What makes an elite athlete? Research from Bournemouth University’s Professor Tim Rees finds out

In just a few months’ time, all eyes will turn to the outstanding achievements of some of the world’s top athletes as the Olympics and Paralympics get underway.  But what does it take to become an elite athlete?  Bournemouth University’s Professor Tim Rees has been finding out.

“Competition for medals at the Olympics and World Championships is increasing, meaning there’s more pressure than ever on coaches and sporting bodies to make the right decisions about investment,” explains Professor Rees, “Making those decisions can be difficult, so it’s important to have a solid evidence base to draw on.  Coaches need to know the best ways of identifying and supporting our sporting talent.”

“We began our research back in 2010 after UK Sport asked us to find out how to identify, develop and predict the performance of future elite sporting talent,” says Professor Rees, “We worked with elite athletes, coaches and researchers to learn about current understandings of the performance and development of elite athletes.  We then reviewed existing data and literature, which helped us to put together a series of recommendations for sporting practice in the UK.”

“The findings of our review have had real and practical implications for the development of the next generation of elite athletes in the UK.  Our research is already being used by UK Sport and has influenced coaching and selection practices for our Olympic athletes.”

So what does make an elite athlete?

The athlete

Professor Rees’ review took into account factors that affect the athlete, their environment and practice and training.

“Being born earlier in the academic year can give junior athletes an advantage, but this tends to disappear by the time they reach an elite sporting level,” explains Professor Rees, “It means that it shouldn’t be used in talent selection and instead coaches should be focusing on how to mitigate the negative effects of relative age.”

“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.  For example, successful gymnasts and divers tend to be small and light,” says Professor Rees.

“However, data about the impact of genetics is currently quite limited, so while it’s a factor to consider, it can’t necessarily predict athletic performance.  Similarly, it can be very difficult to predict sporting ability as an adult, based on adolescent performance data.  This suggests that coaches need to consider how they recruit ‘lost’ or late developers.”

The environment

“Birthplace, or at least the location that children grow up in, can 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,” explains Professor Rees, “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 and siblings, friends or coaches – can also make a big difference to an athlete’s early development, although there isn’t enough evidence yet to explore all the complexities and nuances of those relationships,” continues Professor Rees, “It’s something that we think should be investigated further.”

“Many elite athletes take part in development programmes at some stage of their career, but performance at a junior level doesn’t necessarily correlate with success at a senior level.  Progression is rarely linear, which suggests that these kinds of programmes need to be flexible in order to work with older teenagers and young adults, as well as children.”

Practice and training

“Deliberate practice – training for and playing your chosen sport- is a key part of athletic development, but the amount needed can vary hugely between sports,” says Professor Rees.

“Playing more of your chosen sport doesn’t always lead to an improvement in performance, so it’s important for athletes to vary their training.  Play and incidental learning can make a real difference, particularly in early phases of development, as research shows that full concentration doesn’t always lead to optimal performance.  Varying activity can also help avoid the risk of burn out, over-use injuries and dropout.”

The full paper can be read here.