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Effects of Early Talent Promotion on Junior and Senior Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.

Sports Medicine 2023 November 4
BACKGROUND: Does younger involvement in talent promotion programs (TPPs) facilitate the attainment of higher performance levels? This question is the subject of the present meta-analysis. Many national sport systems have established TPPs such as federations' junior squads (including under-age selection teams) and youth sport academies, and many are making expanding investments in TPPs. TPPs seek to select the most advanced youth high performers at young ages, around puberty or younger, and then strive to further accelerate their performance development. However, studies show 25-55% annual athlete turnover within TPPs. In this context, accelerated biological maturation (puberty, growth spurt), high relative age within one's birth year, and intensified sport-specific childhood/adolescent practice may boost rapid junior performance, but the effects diminish or are reversed by adulthood. Moreover, expanded opportunity costs and risks (time demands, injury, burnout) imposed on young TPP participants may impair their long-term development and even prematurely terminate their career.

OBJECTIVE: We aimed to provide robust and generalizable evidence on the effects of early talent promotion on junior and senior performance through a systematic review and meta-analysis.

METHODS: A systematic literature search was conducted 18/03-03/04/2023 in SPORTDiscus, ProQuest, PsycINFO, PubMed, Scopus, WorldCat, and Google Scholar. We searched for original studies that compared athletes across defined higher and lower performance levels within defined types of sports, age categories, and sexes, regarding their age at commencement of TPP involvement and reported effect sizes or data needed to compute effects sizes. Mean meta-analytic Cohen's [Formula: see text] was computed separately for junior and senior athletes. Quality of evidence was evaluated using the mixed-methods appraisal tool.

RESULTS: The search yielded k = 51 effect sizes from N = 6233 athletes from a wide range of countries and sports, 82% male and 18% female, from 2009 to 2022. The central finding is that effects on short-term junior performance versus long-term senior performance are opposite, whereby higher-performing junior athletes began TPP involvement at younger ages than lower-performing junior athletes, [Formula: see text] =  - 0.53. In contrast, higher-performing senior athletes began TPP involvement at older ages than lower-performing senior athletes, [Formula: see text] = 0.56. The findings are robust across different TPPs (federation's junior squad/selection team, youth academy), individual and team sports, and performance levels compared (international, national, regional). The quality of primary studies was high.

DISCUSSION: The findings are consistent with recent meta-analytic evidence that participation patterns predicting early junior success versus long-term senior success are opposite (starting age, main-sport and other-sports practice amounts, age to reach performance 'milestones'). We discuss theoretical and practical implications of potential selection and 'treatment' effects of TPPs.

CONCLUSIONS: Consistent across different populations, early TPP involvement is positively correlated with short-term junior performance but is negatively correlated with long-term senior performance.

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