Short thought on sport: The curse of the precocious athlete

25 Feb 2019 Posted by

I’m back! Apologies for going AWOL over the last two weeks, but hopefully you’ll understand the reason – I was in Europe, between London and Lausanne, at the CAS proceedings where Caster Semenya was challenging the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulation.

It was an insanely stimulating, challenging, fascinating and enjoyable two weeks, and I hope at some stage that I’ll be able to share some thoughts and opinions on the whole issue with you. But that won’t be until CAS release their verdict (by 26 March), and even then, a lot will depend on on what they choose to publish, because there are so many sensitivities around confidentiality and medical information related to issue.

We’ll see, though, what comes next for what is really sport’s most complex set of problems.

Anyway, I didn’t have time to pay attention to much else in the last two weeks, but this one story did catch my eye. It’s about Rudolph “Blaze” Ingram, who they’re calling “The Fastest Seven year old in the world”, and “The next Usain Bolt”, and that article is the trigger for this brief Short Thought on Sport.

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7 years old, 13.48s 100m

So to begin with, Ingram is seven, but runs as fast as most twelve year olds. Unsurprisingly, when you look at him, he looks older than seven too – form follows function, as they say in architecture, and it’s true in sports physiology too. It should not be a huge surprise that someone who runs the 100m time of most 12 year olds shares many physical attributes with 12 year olds (in this case, the one they highlight is the six-pack).

In any event, what always piques my interest about these stories is the TRAJECTORY that talent follows from a very young age. To put it bluntly, I always wonder “How likely is it that the fastest person in history at say, 7, is even still running at 18, let alone in the top 100, let alone in the top 3?” The obvious answer, just logically, given the sheer volume of people converging on a podium at adulthood, is that it’s an incredibly low proportion. In fact, I doubt very much whether the last scenario (7 year old to adult champion) has ever happened, even once.

Which makes me a cynic, I get it. And that’s not my intention – if someone loves something now, who cares if they aren’t doing it in one year, let alone 15? There’s a lot to be said for living for the joy of the present.

However, what adults do too often is superimpose performance projections on children, and so Blaze, rather than being a really fast 7 year old kid, is now the “next Usain Bolt”, or the fastest in the world in a sport that the world shouldn’t really even be competitive in at that age.

Read the coverage, and notice how few people stop at “Hey, there’s this kid who’s just amazing, how cool”. Instead, it always becomes “Will he be the next Bolt?”, and we compare him to men three to four times his age. Fortunately, he’s probably too young to even appreciate how that might be negative, and I don’t really want to go into the social aspects of how parents turn these potentially fun situations into disasters. Overall, it’s a losing proposition.

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Past, present and future – poor predictors of one another

That said, it’s also a pretty interesting one. Talent ID has always fascinated me, because it exists at the intersection of physiology, business and strategy. Fundamentally, Talent ID is a budgeting decision that is made using highly imprecise tools (performance and physiology) in order to find a competitive, strategic advantage in sport. Tres cool. Also great for selling books promising how to navigate the path to success.

So when I read about Blaze Ingram’s running abilities, the first thing I wondered is where that 13.48s performance fits into history? I found the age-grade world records for 100m, which you can see below (these show the record for a person X years and Y days old, so sometimes, the person could be 8 years and 360 days old, for instance. They’re shown as the 8 year old record)

Perhaps some of those names jump out at you. I certainly noticed “Shaun Crawford”, thinking that perhaps the Olympic medalist had expressed his sprint talent at the very early age of 12. But nope, different guy – this one is only 21 years old now! Perhaps he’ll emulate his (almost) namesake one day (I subsequently realized, thanks to Mark, that the original Crawford is “Shawn”, not “Shaun”).

But Willie Washington, now that’s an interesting trajectory. Nine years ago, from 6 until 9, he was the guy who papers would’ve compared to Usain Bolt. He actually holds the current 7-year olds world record at 13.46s (though he was only 2 days shy of 8 when he ran it).

