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Three Stages of Athletic Development: Sampling, Specializing, Investment

One of two pathways towards elite performance in sports


An interesting and useful way of thinking about the development of the young athlete has been proposed by Jon Hellstedt. Because it is impossible to look at the development of the young athlete without also taking into account the changes experienced by the parents and siblings, Hellstedt looks at the development of the young athlete as an issue for the entire family.

In the model Hellstedt has developed, he describes three main stages of athletic development for the typical family with youth athletes: Phase One (Exploration or Sampling), Phase Two (Commitment or Specializing), and Phase Three (Proficiency or Committment).

Phase One (Exploration/Sampling)


  • Most important stage of the athletic family's development, usually occurring between ages 4 and 12
  • Child tries different sports, explores his or her skills
  • Ages are only guide
    • In some sports, like gymnastics and figure skating, children tend to be very young when they get involved competitively and begin to specialize;
    • In other sports, like cross-country skiing, athletes are usually much older when they reach a competitive level
  • Child may experience several cycles of development in different sports (e.g. play soccer at 5, tennis at 7, track at 13).


  • an early sampling pathway may lead to a longer playing career
  • enhanced peer relationships as college athletes
  • increased physical capacity and motor skill base
  • increased ability to transfer motor and psychological skills to other sports (research suggests that skill transfer might be the most compelling argument that can be made for athletes to engage in sport sampling, especially at a young age).
  • increased motivation, confidence, and self-direction. 

Problem Areas

Bad experiences with sports at an early age can turn an individual away from sports involvement forever. The two main culprits leading to bad experiences for children are:

  • Overemphasis on competition. The best way for a good young athlete to progress is not to introduce him to competition as soon as possible. Competition can hinder talent development because at in higher-level competitive leagues, children often to have to sit on the bench to allow other children to play. The child cannot learn and develop from sitting on the bench and would be better served by participating in activities that keep him involved.
  • Bad coaching. Studies show that critical to the development of elite athletes is quality coaching, even at a young age.  The better coaches have the ability to motivate and encourage young athletes and keep them interested in a sport. Children are more likely to keep playing for good coaches. There is no chance for a gifted athlete to develop her talents if she drops out of a sport. Good coaches promote talent development by promoting continued participation.  

Guidelines For Parents

  • Introduce your child to a variety of sports: There are many sport and physical activities beyond traditional sports. Consider a variety of choices for children A diversity of sports experiences paves the way for young people to find activities they will enjoy throughout life.
  • Emphasize fun and skill development: it keeps children involved and active. Encourage intrinsic motivation at an early age. Will your child continue to be fit and active as an adult? Bad experiences with sports at an early age can turn a child away from sports involvement forever.
  • Nourish the dreams of the child, not your own; to do that, you need to communicate with your child.
  • Minimize competition. Children are not emotionally and cognitively ready to compete at this age. Work on building skill development; look for programs that support this philosophy.
  • Ensure good coaching for continued participation and skill development. Be proactive in finding good coaches who share your values.

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