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  • Jo Clubb

What Do We Mean by “Elite”?

We’ve previously discussed the need to place a question mark on things we take for granted. Now, a powerhouse group have encouraged us to do the same with how we classify athletes.

The term “elite” is used flippantly. What’s more, a host of other terms, including “sub-elite”, “highly trained”, or “well trained”, are widely used despite little definition. The group, led by Alannah McKay, set out to rectify this with a new Participant Classification Framework. The paper is available open access here in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.

Why Is It Needed?

Such classification frameworks have been attempted in cycling. A group from sports psychology previously attempted to define “elite” (Swann et al., 2015). However, a unified approach across the sport sciences is missing.

Having objective features to define subjects improves clarity and consistency across research. This allows applied practitioners to understand what group(s) the evidence applies to and how these participants compare to their own athletes. As the authors outline, “the results of existing and future studies cannot be effectively harvested unless there is uniformity around the descriptive characteristics and classification of athletic populations.”

As per their example, beetroot juice appears to enhance performance in lower-calibre athletes. Yet, this finding does not seem to transfer to elite athletes (Jones, 2014). Having objectively defined subject groups illuminates how interventions may, or may not, translate.

The Framework

This was clearly a comprehensive undertaking. The authors had to contend with the myriad of terms in existence, along with the nuances of different sporting contexts.

The framework provides six participant tiers, as listed below. Each tier has objective criteria for classification. These are based mostly on participation frequency and level.

Tier 0: Sedentary,

Tier 1: Recreationally Active,

Tier 2: Trained/Developmental,

Tier 3: Highly Trained/National Level,

Tier 4: Elite/International Level,

Tier 5: World Class

Numerous discussions highlight the diversity with which the authors approached this challenge. They include the depth of participation across different sports, nationality differences, gender parity, chronological age, and additional complexity of classification within Paralympic sports. Clearly, there is scope to expand the framework as future work, particularly with special populations, emerges.

The Rarity of “World Class”

This framework stresses how rare it is to be world class, or even elite. The authors expanded the framework to estimate the global (and Australian) population included in each tier. Naturally, I wanted to create a stacked chart to visualise these proportions. The tiny proportions do not make for a particularly appealing visualisation! Yet, this in itself tells a story.

Collectively, tiers 3 (highly trained), 4 (elite), and 5 (world class) make up just 0.017% of the global population. Even within this total athletic population (tiers 3-5), elite make up approximately 15% and world class only 0.4%.

Being world class is extraordinary. It is a challenge to study such exclusive features. It is equally challenging for the practitioner to apply research from other tiers to their elite and potentially, world class population. Yet, this is the challenge we face if we have the privilege to work with such athletes. We must respect athlete individuality, develop our abilities to translate evidence to our specific setting, and implement interventions with awareness of potential negative outcomes.

User Friendly Science

I love the emphasis in this paper on creating a “user-friendly resource”. This is articulated as an aim from the outset. Per illustration, a simple flowchart is included to demonstrate how participants can be prospectively classified according to the framework.

Science can, at times, struggle with communication. By starting with the user in mind, research can potentially have a wider impact. Plus, its reach can extend beyond fellow scientists alone. This framework could be used by national governing bodies, the media, and perhaps the athletes themselves, for example.

I believe the greatest practitioners are those who can translate evidence into successful application within their own setting. That said, the more science and academia can do to aid such transfer can only add value. The authors highlight their own desire to: “Provide a flexible framework that endures the test of time, which can eventually be adapted as sports and athletic ability inevitably evolves over time.” Science is about being open to change. This classification framework acts to unify the research while explicitly leaving scope to evolve.