SPORT EXPERTISE: FACTORS INFLUENCING THE DEVELOPMENT OF ELITE ATHLETE
School of Physical and
Health Education Queen's University, Canada
Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2003) 2, 1-9
16 September 2002
||01 March 2003
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development of expertise in sport is the result of successful interaction
of biological, psychological, and sociological constraints. This review
examines the training and environmental factors that influence the acquisition
of sport expertise. Research examining the quality and quantity of training
indicate that these two elements are crucial predictors of attainment. In
addition, the possession of resources such as parental support and adequate
coaching are essential. Social factors such as cultural influences and the
relative age effect are also considered as determinants of sport expertise.
Although it is evident that environmental factors are essential to the acquisition
of high levels of sport development, further research is clearly required.
Parents, coaching, practice, skill-acquisition.
in identifying the factors that distinguish the exceptional from the ordinary
performer have created numerous theories to explain the development of
expertise. Since Francis Galton wrote the phrase 'nature and nurture'
in 1874 scientists have used (and overused) this phrase to describe factors
that interact to promote high levels of human achievement (i.e., expertise).
Our current understanding of the relative contributions of genetic (nature)
and environmental (nurture) factors suggests that a significant portion
of the variation among individuals can be accounted for by 'heritability'.
For instance, research from the HERITAGE family study has linked genetic
factors to physical characteristics such as heart rate and blood pressure
(Wilmore et al., 2001),
as well as measures of aerobic performance (Pérusse et al., 2001).
Perhaps more importantly, these findings suggest that the level of improvement
due to training (i.e., trainability) is constrained by genetic factors.
Lewontin (2000) uses
the metaphor of the empty bucket to describe this approach to the relative
contribution of genes and environment on development; specifically that
genes determine the size of the bucket while the environment determines
Regardless of whether one completely supports this position or not (cf.
Ericsson et al., 1993;
Lewontin, 2000), environmental
factors clearly play important roles in accounting for inter-individual
variation. The purpose of this review is to examine the training and environmental
factors related to acquiring high levels of sport proficiency.
It is perhaps not surprising that high levels of training or practice
are required to attain expertise. Research on skill development clearly
supports the relationship between training/practice and skill acquisition.
Moreover, previous research has identified general rules that outline
the progression from novice to expert in a given domain. These include
the "10-year rule" (Simon and Chase, 1973)
and the power law of practice (Newell and Rosenbloom, 1981).
The 10-year rule
In a study of expertise in chess, Simon and Chase (1973)
indicated that differences between the expert level players (grandmaster
player) and lesser skilled players (master and novice players) were attributable
to the ability to organize information in more meaningful "chunks" rather
than the possession of a superior memory capacity. Based on this finding,
the authors suggested that inter-individual variation in performance could
be explained by quantity and quality of training. Since then, there have
been no reliable differences found between expert and novice performers
on static, physical capacities such as visual acuity, reaction time, or
memory. However, consistent differences for domain-specific information-processing
strategies have been identified, thus suggesting that these differences
were the result of training or experience. Singer and Janelle (1999)
summarized the characteristics that distinguish the expert as follows:
1. Experts have greater task-specific knowledge.
2. Experts interpret greater meaning from available information.
3. Experts store and access information more effectively.
4. Experts can better detect and recognize structured patterns of play.
5. Experts use situational probability data better.
6. Experts make decisions that are more rapid and more appropriate.
Evidence from perceptual/cognitive
sports examined to date implies that in domains where experts and non-experts
are distinguished by domain-specific, information-processing abilities,
these skill differences are better accounted for by intense training rather
than innate abilities. The logic behind this position is that while certain
gross, general traits have been linked to genetic endowment (e.g., intelligence;
Bouchard, 1997), the
refinement of these traits into domain specific abilities (e.g., pattern
recognition, strategic thinking) only occurs after years of intense training.
Furthermore, there is no empirical support for the idea that there is
a gene that predisposes an athlete to superior information processing
that is only manifested in a single domain (e.g., a gene for soccer processing).
