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What do we really know about elite athlete development? Limitations and gaps in current understanding
  1. Joseph Baker1,
  2. Kathryn Johnston1,
  3. Magdalena Wojtowicz2,
  4. Nick Wattie3
  1. 1 School of Kinesiology and Health Science, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  2. 2 Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  3. 3 Faculty of Health Sciences, Ontario Tech University, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Joseph Baker, School of Kinesiology and Health Science, York University, Toronto, Canada; bakerj{at}

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The last few decades have seen a considerable increase in research attention to issues related to talent identification, skill acquisition, early sport specialisation and ‘safe’ athlete development.1 2 In parallel, those working in high-performance sport are regularly tasked with creating evidence-based policies to inform both injury prevention and sports performance programmes for developing athletes.3 4 Several recent reviews have emphasised the limitations and gaps in our understanding of these processes.1 3 Not recognising these gaps undermines the complexity of what athletes, practitioners and other stakeholders manage in their daily environments. In this article, we emphasise five key research limitations that destabilise the evidence base regarding elite athlete development and discuss the associated clinical implications.

Survivorship bias

Difficulties in prospective tracking of athletes across the considerable time frame required for athlete development means that much of the long-term, developmental evidence in this area comes from retrospective designs. However, because it focuses on those who emerge at the end of the athlete development pathway, this type of research design limits our understanding to those who were able to ‘survive’ the system (akin to a ‘healthy worker effect’).5 This design tells us nothing about why athletes leave the elite …

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  • Contributors All authors provided meaningful contributions through the conceptualisation, writing and editing of this work.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.