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Career Performance Progressions of Junior and Senior Elite Track and Field Athletes

  • Joshua L. Foss
  • Jacob A. Sinex
  • Robert F. ChapmanEmail author
Original article

Abstract

Purpose

To compare and assess differences in the career performance progressions of elite junior and Olympic track and field athletes.

Methods

Annual best performances from top 8 men and women (e.g. finalists) in track and field events at the 2000 World Junior Championships (junior cohort) and the 2000 Olympic Games (Olympic cohort) were examined. Annual bests of these finalists were tracked each year from select groups: sprints (100 m, 200 m), distance (1500 m, 5000 m), jumps (long jump, high jump), throws (discus, shot put). Age of best lifetime performance, age of final posted performance, and improvement from junior-age best to lifetime best performance were compared between groups.

Results

Olympic finalists achieved lifetime best performances at later ages than junior finalists [26.0 ± 4.0 years vs. 21.1 ± 3.5 years; age difference 90% CI (3.7–5.2 years), P < 0.001], and this significant age difference between cohorts was found within all four groups. Olympic finalists improved from under-20 best to lifetime best more so than junior finalists [6.1 ± 4.8% vs. 2.5 ± 2.3%; Age difference 90% CI (2.5–4.8%), P < 0.001]. Of 130 junior finalists, 54 did not improve after age 19, while 19 of 128 Olympic finalists posted no improvement after age 19.

Conclusion

The data suggest that these two populations have different career performance progressions and challenge the notion that achieving elite success as a junior athlete is a prerequisite for the same success at the senior level.

Keywords

Youth sport Maturation Physical development Early specialization 

Introduction

Physical and motor development over the lifespan are important components of sport performance. Athletes often begin focused training and competing at a young age, with the expectation that the accumulation of practice time and competition will give them the best opportunity to become elite performers as adults [2, 8, 10]. Early specialization among children has become commonplace, with concepts such as Deliberate Practice and the “10,000 h rule” entering the public consciousness and strongly influencing how skills in youth are developed by coaches, teachers, and parents [3, 10, 11, 12]. However, this early specialization movement is not without its detractors [24, 31, 39], as several studies suggest that elite performance can occur with much shorter time investment than 10,000 h [2, 16, 33, 34] and late specialization may actually produce better performances in more physiological-based sports (versus skill-based sports) than early specialization [14, 30].

In the sport of track and field, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) holds the World Junior Championships every 2 years for athletes under the age of 20. National governing bodies for track and field invest considerable financial and administrative resources to send athletes, coaches, and staff to the World Junior Championships, as it is a commonly held belief that competing at this event is a foundational step for promising young athletes to become successful performers at the senior level (i.e. open to all ages) of championship competition, such as the World Championships and Olympic Games [19, 21]. The available data suggest that this investment in junior athletes is highly debatable, with conclusions being largely dependent on how the data are presented. For example, in a cohort of 137 track and field athletes examined retrospectively who were (a) gold medalists at a World Championships or Olympic Games, and (b) previously competed at a World Junior Championships, 55% were junior medal winners (i.e. top three finishers) and 80% were junior finalists (i.e. top eight finishers). This outcome would suggest that success at the junior level is a likely prerequisite for success at the senior level [21]. Interestingly when the same data are examined prospectively, following the careers of 1054 medalists at World Junior Championships from 1986 through 2004, just 21% won a medal at a senior global championship—which includes “regional” championships, such as the Commonwealth Games or European Championships. Of note, the majority of World Junior Championships medalists in this timeframe (54%) never even competed, let alone medaled, at a single senior World Championships or Olympic Games during the remainder of their athletics career. These data are in line with an analysis by Zelichenok [40], indicating that of the top three finishers historically at the World Junior Championships in track and field, 60–70% “do not go on to achieve any serious success at the senior level.” The mixed results of these studies suggest participating in junior championships should not be assumed to result in a risk-free return on investment at the senior level.

The purpose of this study was to examine the age of lifetime best performance and career performance progressions of a select cohort of elite junior and senior track and field athletes. Our working hypotheses were that: (a) elite junior athletes will have a younger age corresponding to lifetime best performance compared to elite senior athletes, and (b) the elite senior athletes will see a greater magnitude of improvement from his or her best junior (under-20) performance to his or her lifetime best performance. Differences in age of best performance between junior and senior championship-calibre athletes, as well as the degree of improvement as athletes age, may suggests differences in maturational pace.

