during the formative years so they have the opportunity to shine later.”
Fear of failure can lead to bad performance but it appears actually failing could be important to longer-term sporting success, according to Dr Cobley.
“Most athletes who go on to achieve exceptionally also experience failure or performance set-backs in their development. We now know that these adversities are beneficial in the long-term for helping prepare the required mind-set for performing at an elite level.”