According to the "10-year rule," a 10-year commitment to high levels of
training is the minimum requirement to reach the expert level. This "rule"
has been supported in music (Ericsson et al., 1993;
Hayes, 1981; Sosniak,
(Gustin, 1985), swimming
distance running (Wallingford, 1975),
and tennis (Monsaas, 1985).
The theory of deliberate practice (Ericsson et al., 1993)
extends Simon and Chase's work by suggesting that it was not simply training
of any type, but engagement in 'deliberate practice' that was necessary
for the attainment of expertise. According to Ericsson et al. (1993),
deliberate practice activities are forms of training that are not intrinsically
motivating, require high levels of effort and attention, and do not lead
to immediate social or financial rewards. Under deliberate practice conditions,
experts develop specific skills that are required by their domain under
conditions of high effort and concentration. The authors suggest that
by continually modifying training activities so that optimal amounts of
effort and concentration are required, future experts maximize physiological
and cognitive adaptations.
The Power Law of Practice
Research examining the accumulated effects of prolonged practice and the
rate of learning indicates that performance increases monotonically (i.e.,
along a straight line) according to a power function. The power law of
practice (Newell and Rosenbloom, 1981)
states that learning occurs at a rapid rate after the onset of practice
but that this rate of learning decreases over time as practice continues.
An example of the power law of practice is presented in Figure
1, illustrating the data from a single subject in Koler's (1975)
study on learning to read inverted text. In this study participants were
required to read up to 165 pages of inverted text. The data indicate that
learning of this task follows a power function. Further, researchers have
indicated that this 'law' is present in all learning behaviors, from general
tasks such as choosing the correct response in an array of choices (e.g.,
Seibel, 1963) to more
particular activities such as rolling cigars (Crossman, 1959).
Central to the theory of deliberate practice suggested by Ericsson et
al. (1993) is the
monotonic benefits assumption. According to this assumption and in concordance
with the power law of practice, a monotonic relationship exists between
the number of hours of deliberate practice performed and the performance
level achieved. However, Ericsson et al. (1993)
argued that it was not simply the accumulation of training hours that
lead to superior levels of performance. Training quality was also important.
In a review of studies on skill acquisition and learning, Ericsson (1996)
concluded that level of performance was determined by the amount of time
spent performing a "well defined task with an appropriate difficulty level
for the particular individual, informative feedback, and opportunities
for repetition and corrections of errors" (pp. 20-21). Future experts
create opportunities to prevent learning plateaus and perpetuate adaptation
to higher amounts of training stress by continually modifying task difficulty.
Data from the Ericsson et al. (1993)
study of expert musicians supports the relationship between number of
hours of deliberate practice and level of performance. Specifically, they
found that expert level musicians spent in excess of 25 hours per week
in deliberate practice activities (i.e., training alone) whereas less
successful musicians spent considerably less time in deliberate practice
(e.g., amateurs < 2 hours per week). These notable differences in weekly
training accumulate to mark enormous divisions in practice after years
of training. Experts accumulated over 10 000 hours in deliberate practice
by age 20 while amateurs accumulated about 2000 hours at the same age.
Similar relationships have also been found in chess (Charness et al.,
Ericsson and colleagues have indicated that the theory also applies to
expertise in sport (Ericsson et al., 1993;
Ericsson, 1996). Researchers
examining the application of the theory of deliberate practice to the
domain of sport have investigated figure skating (Starkes et al., 1996),
karate (Hodge and Deakin, 1998),
wrestling (Hodges and Starkes, 1996),
soccer (Helsen et al., 2000;
Helsen et al., 1998b),
middle distance running (Young and Salmela, 2002),
field hockey (Baker et al, in press-a; Helsen et al., 1998a),
basketball and netball (Baker et al., in press-a). Typically, the relationship
between hours spent in sport-specific practice and level of attainment
is consistent with the tenets of deliberate practice theory; expert athletes
accumulated more hours of training than non-experts (Helsen et al., 1998a;
Starkes et al., 1996;
Hodge and Deakin, 1998).
Moreover, not only do experts spend more time overall in practice they
also devote more time to participating in the specific activities deemed
to be the most relevant to developing the essential component skills for
expert performance (Baker et al., in press-b). For example, Baker et al.