Methods

Subjects

The subjects for this study included the top 8 place finishers in selected track and field events at the 2000 Olympic Games (senior cohort) and the 2000 World Junior Championships (junior cohort; total of 129 male athletes and 128 female athletes, age 14–39 years). Selected events included the 100 m, 200 m, 1500 m, 5000 m, high jump, long jump, shot put, and discus. Subjects from the Olympics ranged in age from 19 to 39, while those in the World Junior Championships (by definition) were all under age 20 at the time of competition. Subjects were organized by event and then categorized into groups: sprints (100 m, 200 m), distance (1500 m, 5000 m), jumps (high jump, long jump), and throws (shot put, discus). Subjects were not required to give written informed consent since all data were collected from publicly available databases. Some subjects did compete in multiple events (e.g. 100 m and 200 m) in their respective championship, but no athletes competed in both the World Junior Championship and the Olympic Games in the year 2000, and no athletes competed across multiple event groups.

Protocol and Techniques

The official track and field results of the 2000 Olympic Games and the 2000 World Junior Championships were used to find the names, date of birth, and country of representation of the top 8 finishers in each event. IAAF (http://www.iaaf.org) and All-Athletics (http://www.all-athletics.com) databases were used to track the top performance for each athlete for each year of their competitive career. Data were recorded for each year that the athlete had a published result, and those data included performances as early as 1981 until 2012. The 2000 World Junior Championships and Olympic Games were specifically selected so all athletes had a 12-year span after the year 2000 to establish a career-best performance.

The age of each subject was standardized as of March 1 of each competitive year. This date was selected because the earliest outdoor competitions in the Northern Hemisphere for each competitive year took place in March. Therefore, by standardizing March 1 as the date for age-determination, each calendar year would correspond to a single age for all athletes analysed. This method also allowed the assigned age to be nearest to the actual age during competition, while preventing age changes in the middle of each season.

Any year that did not have a published performance by an athlete was omitted, and it was assumed that the athlete did not compete. These data were also used to determine an age of attrition from the sport. Using the best performances from each competitive year, the age of best career performance was determined, as well as percent improvement from top performance under age 20 to lifetime best performance. For this analysis, indoor competitions, competitions at altitude (> 1000 m) and wind-aided performances (> 2.0 m/s) were excluded.

The athletes were also placed into 4 groups based on birthdate (Q1 = January 1–March 31, Q2 = April 1–June 30, Q3 = July 1–September 30, Q4 = October 1–December 31) and grouped as junior men, junior women, senior men, and senior women. Two additional subgroups (one for men and one for women) were created for the junior athletes born in 1981 (age 19 at during competition year). It is important to note that the birthdate cut-off for the World Junior Championships is December 31, therefore RAEs were analysed based on the assumption that athletes born in January are the oldest relative to their counterparts.

Statistical Analysis

Dependent variables of age of best performance and percent improvement in performance from under age 20 to lifetime best were analysed using 2 × 4 independent groups ANOVAs, with competition cohort (junior or senior) and events (sprints, distance, jumps, throws) as between groups variables. Separate ANOVAs were utilized for both sexes and for each dependent variable, with a priori simple main effects used to determine differences between junior and senior cohorts within each event group. A Chi square test of independence was performed to compare calendar quarter age-group distributions to an expected distribution within each cohort, for age 19 athletes, and by sex. SPSS version 20 (IBM, Armonk, NY) and Microsoft R Open 3.3.3 (Redmond, WA) were used to complete the statistical analysis. All data were presented as mean ± SD, and the significance level was set at P < 0.05.

Results

Age of Best Performance

For all athletes, the age of best lifetime performance was significantly younger in the junior cohort (21.1 ± 3.5 years; n = 129) than in the senior cohort (26.0 ± 4.0 years; n = 128). Among men, the age of best performance of the junior cohort was significantly younger than the senior cohort in all event groups (Fig. 1). Similarly, age of best performance in women was also significantly younger in the junior versus the senior athletes in all event groups except for the jumps (P = 0.78; Fig. 1). There were no significant differences between men and women in terms of age of best performance, whether for the group or within individual event groups.
Fig. 1

Age of lifetime best performance of the finalists (top 8 finishers) in select track and field events at the 2000 World Junior Championships (black bars) and the 2000 Olympic Games (grey bars). Values are mean ± SD. *Significant difference between World Junior Finalists and Olympic Games finalists, P < 0.05

Table 1 displays the number of athletes who achieved the best mark of their career within each ordinal year of age. Of note is that 41.5% of the junior cohort achieved their career lifetime best at age 19 or younger versus 4.3% of the senior athletes. By age 24, a full 80.6% of junior athletes had recorded the best mark they would achieve in their lifetime. By comparison, only 43.0% of senior athletes had the best mark of their careers at age 24 or younger.
Table 1

