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The Making of an Olympian

World-class junior competitors, the scientists found, who stockpiled international medals while still in their teens tended to have settled on a single sport before about age 12, a year or two earlier than most of their competitors, including other young athletes who excelled at the regional and national levels. What separated great young athletes in this group from the good, in other words, was picking a sport young and practicing it fiercely.

But at the senior or adult-sports level, the impacts of specialization flip-flopped, the data showed. (Most senior athletes are in their 20s or 30s, although each sport sets its own age cutoff for junior and senior divisions.) The world’s best adult athletes, including Olympic and world champions, typically took up competitive sports of any kind a year or two later than other players, and practiced fewer hours throughout their careers. Most also dabbled with multiple sports, usually three or four a year, often not settling on a primary activity until their midteens or so, several years after most of their later competitors. And few garnered much immediate attention or acclaim from coaches and officials, rarely joining select teams at the start of their careers.

“Most of the adult, world-class performers were not prodigies as kids,” said Arne Güllich, the director of the Institute of Applied Sports Science at the Kaiserslautern University of Technology in Germany, who conducted the new study with his American colleagues Brooke N. Macnamara of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and David Zach Hambrick of Michigan State University.

These patterns held true for men and women, boys and girls, and in team and individual sports.

The results do not explain, though, how a slow start and early sports sampling might contribute to later athletic excellence. But Dr. Güllich believes late bloomers probably experience less stress and burnout than single-sport young superstars and gain a greater ability to learn and progress physically by training in a variety of sports.

The study has other limitations. It is associational, meaning it shows that top adult athletes rarely specialize early but it does not prove that approach caused their success. In addition, it did not consider genetic, familial, financial, psychological or other factors that could influence athletic careers. It also focused, by and large, on the world’s premier athletes, a group that is unlikely ever to include most of us or our offspring.

But, still, the results seem cheering for all those young athletes who enthusiastically dabble in a variety of sports. “Kids should do the sport they most enjoy doing, in which they are looking forward to each session, to having a good time with friends and the coach,” Dr. Güllich said. “If enjoyment constantly declines, perhaps it’s time to try another sport.”

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