Advice Column, Education, Parenting

Parenting your star athlete

By Keri Gallan, Sports Co-Ordinator of Crawford Preparatory North Coast 

What do Tiger Woods, Serena Williams and Lewis Hamilton have in common? Apart from dominating their sports, earning millions of dollars and producing world class performances over the years, all three of these elite athletes specialised in their particular sport when they were very young.

They’re not alone. Many superstar athletes latch on to one unique code and run with it. They are often supported by parents and private coaches who push these child prodigies to heights few of us could ever dream of.

Of course, we all want the best for our children and when we spot a bit of talent, either through our own rose-tinted glasses or with a little help from a learned tutor, we understandably might be tempted to narrow our child’s gaze towards one sport.

This is perhaps the single greatest mistake one can make when it comes to youth development. 

In a 2011 study called ‘Late Specialisation: The Key to Success in Centimetres, Grams or Seconds (CGS) Sports’, Danish scientists examined the training hours of professional athletes in their chose sport through their development, starting at 9 and finishing at 21. They wanted to see if more training hours early on in childhood (as was the case for athletes such as Williams and Woods) had a direct correlation to success in adulthood.

Athletes were divided into two groups: 148 Elite and 95 Near-Elites. Elite athletes were those who had achieved a top 10 placing in either World or Olympic competition, or a podium place in European competition. Near-Elite athletes had not achieved as well, but were still part of the Danish national sport programme.

Between the ages of 9 and 15, Near-Elite athletes put in 158.32 more hours on average than those who would go on to reach European, World and Olympic glory. However, by the time they reached 21, the Elite athletes were putting in an average of 1 130.1 more hours than those who hadn’t reached the pinnacle of their sport.

The Near-Elite athletes had a head start on the Elite athletes but flagged well behind at an age where professionalism and world recognition could be attained. Why is that? The answer it two-fold.

One explanation is that the Near-Elite athletes were being driven by someone else; perhaps a pushy parent or coach who ignored the holistic well-being of the child. The other explanation is that the Near-Elites were responding more to what they were good at because of their early physical development. Both explanations are pertinent to our discussion.

The first can be viewed as a cautionary tale against secondary parties (coaches, parents, peers) pushing young people down one path. The great tennis star Andre Agassi once admitted, “I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis. I hate it with a dark secret passion and always have.” Like Woods and Williams, Agassi’s father pushed him in to the sport, ignoring his please to give it up.

Agassi was the number 1 player in the world, earned over $31 million dollars and won 60 career titles including eight Grand Slams. How many people around the world followed a similar path as Agassi, betting all their athletic abilities on a single sport, and came up with nothing?

When mentoring young children who display talent in a particular field, it is crucial to discourage them from ignoring all other avenues and instead open them up to pursuing different paths.

That is not to say that a child who demonstrates talent in one particular code should not view that code as their primary sport, but by ignoring all others there is no telling what other avenues of enjoyment may be missed. 

You wouldn’t feed your child his or her favourite food every day of the week, would you? The same could be said with extra-curricular activities. That is not limited to sport. Your athletically talented child should be encouraged to explore drama, chess, art and debate. Their academic grades should of course be kept at a high standard and not dismissed as a branch of school life that simply gets in the way of his or her athletic exploits. 

A holistic upbringing will not only lead to the formation of a holistic adult but will inadvertently help with the athletic abilities in your child’s chosen sport. What was it about placing all of one’s eggs in one basket?

This brings us to the second explanation. We all can think of that one child in primary school who hit a growth spurt early in his or her life and simply steamrolled the opposition. Be it swimming, athletics or any ball sport, natural athletic abilities are an obvious advantage to have.

This can lead to parents mistakenly assuming that early dominance in a particular code will see their child emerge as the next Woods or Williams. Athletic talent is not linear and should rather be thought of as a stock market with ebbs and flows. What you’re seeing could be a small rise in an otherwise uneventful progression. Just as your broker would discourage you from investing all your money in a single stock, the same could be said for investing all your child’s abilities in a single code.

In the fantastic book, The Sports Gene (2013), David Epstein shows how certain sports require a particular genetic composition in order to be successful at an elite level.  Lionel Messi may be one of the greatest footballers of all time, but no amount of training would turn his diminutive frame in to the next 100m Olympic champion.

That is why developing a holistic and well-rounded physical literacy is crucial in the training of young athletes. Early specialisation is a risk because you can only say with any certainty what body type a child will have once adolescence has been reached. If that is the case, it makes no sense to invest whatever talent the young athlete has in only one sport.

Rather than looking at Woods, Williams and Hamilton for inspiration, take heart from Jordan Spieth, the professional golfer who spent his youth playing American football, baseball and other sports. Or South African cricketer AB de Villiers whose natural athletic abilities were spread across a variety of codes.

Both Spieth and de Villiers might have always known that their chosen sports were the ones for them but they kept the door open for the possibility of another path.

There are no guarantees in life. Your talented child might be head and shoulders above the competition now, but this world has a funny way of punishing those who fail to spread their investments across multiple sources. 

Give your child the holistic life he or she deserves. When all is said and done, sport is meant to be enjoyed and should always be supplemented by sound and enthusiastic participation in academics and the arts. Your child will no doubt thank you later. 

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