There are criticisms on the notion that all children pass through the same generic set of sequential stages (e.g. biological; motor skill acquisition) as they grow, develop, and learn (Thelen and Smith 1996). We all start at one end and then progress, in linear fashion, from one stage to the next. As Thelen and Smith (1996) explain, “the equality of the outcome becomes the singularity of the process (page 7).”
The acceptance of single pathways to success leads us to rigid, unidirectional, and stubbornly generic training programs that cater to this average progression yet disregard any deviation. Unfortunately, when we do this, and most athlete development models are built on some degree of this singularity of the process notion, we completely miss that each and every athlete is uniqueand thus their developmental trajectories, which may certainly share some common elements (after all, we are all human), are still unique. It is well known that people can have different outcomes from similar experiences and similar outcomes from entirely different experiences (Sameroff 2010). Colleague Mark O’Sullivan (2018) wrote in a recent blog on athlete development, “why do you try to create generic models to find unique people?”
Ultimately, rigid athlete development programs tend to work well for some athletes but most have to adapt to the needs of the program (rather than the program adapting to the unique needs and trajectories of each individual). Therefore, their success rates are abysmal. According to Gullich and Cobley (2017), children showing early success have about a 2% success rate at maintaining those early results at the highest levels. In fact, research indicates that the majority of top athletes (senior level) were not involved in intensive athlete development systems in their younger years – they join the systems when they are older [see: (Baker, Cobley, and Schorer 2017)]! On the contrary, athletes hand-selected for these highly specific programs show much ‘promise’ in their youth and even achieve early competitive success. They display great potential and appear to learn more quickly. However, they never reproduce that success when they move up to the senior levels of competition. They are labeled “almosts (Collins, MacNamara, and McCarthy 2016)” because they dropout right before that elite level starts – mostly due to aggravation and burnout from trying to repeat their earlier success. Researchers from the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries came to the same conclusions several decades ago (Bompa and Haff 2009).
In the vast majority of cases, (Gullich and Cobley 2017), it is the individuals who are overlooked by intensive athlete development models who achieve the greatest long-term success in sports!
Fortunately, the acknowledgement of a single pathway to expertise has been met with much criticism (*) and research indicates that athlete development is a nonlinear process (Chow et al. 2015, I Schollhorn, Hegen, and Davids 2012, Davids 2013). As Weissensteiner (2017)puts it: athlete development follows a “chaotic developmental trajectory (p 52).”
Has every competitive senior level skater passed all the same tests? Yes. However, have these skaters taken them all at the same so-called stage of development, accomplished the same goals or remained in each of these stages for the same amount of time? Of course not. Some remain at one level for multiple seasons, while others might pass right through that same level. Some might have great competitive success at some levels while others might not.
The key is to recognize each athlete as a unique individual and to expect their developmental trajectories to unfold nonlinearly and uniquely and, vital to their success, we practitioners must provide these unique individuals with a unique training experience.
*(Hambrick et al. 2016, Macnamara, Hambrick, and Oswald 2014, Phillips et al. 2010, Davids 2000, Wai 2014, Detterman, Gabriel, and Ruthsatz 1998, Gagné 2013, 2007, Marcus 2012, Tucker and Collins 2012)
Baker, Joseph, Stephen Cobley, and Jorg Schorer. 2017. Routledge Handbook of Talent Identification and Development in Sport: Taylor & Francis.
Bompa, Tudor O, and G Gregory Haff. 2009. Periodization: Theory and methodology of training: Human Kinetics Publishers.
Chow, Jia Yi, Keith Davids, Chris Button, and Ian Renshaw. 2015. Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition: An introduction: Routledge.
Collins, Dave, Áine MacNamara, and Neil McCarthy. 2016. “Super champions, champions, and almosts: important differences and commonalities on the rocky road.” Frontiers in psychology6:2009.
Colvin, Geoff. 2008. Talent is overrated: Penguin Books.
Coyle, Daniel. 2009. The Talent Code: Greatest Isn’t Born, It’s Grown, Here’s how: Bantam.
Davids, Keith. 2000. “Skill acquisition and the theory of deliberate practice: It ain’t what your do it’s the way that you do it! Commentary on Starkes, L.” The road to expertise: Is practice the only determinant?”.” International Journal of Sport Psychology31:461-465.
Davids, Keith. 2013. Complex systems in sport. Vol. 7: Routledge.
Detterman, Douglas K, Lynne T Gabriel, and Joanne M Ruthsatz. 1998. “Absurd environmentalism.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences21 (3):411-412.
Ericsson, K Anders, Kiruthiga Nandagopal, and Roy W Roring. 2009. “Toward a science of exceptional achievement.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1172 (1):199-217.
Ericsson, K Anders, JL Starkes, and KA Ericsson. 2003. “Development of elite performance and deliberate practice.” Expert performance in sports: Advances in research on sport expertise:49-83.
Gagné, Françoys. 2007. “Predictably, an unconvincing second attempt.” High Ability Studies18 (1):67-69.
Gagné, Françoys. 2013. “Yes, giftedness (aka “innate” talent) does exist.” The complexity of greatness: Beyond talent or practice:191-221.
Gullich, Arne, and Stephen Cobley. 2017. “On the efficacy of talent identification and talent development programmes.” In Routledge Handbook of Talent Identification and Development in Sport, edited by Joseph Baker, Stephen Cobley, Jorg Schorer and Nick Wattie. New York, NY: Routledge.
Hambrick, David Z, Brooke N Macnamara, Guillermo Campitelli, Fredrik Ullén, and Miriam A Mosing. 2016. “Beyond Born versus Made: A New Look at Expertise.”
I Schollhorn, W, P Hegen, and Keith Davids. 2012. “The nonlinear nature of learning-A differential learning approach.” The Open Sports Sciences Journal5 (1).
Macnamara, Brooke N, David Z Hambrick, and Frederick L Oswald. 2014. “Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: A meta-analysis.” Psychological science25 (8):1608-1618.
Marcus, Gary. 2012. Guitar Zero: Oneworld Publications.
O’Sullivan, Mark. 2018. “State of Play (part 3) Form of Life and Culturally Resilient Beleifs.” March 21, 2018.
Phillips, Elissa, Keith Davids, Ian Renshaw, and Marc Portus. 2010. “Expert performance in sport and the dynamics of talent development.” Sports Medicine40 (4):271-283.
Sameroff, Arnold. 2010. “A unified theory of development: A dialectic integration of nature and nurture.” Child development81 (1):6-22.
Shenk, David. 2010. The genius in all of us: why everything you’ve been told about genetics, talent, and IQ is wrong: Random House LLC.
Syed, Matthew. 2010. Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the science of success: Harper Collins.
Thelen, Esther, and Linda B Smith. 1996. A dynamic systems approach to the development of cognition and action: MIT press.
Tucker, Ross, and Malcolm Collins. 2012. “What makes champions? A review of the relative contribution of genes and training to sporting success.” Br J Sports Med46 (8):555-561.
Wai, Jonathan. 2014. “What does it mean to be an expert?” Intelligence45:122-123.
Weissensteiner, Juanita R. 2017. “How contemporary international perspectives have consolidated a best-practice approach for identifying and developing sport talent.” In Routledge Handbook of Talent Identification and Development in Sport, edited by Joseph Baker, Stephen Cobley, Jorg Schorer and Nick Wattie. London: Routledge.