(in press-b) found that expert athletes from basketball, netball, and
field hockey accumulated significantly more hours in video training, competition,
organized team practices, and one-on-one coach instruction than non-expert
athletes. In sum, differences between experts and non-experts on both
quantity and quality of training are strongly supported in sport and other
Environmental Factors Associated with the Attainment
of Sport Expertise
While empirical evidence indicates that sheer quantity and quality of
training are important variables in understanding how one attains the
status of 'expert' in any field, there are significant environmental factors
that also contribute to the development of exceptional performance.
Maturational Factors: The Relative Age Effect
The availability of essential resources, such as coaching and parental
support, can significantly influence the ability to engage in the required
amounts of high quality training. Another factor that appears to influence
the acquisition of expertise is the relative age phenomenon. First demonstrated
in the academic domain, the relative age effect refers to differences
in age among children born in the same calendar year (Barnsley & Thompson,
1985). As in school,
many sports group children by age to equalize evaluation and competition
(Barrow & McGee, 1977).
However, the presence of the relative age effect suggests that categorizing
children by age can create training inequalities and reduced opportunities
for younger children.
In sport the relative age effect was first discussed in ice-hockey where
children are organized into leagues according to the calendar year. Barnsley,
Thompson, and Barnsley (1985)
conducted analyses of birth dates for players in the Ontario Hockey League
(OHL), Western Hockey League (WHL), and National Hockey League (NHL) during
the 1982-83 season. Month of birth for all players was then compared to
the frequency of male births in Canada and data was arranged by birth
quarter (Quarter 1: January-March, Quarter 2: April-June, Quarter 3: July-September,
Quarter 4: October-December). Results revealed that the majority of players
were born earlier in the year; NHL players were twice as likely and WHL
and OHL players four times more likely to be born within the first quarter
of the year than the last.
The prevalence of older players at the elite levels of hockey led to a
follow-up study (Barnsley and Thompson, 1988)
to examine minor hockey participation patterns and level of hockey participation
at representative or house levels. Researchers compared birth quarters
of players with the hockey league as a Mite (under 10), Peewee (ages 11-12),
Bantom (ages 13-14), Midget (ages 15-16), Juvenile (ages 17-18), or Junior
(ages 19-20) player. Findings showed that from Peewee through Juvenile,
more players involved in hockey were born in the first quarter of the
year. Moreover, players born earlier in the year were more likely to participate
in hockey at the top tier levels compared to players born during the later
months of the year. The relative age effect has been supported in other
sports including Major League baseball (Thompson et al., 1991),
Junior football (Barnsley et al., 1992),
tennis and swimming (Baxter-Jones and Helms, 1994),
and soccer (Dudink, 1994;
Helsen et al., 1998b;
Two main explanations have been offered to account for the relative age
effect. Barnsley and colleagues (Barnsley and Thompson, 1988;
Barnsley et al., 1985)
hypothesized that older players were bigger, stronger, faster, and better
coordinated than the younger players and thus experienced more success
and rewards in hockey and were more likely to remain involved. Younger
peers were thought to experience failure and frustration and withdraw
from hockey. A second hypothesis proposed that older players were more
likely to be selected to higher competitive representational teams where
they would receive improved coaching, facilities, and ice-time when compared
with their peers.
This second hypothesis has clear implications for the development of elite
athletes given the necessity of resources in the attainment of expertise
(Ericsson et al., 1993).
Unfortunately, the organization of many sports and the disparity in skill
level amongst same-aged youth facilitates the selection of older players
to high-level training and resources while the potential of younger athletes
can be overlooked. Research on the relative age effect suggests that the
development of elite athletes is based in part on age differences and
unequal access to training opportunities. Alternative methods of grouping
children for competition and advancement in sport require examination.
The Role of Coaching and Instruction
As indicated above, one important consequence of the relative age effect
is that targeted athletes often get access to better resources, including
better instruction. Research is starting to show the distinct advantages
of having access to an expert coach. A coach normally constructs a high
percentage - in some cases 100 percent - of an athlete's practice time.
