This syndrome was identified by ESPN The Magazine reporter Tom Farrey in his excellent overview of the youth sport scene called “Game On- The All-American Race To Make Champions Of Our Children.” The myth of identifying them early, specializing early in a sport, and starting to train them young as a key to future success is a myth. By doing this we are hurting kids physically and psychologically. We are certainly not identifying better athletes. I read somewhere that the odds against a child becoming a pro by the time they are 18 is about three million to one. So think about that, for every Freddy Adu, Lebron James or Tiger Woods there are literally millions out there who won’t and can’t make it.
Take note of some of the conclusions from a USOC report, “The Path to Excellence,” a study done surveying US Olympians from 1984 through to 2000. Here are some cogent points from that report:
- Olympians were most often introduced to their sport through unstructured activities.
- Once enrolled in an organized sport, quality coaching was important to insure acquisition of sound technique.
- Clubs and community programs were primarily responsible for training these athletes.
- Physical education classes played a key role in developing fitness and in learning basic skills.
- It took the average Olympian three years to find success at the local level as a child.
- It took 12 to 13 years from starting the introduction to their sport before they made their first Olympic team.
- Many played multiple sports as teenagers, they did not specialize!
It is a shame that the conclusions of these report, now at least eight years old, did not get the attention it deserves. It certainly debunks many of the myths that abound regarding early specialization. The concept that it takes ten years or ten thousand hours to achieve excellence in any discipline has received much attention. In November I had the opportunity to attend a seminar at the USOC where Dr Anders Ericsson, who came up that concept presented. After listening to him talk and asking him after his talk, I am convinced that the concept has been misapplied. It is NOT FORMAL instruction in sport; free play contributes to the ten years and ten thousand hours. The moral of the story is that it takes time, there are few prodigies. It is almost impossible to predict who will be the next Tiger Woods. Give the kids the gift of movement and the spontaneity and the joy of play. Give them increasingly complex movement problems to solve so that when they are teenagers if they choose to travel the path in pursuit of athletic excellence that they have all the tools.