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International medallists’ and non-medallists’ developmental sport activities – a matched-pairs analysis

The study examined developmental participation patterns of international top athletes. Pairs of 83 international medallists (including 38 Olympic/World Champions) and 83 non-medallists were matched by sport, age and gender. A questionnaire recorded their volume of organised (coach-led) practice/training in their respective main sport and in other sports through childhood, adolescence and adulthood, and also involvement in non-organised (peer-led) sport activity. analysis revealed that the medallists started practice/training in their main sport at an older age than non-medallists and accumulated slightly, but significantly less main-sport practice/training through childhood/adolescence. But they participated in more practice/training in other sports, particularly before entering their main sport. The medallists also maintained engagement in other sports over more years and specialised later than the non-medallists. Other sports engaged in were mostly unrelated to an athlete’s main sport. The results were robust across different types of sports. The observations are reflected against tenets of the “deliberate practice” and “Developmental Model of Sport Participation” frameworks. Early diversified practice and learning experiences are discussed relative to the expansion of youngsters’ potential for future long-term learning. In elite athletes, interaction of sport-specific practice/training with early other-sports participation mostly facilitates long-term attainment of international senior medals.