The ability of the coach to devise an environment that fosters optimal
learning thus becomes one of the most significant keys to athlete development.
Meticulous planning of practice is one hallmark of coaching expertise.
Voss et al. (1983)
found that expert coaches spent more time planning practices and were
more precise in their goals and objectives for the practice session than
their non-expert counterparts. This was a notable feature of legendary
UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Wooden spent more than an hour preparing
for each practice, meticulously planning each detail so that players were
always active, either engaged in drills or shooting free throws. No one
was permitted to stand around watching (Wooden, 1988).
The emphasis that deliberate practice theory places on the quality of
training led to examinations of the microstructure of practice in sport.
Recent studies have used time-motion analysis and practice evaluation
questionnaires to analyze practice environments in wrestling, figure skating
and field hockey (e.g., Starkes, 2000;
Deakin and Cobley, 2001).
Recently, a time-motion analysis was completed on hockey players of three
different levels: Junior A, Junior C, and Midget AAA. The structure of
practices was comparable across all three levels: 22% of time was spent
on instruction, 30% active in drills, and 48% not active (Starkes, 2000).
The fact that virtually one-half of practice time can be considered "not
active" is telling.
Videotaped practices of Olympic, club, and high school wrestlers revealed
that all three groups were active for 77% of the scheduled practice time.
One surprising result was the rather limited amount of time wrestlers
spent sparing. Full sparing was regarded by each group as being the most
important activity for improvement, yet only 8.06% of practice time for
Olympic wrestlers, 8.48% for club wrestlers, and 2.2% for high school
wrestlers was spent sparring (Starkes, 2000).
Time-motion analysis of figure skating practices revealed that elite skaters
made better use of time on the ice than less accomplished skaters (Starkes,
2000). However, even
the elite skaters, like all the athletes surveyed, spent more time working
on well-learned elements rather than on the development of new skills.
Although skaters saw the acquisition and mastery of new jumps as critical
for future performance success, the bulk of practice time was spent on
jumps that were already well established in their repertoire. Starkes
(2000) concluded that
coaches trying to increase time in deliberate practice activities were
well advised to maximize the time they already had rather than look for
more practice hours.
In a study of coaching expertise in volleyball, Cobley (2001)
found that athletes were active in drills over 92 percent of the scheduled
practice time and the intensity level was equivalent to that faced in
matches. The emphasis in practice was to engage the players in drills
that closely simulated game conditions and that had a high probability
of occurring against a future opponent. Cobley (2001)
concluded that the expert volleyball coach played a critical role in structuring
an optimal practice environment that exemplified the tenets of deliberate
practice. This corresponds with Wooden's philosophy of an optimal practice
environment: "In every facet of basketball, we work on pressure. The opponent
provides that during the game. I tried to provide it in practice with
drills that recreated game conditions" (Wooden, 1988,
In addition to a coach's ability to maximize practice time, the expert
coach also possesses domain specific knowledge that is essential to fostering
improvement, particularly as the athlete advances in skill level. Rutt-Leas
and Chi's (1993) examination
of novice and expert swimming coaches supported these assertions. The
coaches observed underwater video recordings of four swimmers of different
skill levels and were then asked to analyze the strokes and to provide
instruction. While novice coaches offered a somewhat superficial analysis
using vague descriptions, expert coaches were very precise in their assessment
and specific in their recommendations for improvement. Expert coaches
had the ability to extract more from the information presented and were
able to provide fundamentally better solutions to perceived problems.
Rutt-Leas and Chi (1993)
concluded that the expert coach displayed the same kind of domain specific
expertise that has been documented in other fields.
