NGBs that raise their average training age can achieve total world domination in their sport

The average training age of an NGB's athlete pool can be an important, long-term membership metric.

In sports we deal with terms that are somewhat vague but are used often enough so that we become comfortable with at least thinking we know what they mean. A few weeks ago I wrote about how this applies to the term "athleticism". In this letter I want to take a deeper look at experience and suggest a way to measure it rather than just feel it. Experience is an intangible though key commodity in sport. It’s easy to understand in high school sports where we can assume that a varsity team has more experience than a junior varsity or freshman squad. Experience is easy to measure in situations like this because we know the athletes and their participation history. But can it be measured within an entire athlete pool? Do national sport governing bodies (NGBs) have a way to gauge the experience level of their athlete population?

The answer to both questions is a qualified yes. Within any kind of national athlete registration system there is enough historical data to determine how long individual athletes have been involved with a sport. Retrieval and analysis of this data might require a bit of coding gymnastics but the results can help NGBs calculate the average training age within their athlete pool. Currently there is no NGB that actually tracks average training age that I know of. This is unfortunate but not surprising. Demographic metrics that could provide a deeper understanding of the nature of an NGB's athlete membership are all but ignored in favor of simple annual renewal and growth stats. Typical breakdowns of age and sex are useful to a point but if NGBs have gone through the expense to build or acquire a national registration system then they ought to take full advantage of the information it contains. I've written about the connection between retention and athlete training age before:

Athlete training age measures retention at the individual level. Each additional year an athlete is involved in a sport adds to that athlete's training age. As a general proposition, athletes with higher training ages have higher skill levels and more experience. By combining the average training age of the cohort with retention rates NGBs can turn simple registration data into useful predictive metrics as well as providing a snapshot of the overall strength of the athlete pool. In other words, if the average training age is rising then the athlete pool is growing in experience and ability.

Another way to think of experience is as quality; an experienced athlete represents more quality than an athlete with less experience.

When average training age and retention are combined with growth statistics and breakdowns by age and sex one gains a much deeper understanding of the athlete pool. Average training age can inform at several levels. Since it is relatively easy to calculate it can be a useful club metric. It can also be used by NGBs to understand the quality or depth of their entire athlete membership, especially at the developmental level. High average training ages at upper age levels point to a deep “bench” ready to fill places on national and international squads.

Calculating the average training age

  1. Each year that an athlete is involved in organized instruction or training is counted toward that athlete's training age. If he joins an organized sport at age 10, for example, and three years later is still involved then his training age is three and so on for each year of participation. Generally, athletes who step away from sport stop the clock, however dropping one sport to join another presents a good argument to keep the clock running. Why? Because sports have more things in common than not and even though a youngster may drop out of a 3-year stint in baseball to join lacrosse their experience level as an athlete is still rising. This happens regardless of the type of sport. Invasion sports may seem to have little in common with target or metabolic sports but while game strategies differ the training spirit is the same.
  2. The average training age is calculated from all the training ages of athletes on a team or in a country. Athletes and their training ages should be stratified by chronological age to make this information more useful. For example, the training ages of all 11-year-olds are averaged and grouped by sex. This gives an average training age for 11-year-olds. By doing this for all meaningful ages an NGB ends up with an understanding of the overall quality of their athlete pool.
  3. In the perfect youth sport world, older athletes will have been involved in organized training longer than younger athletes, thus the average training age in older groups will be higher. This is illustrated in Figure 1 where there is an increase in average training age as chronological age increases. However, this varies due to retention; NGBs with poor retention would see lower average training ages across all chronological ages.

Since average training age is a proxy for experience, NGBs with higher average training ages in older developmental groups, under 20 years of age for example, would have a group of more experienced, higher quality, soon to be elite level athletes. Is it important to know this? A single snapshot of average training ages might not be the key to world domination in international sport but it can be an important long-term membership metric for NGBs. Tracking average training age and retention over time provides a robust look at the quality of developmental programs that support international competitive efforts. Being able to react years in advance to improve athlete retention, thus raising average training age, can help NGBs advance their elite level aspirations.