A total of 5929 athletes (female: n = 2977, 50.2%) were included in the study. The age of entering competition and personal best performance was identified in the official competition records. Personal best performances were ranked in percentiles and top-level athletes were considered those in the highest 4% of the performance distribution.
Overall, when controlling for the age of entering competition, top-level athletes reached their personal best later (i.e., around 23–25 years old) for all events compared to the rest of the athletes. Moreover, regression analysis showed that entering competitions later was linked to better performances during adulthood. Also, only 17%–26% [90% CI] of the top-level adult athletes were considered as such when they were 14–17 years old.
These findings and previous ones in other events also form other research groups (like this one from our Norwegian colleagues) suggest that early sport success is not a strong predictor of top-level performance at senior level. Also, gender differences may be evident in the rate of performance development in different events.
Such analyses are important to develop reference databases to assess young athletes progression and be able to avoid de-selection of late maturers.
I will speak about this approach in a talk in Aspetar in January 2019. Before then, I will write more about this on the blog as I think it is important to have a more systematic look at youth performances around the World in Athletics in order to identify trends and provide more chances to assess athletes’ progressions.