Bloom et al. (1999)
hypothesized that in high-strategy team sports, this domain specific expertise
of the coach manifests itself in tactical knowledge. Bloom et al. (1999)
extended earlier work by Tharp and Gallimore (1976)
by creating the Revised Coaching Behavior Recording Form and using it
to analyze the practices of Fresno State basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian
over the course of the 1996-1997 season. Most significantly, the "instruction"
category utilized by Tharp and Gallimore (1976)
was divided into three separate categories- tactical, technical and general
instruction. Bloom et al. (1999)
found that 29 percent of Tarkanian's observed behaviors consisted of tactical
instruction- more than twice that of technical instruction. They hypothesized
that at the elite level, players already had a sound grasp of the fundamentals,
or were expected to develop them in their own time, which freed Tarkanian
to focus on preparing for upcoming opponents. Bloom et al. (1999)
concluded that coaches at the elite level spend most of their time on
the cognitive or tactical elements while coaches of beginners and intermediates
focus more on the fundamentals of the sport. They also suggested that
non-expert coaches might not be able to impart a large amount of tactical
knowledge because of their own limitations in this regard.
An important question to consider is at what age should athletes seek
out expert coaching. Early studies focussing on the specific requirements
of working with younger and less technically proficient athletes (e.g.,
Bloom, 1985; Smith
et al., 1979) proposed
that in the early stages of development athletes require primarily technical
instruction to develop proper fundamentals, along with a high degree of
support and praise to encourage continuing participation in the sport.
They described an important part of the coach's role in the early years
as being kind, cheerful, and caring. Only when athletes were older and
more highly skilled would a coach require sophisticated knowledge and
Recent work by Côté and Hay (2002)
supported these assertions and suggested that while advanced coaching
qualifications were deemed necessary in the later stages of development,
coaches working with children at the initial involvement stage needed
enthusiasm and facilitation skills above and beyond any technical expertise
in the sport. Clearly, both the practice structure and the domain-specific
knowledge of coaches are highly relevant to the progression and development
of athletes in sport.
Retrospective research with elite performers over the last 30 years has
revealed the importance of parental support for the development of expertise.
Bloom and colleagues (1985)
interviewed talented performers and their families in the fields of music,
art, science, mathematics, and athletics and created a model of talent
development with three stages: the early years, the middle years, and
the later years. Each stage is characterized by shifting demands on the
child and parents. In the early years parents were found to take a leadership
role where they provided their child with the initial opportunity to participate
in the domain and sought out their child's first formal teacher. Here
parents also encouraged and supported their child's learning and were
often involved directly in lessons and practice. For the child athlete,
the emphasis in these years was on having fun and enjoying learning the
basics skills. The transition to the middle years was characterized by
a greater commitment of both parents and the athletes to the athletic
domain. Parents were found to assume a leadership role, seeking more accomplished
teachers for their child while also devoting more time and resources to
the activity. It was also during these years that the child's talent often
dominated the family's routine. During the later years, parental involvement
decreased as the performer took greater control of the decision-making
process with regards to their future career. Yet, parents continued to
provide support in a background role, as providers of not only financial
support but also emotional support. According to Sloane (1985)
of greatest importance was that parents offered a "nurturant, understanding
environment for their child to retreat to, if necessary" (p. 470). Sloane's
(1985) analysis revealed
how parents can ease the demands imposed on their child by the demands
of training (e.g., reduction of psychological stress by providing a supportive
Côté (1999) furthered
the work of Bloom (1985)
by developing a sport-specific model of talent development. Côté's work
with families of elite Canadian rowers and tennis players lead to the
idea that talent development in sport is encompassed by sampling years
(ages 6-12), specializing years (ages 13-15), and investment years (ages
16+). Similar to Bloom's model, parental roles changed with the differing
demands of each stage. During the sampling years parents provided their
children with the opportunity to sample a wide variety of sports. Côté
noted that while parents encouraged participation in sport, the choice
of sport was not important. In essence, parents played a leadership role
during the sampling years by initiating sport involvement. The specializing
years saw parents in a facilitative role where they made financial and
time commitments to their child's sport, supporting access to better coaches,
equipment, and training facilities. Finally, in the investment years parents
played strictly an advisory and supportive role as the athlete committed
to a higher level of training and competition. Parents maintained a high
interest in their child's sport and were essential in providing emotional
support to help their child overcome setbacks, such as injuries, pressure
and fatigue as well as financial support for training. This high level
of emotional support during stressful times is a central characteristic
of the investment years.
