WATCHING the British Olympic Marathon Trials in London on Friday was both entertaining and intriguing.

In a world in which we are told that early specialisation, as well as youth, are invaluable, the results contradicted both those assertions.

The women’s race was won by Scot Steph Davis, who has only been running seriously for a few years, while the men’s race was won by Chris Thompson, who ran a personal best at the age of 39.

The longevity of the likes of tennis players Roger Federer and Serena Williams and NFL superstar Tom Brady have made world-class performances from athletes in their 30s, and even older, far less remarkable than they may have been in the past.

So despite the impressive performance from Thomson as he approaches his 40th birthday, it is Davis’ rise that is most fascinating.

The success of the Glasgow-born 30-year-old goes against conventional wisdom when it comes to developing children into elite athletes. The stories of greats who began playing their sport at an incredibly young age are well-known. Perhaps the most frequently re-told tale is that of Tiger Woods, who was handed a golf club by his father before his first birthday, had developed an impressive swing before his second birthday and before his third, had appeared on national television in America to demonstrate his skills.

Similarly, the father of the Williams sisters had decided before they were born they were going to become tennis players, while their long-time rival, Maria Sharapova, left her mother behind and moved from her native Russia to America with her father at the age of seven in order to join a tennis academy.

So it is easy to assume that early specialisation is the best way to produce a champion.

However, Davis’ rise to prominence, with her impressive victory in London ensuring she will make her Olympic debut in Tokyo this summer, is the perfect rebuttal to this theory.

Davis was a keen runner in her youth but only began taking it seriously three years ago. With an interest in triathlon, she is far from a traditional marathon runner and combines her running training with cycling and swimming.

Such a training regime is a far cry from those who push children into picking one sport in the hope the increased focus will result in a higher level of performance.

Much of this focus on early specialisation is due to the well-publicised 10,000-hour rule, which states that if you put 10,000 hours into something, you can master it.

For many activities, this may be true. But not for elite sport. Sport is one of the few activities that increased practice does not automatically guarantee an elite level will be reached.

David Epstein’s book, “Reach” explains why early specialisation does not help young people become top athletes and can even be  detrimental to becoming elite.

It is easy to see why parents and coaches push children to pick one sport to focus on at an early age. Often, almost always in fact, the more a youngster practices, the better they will be in the short term. If the goal is to become a champion at under-10 age group, that is fine.

But if the goal is to become an elite adult, this focus on short term gain does significant damage to long-term development.

For every Woods who specialised early, there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others who fell by the wayside having focused on one sport.

Federer is the perfect example of the long-term benefit of doing a wide range of sports. Until his teenage years, along with tennis, Federer skied, swam, played basketball, badminton, handball and several other sports.

Now, as one of the greatest tennis players, he credits his varied sporting background as one of the factors that turned him into the player he became.

While early specialisation results in rapid progress, playing a variety of sports as a child brings with it huge benefits.

Studies have shown that injuries are more common in early specialisers compared to generalists as playing a variety of sports strengthens the body so it is far more able to cope when the individual does ultimately specialise.

Playing a range of sports during younger years also helps individuals gain a range of physical skills which helps them learn about their own abilities and talents.

The perfect roadmap is not clear; what is the ideal age to move away from generalisation and begin specialising? How many sports should an individual try to gain most benefit? The answer will likely be different for everyone.

Whatever the optimal plan is though, is it clear it does not include early specialisation.

I didn’t specialise early, and made it into the world’s top-20 badminton players and the Olympic Games. Despite my desperation for my son to be sporty, I wouldn’t want him to specialise early.

It is hard, and is becoming harder, for coaches and parents to push against the desire for young kids to specialise. After all, despite the evidence against specialisation, children will rarely excel from outwith the system entirely.

So the thinking needs to change. It needs to become commonplace for children to play two, three, even 10 sports at a young age rather than rush to pick one to focus on.

For anyone who has a vested interest in a child becoming an elite athlete, it is becoming more and more clear this is the way forward.