The way to develop the best 20-year-old athlete is not the way to make the best 10-year-old athlete

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

David Epstein’s The Sports Gene was excellent. In Range he argues for generalism and against specialization:

I do find the Tiger Woods story incredibly compelling; there is a reason it may be the most famous tale of development ever. Even if you don’t know the details, you’ve probably absorbed the gist.

Woods was 7 months old when his father gave him a putter, which he dragged around in his circular baby-walker. At 2, he showed off his drive on national television. By 21, he was the best golfer in the world. There were, to be sure, personal and professional bumps along the way, but in April he became the second-oldest player ever to win the Masters. Woods’s tale spawned an early-specialization industry.

And yet, I knew that his path was not the only way to the top.

Consider Roger Federer. Just a year before Woods won this most recent Masters, Federer, at 36, became the oldest tennis player ever to be ranked No. 1 in the world. But as a child, Federer was not solely focused on tennis. He dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming, skateboarding and squash. He played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis and soccer (and badminton over his neighbor’s fence). Federer later credited the variety of sports with developing his athleticism and coordination.

While Tiger’s story is much better known, when sports scientists study top athletes, they find that the Roger pattern is the standard. Athletes who go on to become elite usually have a “sampling period.” They try a variety of sports, gain a breadth of general skills, learn about their own abilities and proclivities, and delay specializing until later than their peers who plateau at lower levels. The way to develop the best 20-year-old athlete, it turns out, is not the same as the way to make the best 10-year-old athlete.

The same pattern holds in other fields.


  1. Kirk says:

    I would submit that there are no really consistent “cookbook” approaches towards excellence in any field. Every practitioner is different, every field is different, and every slice of time that a particular practitioner is experiencing that field is different.

    What worked for Milo of Croton might have worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger; then again, maybe not. Excellence is to be celebrated, revered, and emulated; the path to get there, however? It will never be the same for every aspirant.

  2. Grasspunk says:

    There’s an assumption here that kinda bugs me. Epstein is answering the question, “How do I train my kid to be an elite athlete?” Looking at today’s kids I think we spend way too much energy on the elite athlete and way too little on the regular kid.

  3. Kirk says:

    Grasspunk–Exactly my take, and I think it goes past just athletics.

  4. Paul from Canada says:

    Yeah, up here in Canada, we have the phenomenon of the “Hockey Dad”. Trying to live vicariously or re-capture faded glory through the person of his hockey playing son. Either pushing him to a higher league level he doesn’t really want to go, or just being so driving and competitive, that he sucks all the joy out of it for the poor kid.

  5. B.J. Dubbs says:

    I’m sure parents want to believe this but it’s just not true. If it were true, you wouldn’t see so many tennis players who also have pro tennis brothers or sisters. But there are plenty of brothers and sisters. McEnroe and his brother, Zverev brothers, Murray brothers, Williams sisters, Djokovic brothers, Skupski brothers, Bryan brothers, etc etc. As the swimmer Summer Sanders put it in the title of her book, Champions are Raised, not Born.

  6. Kirk says:

    Nurture can only take you so far, and then you’d better have the underlying genetics to make nurturing effects possible. I don’t care how much parental involvement you have, if the kid isn’t suited to the sport, it ain’t happening. You are not going to take a child built like a jockey and turn that kid into the next great NFL lineman, and you’re not taking someone built like a lineman and making him into the next winner of the Triple Crown.

  7. Graham says:

    I wouldn’t want to disparage motivation, education, discipline, training, hard work, parental or coach pressure or peer competition.

    All can drive a person to maximize their talents, and plenty of people squander not only their native physical or mental gifts, but the pressures that might drive them, through resistance, passivity, or disinterest, or even fail to identify possible talents at all. Even those whose gifts could take them in many directions usually miss a few for one reason or another. Every path isn’t for everyone, even if it’s one they could have walked.

    But you also can’t make an end product from poor or no materials, with any amount of work.

    Few if any people are pure hereditarians. Way too many seem to be pure environmentalists and that position strikes me as so contrary to all learning or human experience that I cannot understand their resistance to any hereditary component. It borders on lunacy.

    Too much G, I guess.

  8. Graham says:

    I myself have made modest use of such talents as I had, but it’s been enough. I might have done better in a few areas.

    I did benefit from parental pressure, although the Scottish kind not the hard-core Asian kind.

    Some things I was never going to be. Any kind of athlete at all, for one.

    I am the king of all procrastinators, so excellence IS possible. And no amount of parental or peer pressure overcomes it. Only necessity and crisis. You just have to be innately disposed to react more aggressively in crisis. Life’s a balance, like that.

  9. Paul from Canada says:

    “Nurture can only take you so far, and then you’d better have the underlying genetics to make nurturing effects possible.”

    I imagine there are plenty of kids who showed an early and passionate interest in golf, AND who had a parent who was a pro, and nurtured their interest, but there is only one Tiger Woods.

  10. Graham says:

    It’s almost trite, but I’d even add that the mental capacity and emotional sensibility necessary to have ambition and drive and to respond successfully to any kind of goal, pressure or motivation, itself has a hereditary element to it.

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