Are elite youth athletes destined for athletic success as they grow older? Not necessarily.
A majority of the top youth track-and-field athletes aren’t able to sustain their dominance as they age, finds a new study from Indiana University.
The study examines the career performance of 65 male finalists and 64 female finalists in track-and-field events from the 2000 Junior World Championships and 64 male and 64 female track-and-field finalists from the 2000 Olympic Games. Researchers tracked these athletes’ annual performance bests in specific events—100-meter and 200-meter sprints; 1500-meter and 5000-meter distance runs; long jumps and high jumps; and discus and shot put—throughout their careers.
They discovered that the top Junior athletes tended to reach their lifetime best performance at a significantly earlier age than the top Olympic athletes. For instance, the male finalists from the 2000 Junior World Championships reached their lifetime best performance in sprints around the age of 20, while male finalists from the 2000 Olympic Games topped out around the age of 25. This trend held true across all four track-and-field events on the men’s side and three of the four events examined for females.
The researchers also tracked the percentage improvement from the athletes’ best performance as a Junior (under 20) to their lifetime best, and found similar results. The 2000 Olympic Games finalists tended to have a far higher percentage improvement from their best performance as a Junior to their lifetime best than the finalists from the 2000 Junior World Championships.
What does that mean in terms of hardware acquired? Only 23.6 percent of athletes who won medals at the 2000 Junior World Championships would go on to win Olympics medals later in their careers, the study found. Likewise, a minority of Olympic medalists (29.9 percent) had previously won medals at the Junior World Championships.
The researchers hypothesize that the differences may be due to when maturation occurs among the two groups of athletes. “Successful Junior athletes may be earlier maturers than top Senior athletes, which may be advantageous for competitive success as a Junior athlete,” they suggest.
Ultimately, they conclude that success at the Junior level doesn’t necessarily determine success at the Senior level and vice versa.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.