Developmental Histories

In  the  context  of  sport,  developmental  histories provide  information  on  an  athlete’s  career  with respect  to  practice  activities  related  to  their  primary  sport.  In  studies  of  elite  athlete  development,  researchers  have  used  carefully  designed questionnaires  or  interview  methods  to  ascertain information  about  the  routes  to  success  in  sport. Methods  for  obtaining  developmental  histories vary with respect to the research question guiding their  use  and  the  breadth  and  depth  of  information  required.  Typically  developmental  histories provide insights into current and previous practice habits at various levels of detail.

Over  the  past  2  decades,  developmental  histories  have  become  a  commonly  used  method of  ascertaining  data  on  athletes’  career  histories. The  interest  in  collecting  developmental  histories has  stemmed  largely  from  the  seminal  paper  by K.  Anders  Ericsson,  Ralf  Krampe,  and  Clemens Tesch-Römer  on  the  concept  of  deliberate  practice  and  its  centrality  to  expert  performance. According  to  Ericsson  et  al.,  expert  performance can  be  predicted  based  on  the  number  of  quality hours  spent  engaged  in  practice  designed  specifically to improve performance. There has therefore been  a  need  to  find  methods  for  collecting  reliable and valid data on the amount and quality of practice accrued over an athlete’s career to test the validity of this proposition. Across a diverse range of sports, considerable support has been forthcoming. As a result of data collected from developmental histories, it has been shown that practice hours consistently  differentiate  across  skill  class  (e.g., international versus national versus club level performers) and performance metrics (e.g., swimming or running times).

Recently there have been attempts to use developmental  histories  to  understand  how  age  of involvement in a primary sport impacts later success  in  the  sport  (either  positively  or  negatively).

This  has  been  studied  with  respect  to  ideas  concerning  early  specialization  versus  early  diverse involvement  in  many  sports  with  an  early  focus on fun and enjoyment. The Developmental Model of  Sport  Participation,  developed  by  Jean  Côté, Jennifer Murphy-Mills, and Bruce Abernethy, has been  used  as  a  theoretical  framework  to  study developmental pathways to success in sport. There has been mixed evidence in support of the suggestion that an early focus on play type of activities, potentially  coupled  with  early  sampling  of  various  sports,  positively  impacts  attainment  of  later success.

Data collected via developmental histories usually pertain to three general areas: personal demographics  (including  such  variables  as  gender,  age, education, family involvement in sport and living environment),  current  practice  profiles  and  levels of performance, and previous practice profiles and past successes. Data are collected to inform as to the amount of hours per week spent practicing in the person’s primary sport and sometimes in other sports or activities. This is usually evaluated with respect to the number of practice sessions per week, the  number  of  weeks  or  months  away  from  the sport (due to off-season or injury) as well as with respect  to  the  current  reasons  for  engagement  in the activity (e.g., primarily for fun or for improvement).  In  addition,  researchers  have  also  tried  to ascertain  how  much  practice  was  supervised  or coach-led like team practice versus self-directed or individual  practice,  as  well  as  the  extent  of  competition  involvement.  Once  the  researcher  has  a measure  of  the  number  of  hours  per  week  spent in  practice,  it  is  possible  to  estimate  the  number of hours accumulated in various types of practice activities  across  a  12-month  period,  that  is,  the number of hours per week multiplied by the number of weeks of participation (not including injury and off-season). Current levels of performance and areas of strength and weakness are then related to current amounts and types of practice.

Past levels of practice over an athlete’s career are usually  obtained  through  similar  methods  as  for current practice but typically not in as much detail. Researchers  usually  solicit  information  about  age of first involvement in the sport and age of serious commitment to the sport, and this information is either gathered for every year of involvement or in

2to 3-year blocks (to make the recall process less arduous  for  the  participant).  In  cases  where  data are  not  collected  for  every  year  of  involvement, estimates  of  practice  in  the  intervening  years  are calculated  based  on  the  previous  and  subsequent year  entries  and  on  the  assumption  that  practice gradually increased in a linear fashion.

Retrospective, recall-based methods of data collection,  as  is  the  case  with  developmental  histories,  require  some  demonstration  of  accuracy  on the  part  of  the  researcher  (validity  and  reliability checks).  There  have  been  a  number  of  different methods used to ensure that the data are accurate. With respect to reliability, the same questions have been asked a number of times within a questionnaire  or  interview  session,  usually  under  slightly different  guises:  one  question  asking  how  many hours  a  week  are  spent  in  team  practice  versus  a table  requiring  the  person  to  specify  the  number of sessions per week they attend team practice and the  average  length  of  each  session.  Reliability  is also gained through test–retest methods. Typically, 1 to 3 months after initial data collection, a select number  of  participants  are  asked  to  fill  in  all  or parts  of  the  questionnaire  again.  With  respect  to validity  (or  truthfulness)  of  the  reports,  attempts have been made to measure practice composition during  actual  practice  sessions  (e.g.,  via  video), semi structured interviews have been coupled with questionnaire-based   methods,   and   parents   or coaches have been asked to report on current and past practice habits of the athletes.


  1. Côté, J., Murphy-Mills, J., & Abernethy, B. (2012). The development of skill in sport. In A. M. Williams & N. J. Hodges (Eds.), Skill acquisition in sport: Research, theory and practice (2nd ed., pp. 269–286). London: Routledge.
  2. Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363–406.
  3. Hodges, N. J., Kerr, T., Starkes, J. L., Weir, P., & Nanandiou, A. (2004). Predicting performance from deliberate practice hours for triathletes and swimmers: What, when and where is practice important? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 10, 219–237.
  4. Ward, P., Hodges, N. J., Williams, A. M., & Starkes, J. L. (2007). The road to excellence in soccer: A developmental look at deliberate practice. High Ability Studies, 18, 119–153

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