Posted by: Norman Brook | November 1, 2009

Towards 2016 (Sporting Talent 6)

Norman Brook recently presented a paper on the practice of identifying, confirming and developing sporting talent at a seminar in Fortaleza, Brazil, organised through the International Inspiration programme and hosted by the state government of Ceara.  Brazil will host the Summer Olympic Games in 2016 and identifying and developing talent in Olympic sports will be high on the nations agenda.  The final extract from the paper is featured below.


With Rio de Janeiro hosting the 2016 Olympic Goals there is now only 6-7 years for Olympic sports in Brazil to identify and develop potential medal winners.  Most of these future Olympians are already participating in their sport, but some will be participating in other sports and others have still to enter sport.

What age will potential medallists be in 2016?  If a similar age to Brazil’s Olympic Champions at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 their ages will range from 21-38 years of age.  The average age would be around 27 years.  If we used this average age then our future Olympic champions will be 20 years of age today.  If we use the lower age of 21 years then they be 14 years of age now.

Figure 4: 6-7 Years left to identify and develop talent for the 2016 Olympic Games.

Figure 4: 6-7 Years left to identify and develop talent for the 2016 Olympic Games.

In track and field athletics, coaches used to suggest it took an individual athlete 12 years of participation in the sport to achieve their top performance.  Ericsson (1993) put forward a theory that it takes ten years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve international levels of sporting expertise.

If this is the case then our potential Olympic 2016 champions need to be in sports specific programmes now.

Latest research by Cote et al (in press) has discounted Ericsson’s 10,000 hour rule which is driving thinking in some sports programmes.

Expert performance in sport where peak performance generally occurs after the age of 20 has been achieved with only 3000-4000 hours of sport specific training.  This is borne out by some recent World Champions.  Tom Daley at 15 years won the 2009 World Championships in diving. Having developed a gymnastics background before transferring to diving, it could be argued that this is because he is in an early specialisation sport.  Consider though two other new World Champions in the sports of marathon running and triathlon, both late specialisation sports.  These are sports where top level performances can be achieved at ages of 30-40 years.  Bai Xue is just 20 years and is the 2009 World Marathon Champion. Alistair Brownlee if 21 years and is the 2009 World Triathlon Champion.


Baker, J. & Côté J. (2006). Shifting training requirements during athlete development: The relationship among deliberate practice, deliberate play and other sport involvement in the acquisition of sport expertise.

Balyi I.  (2005). The Role of Long Term Athlete Development in Elite Sport. Paper presented at the  IV International Forum on Elite Sport, Montreal.

Côté, J, Baker, J., & Abernethy, B. (in press). Practice and Play in the Development of Sport Expertise.

Delaney, B. J., Donnelly, P., News, J. & Haughey, T. J. (2008). Improving Physical Literacy.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. Th., & Tesch-Roemer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.

Fraser-Thomas J., Cote J. (2007) Youth Sport: Implementing Findings and Moving Forward with Research.

Gagne, F. (2002). A Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent (DMGT), available:

Maslow A.H. (1943), A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50(4) (1943):370-96.



  1. Hmmm – really interesting.

    Been thinking about this again since reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Didn’t think much of the book in and of itself (pretends to be science, but isn’t) but was really interested in the basic idea.

    So what are your thoughts on the matter Norman? Are these guys just anomalies – and is the normal number closer to 10,000?


    • I met Istvan Balyi last week and asked him the same question. He did give a response but I am still left pondering where the 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice actually starts and finishes. I suspect that it is just impossible to generalise when it comes to human performance. My professor at Lakehead Univsersity in Canada, Dr Brent Rushall. always said that athletes are idiosyncratic and that this made researching them difficult.


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