Motor learning as young gymnast's talent indicator.

Author:di Cagno, Alessandra
Position:Research article - Report


One of the main tasks of National Sports Federations is to identify, select, and prepare athletes for international competitions such as the Olympics Games, World and European Championships, and World Cups. Sport managers and coaches try to pick out future champions using psychological, physical, technical, and anthropometric criteria (Harris and Atkinson, 2009). However, if the selection process is attempted too early, it could lead to numerous mistakes, and it is possible for a promising champion to fail the enrollment at a relatively early age. A correct selection is fundamental because, after some years of deliberate practice, the gap between selected and unselected athletes becomes insurmountable, and it is impossible to dredge talented athletes who were previously excluded by mistake (Bullock et al., 2009).

When considering anthropometric measurements and motor skills as good indicators to select athletes (di Cagno et al., 2008), it is necessary to keep in mind that during puberty, which is an unstable period, the evaluation of young athletes is complicated by individual differences in the timing of changes in body size and functional capacities (Philippaerts, 2006; Unnithan et al., 2013). It is possible that pre-adolescents, who possess the characteristics required by a sport, will not retain these qualities throughout maturation until adulthood and that these innate capacities may not turn into exceptional adult sport performance (Ackland and Bloomfield, 1996; Beunen et al., 1981). On the contrary, many of the qualities that distinguish the performance of an excellent adult athlete do not necessarily appear evident during childhood or puberty (Philippaerts, 2006).

To avoid prematurely eliminating talented young athletes who are currently not "performing", it is essential to distinguish between variables that influence performance and those that influence development (Abbot and Collins, 2002). Biological maturation affects morphology and fitness more so than motor coordination skills (Vaeyens et al., 2006). Recent findings showed moderate to high long-term stability in coordinative skills and sport-specific skills from childhood to adolescence (Ahnert et al., 2009; Vaeyens et al., 2006). A motor coordination test might be valuable in the early talent identification of gymnasts, as its discriminative and predictive qualities might be sufficiently powerful for selection (Vandorpe et al., 2012). Motor coordination has a high stability as talent indicator for child to adolescent athlete selection (Ahnert et al, 2009). Motor learning capacity may be considered a prerequisite for the learning of specific skills in gymnastics and is especially strong in the pre-adolescent period, identified as a "sensitive phase" in which the talent selection is carried out (Hirtz and Starosta, 2002; Starosta and Hirtz, 1989), recognizing and exploiting the capacity to develop. It is essential to select based on an athlete's ability to develop, rather than simply on a good performance level at the time of testing (Abbott and Collins, 2002; 2004). Motor learning capacity may be a determinant of the potential that an individual has to develop within a sport.

The Italian Gymnastics Federation has used two traditional strategies in current talent selection programs, consisting of the competition results evaluation and specific rhythmic gymnastics tests. Both of these are strongly affected by the gymnast's personal experience in their clubs. The main purpose of the study was to verify whether the predictive value of coordination and precision in skill acquisition during motor learning, could be valid and long-term indicators in selecting talent among young rhythmic gymnasts, and related to performance in competition three years later. The precision in the tests requires body segments to be held correctly during the movements, as well as good balance, good amplitude of movement shapes, and precise direction and plane of execution. We hypothesized that motor coordination and skill acquisition tests could be valuable in the early identification of gymnasts, both in cadet and in junior gymnastics categories, and has a predictive value for future performances in competition, independently from the gymnast's level of performance (elite or sub-elite).



One hundred athletes of rhythmic gymnastics were enrolled in the study including 41 elite competing at the national level, divided into two age categories: 20 cadets (age: 11.5 [+ or -] 0.5; training: 25.0 [+ or -] 10.2 hours per [week.sup.-1]) and 21 juniors (age: 13.3 [+ or -] 0.5; training: 30.7 [+ or -] 14.1 hours per [week.sup.-1]) and 59 sub-elite competing at the regional level (age: 10.5 [+ or -] 0.5; training: 20.5 [+ or -] 3.3 hours per [week.sup.-1]). The Italian Gymnastics Federation selected the athletes, elite and sub-elite, to participate in different national summer trainings, depending on technical levels. The participants were selected for the 2010 national summer training. The following exclusion criteria were applied: less than two years of gymnastic training and no health problems or injuries. The study was designed according to the Declaration of Helsinki and was approved by the local Ethics Committee. Parents of underage athletes (less than 18 years old) gave their written consent for the study.

Study design

Three non-sport specific motor coordination tests within the battery validated by Hirtz (1985) and four technical elements specific of rhythmic gymnastics, had been correlated with ranking and performance scores reached by each gymnast in the 2011, 2012, and 2013 National Championships, to verify if coordination and precision in skill acquisition during motor learning, could be valid and long-term indicators in selecting talent among young rhythmic gymnasts.

Technical elements and assessments

The four specific technical elements were a leap, a specific tour named "pivot", and two "risk with throw of apparatus" elements. Table 1 provides descriptions of the four technical elements and Figure 1 provides schematics of the four elements at each level. The selected elements required high coordinative skills and were unknown to the gymnasts. The chosen jump required lower limb kinesthetic discrimination and orientation ability (Pehoiu, 2010). The chosen pivot required a high level of dynamic balance and limb response orientation ability. The two "risk with throw" elements required upper limb kinesthetic discrimination abilities and dynamic balance.

The three motor coordination tests assessed kinesthetic discrimination, response orientation...

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