Frequency distribution of age of lifetime best performance

Age (years)

Junior cohort

Senior cohort

Count

Percent at age (%)

Cumulative

Cumulative % (%)

Count

Percent at age (%)

Cumulative

Cumulative % (%)

≤ 19

54

41.9

54

41.9

6

4.7

6

4.7

20

8

6.2

62

48.1

6

4.7

12

9.4

21

13

10.1

75

58.1

9

7.0

21

16.4

22

10

7.8

85

65.9

11

8.6

32

25.0

23

8

6.2

93

72.1

11

8.6

43

33.6

24

11

8.5

104

80.6

12

9.4

55

43.0

25

9

7.0

115

89.1

13

10.2

68

53.1

26

4

3.1

119

92.2

16

12.5

84

65.6

≥ 27

11

8.5

129

100

44

34.4

128

100

Table 2 displays the 60 total athletes (from both the junior and senior cohorts) who had zero improvement in performance from their best under-20 mark to any later age, grouped by sex and event group.
Table 2

Frequency distribution of athletes without a performance improvement from best under-20 mark to any later age (n = 60)

Event group

Junior cohort

Senior cohort

Men

Women

Men

Women

Athletes without a performance improvement from best under-20 mark to any later age

 Sprints

8

8

0

0

 Distance

8

10

2

2

 Jumps

8

5

0

1

 Throws

1

6

0

1

 Total count

25

29

2

4

 Percent of cohort (%)

41.7

48.3

3.3

6.7

While a total of 54 members of the junior cohort (out of 129) did not improve their lifetime best mark after age 19, only six of the senior athletes failed to improve their best mark after the age 19. Of the six, two were men who made the finals of the 2000 Olympic Games at ages 19 and 21 (both in the 5000 m, including the Olympic Champion). The four senior women who failed to improve their lifetime best mark after age 19 were, at time of the 2000 Olympics, aged 21 (1500 m), 22 (5000 m), 29 (high jump; Olympic Champion), and 30 (discus). In the junior cohort, it is interesting to note that the winners (i.e. the World Junior Champion) of both men’s sprint (100 m, 200 m) and men’s distance (1500 m, 5000 m) events, as well as the men’s high jump and women’s 1500 m, did not achieve a better mark in their lifetime in those events after age 19.

Age of Final Recorded Performance

Table 3 displays the number of athletes who did not have a performance recorded in their event in the IAAF or All-Athletics database after a given year of age. Just over a quarter of the junior athletes stopped posting marks in their event by age 23 and just over half by age 26. Of the senior athletes, only 2.3% and 11.7% stopped posting marks in their event by age 23 and 26 respectively. Interestingly, of the 54 junior athletes whose lifetime best occurred at age 19 or younger, 12 (22%) did not have a single recorded performance in their event in either the IAAF or all-athletics.com database after the age of 19.
Table 3

Frequency distribution of having an officially recorded performance after select ages

Age (years)

Junior cohort

Senior cohort

Cumulative count of athletes without a recorded performance after each age

Cumulative % who did not have a recorded performance after age (%)

Cumulative count of athletes without a recorded performance after each age

# who did not have a recorded performance after age (cumulative % of n = 128) (%)

19

11

8.5

0

0

20

17

13.2

0

0

21

22

17.1

0

0

22

28

21.7

1

0.8

23

35

27.1

3

2.3

24

43

33.3

8

6.3

25

56

43.4

10

7.8

26

66

51.2

15

11.7

Junior cohort, n = 129. Senior cohort, n = 128

Career Improvement in Performance from the Junior Age Group

Senior athletes showed a significantly greater improvement (6.1 ± 4.8%) than junior athletes (2.5 ± 2.3%) from their best performance under age 20 to their best career performance. Figure 2 displays the percentage improvement in performance from best under-20 to career best by event groups and sex, with significant differences between the junior and senior cohorts in 5 of the 8 event groupings.
Fig. 2

Percent improvement in best performance from under-20 best to career best by finalists (top 8 finishers) in select track and field events at the 2000 World Junior Championships (black bars) and the 2000 Olympic Games (grey bars). Values are mean ± SD. *Significant difference between World Junior Finalists and Olympic Games finalists, P < 0.05

