What it takes to become an elite athlete

PUBLISHED: 16:12 07 September 2016 | UPDATED: 16:12 07 September 2016

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto


Professor Tim Rees of Bournemouth University considers what it takes to become an elite athlete

With more competition than ever to win medals, the pressure on coaches and funding bodies to make the right decisions about training and investment is enormous. I began my research in 2010 after UK Sport – the government body investing in our Olympic and Paralympic athletes – asked us to explore how coaches could identify, develop and predict the performance of future elite sporting talent.

The findings of our review were based on work with key figures in the sporting world and an in-depth analysis of existing data and sports science literature. Our recommendations have real implications for the next generation of elite athletes and, in some cases, challenge conventional wisdom. They’ve already gone on to inform UK Sport’s coaching and selection practices for our Olympic athletes.

Contrary to popular belief, we found that hours of deliberate practice of a specific sport doesn’t necessarily lead to expertise. The amount of time needed varies between sports and the relationships between practice and performance is quite complex. Also body type, physiology and genetics can all influence the types of sport people prefer to take part in and which they are more likely to succeed in.

That’s one of the reasons that we warn against specialising at a young age. Taking the approach of early specialisation can also lead to burnout or injuries. It’s better for young athletes to try lots of different sports so that they find the activities they’re naturally good at. Play and incidental learning can make a real difference in the early stages of development as full concentration on an activity doesn’t always lead to optimal performance.

Many young athletes take part in development programmes, but we found that progression in sporting ability is rarely linear. People often drop in and out of these programmes, and it can be quite difficult to use junior performance as a means of predicting senior athletic ability. Coaches need to design programmes that are more flexible and can work with older teenagers and young adults, as well as children.

The location that children grow up in can also influence the development of young athletes. Evidence suggests that British elite athletes are most likely to grow up in medium-sized towns and attend schools in very small villages. Of course there are all sorts of factors at play here, such as access to sporting facilities and opportunities to take part in sport, but it does suggest that the UK has a number of ‘talent hotspots’.

Support networks – whether that’s parents, siblings, friends or coaches – can also make a big difference to an athlete’s early development, but there isn’t really enough evidence yet to understand all the complexities and nuances of those relationships. It’s clear that more research is needed to find out how we can best support our developing athletes.

So, how do we find our next generation of Olympic athletes? Our advice is to encourage children to take part in a variety of sports, discover what they’re good at and find a balance between ‘play’ and training.

About Professor Tim Rees

Tim is a Professor in Sport at Bournemouth University (BU). His main research interests are around the psychology of performance and the development of sporting talent. He is also Deputy Director of BU’s Sport and Physical Activity Research Centre (SPARC). Find out more at research.bournemouth.ac.uk – click on Centre and select SPARC.


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