I just finished a book called Range by Daniel Epstein. The subtitle on the book is “Why generalists triumph in a specialized world.”
The book starts by comparing the development of the careers of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, the greatest golfer and tennis player of their generation.
Tiger was destined for golf from an early age. At age 4, he was beating 10-year-olds. Everything from birth to his professional career was focused on making him the greatest golfer ever.
Roger, in contrast, played everything. His mom was a tennis instructor, but she did everything she could to discourage him from a tennis career. He played squash, wrestling, and basketball and went skiing, swimming and skateboarding.
When other kids were attending tennis academies, working with personal trainers and nutritionists and competing around the globe he was agonizing over having to give up soccer. And at an age when most tennis professionals retire, he was still the number one ranked player in the world.
The book is full of statistics and research and reaches some pretty startling conclusions. In a nutshell, the most successful of athletes in pretty much every sport played lots of different sports growing up. The exceptions were gymnastics and … well … gymnastics. That’s it. Really. Everything from golf (well, except for Tiger) to football to equestrian events, the most successful athletes were generalists.
The easy answer to why is athleticism. The more complicated answer is in emotional development.
It seems like there is a ton of pressure on young athletes to be stars, to be on the winning team, to be successful in sports at an early age. Pitching coaches for 8-year-olds. Sports performance training for adolescents before their body is ready for that kind of activity.
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, more than 3.5 million children age 14 and under are treated for sports-related injuries each year.
Dr. Jim Andrews is probably the leading sports medicine physician in the world. An orthopedic surgeon in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Andrews’ patient list includes Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. His surgery allowed Drew Brees to return to the NFL after a devastating shoulder injury.
“I have seen my patient population and surgical cases get increasingly younger,” Dr. Andrews said. “Children, parents and coaches need to realize that kids need to take a break from playing one sport year round. Sports should be fun for children. Overuse injuries in children is a concerning trend.”
His core advice is simple: Take time off, don’t specialize.
OK, but when is it OK to concentrate on only one sport? Maybe in high school. Maybe later. Certainly not before they reach puberty.
The bottom line is that there is no way in the world that anyone knows that a 10-year-old is destined for sports stardom. Oh, we can have a good idea that they’re going to be really good at something, but we can really never know exactly what. Everybody thought Roger Federer was going to be a soccer star.
Winning a weekend baseball or softball tournament is meaningless if your child doesn’t get better. Winning a flag football league is a waste of time if your child doesn’t have fun. Let your kid play. Let your kid have fun. And let them play everything.