Relative Age Effects

Table 4 shows that, using Chi square analysis, only the senior women had a significant (P = 0.02) deviation from expected values for birth date distribution in Q1–Q4 (CDC WONDER Online Database, https://wonder.cdc.gov/Natality.html). The other groups did not indicate significant effects due to the age-grouping (junior men born in 1981 had a P value of 0.06).
Table 4

Chi square test compared to expected probabilities (Q1 = 0.240, Q2 = 0.247, Q3 = 0.264, Q4 = 0.249)

Group

Q1

Q2

Q3

Q4

χ 2

df

P-value

Junior men—all

0.323

0.246

0.277

0.154

4.27

3

0.23

Junior men—age 19

0.394

0.152

0.333

0.121

7.24

3

0.06

Senior men

0.188

0.266

0.312

0.234

1.45

3

0.69

Junior women—all

0.234

0.297

0.266

0.203

1.19

3

0.75

Junior women—age 19

0.136

0.318

0.318

0.227

1.72

3

0.63

Senior women

0.344

0.172

0.141

0.344

10.33

3

0.02*

Juniors—all

0.279

0.271

0.271

0.178

3.75

3

0.29

Juniors—age 19

0.291

0.218

0.327

0.164

3.22

3

0.36

Seniors—all

0.266

0.219

0.227

0.289

2.27

3

0.52

Discussion

The primary finding of this study is that World Junior Championships finalists in track and field have career-best performances at earlier ages and see less performance improvement over their careers than Olympic Games finalists. Hollings et al. found similar values for peak performance age of world-class track athletes as what our study did for the senior group, while the junior age of best performance we observed was analogously younger [20]. Early attrition in the junior cohort is likely a contributing factor to the differences in career performance progressions. We speculate that performance advantages for the junior athletes could be related to maturational pace—individuals who reach maturity at an earlier age will be more physically developed than late-maturing counterparts of the same biological age.

Why the majority of top junior athletes in track and field ultimately fail to replicate their success at the senior rank is likely due to a multitude of influencing factors [22]. Certainly, at the highest levels of amateur and professional sports, a “Darwinian” competitive process results in attrition of underperforming athletes. In younger athletes, premature termination of athletic careers has been theorized to be due to factors ranging from lack of motivation, increased injury incidence, change in life priorities or interests, and early specialization caused burnout [1, 5, 38]. Another important factor in performance among youth athletes that may affect attrition rates is physical maturation. Differences in maturation, which result in competitive advantage for some athletes over others, may be brought about in two ways: age group competitions and maturational pace. Birth date-based policies to determine competition age groups inevitably set up situations in which relatively young participants are matched against relatively older participants. Within youth sport, older participants are likely to be more developed physically, to receive more coaching attention and playing time, and to engage in more competitive opportunities [18]. Relative age effects (RAEs) describe the resulting implications of age differences on short-term participation and long-term success in a given sport [7]. A meta-analysis authored by Cobley et al. [7] found that RAEs were prevalent across 14 sports in 16 countries, with the greatest risk of RAEs among adolescent males participating in regional and national-level competitions. How RAEs play out in track and field has not been conclusively shown.

Another possibility is that top performing junior athletes may be early physical maturers who reach a physiological development and performance peak at a young age, regardless of relative age differences. Early maturation may provide a competitive advantage in junior competition that may not persist into senior competition. It has been repeatedly shown that later maturing female athletes are often the most successful in elite sport as adults [6, 25]. For example, studies examining female US Olympic athletes in swimming, volleyball, figure skating, and track and field, as well as elite rowers, have consistently shown significantly later ages at menarche compared to cohorts of high school or sub-elite athletes in the same sports [13, 25, 37]. Among male athletes, elite junior athletes are generally average to advanced in terms of biological maturity [6], but this advantage in biological maturity relative to chronological age decreases as young athletes become older [26]. While chronological age has often been thought to be the best predictor of when an athlete will reach peak performance, differences in maturational pace have been suggested to be a better predictor of the peak performance timeline [9]. Interestingly, of seven studies published between 1995 and 2014 that have specifically examined performances in the transition from junior to senior age levels in elite track and field [15, 21, 22, 23, 34, 36, 40], only the Hollings (2014) study mentions the concept of maturational pace or early physiological peaking as a potential contributing factor.

