Please take the time to read the following two articles.
The Making of an Olympian
New York Times, 8/4
The world’s top athletes, including Olympians, rarely start competing at a young age or specialize early in the sport that will make them champions, according to a provocative new study of the athletic backgrounds of thousands of successful athletes. Instead, the study finds, most world champions sample one sport after another as children and gain mastery in their chosen activities considerably later than other, more focused young athletes whom they eventually go on to defeat.
The study, which involved male and female competitors in a wide range of sports, offers lessons and cautions for parents, coaches and child athletes about how to understand talent, manage expectations, build an athletic career and recalibrate the long-term importance for 7- or 8-year-olds of making — or missing out on — select teams in children’s leagues.
If you are a sports parent, though, it is difficult not to believe that athletic success for your children requires early specialization. Most of us are all too familiar with the tropes about tiny sports prodigies and their outsize success, such as Tiger Woods making tee shots at age 2 or Venus and Serena Williams slamming tennis aces while still in elementary school.
The belief that early specialization and frequent repetition contribute to physical mastery was likewise bolstered by research in the 1990s into expertise by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who died in 2020. He and his colleagues found that youthful musicians who choose an instrument at a young age and spend multiple hours in tutoring and rehearsals — sessions that he called “deliberate practice” — gain the greatest musical mastery. In this research, innate talent plays less of a role in achievement than practice, practice, practice.
But other scientists since have questioned the advisability of shunting youngsters into one activity early on, especially in sports, because early specialization and intense practice can increase the risk of injuries and burnout. In this estimation, children are better off playing multiple sports, with an emphasis on play, not competition, to gain enthusiasm, coordination and, eventually, trophies and medals.
However, few large-scale studies have looked into the backgrounds of successful athletes at all levels of sports to see whether early specialization generally bolsters or hinders someone’s chances of earning a podium spot at the Olympics or starring on a high school team.
So, for the new study, which was published in July in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of exercise scientists and sports psychologists from Germany and the United States decided to gather as much intelligence as possible about how great athletes got that way.
They began by combing databases for research that documented successful athletes’ training histories via extensive interviews or questionnaires. They wound up with 51 relevant studies covering 6,096 athletes, including 772 Olympic or world champions. Some of the athletes competed in team sports and others in individual events. Some collected victories and accolades as children or teenagers; others as adults; few as both. Some peaked with wins at international events; others at local or regional contests. The athletes represented, in essence, the gamut of sporting careers, from supernova prodigies to late bloomers to flameouts.
The researchers then aggregated the data from the studies and started comparing athletes’ pasts and results. They quickly realized that early sports specialization benefited certain athletes, but only briefly.
World-class junior competitors, the scientists found, who stockpiled international medals while still in their teens, tended to have settled on a single sport before about age 12, a year or two earlier than most of their competitors, including other young athletes who excelled at the regional and national levels. What separated great young athletes in this group from the good, in other words, was picking a sport young and practicing it fiercely.
But at the senior or adult-sports level, the impacts of specialization flip-flopped, the data showed. (Most senior athletes are in their 20s or 30s, although each sport sets its own age cutoff for junior and senior divisions.) The world’s best adult athletes, including Olympic and world champions, typically took up competitive sports of any kind a year or two later than other players, and practiced fewer hours throughout their careers. Most also dabbled with multiple sports, usually three or four a year, often not settling on a primary activity until their midteens or so, several years after most of their later competitors. And few garnered much immediate attention or acclaim from coaches and officials, rarely joining select teams at the start of their careers.
“Most of the adult, world-class performers were not prodigies as kids,” said Arne Güllich, the director of the Institute of Applied Sports Science at the Kaiserslautern University of Technology in Germany, who conducted the new study with his American colleagues Brooke N. Macnamara of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and David Zach Hambrick of Michigan State University.
These patterns held true for men and women, boys and girls, and in team and individual sports.
The results do not explain, though, how a slow start and early sports sampling might contribute to later athletic excellence. But Dr. Güllich believes late bloomers probably experience less stress and burnout than single-sport young superstars and gain a greater ability to learn and progress physically by training in a variety of sports.
The study has other limitations. It is associational, meaning it shows that top adult athletes rarely specialize early but it does not prove that approach caused their success. In addition, it did not consider genetic, familial, financial, psychological or other factors that could influence athletic careers. It also focused, by and large, on the world’s premier athletes, a group that is unlikely ever to include most of us or our offspring.
But, still, the results seem cheering for all those young athletes who enthusiastically dabble in a variety of sports. “Kids should do the sport they most enjoy doing, in which they are looking forward to each session, to having a good time with friends and the coach,” Dr. Güllich said. “If enjoyment constantly declines, perhaps it’s time to try another sport.”
The sound of the basketball repeatedly smacking the parquet floor echoed across the empty community center gymnasium as I attempted to teach my 5-year-old son how to dribble.
“You want to bend your knees, straighten your back, and look up while bouncing the ball,” I said, but my son wasn’t paying attention. He’d spotted a dust bunny hanging out underneath the basket.
I thought of all the young kids already practicing basketball and wondered — how is my child going to play in the N.B.A. if he can’t dribble?
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Obviously, the N.B.A. didn’t matter to my son as he picked up the dust bunny and considered eating it. In fact, sports in general don’t mean much to him or his 2-year-old brother. They don’t mind balls, which can be thrown at each other’s faces from short distances. But organized sports are about as popular as brushing their teeth. So why were we there, in a drafty gymnasium, eating dust bunnies?
