How do talented children become elite adult athletes? Many young people start on the road toward becoming professional athletes, but few achieve this level of performance. The development of talent across a range of achievement domains, such as music, art, science, and sport, is a classic area of psychological research. Over the past 20 years or so, a robust body of talent development research has been published in the sport psychology literature.
Talent development reflects the classic nature– nurture debate in that there are some strong genetic components of talent development (e.g., height, body composition) and also strong environmental aspects (e.g., training, social support). From this perspective, the term talent can be used to refer to innate abilities, whereas the word development refers to how abilities are nurtured and enhanced. Given neither extreme environmental nor extreme genetic approaches may ever be conclusively supported, many researchers adopt the middle ground and, rather than view talent development as a nature versus nurture issue, consider talent development as the interaction of genetic and environmental factors.
It is generally accepted that athletes move through a number of stages of talent development, with each stage being characterized by distinct types of activities and different types of involvement and support from parents and coaches. Two important models are reviewed here. Although the terminology varies between these different models, the general principles are quite similar.
Bloom’s Stages of Talent Development
In 1985, psychologist Benjamin Bloom published a book based on interviews with 120 talented musicians, artists, scientists, and athletes (of whom 21 were Olympic swimmers and 18 tennis players who had been ranked among the world’s top 10). Bloom proposed talent development occurred through three stages. The first stage, the stage of initiation, was characterized by children engaging in fun and playful activities. They relied heavily on their teacher or coach for guidance and support, and at some point parents, teachers, or coaches noticed the children were apparently talented in some way. Parents played a key role, and they were often responsible for stimulating their child’s interest in their own personal areas of activity.
During the stage of development, children became hooked on a particular activity. Their pursuits became more serious, and their teachers and coaches were more technically skilled than at the previous level. Coaches took a strong personal interest in their prodigies and expected results through discipline and hard work. Practice time increased significantly and competition was used as a measure of progress. Crucially, parents provided both moral and financial support and helped to restrict their child’s engagement in distracting activities such as paid employment and social outings with friends.
The stage of perfection represents the time when performers become experts in their chosen activity, which now tended to dominate their lives. Performers were willing to invest the time and effort required to meet their performance goals. Responsibility for training and competition shifted from coaches to the individual. Simultaneously, performers were required to be autonomous and be able to deal with enormous demands from their coaches. Parents played a lesser role as individuals became completely absorbed in their actions and assumed total responsibility for them. Bloom emphasized that precocious children need a long-term commitment and increasing passion for their field if their talent is to develop in later life.
Developmental Model of Sport Participation
One of the most well-known models of talent development in sport was introduced by Canadian researcher Jean Côté, originally based on his 1999 study of elite adolescent athletes and their family members. Similar to Bloom’s model, Côté proposed three stages of talent development but used different terminology that reflected a more explicit focus on sport and the involvement of the family.
The sampling years (ages 6–13 years) were characterized by parents providing opportunities for their children to enjoy sport with an emphasis on fun rather than intense training. Typically, all the children within a family participated in various extracurricular activities, but at some point, parents recognized that a particular child had a gift for sport. During the specializing years (ages 13–15 years), athletes gradually decreased their involvement in extracurricular activities and focused on one or two sport events. Fun and enjoyment remained as central elements of the sporting experience, but sport-specific development emerged as an important characteristic of the participants’ athletic involvement. Parents emphasized school and sport achievement, made financial and time commitments to their child–athlete, and developed a personal interest in the child’s sport involvement, while other siblings acted as role models of work ethic. The investment years (age 15 years and over) reflected increased commitment by the athlete to one sport and parents showed even greater interest in this sport. Play activities were replaced by an enormous amount of practice. At this point, parents helped the athlete fight setbacks, such as injury, fatigue, or pressure, and demonstrated different behaviors toward each of their children, which sometimes caused younger siblings to show bitterness toward their older sibling’s achievement. Côté also suggested this talent development process was characterized by a move from deliberate play to deliberate practice (discussed below).
Côté expanded on his original study in a later work, and created the current developmental model of sport participation. Within this model three trajectories (pathways) of development in sport are proposed. The first trajectory, recreational participation through sampling, reflects a process whereby children engage in a variety of sports during the sampling years. By engaging in a range of playful games, children gain the building blocks for later participation in recreational (rather than elite) sport. The second trajectory, elite performance through sampling, reflects the classic three stages (sampling, specializing, investment) of the original research. In the third trajectory, elite performance through specialization, athletes skip the sampling years and are heavily invested in practice and competition activities for a specific sport during childhood (i.e., they specialize in a sport early). While some may achieve elite levels of sport through early specialization, this is a perilous route and early specializers often experience overuse injuries, reduced sport enjoyment, and are more likely to drop out of the sport in which they specialized.
