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Canada's Penny Oleksiak prepares to compete in the women's 100-metre freestyle final during the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games. A new study explored how much training top athletes did as children, both in their main sports and in other sports, and whether that predicted their likelihood of making it to the top.The Canadian Press

So you’re fired up from watching the action at the Tokyo Olympics, and ready to sign up your toddler for year-round travel judo so she can start racking up those 10,000 hours?

Hold that thought.

A new study published in Perspectives in Psychological Science wades into the long-standing debate about skill acquisition and talent development – a debate that, over the past two decades, has spilled out of psychology departments and elite sports institutes and into the broader public discourse.

Bestselling books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code popularized the idea that early specialization and relentless practice – 10,000 hours’ worth, by some accounts – is what makes champions, not just in sports but in education, business and life. But others have pushed back against that view, as David Epstein’s 2019 book Range explained, arguing instead that diversity of experience can be an advantage.

Both points of view are bolstered by endless anecdotes: the precocious talent and single-minded focus of Tiger Woods versus the more laid-back and late-developing trajectory of Roger Federer. But what does the data say?

In the new study, Arne Gullich of Technical University Kaiserslautern in Germany, Brooke Macnamara of Case Western Reserve University and David Hambrick of Michigan State University pool the data from 51 studies tracking the full training histories of more than 6,000 athletes, including 772 world-class competitors who placed in the top 10 at the Olympics or comparable competitions.

Among the key questions they explored was how much training the athletes did as children, both in their main sports and in other sports, and whether that predicted their likelihood of making it to the top.

The answers revealed a telling pattern. For junior elite performance – typically under 20 years old, though it varies from sport to sport – the best athletes generally picked a sport early, practised it to the exclusion of other sports, and progressed rapidly through the ranks.

But the pattern was completely reversed for adult performance, such as at the Olympics. Compared to merely national-class athletes, the world beaters tended to have spent less time training in their main sport and more time training in other sports as children, and they made slower initial progress in their main sport.

There’s probably nothing magical about, say, learning how to hit a baseball that later makes you a great synchronized diver. Instead, Gullich and his colleagues suggest three reasons that avoiding early specialization might be beneficial.

First, enjoying a variety of sports may reduce the chances that you burn out or get chronically injured before you ever reach the senior elite ranks. Second, instead of sticking with the first sport you fall in love with, you’re more likely to discover the sport that your body and mind are best suited for. And third, learning a bunch of different sports and skills may teach you how to keep learning and improving even after you’ve chosen a specialty.

Interestingly, the apparent trade-off between short-term and long-term success shows up in other fields, too. Gullich points to a 2015 analysis of German Nobel Prize winners: Compared to other eminent scientists, they were more likely to have academic or work experience outside their discipline, less likely to have won student scholarships, and took longer to achieve full professorships.

An analysis of math results at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where students are randomly assigned to first-year calculus professors teaching identical curricula, produced similar results. The most popular professors tended to produce the highest scores on standardized first-year calculus exams. But students from those classes didn’t perform as well in higher-level math and science courses a few years later compared to students from other classes.

“Whether picking a sport, or a major or career, or learning math or whatever, sometimes the things you can do that lead to a head start or the most rapid possible short-term progress can undermine long-term development,” Epstein says. “I think that’s an important point because it’s deeply counterintuitive.”

One caveat: The results don’t mean we should replace the cult of early specialization with an alternate cult of early diversification. As Joe Baker, a York University professor who studies talent development, points out, every sport is different, and so is every athlete. If your toddler really wants to do travel judo, that’s fine – but if not, there will be plenty of time to catch up later.

Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.

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