What Makes a Successful Junior Athlete? The Research Might Surprise You
Youth sports are at a crossroads. A rising level of competition prompts many young athletes to specialize in a single sport at a younger age. Further complicating things, young athletes and their parents increasingly focus on performance in the interest of meeting selection criteria for top teams. Private coaching and skill development gyms have come on the scene to meet this need, which can inadvertently create a pay-to-play environment that excludes young athletes coming from households with lower median incomes, which is a growing trend, particularly with team sports. It all culminates in a system that is largely built upon the wrong priorities and inaccurate assumptions.
Takeaways for Coaches
The window of opportunity is bigger than you think. Competing at a young age doesn’t predict future success, in fact, becoming too sport-specific and focused at a young age can be counter-productive.
Encourage your athletes to participate in multiple sports. Surprisingly, athletes who specialized later in their youth saw greater performance gains.
You might be wrong about who the stars are. Particularly when athletes are under the age of 16, performance is not a prediction of success as an adult and physiological metrics tell only part of the story.
Athlete performance at a young age does not predict success
An athlete’s ability to perform against their peers early on is not a strong indicator that they will achieve elite status as adults. This was especially true in cycling, where not until athletes were competing in the U23 category did their performance correlate with future success in sport. And again, this was as much (if not more) because of other factors—such as getting financial support, social support, and selection—as it was about developing strong aerobic fitness at a young age.
Two specific studies underscore the need to focus on athlete development over performance. A study looking at Olympic athletes in 35 different sports found that Olympic athletes tended to get into their sport at a later age and often continued to compete in other sports instead of being singularly focused. Likewise, a study of elite cyclists found that the length of a cyclist’s career tended to be very consistent, regardless of whether they competed as a junior. In other words, those athletes who competed at a high level as juniors tended to have shorter adult careers.
A 2022 study considering youth competitions as an indicator of future success looked at U15, U17, and U19 cyclists who had achieved at least one top 10 finish at provincial or national junior competitions. With each additional top-10 performance, the likelihood of the cyclist becoming a pro increased by 3–5% in the U17 category and 6% in the U19 category. At the U15 level, top 10 finishes didn’t predict an athlete’s chances of going pro. These athletes often have more experience in sport and the benefit of maturing at an earlier age.
But it begs the question: Is the goal simply to help juniors get a pro contract or to actually become successful as a pro? It’s a tough transition, as Dr. Iñigo San Millán described it, and it’s the reason why he encourages juniors looking to go pro to have a back-up plan in case pro racing doesn’t work out.
The bottom line on performance: In endurance sports, achieving results and performances shouldn’t be the focus for athletes 16 and under. It does help somewhat for older juniors (ages 17 and 18) and should start to become a primary focus in the U23 category.
Early specialization tends to hurt future success
Several studies found that athletes who specialized at an earlier age were more likely to suffer injury, burnout, and even quit the sport prematurely. Surprisingly, athletes who specialized later in their youth, (i.e., training year-round in a single sport), saw greater performance gains. This is consistent with the Long-Term Athlete Development Program popularized in Canada that warns against specializing athletes at a young age. (The one exception to this appears to be track cycling—a large percentage of elite track cyclists started as juniors.)
As head coach of Boulder Junior Cycling, Pete Webber asks young athletes to wait until age 16, 17, or 18 to specialize, even within the sport of cycling. A 2020 study of elite swimmers found that the athletes with the longest careers spent more time exploring the sport before committing to it, they logged fewer total hours of structured training, and they saw fewer perceived costs than the athletes who quit earlier.
The bottom line on specialization: A higher volume of sport-specific training offers more risk than reward. Encourage juniors to be involved in multiple sports and specialize much closer to adulthood.
It’s often other factors, not physiology, that predict success
While the best adult athletes tended to have physiological “gifts” in their youth, it doesn’t stand to reason that a young athlete with similar physiology will be a successful adult athlete. In other words, there are other factors aside from an athlete’s VO2max or 5-minute power that determine whether they will reach the elite level.
While success in endurance sport necessitates a strong aerobic engine, physiological attributes alone cannot predict which young athletes will become successful elite athletes. Among the relevant factors are an athlete’s social and financial support (the extent to which life and career interfere with training), and the athlete’s level of commitment to a clearly defined and realistic goal.
Arild Tveiten identified Kristian Blummenfelt’s commitment from an early age as a more promising indication of his potential, not his physiology, which was initially unremarkable. When juniors “learn to love to train,” he says that positive work ethic will carry them farther than raw talent.
There are many factors that can limit or expand an athlete’s potential. Athlete development, both in terms of physiology and social-emotional development, requires patience and dedication from both coach and athlete.
The bottom line on physiology: While good numbers (such as an athlete’s 5-minute power or VO2max) are necessary to reach elite levels, they shouldn’t be the focus with junior athletes. Instead, building social support, enjoyment in sport, skills development, and a strong aerobic base appear to be more important for longevity.
In Module 8 of Craft of Coaching sport psychologist Dr. Julie Emmerman addresses the importance of developing the athlete’s social-emotional well-being.
Reading between the lines with research on juniors
The rearview mirror offers limited insight.
Many studies consider current elite athletes and look backward in time, analyzing what their profiles looked like when they were juniors. This is problematic because there may have been many youth athletes with the same characteristics, the majority of which didn’t make it to the elite level due to extenuating factors such as resources and social support.
Not all findings are predictive.
It is clear that athletes who had successful elite careers tended to be more aerobically fit in their youth (if they competed in their youth). But the inverse cannot be inferred from this—that being aerobically stronger as a youth is predictive of being an elite athlete. It’s possible there were many youths who were strong aerobically and only a few made it. Likewise, we can’t say that being a strong youth is necessary to become an elite athlete.
Don’t let the odds get you down.
Studies that point out that only a small percentage of juniors achieve elite status can overestimate the importance of that percentage. In all sports, the number of elite athletes is small, while the number of youths exploring the sport is always substantially larger. So, it will always be a small percentage that achieves elite status.
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