In the United States — well, in most countries, really — the sports system is dedicated to finding talented athletes at the earliest ages possible, and focusing on them as the pool of future professional standouts. That mindset is ingrained in anyone who touches the youth sports system. If you’re a parent watching your 10-year-old blow pitches by the opposition, you start entertaining the idea of a major league career. If you’re a parent watching your 10-year-old whiff against that kid, you don’t.
However, a study out of Indiana University says the evidence isn’t there that athletes who excel early in life also do so later, and the reason is likely obvious to anyone who’s seen a hulking third-grader suddenly look human if everyone else caught up to him in size by high school. From a school press release on the research, which was presented May 31 during the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting in Indianapolis:
An Indiana University study that compared the performance of elite track and field athletes younger than 20 and those 20 and older found that only a minority of the star junior athletes saw similar success as senior athletes.
The researchers think physical maturation is behind the disparity, with athletes who mature early reaping the benefits early, seeing their best times, jumps and throws at a younger age than Olympians, many of whom mature later.
“You see it in a lot of sports,” said Robert Chapman, assistant professor in the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington and a former cross country coach at IU [and co-author of the study]. “Elite performers in senior sports tend to be the ones who mature later. But it’s hard to measure, particularly in men, the rate at which they mature. I had a very successful runner grow 4 inches in college while he ran for me.”
The study looked at 65 male and 64 female athletes who were finalists in the 2000 Junior Olympics in track and field, and a comparable number of participants in the 2000 Olympics. Chapman and lead researcher Joshua Foss, an Indiana graduate student in exercise physiology, tracked the younger athletes 12 years past their Junior Olympics appearance, and tracked the older athletes 12 years before and after their Olympics participation. Among the study’s findings was that only 23.6 percent of the junior athletes went on to medal in the Olympics, and a mere 29.9% of the Olympians studied won junior championship medals.
Those numbers aren’t small, but they also indicate that performance as a youth won’t be matched automatically when that person is an adult. The reason, as Chapman referenced in the quote I cited above, is differing rates of physical maturation.
The researchers think physical maturation is behind the disparity, with athletes who mature early reaping the benefits early, seeing their best times, jumps and throws at a younger age than Olympians, many of whom mature later….
Variability in maturation rates and potential differences in performance as athletes age can pose a challenge for recruiting coaches. Coaches anecdotally have known this was an issue, Chapman said, but the IU study bolsters it with data. He said the findings also are relevant in light of how sports organizations and national sport governing bodies budget their limited funds. Focusing their spending on junior athletes will not necessarily result in Olympic champions as the juniors age.