Predicting Success of Young Champions
I mentioned earlier this week that talent can be hard to identify since it involves so many elements. Yesterday I thought of an even better example to prove this point. Other indicators may not work, but at least you would think that if a kid is good at throwing the hammer, then there is a high chance he will continue to be good. How much more specific of a test can you have than actually throwing the hammer? But after looking back at historical data, the facts don’t even back up this assumption. The best kids are more likely not to be the best adults.
We all know this is the case in America, but that is mostly due to the unique fact that most Americans do not even touch a hammer for the first time before they enroll in a university at age 19. Only one male (Conor McCullough) and one female (Kristin Smith) in the finals at last year’s US Championships had started throwing the hammer before college. But surprisingly this is also the case internationally even though the best international throwers begin training for the hammer at a much younger age.
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The majority of junior talents can succeed as seniors. The reasons a lot of them don’t can be attributed to other factors that you mentioned, with coaching as a large one.
In my honest opinion, putting too much focus on an athletes junior career is not a good thing. If the athlete shows true dedication and love for the sport, his training should be planned towards senior years, with junior competitions serving for gaining experience and further motivation. If your athlete is 19 and he’s been training since he’s 13, and you’re still putting all your focus on training for his last junior competitions, that athlete will get stuck there and fail as a senior.
The reason you see a lot of champions making real progress later in life is because they did it right. They used their junior years for development, with senior career as a clear goal. It took years, but it payed off. They didn’t get emotionally and physically burned out, or wasted valuable development time on something that in the end doesn’t really matter.
It isn’t just hammer throw. This trend is across all events. Basically, early maturers win World Youth/ World Juniors and those on a more relaxed progression rate end up at the Olympics.
Mykyta Nesterenko is the greatest example here. In 2007 I would have taken any bet that he would be the Olympic champion in 2012. He threw 65.32 as a 17 year old and this is still his best throw now he is 21!!
Very interesting analysis, Martin, but let’s face it, none of us can really be surprised. I did my analysis on World Youth Championships (see link below) just to confirm what I felt was happening.
But it is good to have the numbers to back up the argument that the focus needs to shift towards long term athlete development. One of the problems is that coaches, athletes but also parents want short term success. These kinds of analyses give sensible, long-term focused coaches “ammunition” when athletes and parents, but also institutions such as schools, institutes, or governing bodies, push for short term gain at the expense of long term development. If we’re serious about giving athletes the best chance at having a fulfilled and successful career, then we need to focus on the long term.