Back in 2011, the Dutch soccer team VVV-Venlo signed a prospect named Baerke van der Meij to a 10-year contract after he rose to viral fame thanks to an online video of him kicking plush toys into his toybox. At the time, van der Meij was just 18 months old, but his pedigree – his grandfather had played for the same club – along with his ability to shout “ball” won over the scouts.
The whole episode was intended as a lighthearted joke, but it’s one of those jokes that works because it’s only a slight exaggeration. Parents these days face a seemingly endless series of decisions about their kids’ involvement in sports, starting at ever-younger ages, with long-lasting implications for their leisure time and family finances, their children’s social and emotional development – and, of course, their hopes and dreams of raising a future superstar.
The complexity of these decisions is highlighted in The Tyranny of Talent, a new book by York University professor Joe Baker, a leading expert on talent identification and development. Is athletic stardom a matter of picking the right genes, or accumulating 10,000 hours of practice? Should you specialize early in one sport, or sample as many as possible until your teens? How much expert supervision do you need, and how much unstructured free play?
The answers seldom lie at either extreme, Baker argues. For starters, talent definitely exists: we’re not all born with the same propensity to slam-dunk a basketball or tumble along a balance-beam. But the ways we define and measure it don’t always make sense.
The reasons a kid excels at hitting a baseball when she’s eight – being born early in the year, maturing early, having a parent who spends hours practising with her – may have little bearing on how good she’ll be at 18. Nonetheless, the eight-year-old star will get picked for the select team and gain access to the best facilities and coaching for the rest of her developing years.
This early but misleading labelling of who’s talented has obvious negative effects for those who are excluded. But it can also hurt those who are chosen, Baker points out. If you’re constantly told that your athletic performance is the result of your innate talent, you may be less motivated to put in the work necessary to reach your full potential.
Similarly, the dangers of early specialization may not be as clear-cut as they seem. For previous generations of athletes, research has found that those who made it to the top tended to engage in more unstructured play and participate in a wider variety of sports when they were young. But will the same hold true for today’s kids, if their unstructured time is more likely to be spent online rather than in sandlot games?
For parents, navigating these unknowns is challenging – even for the experts who study these issues for a living. A study published this month in Psychology of Sport & Exercise by Heather Larson and colleagues from the University of Alberta and University of Ottawa examined how 11 sports scholars handled their own children’s sport involvement.
In general, the scholars encouraged their children to sample a range of different sports rather than specializing, and to follow their own interests. “I was a specializer,” one of the interviewees, a former competitive swimmer, told Larson, “then I did research that suggested that specializing wasn’t always great.”
But they also ran into real-world constraints. Younger siblings often didn’t get as many choices, for example, because of the time and money needed to ferry multiple children around to multiple practices and games each week. And it can be hard to disentangle kids’ interests from their parents’ desires: all three of the swimmer’s children ended up focusing on swimming.
Neither Baker nor Larson conclude with any concrete prescriptions about how many sports to play or when to start. There simply isn’t a known recipe for how to reliably produce elite athletes, and there likely never will be. Instead, Baker offers a simple heuristic for parents to keep in mind.
“Is your child enjoying their participation?” he asks. “If the answer is yes, they’re likely ticking the right boxes in terms of intrinsic motivation, appropriate challenge for skill and development level, making the right social connections, matching the type of sport for the interests of the athlete, and so on. If the answer is no, the athlete likely won’t stick around long enough to see what they might have achieved.”
Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.