The difficulty of transitioning from being an elite junior athlete to an elite senior athlete is well-documented [21, 40]. From a retrospective viewpoint, there are many examples of senior Olympic and World Champions who have produced high level performances as juniors. However, it is also proven quite difficult to predict which juniors will go on to achieve success as senior athletes [40], and our data indicate substantial early attrition from the sport among the junior cohort (specifically, top performing juniors). Certainly, some of the junior cohort may have stopped training before hitting a physiological peak, whether from injury or other reasons. Because our study was not a controlled experimental setting, we can only speculate that the majority of our subject sample did in fact continue training until reaching a physiological lifetime best performance. The rate of attrition from junior to senior athletic success may also be influenced by the size of the pool of senior athletes for an event in each country. Larger countries, such as the US and China, and countries with strong emphasis in a particular discipline such as Kenya with distance running, tend to convert fewer junior elite athletes into senior elite athletes than smaller countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Cuba [19, 21]. Therefore, the Olympic and World Championship success of countries with a larger athletic population base may not be strongly affected by junior attrition rates, as these countries can replace lost junior athletes with senior athletes of similar ability. In these larger population countries, there may be little pressure to develop athletic programs and structures that reduce attrition and increase conversion of successful juniors to successful seniors.

Among junior athletes, relative age effects within a competition age group may explain the relatively higher performance of some young athletes in comparison to their subsequent peak performance. RAEs are well-documented in many team sports such as ice hockey, volleyball and soccer [7]. Within an age-group cohort at the youth levels, older individuals are typically more physically mature than younger individuals, get more competitive opportunities, and have more practice and experience in the sport [32]. Individual sports, including track and field, also use age cut-offs to determine competition groups and RAEs might be expected. Indeed, RAEs were observed in the age distribution of athletes in the 2012 Youth Winter Olympics, which are largely comprised of individual events [35]. The birth-date distribution of participants at these games skewed heavily toward athletes born in the first year of 2-year age groups. RAEs are often used to explain a higher drop-out rate among later-born athletes in a given competition age group [32]. In our study, only the senior women had a significant (P = 0.02) deviation from expected values (Table 4), and the other groups did not have evidence of RAEs. Although our sample size was not large enough to definitively dismiss the effect of RAEs in the sport of track & field, we did not observe a trend related to athletes who were born in earlier months being more successful. The difference in the senior women was likely due to sampling variation. It is feasible to argue that by age 19, any differences in maturation due to RAEs for track and field athletes are not significant enough to explain the performance differences that are observed in this study. Thus, another possible rationale is warranted.

From these data, we speculate that maturational pace may play an important role in the achievement of success among junior athletes while perhaps limiting the likelihood of senior athletic success among the same athletes. This conclusion is congruent with previous research that supports the importance of sport-specific size and physique among successful junior athletes [4] and later menarche among older junior female athletes [17, 27, 28, 29]. While a key purpose of this study was to investigate a possible relationship between maturational pace and success in elite junior versus senior athletics, we were not able to collect data of specific markers of maturational pace on the athletes whose performances were included. However, the strength of the differences in performance progressions between the junior and senior cohorts studied do allow for careful speculation regarding maturational pace differences among successful junior and senior track and field athletes.

In summary, our data suggests that for track and field events, early maturers reach a physiological and performance peak before later maturing athletes of the same chronological age, producing performances of juniors that are close to the athlete’s lifetime maximum capability. After elite juniors and their competitors become adults, maturational age is not an issue and the loss of this competitive advantage may be enough to prevent many early-maturing athletes from being successful senior athletes. Our data suggest that even at the latest stages of elite junior competition, we should not expect to be able to predict with accuracy which athletes will become successful senior careers. The outcomes of this study provide national sport administrators additional data to consider in deciding how to allocate resources of personnel efforts and funding, specifically to the goal of achieving success at the senior level of competition. If the goal of participating in the World Junior Championships is to expose the top younger athletes to the rigors and experiences of international championship competition, as a prelude to potential future success at major senior championships, our data would suggest that this concept should be questioned. Governing bodies may decide that the value to the minority of junior athletes who have later success at the senior level justifies the investment in this event, even though a majority of junior athletes sent to World Junior Championships will not go on to compete in senior championships. Our data suggest that success at high level competition as a junior track and field athlete is not likely to be a strong contributing factor in the level of success as a senior track and field athlete.

Notes

Author contributions

JLF and RFC: significant manuscript writer. Significant manuscript reviewer/reviser. Concept and design. Data acquisition. Data analysis and interpretation. Statistical expertise. JAS: significant manuscript writer. Significant manuscript reviewer/reviser. Concept and design. Statistical expertise.

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Copyright information

© Beijing Sport University 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joshua L. Foss
    • 1
  • Jacob A. Sinex
    • 1
  • Robert F. Chapman
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Kinesiology, School of Public Health-BloomingtonIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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