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The Great British Medallists Research Project

Research

This in-depth study of 32 former GB athletes from Olympic sports was commissioned by UK Sport. Sixteen of these athletes were Super-Elite athletes who had won at least one gold medal at either an Olympic Games or a World Championship, plus at least one other medal at a subsequent Olympic Games or World Championship. The other 16 Elite athletes were funded, international athletes who had not medalled at either a World championship or an Olympic Games. These latter Elite athletes were matched to the Super-Elite athletes on sport, sex, discipline, and era. 

All athletes completed detailed interviews about all aspects of their development and careers. Following this, each athlete designated one coach and one (or occasionally both) of their parents, who were also interviewed. After these three interviews had been completed, athletes were re-interviewed to allow us to fill in any gaps in their data set.

The interviews took over 1,400 hours to complete. The audio recordings took two experienced typists approximately 1.5 person-years to transcribe, and the transcriptions produced 8,400 pages and 2.4 million words of data. The coding and analysis of data took three researchers working full time, and three more working part time, nine months to complete. The psychosocial history data were analysed using standard qualitative procedures. The demographic, practice, training, and competition history data were analysed using standard parametric and non-parametric statistical procedures. Finally, the multi-disciplinary pattern of variables that best discriminated between the two groups of athletes was explored using state of the art pattern recognition analyses. The results revealed important commonalities and significant differences between the two groups in terms of demographic, practice and training history variables, and psychosocial experiences, development, and personalities. These results were reported in detail to UK Sport in a confidential report (Hardy et al, 2013) which was also submitted REF 2013. The most important psychosocial findings will also be reported in a research paper (Barlow et al., in preparation) at some stage in the near future. A review paper was also written as part of the project.

This study comprehensively compared the multi-disciplinary biographies of serial medalling, super-elite athletes against those of other elite athletes.  As such, it sets down an unparalleled benchmark internationally. Although the study used a retrospective design and was essentially descriptive in nature, it did have a number of highly creditable features, including: in-depth interviews conducted with super-elite athletes and matched elite athletes who had performed at a very high level without ever managing to medal at a major championship; in-depth interviews were also conducted with an athlete nominated coach and one or both parents; both quantitative and qualitative data revealed coherent and consistent patterns; and these patterns were shown to discriminate between super-elite athletes and elite athletes using state-of-the-art  pattern recognition analyses adopted from biometrical research. To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this is the first time such analyses have been reported in talent identification research.

Impact

Some of the findings are somewhat sensitive in nature and the appropriate dissemination and implementation of them required serious ethical consideration. UK Sport appointed an advisory panel of experts to inform their implementation strategy. They then implemented the findings with World Class Programme coaches, performance directors, pathway managers, and other officials, via their 2013 World Class Performance Conference, their confidential website for coaches, Talent Matters, and a series of 10 forums run around the country during 2014.

The interest that was generated by this implementation process led to the appointment of Changing Minds (a company of clinical psychologists specialising in working with young offenders) to help National Governing Bodies develop better ways of psychologically profiling and developing their athletes. This work commenced at the start of 2014 and will continue for some time. The implementation also led to National Governing Bodies changing their data capture procedures to routinely capture the most important demographic, practice, training, and competition history data relating to their pathway athletes. Several National Governing Bodies are also considering funding PhD studentships to support them in this implementation work (e.g., cricket started one with Bangor University in 2015, and I am currently in negotiations with the Rugby Football Union to try to establish another for 2016).

These changes will have far–reaching consequences in terms of National Governing Bodies ability to intelligently interrogate their talent related data and design more appropriate talent development programmes.
I have been commissioned to write further implementation articles for the Talent Matters website during 2015.

References

Tim Rees, T., Hardy, L., Abernethy, B., Güllich, A., Côté, J., Woodman, T., Montgomery, H., Laing, S., & Warr, C. (2015). What underpins the performance of serial gold-medal winners? A review of current knowledge into the development of the world’s best talent, in preparation.

Hardy, L., Laing, S., Barlow, M., Kuncheva, L., Evans, L., Rees, T., Woodman, T., Abernethy, B., Güllich, A., Côté, J., Warr, C., Jackson, A., Wraith, L, & Kavanagh, J. (2013). Great British Medallists: A Comparison of the Biographies of GB Super-Elite and Elite Athletes. End of project report submitted to UK Sport (345 pages).

Barlow, M., Hardy, L., Evans, L., Rees, T., & Woodman, T. (2015). Great British Medallists: A comparison of the psychosocial biographies of GB super-elite and elite athletes, in preparation.

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