Washington turns 16 in August this year. I wonder what he’s running now? If at all. I did a brief Google search, and found some results from 2014, when he was 10 years and 11 months old, and he ran 12.49.

I also found a video of his 24.69s 200m in 2014, which you’ll see below is the 10-year old World Record for that distance (he would turn 11 six days later. He’s wearing the red singlet in lane three).

His dominance from six to ten years old over 200m matches that over 100m.

If you watch that video and find yourself asking “are these guys really 11?”, then:

a) you’re not alone;

b) you’re onto the issue.

Children’s sport, especially for something as “basic” as sprinting, rewards early development. The biology of development differs between children (obviously), and sometimes by a huge amount. When you are precocious, biologically, and develop muscle, strength, power, co-ordination, and possibly glycolytic capacity YEARS ahead of your peers, you’re going to dominate them in sports where these things are beneficial.

So all these world records for children, and the 200m race above, say less about future potential than they do about biological maturity. And “competitive” sport prior to adolescence, when the physiological dice have stopped rolling and the chips have fallen where they will, does little to identify who will one day succeed. It filters too aggressively, selecting out those who developed very early.

The same goes for rugby, football (soccer) and American football. And in every instance, there are two negative ramifications.

First, the selection of early developers may come at the expense of the truly best athletes who develop later. I used to call this the “Inclusion Error” and “Exclusion Error”. Basically, you pick individual A, wrongly, and because Talent ID tends to be a zero sum game, you can’t pick individual B. You’re left with a “false positive” that creates a “false negative”. This is especially problematic in team sports, where access to good coaching and exposure to fundamental skill acquisition is so key from about 8 to 14.

I suspect (with little evidence, mind you) that it’s less a problem in track, because the “simplicity” and access allow a late developer to rise to prominence far more easily than a soccer or rugby player who finds themselves in the D-team at 10 because of a co-incidence of biological maturation.

Then the second negative thing here is that adults often make the mistake of assuming that this early development predicts later development. It doesn’t. This should be obvious – you can’t expect the appearance of sporting prowess to continue along the same trajectory from the age of say, 10, to adulthood, as it did from 6 to 10. It’s not a straight line.

If anything, very early success might count against later success. Though I couldn’t give you only one reason why that might be – social factors, physiology, psychology etc must surely all feature. However, when you look at all the world records, for every event, boys and girls, it is incredibly rare to see great adult athletes emerging until after adolescence.

Here are three more event example (and I know that this age group world record thing is a terrible basis to conclude on this issue – some countries don’t expose their children to organized sport until say 14, 15, and there’s age cheating, and the WRs give you one performance only, and the child in second might be only 0.05s slower, but go on to succeed):

Kirani James in the 400m jumps out – the 14 year World Record holder with 46.96 (14 yrs 10 months, to be precise). That’s very early to appear on these lists. And Jakob Ingebritsen, who appears at 11, and again every year from 14 onwards. He is 19 this year, so that story is still being written.

What’s missing, of course, is a ton of data. The next level of athlete down, the times of the athlete who ends up on top. You could look at this from both directions:

  1. Ask how the very best elite adults reach the podium? That is, start with the end (the podium) and trace those athletes back to document when they appear in the timeline as children and juniors? You’d need to define categories – are you looking for their first entry into top 50? Top 20? And is it top 50 globally? Or nationally? Or by some objective performance criteria
  2. Ask how the very best children and juniors develop into adults? That is, track all the performers at children and junior age (I’ve only shown you the best in history, but I just wanted to illustrate a point, so I’m being ‘lazy’) and then ask what proportion of them will reach a given level as they mature? Here too, you need to define the levels – is it Top 50 for each age bracket? Or do you score the performance and plot “survival” as the change in performance with age? Percentile of each performance.

Anyway, that’s just my thought when I read about Blaze Ingram. I hope he keeps running, and I hope he keeps getting faster. But by the age of 11, when other children who are also developing biologically ahead of their peers (just not as fast as Ingram) begin to catch up, I hope his love for sport doesn’t diminish in proportion to his biological advantages.

Ross

ross.tucker@nullmweb.co.za

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