Adapted from the Long-Term Participant Development (LTPD) plan from the South African Sport Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC)
Do top junior athletes actually become top senior athletes?
In March of this year (2023), renowned talent development researcher Arne Güllich and colleagues published a systemic review looking at the pathway from junior to senior athletic success (1).
The authors set out to answer 3 main questions:
1. How many junior athletes reach an equivalent level when they are seniors?
2. How many senior athletes reached an equivalent level when they were juniors?
3. To what extent are successful juniors and seniors identical or disparate populations?
They searched numerous databases to find longitudinal studies that either followed successful junior athletes along their sporting career or looked back at where successful senior athletes were as juniors. A total of 40 studies were included. Successful performance was defined as (1) competing at national championships, (2) competing at international championships, and (3) medaling at international championships.
They grouped junior ages as follows:
- Junior A – the oldest junior age category (e.g., u18/u19).
- Junior B – the age category younger than Junior A (e.g., u17/u16)
- Junior C – two age categories below Junior A (e.g., u14/u15)
- Junior D – the youngest age category (e.g., u12/u13
Here is what they found…
Figure 1: How successful were (a) top juniors later in their career and (b) top seniors at the junior level? Taken from Güllich et al., 2023.
Very few successful junior athletes went on to achieve similar success at the senior level. As you move up the age categories, the proportion of successful seniors gets better from only 6% to a max of 41% in national championships. These suggest that top juniors don’t necessarily make top seniors.
Only 6% of seniors competing at national champs, did so at the u12/13 level. The data show a similar emergence of successful seniors as they progress through the junior ranks. However, at the oldest junior level, still only 30 to 60% of successful senior athletes were performing at national and international competitions. This suggests that a big chunk of top senior athletes were not top junior athletes.
These results make the point that often talented/high-performing junior athletes tend to not end up performing at the senior level. Similarly, many top senior athletes were often not highly performing as juniors. Bringing both these findings together, the authors concluded that successful juniors and successful seniors are deemed to only be between 4% and 32% identical (across all junior age categories and competition levels). Confirming the observation of a limited transfer from junior to senior performance.
This brings up some interesting questions. Why do we not see talented juniors continue through to the senior level? What does this say about how we identify talent at a young age? To get some more insights into some of these questions, check out our latest Research Digest Series on Youth Athlete Development - Link below!
- Güllich A, Barth M, Macnamara BN, Hambrick DZ. Quantifying the Extent to Which Successful Juniors and Successful Seniors are Two Disparate Populations: A Systematic Review and Synthesis of Findings. Sport Med [Internet]. 2023;53(6):1201–17. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-023-01840-1