Development pathways to elite sport

Development pathways to elite sporting performance have attracted a lot of attention over recent years, especially with many sporting organisations dropping representative teams under the age of 14/15. Until recently, the notion of 10,000 hours of practice being the optimal pathway to elite sporting success was widely accepted. There are several athlete development models, however the DMSP (see flow diagram) is the most prominent conceptualisation cited in the literature. This model identifies two major pathways to elite performance.


Figure 1.The Development of Sport Participation (DMSP). Adopted from Cote, Murphy-Mills, & Abernethy (2012).

Firstly, “early specialisation’, characterised by high volumes of deliberate practice (this is sport specific structured practice), low volumes of deliberate play (e.g., backyard cricket) and participation in only one sport from an early age (6-12 roughly).

Secondly, “early sampling”, which has three distinct developmental stages:

  1. The sampling years – childhood, 6-12 years old
  2. The specialising years – early adolescence, 13-15 years old
  3. The investment years – late adolescence, 16+ years old

There is an additional category of recreational years (adolescence ages, 13+ years).

Over the past 20 years, athlete development has predominantly followed an early specialisation pathway, which is a proven pathway for athlete development, particularly in sports where peak-performance typically occurs pre-physical maturity. However early specialisation has many disadvantages, including physical and emotional decline (as seen regularly in the media), failure to reach full adult growth, burnout, reduced enjoyment, increased injury rates, loss of motivation and dropout. Conversely, diverse sporting experiences (sampling) have numerous advantages. Sampling pathways enhance development of essential fundamental movement skills, increased enjoyment, access to a range of sports, motivation to remain physically active later in life, reduced injuries, higher levels of self-determination, and improved fitness.

A recent study by Newport, Walters, Millar et al. showed that most of our Elite New Zealand Hockey Players grew up in rural communities, were play (unstructured imaginative activities, i.e., backyard cricket, trampoline etc.) was frequent, and everyone was required to play school sports so the school could field a team. Enjoyment is an important aspect of sport that motivates adults and children to participate. Increased or decreased enjoyment is linked to early sampling or early specialisation pathways, respectively.

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