Learn why sport sampling is a key to creating elite athletes.

Recently I attended a two hour lecture and question answer session on science and high performance sport with world leading author David Epstein. It was fascinating to hear about the trends in science and how young athletes can be prepared to become elite athletes when they are older.

Sport Sampling

Sport Sampling was a key theme.

  • The chances of pre-pubescent children selecting the right sport at a young age is very low.
  • Some kids find their right sport straight away, not many though.
  • There can be a psychological and physiological cost to specialising early.
  • If you select the most talented 10 athletes at 12-13 years, and then the whole group (including those not selected) does the required training, there is a very high likelihood that you would select a different talented 10 athletes at 15-16 years of age.
  • Schools should understand the concept of scholarships for multi-sport athletes and allow these athletes to change sport.
  • Children who grow up in a small town are 18 to 20 times more likely to be an elite athlete when they are older – they do lots of sport sampling and have lots of fun. Good athletes in country regions are encouraged to get outside, do sport or play around at every opportunity.
  • The most technically proficient coaches are in the city area however they try to specialise kids too young and don’t get the same long term results as country kids achieve.
  • We have a desire to specialise too early and this is a major problem in the USA and Australia.
  • Exceptional musicians sample 6 different instruments before they become exceptional at one.  Sport is generally no different.
  • A typical elite athlete has a sport sampling period up to the age of 15 to 18 years and develops a much later focus on a specific sport.
  • Try “deliberate sampling” like doing similar sports that will help each other sport improve too, For example swimming, water polo and surf lifesaving
  • Give athletes the opportunity to re-create in another sport.

Coach Tips

For the coach to take on board:

  • Teach the basic skills and technique before moving onto more complex skills and drills. Don’t teach grammar before they can spell.
  • Creating the right environment is very important for development and long term success. A great environment is very important, It should be supportive, include positive feedback, focus on learning and learn and develop from making mistakes.
  • How do you provide “de-selected kids” with the opportunities whereby they can become “selected kids” in the future. ie Provide similar training and game/racing opportunities to both selected and de-selected kids. Shadow teams are a great way to achieve this.
  • Feedback should be provided instantly with a focus on something that is done well.
  • Most coaches give correction feedback all of the time. They should also be providing positive feedback on something the athlete is doing well.  Puppy training is built on positive reinforcement and training athletes should be no different.
  • Training should be fun and innovative even at the elite level. Sport must be enjoyable. Aim to inject fun into training sessions.
  • Coaches should use implicit learning more often and take care in how often they use explicit learning.
  • Implicit learning – learning when you don’t know you are learning. Trial and error, games with skills attached… This is great for young athletes and is used by successful coaches of juniors all the time.
  • Explicit learning – coaches always have so much information to share and always want to talk.  Many coaches of juniors particularly fall into this trap.
  • Find out what the child wants to do – intrinsic motivation is very important.
  • Promote your sport to attract as many people as you can to your sport.
  • We all like to belong to something greater than ourselves.
  • Chinese have beginners and Olympic gold medallists in the same room.
  • It is great to expose young children to the coaching of elite coaches.
  • Coaches should help kids to get “a vision of their future self”.
  • If you really want to motivate your athletes, spend time with them and learning what makes them tick. Having said that, you want the child’s motivation to take over at some point.
  • If you want to coach the best 13 year olds in the world, then specialise them at a young age, but don’t expect them to reach their potential and become an elite athlete when they are older.
  • Volume is something you can bring in later (2 years worth will do the job).
  • Understand that some people can be competitive with sport but not necessarily with other things (like school work!)
  •  Continue to develop your coaching skills all the time. Establishing a behaviour of continuous improvement and learning is a huge asset for a coach and will help you to be successful with athletes of all ages and abilities.

Athlete Tips

And for the athlete

  • Personal drive is important. Internal motivation is critical for elite athletes.
  • Successful athletes must have a strong mental attitude, the ability focus on the task at hand and the intent to improve.
  • Ultimately, their chosen sport must be child driven.
  • When you are older – be prepared to work hard and do more to “win” if you want to become an elite athlete.
  • Cathy Freeman always finishes a training session hard.
  • Competitiveness is very important to become an elite athlete.
    –          Train hard
    –          Will to win

The main lesson that I took out of this session was the flowchart below which follows the continuum from a young athlete to an elite athlete…


Finally, watch this Ted Talk by David Epstein and check out our World leading swim coach support and mentor program now available to all swimming coaches around the world.

Gary Barclay