The research of Bloom (1985)
and Côté (1999) demonstrates
how parental support helps expert performers and elite athletes deal with
the demands of the sustained deliberate practice necessary to reach an
expert level of performance. The two models demonstrate the evolving role
of parents from that of a leadership role, to that of a general supportive
role. Athletes unable to access certain emotional and financial resources
face a qualitatively different road in order to accumulate the high levels
of practice necessary for expert performance.
Cultural factors are a significant and often overlooked component of the
environmental equation and development of expertise. The importance that
a country or society places on a particular sport can have a dramatic
influence on any success achieved. For instance, in Canada, where there
is a long and storied history of ice hockey, the game has become an integral
component of the national identity (Russell, 2000).
Ice hockey has been featured on the national television network each Saturday
evening for more than 50 years. A large number of the nation's heroes,
both past and present, are ice hockey players. The northern climate and
numerous lakes and rivers provide opportunity to play outdoors for considerable
portions of the year, and public money has been used to build a large
network of ice hockey arenas throughout the country. An extensive club
system allows children to get involved in the game at a very young age,
and to continue playing right through adolescence into adulthood. In fact,
Canada has 3.5 times more children playing ice hockey than Russia, Sweden,
Finland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia combined (Robinson, 1998).
Given these factors, it seems hardly surprising that Canada has enjoyed
success internationally in the sport and produced a great number of the
In Austria we can find the same factors at work, but for alpine skiing
(Coakley, 2001). Similarly,
the sporting culture in Nordic countries places a high value on cross-country
skiing. The natural environment in these nations, combined with the public
interest and adulation that is given to ski heroes, provides fertile ground
for developing skiing expertise. The notion that Canadians have a genetic
predisposition for hockey, or that there exists a Nordic ski gene is not
supported empirically; yet the search for genetic answers is often what
occurs when certain groups start to dominate a sport. For example, the
dominance of American basketball by Black athletes, and the recent pre-eminence
of Kenyans in middle and long-distance running events has sparked the
belief in a genetic advantage, which often ignores the various cultural
and psychological factors at work (Hamilton, 2000).
In addition, the sports that Black America have come to dominate, consisting
primarily of basketball, football, and track and field, reflect a cultural
emphasis made evident by the support these sports receive through the
public school system. Black athletes have access to coaching, facilities,
and competition in publicly funded school sports to a much greater extent
than for traditionally more exclusionary endeavors. Sports taught primarily
in a country club setting, like golf and tennis, provide a significant
barrier to entry for Blacks, as private clubs have historically denied
membership to certain minority groups for economic and social reasons
(Wiggins, 1997). While
the social factors that influence the acquisition of high levels of sport
proficiency are only briefly presented here, it is vitally important to
acknowledge that environmental constraints on expertise can be broad (e.g.,
cultural factors) and/or narrow (e.g., family or coaching factors).
Although there is a wealth of information regarding the environmental and
training factors that influence the acquisition and maintenance of expert
performance, our understanding is far from complete. Future research is
needed to address areas of limitation, such as the interaction between training
and genetic predispositions or the balance between training stress and recovery.
Further examinations of the resources that constrain the development of
expertise are also essential. Current examinations from our laboratory with
triathletes, ice-hockey players, soccer players and expert coaches are examining
these and other issues.
Support for the writing of this manuscript was given by a doctoral fellowship
to the first author from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
of Canada (SSHRC Fellowship # 752-2001-1491).
Employement: PhD candidate in the School of Physical and Health
Education at Queen's Univ., Kingston, CAN.
Research interest: Development of expertise, expert-novice
differences, coaching, and ultra-endurancesport performance.
Employment: Graduate student in the School of Physical and Health
Education at Queen's Univ., Kingston, CAN.
Research Interests:Development of expertise, coaching, and
Employment: PhD candidate in the School of Physical and Health
Education at Queen's Univ., Kingston, CAN.
Research Interests: Physical activity trends, motives
for, and promotion of lifelong physical activity involvement, women
and girls in sport and physical activity, parental influences, elite
and non-elite athletes.
Employment: A graduate student in the School of Physical and Health
Education at Queen's Univ., Kingston, CAN.
Research Interests: The role of familial influences in the
development of expert performers.