The answer is obvious — me. I love sports, even if my children don’t, yet. I grew up playing the sports that my parents played — soccer, lacrosse, tennis, baseball and, most importantly, basketball. My dad was one of those intense sports parents who took his son’s athletics a little too seriously. Once he screamed so many profanities at me on the lacrosse field that he was banned from attending any more games.
“Don’t just play to have fun,” he’d say as he broke down defensive strategy at the dinner table after my basketball games. “Play to win.”
“That’s what’s often labeled frustrated jock syndrome, or reverse dependency syndrome,” said Dr. Frank Smoll, Ph.D., a sport psychologist at the University of Washington who specializes in the psychological effects of competition on children and youth. “That’s where parents try to live out their athletic aspirations through their children.”
While my dad’s strategy didn’t do wonders for our relationship, it did instill a love of sports in me. I played sports, I wrote about sports and I love watching sports.
They taught me a lot about sportsmanship, teamwork and motivation. Sports educated me on the importance of practice, hard work and sacrifice. And they let me feel like a hero for brief moments, even if those moments were inconsequential to the world at large.
If I’d like to pass that love for sports along to my children, should I start them early? Tiger Woods was whacking golf balls before the age of 2. Kobe Bryant told his mother he was going to play in the N.B.A. at 3. And Serena Williams started playing tennis when she was 4. My older son is now 5 and, despite his skill at catching dust bunnies, apparently woefully behind the curve.
“Don’t worry,” said Dr. Smoll. “You push kids into sports too early and then when they have a say in it, they may not want to play. The ideal approach is to give kids exposure to a variety of sports and see which ones they enjoy.”
These days, however, there are too many sports to choose from. According to the World Sports Encyclopedia, there are 8,000 sports and sporting games in the world, including steinstossen (the Swiss practice of throwing a heavy stone), aquathlon (Russian underwater wrestling), and Fujian White Crane (a martial art from southern China). Even the Summer Olympics have competitions in 33 different sports. Do I just let my son try them all?
“Let him try as many as he wants,” said Dr. Catherine Butz, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. She believes the benefits of playing sports in early childhood aren’t just about the game.
“Sports helps kids developmentally with their motor development,” said Dr. Butz. “And psychologically it’s going to help build their social competence. They’re getting out with peers. They’re learning how to do turn-taking and taking their time and self-restraint. And then it also helps with independence and assertion skills.”
Most importantly, sports let kids fail, and then discover that failure is often a step toward achievement, growth and new experiences. For instance, as an 18-year-old I tried to walk on to a college basketball team. After two weeks of sloppy turnovers and awkward layups, the coach pulled me aside and said, “Son, what are you still doing here?” Heartbroken, my dreams of N.B.A. stardom crushed, I searched for another outlet for my athletic ambitions and discovered rugby.
When introducing sports to kids, Dr. Butz cautions against thinking too far into the future. “Don’t think about what they can accomplish down the road or what they’ll be good at in 10 years,” she said. “Focus on the now and the fun factor, because that’s what builds interest, and interest builds motivation.”
But if my children are not just going to have fun playing a sport, but be really good at it, don’t they need to start practicing early, like Tiger, Kobe and Serena? Don’t people say that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to master anything?
Actually, most experts are skeptical of the 10,000-hour-rule. And too much practice in one sport can be detrimental to a child’s health and success. There’s even a name for it: overtraining syndrome. According to Dr. Gregory Walker, a pediatric primary care sports medicine physician at Children’s Hospital Colorado, “That’s when an athlete has worse performance despite intense training. This can encompass a bunch of factors like physiologic stress, emotional stress, fatigue and anxiety.”
What’s worse, this often stems from a parent pressuring their child to be a star. In his report “Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes,” Dr. Joel Brenner, M.D., of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness writes, “One contributing factor to overtraining may be parental pressure to compete and succeed.”
How gloriously counterproductive! The more I want my sons to be better basketball players, the more I could hurt their chances of playing in the N.B.A. I guess it doesn’t matter what sports they play, just that they like playing them. And if they like playing them, maybe they’ll want to play more, and maybe then that’ll make them better at sports and happier individuals. But how do I figure out what sport is fun for my 5-year-old? Dr. Butz suggests asking children what they want to play.
So I sat down next to my son on the gym floor as he rolled the dust bunny between his fingers.
“What sport do you want to play?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” my son responded.
“No,” he said. “It makes me tired.”
“I get it,” I said, trying to sound sympathetic, but dying a little inside. “So what other sport would you rather play?”
“You mean like a game, daddy?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Is there a game you’d like to play?”
He nods. “Yes,” he said, “I’d like to play video games.”
Video games, we can work with that. NBA 2K has a league with $1.4 million up for grabs, and games that sometimes air live on ESPN.
In fact, playing video games might be the only way my son will ever dunk over LeBron James, crossover Steph Curry or nail a game-winning three in the waning seconds of the finals. And he could do it all without having to spend hours and days in a dusty gymnasium as his dad desperately tries to teach him how to dribble.
Why does Bedford Field Hockey not offer a spring session?
The BFH coaches believe that all young athletes should play a different sport each season. This is to develop a mentally and physically stronger all-around athlete. Overuse injuries and mental burn-out occur frequently in athletes who specialize in one sport. We encourage the development of the complete athlete. Lacrosse has traditionally been the spring sport of field hockey players. We encourage you to join one of our local programs.
Here is some good information from the Children’s Hospital of Colorado:
No Dogs Are Allowed For A Reason PLEASE think of the safety of the children. The high level of activity can be too much for a dog and that is why we ask you to leave your pet at home.