Factors affecting the rate of athlete development from novice to senior elite: how applicable is the 10-year rule?

Por: Francoys Gagne, Jason Gulbin e Karen Oldenziel.

Athens 2004: Pre-olympic Congress

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Introduction

Many coaches and researchers are interested in how high performance athletes develop and how this process can be influenced. Beyond the generalisation that at least 10 years of practice are required to become an elite athlete [1], specific data related to the developmental histories of elite athletes are rare [2]. This data examines the developmental characteristics of high performance Australian athletes, and the applicability of the often cited ‘10 year rule’ to sport. Developmental characteristics of both quick and slow developers are discussed.

Methods

681 high performance athletes completed the National Athlete Development Survey [3]. The retrospective survey explored the key catalysts affecting athletes’ developmental progression at well-defined competition phases. The current data consists of those athletes who have represented Australia at either a senior or junior (≤ 23 yrs) level of competition and examines rates of progression from initial competition to national representative honours.

Results

459 athletes (aged 20.8±4.8 yrs) from 34 different sports had represented their country in junior or senior competition. The average period of development from novice to senior national representation was 7.5±4.1 yrs, although 28% developed ‘quickly’ (≤4 yrs) and 30% ‘slowly’ (≥10 yrs) (Table 1). These quick developers are over-represented in individual sports (p<.01), commence later than their slower counterparts (p<.001) and experience a greater variety of sports before they start with their main sport (p<0.001). These trends are repeated for those athletes achieving national junior representation ‘quickly’ (≤3 yrs). Those making the transition from national junior representation to senior representation require on average 2.7±2.1 yrs, although 36% achieve the transition in ≤ 1 yr.

Table 1. Rate of development of high performance athletes, including ‘quick’ and ‘slow’ developers.

Start => Senior national level
(n=256)
 Start => Junior national level
(n=382)
 Junior national level => Senior national level
(n=179)
Number of years Mean (SD)  7.5 (4.1)  5.7 (3.2)  2.7 (2.1)
Quick;≤ 4 years
(n=72)
 Slow;≥ 10 years
(n=78)
Quick;≤ 3 years
(n=113)
 Slow;≥ 8 years
(n=117)
Quick;≤ 1 years
(n=64)
 Slow;≥ 4 years
(n=61)
 Type of sport:
% Individual (vs.team)
 69%  44% **  58%  28% ***  56%  51%
 Age when began main sport  17.1 (4.5)  7.9 (2.5)***  13.6 (3.1)  7.2 (1.6)***  11.7 (3.3)  9.8 (3.1)**
 Number of sports before starting with main sport  3.3 (1.6)  0.9 (1.3)***  3.1 (1.9)  0.8 (1.3)***  2.2 (1.7)  1.5 (1.5)**
 Number of sports after starting main sport  0.2 (0.5)  2.4 (1.8)***  0.4 (0.8)  2.1 (1.7)***  0.9 (1.5)  1.6 (1.6)*

Significant differences: * p<.05; ** p<.01; *** p<.001.

Discussion / Conclusion

It can be concluded that the ‘10-year rule’ is not applicable to sports development. 69% of novice athletes develop into senior elite representatives in <10 years. Furthermore, it is possible to transfer previous sporting experiences at a late age in order to make a quick transition to elite level. Therefore, future ‘rules of thumb’ will be contingent upon age, type of sport, and previous experience. This data has implications for talent identification programs, and the intriguing area of sports specialisation. Ongoing analyses aim to determine the factors supporting a fast transition into elite sport.

References

  1. Ericsson, K.A. & Lehmann, A.C. (1996) Annu. Rev.Psychol., 47, 273-305.
  2. Gibbons, T. et al. (2002). United States Olympic Committee.
  3. Gagné, F. & Gulbin, J.P. (2002). Australian Sports Commission.

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