An alternative approach to talent development was provided by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer. The original work was based on data obtained via diaries of daily activities from talented musicians and has since been replicated and expanded by sport psychology researchers. Ericsson proposed the concept of deliberate practice was crucial in the attainment of elite levels of performance. Deliberate practice activities are highly structured, require high levels of effort, generate no immediate rewards, and are specifically intended to improve performance.
Experts reported higher levels of deliberate practice than amateurs across a range of domains. This research ultimately led to the so-called 10,000-hours rule, whereby the attainment of elite levels of performance is associated with the accruement of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over approximately a 10-year span. This does not mean that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice produces elite athletes, but rather it provides an approximation of the number of practice hours in which elite performers have engaged.
Constraints that prevent performers engaging in optimal levels of deliberate practice are related to resources, motivation, and effort. Resource constraints, including time and access to coaches and training facilities, must be negotiated by individuals striving to excel. Because deliberate practice does not lead to immediate social or monetary rewards, individuals must overcome motivational constraints. In fact, individuals who engage in deliberate practice are in part motivated by the belief that deliberate practice ultimately leads to improved performance. Finally, deliberate practice is mentally and physically demanding, so individuals must overcome effort constraints.
Ericsson proposed that deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable, but athletes have reported that the most relevant and practiced activities in which they engage are highly enjoyable. More recently, Côté put forward a more sport-specific view that refined our understanding of deliberate practice. That is, Côté suggested, children engage in deliberate play activities. Deliberate play activities in sport are those designed to maximize enjoyment and are activities with flexible rules that are set up and monitored by children. During deliberate play, children are less concerned with outcomes or improving performance, but rather the focus is enjoyment. Hence, during sampling years children should likely engage in high amounts of deliberate play and low amounts of deliberate practice. In fact, the early specialization trajectory is often associated with high amounts of deliberate practice and low amounts of deliberate play, and this may account for the overuse injuries, lack of enjoyment, and drop-out associated with early specialization. Sport psychologists should encourage a focus on sampling a range of sports during childhood with an emphasis on deliberate play. Increasing levels of deliberate practice comes with later specialization and investment in sport.
Other Factors Associated With Talent Development
Although stage models and deliberate play or practice activities are the most prominent aspects of talent development research in sport psychology, several other factors have been implicated in the attainment of high levels of performance. Three such factors are reviewed below.
Relative Age Effect
Relative age effect refers to the time of year a person is born with respect to the age-eligibility cut-off for a particular sport. For example, if the age cut-off for a sport is January 1, 2002 (i.e., to play on a team a child must be born before January 1), a child born on December 31, 2001, would be eligible for this team, but so too would a child born on January 2, 2001. The January-born athlete is nearly a full year older than the December-born athlete and has advantages of additional growth, development, and practice. As size, speed, and coordination (valued attributes in many sports) are highly correlated with age, relatively older players often demonstrate superior levels of performance and are selected for elite teams ahead of relatively younger players. Relative age effect is generally a robust finding for elite-level age-group sports during adolescence. That is, on elite age-group teams, there are often a greater proportion of athletes born earlier in the age-eligibility year than those born later. The effect of relative age diminishes over time and is less relevant in sports that do not have strict age group boundaries.
The location of an athlete’s place of birth can influence the likelihood of playing professional sport. Research with male and female athletes from several sports (including golf, baseball, basketball, and ice hockey) has shown that athletes who were born and grew up in smaller cities are more likely to become elite athletes. Areas of lower population may provide conditions more conducive to the development of expertise than larger city environments because in smaller municipalities, children have fewer opportunities to engage in a range of activities and may have quite extensive support for specific sports; the hockey rink in a small town is the only option available, and the sport is widely supported in the community. Comparative analyses have suggested contextual factors associated with place of birth contribute more to the achievement of an elite level of sport performance than relative age effects.
The ratio of the second digit (index finger) on a hand to the fourth digit (ring finger) is known as 2D:4D. A smaller index finger than ring finger (i.e., a low 2D:4D ratio) has been associated with high levels of attainment in sport. One study with professional soccer players showed lower 2D:4D ratios than controls (a sample of men in the general population). Furthermore, within the sample of professional players, those who played in 1st teams (rather than reserves) and those who had played at international level had lower 2D:4D ratios than their counterparts who had not reached these pinnacles of professional soccer. Although the reasons
2D:4D effects have been observed among elite athletes are largely unproven, it is possible that fetal and adult testosterone may be important in establishing and maintaining abilities associated with physical competitiveness (and therefore the attainment of high levels of performance in sport). These findings reflect the idea that talent development is a combination of genetic and environmental factors.