RPS Voices: The Rutgers Prep Blog
Generalists vs specialists; Is there a benefit to playing sports outside of the focus? Or should children be put on the single sport training “fast track” earlier to get a leg up on the competition?
This topic has received a lot of attention over the past decade as year-round models have taken over hockey, soccer, and basketball at the youth levels. Parents have seemed to make a choice to have their children become “early specializers” with the idea that they may find success and gain an advantage amongst their peers. The three-sport high school athlete seems to be a “throwback” to an age of old school athletics.
In order to unpack the questions that arise from this new wave of sports development, let us look at two (relatively) recently published works. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell looks at those individuals who have found exceptional success in their chosen field. As Gladwell often does, he peels back the supposed cause and effect to reveal a completely different underlying reason for extreme success in a wide variety of fields.
As it applies to sports, Gladwell touches on two points. First, the advantages are real and fast tracks exist. Using the example of birthdates in the NHL, Gladwell shows how children who are older for their grade (and usually bigger) tend to get the better coaching, more attention, increasingly challenging environments, and higher-level competition and, thus, have a greater chance of making it to the pros. I imagine that Gladwell would argue that this idea may be extrapolated to the year-round model of youth sports - those more prepared for practice at their given season will qualify for that enhanced environment more likely to propel them to the highest ranks versus the athlete who may put down the sport for the offseason.
Secondly, Gladwell coins the now-famous 10,000-hour rule. Simply put, mastery is a race to 10,000 hours of practice. A young athlete who can put in the time will see the gains. From this vantage point, sports other than their focus are a distraction from potential.
The second work worth looking at is called Range by David Epstein. Epstein makes a compelling case for what he calls “late specialization”. In his opening chapter, he compares the life of Tiger Woods to Roger Federer. Woods, the poster child of early specialization and narrow focus eventually leads a life spiraling out of control at the height of success while Federer, a boy who played multiple sports and only became focused on tennis later in his teens, continues to dominate the courts today as he approaches 40 years old.
Epstein’s argument, however, is not a feel-good moralistic one, but, rather, a practical case study on internal motivation and the importance of skill connections for the developing brain. He states that “late specializers” gain a focus and intrinsic motivation which drives practice habits with an intensity and focus unmatched by any motivation forced upon a child. Additionally, he believes that a wide range, analogical thinking is the key to building the creativity and agility required to be successful in unpredictable sports.
I believe that both sides are valid yet their value lies in an understanding of how they apply to each individual child. On one hand, a young boy or girl who practices every day will inevitably get better with his skills. Despite inferior athletes, the Canadian National lacrosse team has competed and beaten the US National team in the past couple of years because their professionals are practicing more. European soccer players are put into academies at the age of 7 to build skills and consistently outperform the traditional US model. The highest level NBA players have participated in constant training, playing, and practicing from early ages. Practice works and young minds are the most malleable to teach good habits and skills. Yet I believe Epstein to have a point, albeit a bit less tangible. We have all seen the two or three-sport athlete’s intangibles; grit in the 4th quarter, leadership in practice, or deeper understanding in the film room. It is very difficult to teach the intangibles; how to cut at the right time, how to be sneaky, how to “find the goal”, how to talk off ball. Perhaps these are developed in the best athletes because they have subconsciously seen the connection in the multiple sports that they have grown up playing. Without question, the repeated leadership lesson that come with being a part of multiple teams in multiple sports with many different influences (coaches, teammates, parents) provides the young athlete with an environment that continuously challenges and gives support to the developing brain.
I am not sure where your son or daughter is at in their path as a young athlete but my hope is that this gives you a bit more insight into the nature of development and helps you to think twice when being the best guiding force that you can be. So I leave you with a thought (and a complete avoidance of a definitive answer)… Perhaps skills build with time, energy, and narrow focus while the brain develops with diversity, creativity, and a broad focus. Until next time ...
Ryan Klipstein '07