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Research > Syntheses > Developing Climbing Talent > “The Olympian Surveys”

Note: this is #4 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. We’ve learned about 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”. Below is some great information collected on Olympians.

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC – now the USOPC – Authors: Alicia McConnell, Jay Kearney, Tim Gibbons, Lisa Whitford)) sent out surveys to their Olympians first in 2000 and again in 2013.[i] [ii] They received back 816 responses (37.6% response rate) in 2000 and 309 responses (11% response rate) in 2013.  The USOPC researchers looked at how the answers changed between genders (note: not for the second report), as well as how the answers shifted between medalists and non-medalists.  Below are a few points from their findings.

The Top-10 Success Factors and Obstacles to Olympic Success are provided in the table below.  The top 3 success factors were all at or over 50% across responders, whereas only the top obstacle was.  It appears as if there is more individualization in obstacles than successes.

USOPC Report. Authors: Alicia McConnell, Jay Kearney, Tim Gibbons, Lisa Whitford

Olympians believe that it takes a combination of internal (personal-individualistic) characteristics and external factors to become an Olympian.  The top 5 success factors which were individual were: dedication and persistence (#1), natural talent (#6), competitiveness (#7), focus (#8), and work ethic (#9).  It’s not clear why “love of sport” isn’t considered an individual success factor, as opposed to an external factor.  The top three external factors would be Support of family and friends (#2), Excellent Coaches (#3), and Excellent Training Programs and Facilities (#5).

Finding Points and Creating Take-aways

There are too many great points in these reports, so I’ll give a snapshot based on (1) some relevant points with the rest of the talent development focus, and (2) my own needs, considering the fact that I’m in the process of opening up a youth elite performance training center. Each of the points below are either direct quotations or summarized from the USOPC Report by authors Alicia McConnell, Jay Kearney, Tim Gibbons, Lisa Whitford.

Point: “These results suggest that youth sport programs that emphasize fun, enjoyment, and love of sport provide a springboard for athletes to continue their development upward.”

Take-away: This can be interpreted as evidence for a stage-based framework that provides a bedrock of intrinsic motivation which serves to buttress the training over the long term.

Point: “These results suggest that sport-specific training was sought in the scholastic, club, or community-based sport programs. The frequency of physical activity of these Olympians suggests that school-based physical education programs were an integral part of their development providing general fitness and skill development.”

Take-away: In the past, I’ve signed off on youth athletes who requested to get out of their PE-based programs in order to dedicate more time to climbing – in the future, it would be dependent on their developmental state.

Point: “Female and male Olympian respondents rated the importance of coaching highest during the national and international competitive phases of development.  For women and men, this occurred at the average age ranges of 17.4-19.5 and 18.3-20.8 years, respectively.  Nearly equal in importance was the coaching that occurred during the skill acquisition phase.  These data strongly suggest that Olympians regard coaching as an important factor over the course of their development.  Placing successful coaches at the highest ranked development phases may yield a better overall development program for NGBs.”

Take-away: coaching investment becomes significantly more important as athletes transition to higher-level stages, but is also important at the skill-development stage.  Coaches should consider prioritizing their time appropriately.

Point: “These data suggest, along with the data from the other coaching questions, that national coaches who possess the qualities that Olympians value such as an ability to teach, an ability to motivate, training knowledge, and strategic knowledge of a sport may yield better performance results.”  The top 5 were: ability to teach, motivate/encourage, training knowledge, skill competence, and strategic knowledge.

Take-away: it’s interesting to note that the least important factors were assistance with goal setting, management and organizational skills, and assistance with balancing the lives of athletes (keep in mind these are older athletes).  Also of note, is that knowledge of skills sits just outside of the top-3.  This pushes back on the perspective that coaches need overly-developed skill-based knowledge at later stages.

Point: Detailed interviews on “what makes for an effective coach” were conducted at the Atlanta (1996) and Nagano (1998) games.  The important factors included (1) trust, (2) coaches belief in athletes (with realistic expectations), (3) totally committed coaches, (4) keeping things simple and focused, (5) clear performance plans, and (6) avoiding over-coaching.  However, it’s not just coaches who provide coach-like services.  The Olympians reported that at some point, everyone from parents to siblings to friends acted in some way as a supporter or coach.

Take-away: This is the second set of coaching specifics this survey calls attention to, and should be considered as part of a “train-the-trainers” program.  Additionally, the support network of the individual athletes (e.g. parents, siblings, friends, PTs, etc.) may benefit from educational seminars at certain intervals, or perhaps greater engagement from the coaches themselves.

Point: The data set as a whole showed that the 4th – 6th most important factors in Olympic athlete long-term performance progression were supportive individuals and groups (family, coach, training environment).  However, swimming (as an example) shows that “female medalists in swimming placed more importance on social interaction, support, and the environment of training than female swimmers who finished in 4 – 8th place.”  Additionally, “competitive success and failure received a higher ranking among the top eight female finishers in swimming than among the data set of female Olympians as a whole.” 

Take-away: Responses to long-term performance progression showed a marked amount of variation between individuals and sports.  It’s important to be careful how much we encourage averages to push specifics for an individual, and instead consider (1) how climbing is individualized with its own set of idiosyncratic individuals, who (2) nonetheless may have a common culture and set of needs, but (3) may have some parallels with other sports.  More research… more research… more research.

Point: The Olympians rated factors which (1) directed them to the sport to begin with, (2) motivated them in the sport, and (3) pushed them to pursue excellence.  Even as LTAD frameworks de-emphasize competition (to an extent), Olympians rated “early success” as being the third most important factor directing Olympians to their sport in the first place (after love of sport / love of activity).  Additionally, the Olympians rated “Challenge/love of competition”, “fun,” and “desire to be successful” as the three top motivators for continued participation.  Excellence, on the other hand, included challenge/love of competition, a desire to be successful, and a competitive outlet.  Fun took fourth, while intrinsic value took fifth.

Take-away: we need to figure out how to balance the negative sides of early competitive pressures with opportunities to promote early success, fun, and intrinsic value for the sport (to include early competitive activities that are carefully designed or structured, or at least considered).

Point: Private/commercial clubs were ranked the highest where most training and development took place, with second being the collegiate athletic system.  A quote from the report: “It would appear that the future of Olympic sport organization within the United States would favor a highly developed club system.”

Take-away: This may provide a justification for why a club-based system beyond the youth program, and beyond Collegiate, may be an important model to push for the youth-to-adult transition in climbing.  It’s also a potential reason to include a closer relationship between colleges and clubs given the importance of the collegiate climbing program, though this may be a correlation/causation mistake.

Point: The athletes weren’t necessarily motivated by money but there was a perception that finances played a role in causing peer athletes to divert from the sport.  Financial factors also played the most negative role during the national competitive phase.  Interestingly, financial factors affect sports differently.  The Summer Olympians, for example, perceived a lack of financial support as an obstacle and this was directly related to performance level.  However, Winter Olympians were exactly the opposite, with performance level being inversely related to whether financial support was perceived as an obstacle.

Take-away: youth programs should first consider whether the perception of cost is a barrier given the unique qualities of climbing as a sport, and then consider how high costs may contribute to a perception that finances are a barrier to success.

[i] The Path to Excellence: A Comprehensive View of Development of U.S. Olympians who Competed from 1984 – 1998 by Alicia McConnell, Jay Kearney, Tim Gibbons, and Lisa Whitford

[ii] The Path to Excellence:  A view of the Athletic Development of U.S. Olympians who Competed from 2000-2012 by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee