Note: this is #1 of 8 different write-ups on LTAD available at my website. For the overview, click here.
Let’s catch you up: this is one part of an overview of research into athletic talent. This research is usually referred to as Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), Talent Identification (TID), or Talent Development (TDE) research. It has implications for everything from “who’s got it” to “will I reach my potential if I didn’t start when I was 4” to the “secret sauce”. So let’s talk about whether you should have started at age 4.
- Sports may differ in whether they are considered “early- or late-specialization” sports.
- Start-age and years-of-practice (before attaining success) vary significantly across sports and within sports.
- Differing climbing narratives about age-of-success challenge easy classification.
- The short answer is we simply don’t know conclusively where climbing falls.
- Climbing may be an “early specialization” sport, an “early entry, late specialization” sport, or it may be individual-dependent.
- I am not convinced that an individual *has* to start early, nor am I convinced that early exposure (at the least) is not beneficial. Nor is it clear what “early” means (e.g. chronological ages 0-12 based on the LTAD “early stages” classification), nor what early means in which context (distinct age breakdowns for early entry (or sampling), and early specialization).
- Strict chronological age is not a good indicator of when-to-train-what because youth develop at different rates.
- If your concerned for your own development, my best advice after reading all this research is to not think about it too hard: just don’t use it as an excuse to your own further development. I’m convinced a potential focus on it WILL LIKELY impact your development.
Narratives about Specializing and Starting
The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine said the following about the generalization and individualization of pathways: “With the possible exception of early entry sports such as gymnastics, figure skating and swimming/diving, sport diversification should be encouraged at younger ages.” Additionally, Balyi and Hamilton (those folks who wrote conducted early LTAD research — see the stages write-up) recommended putting early development sport participants directly into their “train-to-train” stage and eliminating the earlier stages.
At this point, we don’t know much about where climbing falls on a continuum of early- to late-specialization sports. For example, anecdotal evidence might suggest the following narratives about high-level performance at the adult level:
- These “narratives” actually ask two questions:
- Should talent be identified at a younger age in order to improve success?
- Is it possible for success to occur later in an athlete’s career?
- In a strictly early specialization sport, would you see such large variance in the age of winners?
- And is it discipline specific?
- Are we certain that the early specializers did in fact specialize before puberty?
- Does the biological aspect of early specialization occur, or is the push for younger athletes a socio-cultural phenomenon associated with coaching preference, parental support, competition structure, or other factors?
- Key to test is whether new talent is popping up at the adult level or not. Even if we see “late bloomers” were they nonetheless still the best in their respective countries at early ages?
A brief snapshot of the climbing research
Climbing-related finger strength may be easily identified at youth-levels, but other factors at the elite level may be very challenging to identify. Climbing-specific research into youth, however, does note that changes, specifically stress “adaptations”, occur in youth competitive climber’s fingers.[i] Whether this research combats or facilitates the narrative that starting “early” helps produce positive resiliency in climbers is not known. Nor, if true, has any attempt been made at identifying a “threshold” age OR balanced training intensity other than the reduction of use of specific training tools (e.g. a traditional campus board).[ii] Additionally, it is not known at this point the extent to which climbing follows a similar identified pattern (in some sports) whereby success in youth is a poor predictor for success at the adult level.[iii]
What does the Climbing LTAD say?
Canada’s Climbing LTAD suggests that climbing is an early entry sport, but does not necessarily believe it’s an early specialization sport: “Climbing is recognized as an early introduction, late specialization sport. Most elite level climbers started around the age [of] 10.”[iv] While the document does not make the evidentiary basis for this statement clear, it indicates that early entry, late entry and early specialization, late specialization represent distinctions that future climbing research may need to consider.
Some final thoughts from a climbing perspective
On the other hand, the wide latitude in ages at the world level has been previously used to justify the claim that climbing is a late development sport (van Bergen), which has implications for the appropriateness of any long-term athlete development model.[v] However, climbing may not be that binary – meaning it may be highly individualized (early for some, late for others), and may have distinctions based on certain factors like sub-discipline and gender. Moreover, as will be discussed under the Talent Identification section, it is very possible that climbing has a “moving target” of criteria which have the potential to shift the factors of success.[vi]
Research on specialization
A 2017 study of 343 athletes across 9 sports at a major University found that prior to coming to their institution, their athletes had specialized in their respective sports at a rate of 16.9% and 41.1% in their Freshman and Senior years of high school respectively.[vii]
But to what extent is this general work on high-school specialization transferable to a specific sport at an elite level? Researchers posed a question to athletes of the Olympic Games in 2004: What was the age of onset for training in their respective sports? Vaeyens et al. (2009) shows that swimmers typically start young (8.1 ±3.1) and rowers typically start older (15.4 ±3.1), with lots of in-between. Average starting years – and their standard deviations – challenge the idea that you can generalize across sports.[viii]
Another example Vaeyens et al. used was comparing elite Australian athletes who had less than 4 years and those with more than 10 years of practice in their main sport, noting that the ages of training onset were very different (17.1 ±4.5 vs. 7.9 ±2.5), as was the number of sports before their main sport (3.3 ±1.6 vs. 0.9 ±1.3).[ix] Additionally, only 44% of the Athens Olympic athletes started competing internationally during their youth career. The rest began internationally during their adult lives.
In some ways, the above information is push-back against the narrative about an average amount of practice hours popularized by Gladwell (interpretation of Ericsson, 1993) because it suggests a large variation in practice hour totals. I say in some ways, because Ericsson noted the focus should likely be on the quality of said practices hours in their 2019 response to criticisms employed in a meta-analysis of research on deliberate practice by Macnamara et al. in 2014.[x] In other ways, it’s a nuanced narrative on specialization and generalization. Sports do have trends in pathway development, but there is variation in the path different athletes take to get to the top — particularly in climbing.
If your concerned for your own development, my best advice is don’t think about it too hard: just don’t use it as an excuse to hold you back.
Acknowledgment: I’m indebted to Dr. Russell Martindale, Associate Professor at Edinburgh Napier University, Dr. Phillip Watts, Professor Emeritus of Sports and Exercise Science (Retired) at Northern Michigan University, and Dr. Shannon Siegel, Co-Chair of the Department of Kinesiology at the University of San Francisco, for their review of different sections of this write-up. They were very generous with their time, advice, and recommendations. They are not responsible for any mistakes, omissions, or poor arguments on my part!
[i] See Schöffl et al. 2007, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
[ii] Supra Schöffl et al.
[iii] Author’s discussion with Dr. Phillip (Phil) Watts, Professor Emeritus in Sports and Exercise Science at Northern Michigan University (Retired)
[iv] Canada’s Climbing LTAD
[v] van Bergen (2015) citing an article titled Considering long-term sustainability in the development of world class success by Güllich and Emrich (2014)
[vi] Author’s discussion with Dr. Phillip (Phil) Watts, Professor Emeritus in Sports and Exercise Science at Northern Michigan University (Retired)
[vii] High School Sport Specialization Patterns of Current Division I Athletes, by Post et al. (2017)
[viii] Vaeyens et al (2009)
[ix] supra Vaeyens et al (2009)
[x] Original Ericsson research (1993), Macnamara et al. (2014 & 2016), and Ericsson rebuttal (2019). For more on this, please see the section on how to practically define different types of practice — coming soon.