This article has been inspired by the reading of the book ‘Range’ by David Epstein which I would highly recommend to all of our audience.
In the sporting world we already understand a lot of the issues around early specialisation, burnout, overuse injuries and that in the vast majority of cases children who have sampled a wide range of sports often stand a far greater chance of becoming elite athletes than some of their early specialising peers.
Epstein reinforces these beliefs and adds some new evidence and perspectives across a number of different fields including sport.
I hope that parents are beginning to realise that their children doing too much of one thing at an early an age, whilst it may reap many short-term benefits, can have many unhealthy long term results.
Epstein digs into real detail the paths taken by two renowned sportsmen in Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The Tiger Woods story is one that is often quoted back to us as an example of a sportsman who started at a really young age, was relentless in their practise, rattled through their hours of deliberate practice, played very few other sports and ultimately achieved success.
The Williams sister’s success is another story that is often used to justify this particular type of approach of early specialisation with no real variety.
Unfortunately, what popular media does not always cover is the many millions of children who followed a similar path and ultimately failed, when in fact with a greater variety in their sporting career they could well have achieved more. More importantly many would still be participating in physical activity and reaping the rewards from that today as opposed to giving up sport for good as it was no longer fun for them.
I have a great sympathy for parents who pick up the pieces of headlines and then try to work some of these philosophies into a context that works for them to justify some of their decisions. I also get that with no sports science or coaching background that many decisions that are being made would actually make a whole heap of sense to the normal sporting parent.
Many parents I have spoken to genuinely believe that the more that their child does, the better they will be and that adopting the 10,000-hour myth is the road to guaranteed success. The problem is that the misinterpretation of this myth has led to a number of issues.
Why would a parent necessarily think any differently? The number of parents who have looked at me strangely when I say goodbye for the Summer from the soccer season in May and that I will see them in August, think I have landed from Mars.
The Roger Federer story takes a different road. Despite his mother being a tennis coach, she opted not to coach him and along with her husband encouraged Roger to take part in as many different sports as possible. He played squash, tried skiing, wrestling, swimming, basketball and handball to name just a few, there were even more.
At a young age tennis was not even his preferred sport and when offered the opportunity to move up to play with older players, he refused as he wanted to stay and play with his friends.
This would be a difficult situation for a sporting parent as we all want our children to achieve but at the same time, we need to understand what is motivating our children, that way we can make healthy decisions together. What would you do as a sporting parent if you faced this dilemma? Who would you choose to talk to?
Roger also reached the World No.1 spot in the world just like Tiger, showing that variety can also provide another route to success. In fact, Epstein goes on to show in a wide variety of different fields that many top performers took a similar route to that taken by Roger.
I sympathise hugely with parents when sports organisations claim year-round devotion is necessary for success – never mind the large body of evidence to suggest otherwise.
Both these men took different paths to greatness, but Epstein goes on to explain to us why the route that Roger took may be far more beneficial when it comes to helping us as parents support our own sporting children.
Cognitive psychologists believe that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, that the most effective learning looks inefficient, it looks like our children may be falling behind, when in fact they are merely learning.
Learning is most efficient in the long run when it is really inefficient in the short run.
This can make it really difficult for parents. In society today, there is a real demand for instant gratification and wanting to see our children succeed. Why wouldn’t we? Of course, we want our children to succeed, we make our decisions because we love them!
Early success can also make life so much easier for us as parents, knowing that our children may already be good at something, that we can potentially give them a label whatever that be academic, artistic, musical or sporty.
Unfortunately, a head start may count for nothing
In our pursuit of this early success it can often lead us to step in too much as parents and we need to understand the journey our children must go on to develop their own character and that to be successful there are going to be so many moments of failure.
How can our children possibly grow their own character including key life skills such as determination, resilience, creativity and adaptability if they suffer no setbacks?
Thomas Edison had thousands of patents, most of which were important, many of which were rejected. However, he found real success with the light bulb and phonograph. If he had not tried and failed, he would not have found his ultimate success.
Don’t feel that your child is getting left behind, help them learn, adjust and grow.
The challenge that we all face is how we maintain breadth, have diverse experiences and interdisciplinary thinking in a world that increasingly incentivises or even demands hyper specialisation. Thankfully, a large part of the sporting world is beginning to recognise this and encouraging different paths for young athletes.
The world certainly needs more Roger’s that start with a broad range of sporting opportunities, that embrace diverse experiences and perspectives whilst they grow and make progress. As Epstein describes them, ‘people with range.’
‘Whilst chess and golf have provided exceptions to the approach taken by Roger, they are not the rule.’
When we know the rules and answers and they don’t change over time an argument can be made for hyper-specialised practice from day one.
However, the vast majority of sports do not fulfil the above criteria.
Children who experience a diverse range of opportunities and environments are far more likely to be creative and problem solve when the waters become muddier.
‘Parents want children doing what the Olympians are now – not what the Olympians were doing when they were younger.’ – Ian Yates British Sports Scientist and coach.
Dean Keith Simonten tells us that creative achievers tend to have broad interests and they are multi-faceted individuals.
Sporting organisations have a responsibility in developing the whole character of individuals and helping prepare them for whichever walk of life they finally end up in.
Some parents feel they will often have ‘the one’ and that is their right, but we want parents to also be armed with as much information as possible before they make decisions for their own sporting children.
In conclusion, there is nothing inherently wrong with specialisation, we all do it to one degree or another.
The Tiger model may certainly fit your beliefs, a tidy prescription, low on uncertainty, high on efficiency and who doesn’t like a head start.
However, athletes who go on to be elite are usually not early specialisers and nor should they be if you want to provide your children with the most enriching sporting experience.