Teen Jocks Slow Down as They Get Older

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Don't worry parents, if your child isn’t a champion athlete by adolescence, there’s still hope to become a star a few years down the road. In fact, it turns out that teenage superstars may be early-bloomers that fade away by the time they get into their mid-20s, according to a new study by researchers at Indiana University.

The study found that early athletic success is not a good predictor of later athletic success -- at least at the elite level.

"We speculate that these successful junior athletes are just early maturers," said Robert Chapman, professor of kinesiology at Indiana University. "You go to a high school track meet and you see the boy wonder, the kid who is shaving in 8th grade. Those kids are going to be successful. But we still see later age is the best performance."

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Chapman and graduate student Joshua Foss examined the career performance of 65 male finalists and 64 female finalists of the 2000 Junior World Championships and a comparable number of finalists at the 2000 Olympics.

They analyzed competition data for the junior athletes from the 12 years after the 2000 Junior World Championships and at least 12 years of data for the senior athletes from before and after the 2000 Olympics. The athletes were finalists in the 100-, 200-, 1,500- and 5,000-meter races, long jump, high jump, discus throw and shot put.

Here are some of the findings:

  • Senior athletes performed best at a significantly later age than their junior counterparts in all four men's event groups and three of four women's event groups.
  • Compared to the star junior athletes, the senior athletes showed a significantly greater percentage of improvement in lifetime best performance compared to their best performances as junior athletes in six of eight groups.
  • Less than one-quarter of the junior athletes studied went on to medal in the Olympics.

One potential reason for this difference could be a difference in the rates of physical maturity, according to Chapman.

"If the ultimate goal is to get medals at the Olympic Games, the thought is you have to emphasis development at the junior level," he said. "But what we found in our study and seen anecdotally is that's not the case, the athletes who are successful as juniors are these precocious talents who perform well at a young age and then not continue on. Some do. But it’s a minority."

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Chapman, who serves as associate director for sports science and medicine at USA Track and Field (the sport's governing body), said the results have implications for the best way to support athletes.

"In terms of spending money, you simply wait and say we're not going to support this junior championship team, will support the seniors," Chapman said.

He said the results could be extrapolated to other sports, such as swimming and cycling, or even team sports such as football and basketball. Chapman said kids who are big in high school don't always stay big compared to their peers, and there are lots of late-bloomers in the NFL, for example.

One expert says teen sports stars who start young and specialize in one sport at an early age face psychological as well as physiological fatigue.

"You have to be careful as a parent," said Greg Dale, professor of sports psychology at Duke University. "It's very tempting if your kid is talented to push them to train year-round. But you have to give them a break. I would encourage parents and athletes to think more conservatively. You want to be fresh, healthy and hungry when you are in your prime rather then burned out."

The study was presented today at the American College of Sports Medicine.

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