Wow what a summer of sport! I haven't been able to sleep properly because the the orgy of human excellence that has been on the TV until late at night. The stories, the drama, the passion. Just amazing...
And the Olympics was just the starter. The Paralympics came shortly after...that's when we really got to see the triumph of human dedication, perseverance and excellence...the main course!
I do love the summer holidays... there is always some sort of festival of sport on offer that the whole country gets excited about. When I was at university it always seemed that the sporting gods had put on some major event which made it impossible to revise!
For my children it was great too...they were going to all sorts of sports clubs and activity camps and they got to experience a whole range of different activities...I got really jealous!!
My son Evan went to a weeklong cricket coaching camp...'The Freddie Flintoff Academy". What an eye opener to see 8 year old kids in full cricket whites with kit bags, pads and everything! Evan was the poor relation, he has only played windball cricket so far (I only coach windball cricket because a lot of my kids are pretty new and trying to catch a hard ball would put them off...not to mention the amount of times some of them try to catch the ball with their face!!)
But this environment was different, these kids were serious about their cricket (or at least the adults in their lives were serious about their cricket!) and they clearly knew what they were doing. The coaching was also designed to meet the needs of these kids. There were no taster sessions on offer here, the players were doing proper cricket stuff.
Now Evan really likes his cricket and he is doing quite well, but up against these kids he looked like he was a bit of a newbie. That said he really did enjoy the week and he did improve. He took great delight in showing me his catching or the shot he had learned that day or his latest bowling technique.
He had been taught techniques and he had improved...
Yes he had been TAUGHT techniques and he had IMPROVED!!
This stimulated a conversation with my wife one evening at the dinner table...it felt a bit like a boxing match...
I am paraphrasing here but it went something like this...
First she worked a good ring position...
"Look Stu, I know you are really into your coaching and your talent development stuff and you don't believe in teaching techniques and all that but don't you think that Evan should be better than he is?"
Then she got me off balance by leading with a strong jab...
"...I mean, some of those kids are really good and they are younger than him and he has a dad who is a sports coach and works in coaching and player development, shouldn't you be doing more to use your expertise to help him improve?"
Then she went for the killer overhand right....
"Aren't you worried that one day he will look back and ask you why you didn't help him more and make the most of his potential?"
Boom! knockout! my legs go from underneath me like a giraffe on ice!
I am laying on the canvas. I am wounded. But I know I have to get up and face my opponent, make it clear that I am not totally beaten. But here is the problem..I am reeling, my head is spinning. I have questions attacking my consciousness (and my ego!)
I am thinking...'what if she's right What if I am being arrogant that I know better, what if the science turns out to be wrong and I am letting him down, what if his development is delayed and I am crippling any chance of him having a career in elite sport?'
Then I realised that it was my lizard brain talking, my emotional brain was in control and I wasn't thinking straight.
To borrow a phrase from Dr Steve Peters, my chimp was angry!
I needed to give my chimp a banana, to calm it down...
The banana came in the shape of my research...
I remembered the hours of reading and study I had put into this, I remembered the stacks of books at my bedside, I remembered 'The Complexity of Greatness' by Scott Barry Kauffman, 'The Sports Gene' by David Epstien, 'The Goldmine Effect' by Rasmus Ankerssen, Peak: The New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson, 'Helping Children Succeed' by Paul Tough and 'Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverence' by Angela Duckworth
I remembered the articles I had read recently like this summary article on research into super Champion's and almost champions by Dave Collins, Aine MacNamara and Neil McCarthy.
In particular, I remembered the contrasting quotes from two of the athletes in this study...
“My parents were not really pushy,” explained one super champion, whose response was representative of her peers. “It was a kind of gentle encouragement …they didn’t get [overly] involved. They’d just come and watch me, support me. But they never wanted to know what I was doing training wise and never got involved in that way, and that helped.”
The parents of almost champions, however, were an ever-present factor, hovering over their every move.
My parents, my dad especially, was always there, shouting instructions from the touchline, pushing me to practice at home,” remembers an almost champion. “Really, I just wanted to be out there with my mates. I felt like sport stole my childhood.”
I remembered this study into children's sports specialisation that I read recently which suggested that...
"Current evidence suggests that delaying sport specialization for the majority of sports until after puberty (late adolescence, ∼15 or 16 years of age) will minimize the risks and lead to a higher likelihood of athletic success".
"Young athletes who specialize too soon are at risk of physical, emotional, and social problems. Athletes may become socially isolated from their peers and may have altered relationships with family, overdependence on others with a loss of control over their lives, arrested behavioral development, or socially maladaptive behaviors.4,14 Specializing early with intense training can lead to overuse injuries, which can cause pain and temporary loss of playing time or may lead to early retirement from the sport."
I also remembered this research dissertation I had come across by Kristoffer Henriksen at the University of Southern Denmark and this story about a young female footballer...
"I remember specifically a young girl a soccer player who had enormous potential, and who left her local club to join a bigger and more prestigious one. Her soccer career was on a roll, but everything else suffered. All her time was consumed by training and transport, and she felt she was falling behind in school. She felt she had let her old friends and teammates down and no longer felt comfortable asking them to play a friendly game of backyard soccer. And she felt an enormous pressure to succeed. In sum, she felt alienated in her own environment. When she came to me, she was in tears and close to giving up soccer altogether."
I remembered this article I read about the issues with pushy parents in ice hockey....
"It’s official. Parents have just about killed the fun of playing team sports.
They’ve done it with technique clinics, personal trainers, elite travel leagues, pricey tournaments — fine-tuning kids for athletic glory before they’ve amassed a respectable archive of knock-knock jokes".
I thought about the blog post from John O'Sullivan of 'Changing the Game Project' about the dangers of the overzealous parent and their likelihood of making kids drop out of sport where he describes a conversation with a young player...
“I just can’t take it anymore coach,” a talented but underperforming player named Kate told me a few years back. “I think I am done playing...It’s my dad. He loves me and I know he only wants the best for me, but he just can’t stop coaching me, in the car, and from the sideline each and every game. I can’t play when he is around, and he insists on coming to every game, every road trip, you name it. It’s like it’s more important to him than it is to me".
And I thought....they can't all be wrong...
So I rallied, I composed myself and I countered...
"You might be right about this and I could be wrong...but let me just map out the consequences of me taking this approach versus the approach you are advocating..."
"..if I am wrong the worst that could happen is that our son doesn't become an elite sportsman..."
"...if I take the other approach and teach him, if I push him more and get him more focussed, then the potential consequences are much more severe...he could hate sport altogether, he could drop out, he could get injured but the thing I am most fearful of is that it could damage my relationship with him because he feels the pressure of my expectation and I don't want him to feel like a failure if he doesn't live up to that expectation."
"...he is 8 years old...he is a child...he has the right to be goofy, to play, to choose when he wants to play sport and when he doesn't. He has the right to fail and to try out different things, he has the right to be free from my expectations and choose his own path...he has the right to be a child"
"...I have spend countless hours studying this stuff and I think that this is the best chance for him to achieve whatever his potential might be is for me to allow him to fall in love with sport, to explore the sheer joy of it, to develop friendships through it, to understand challenge, to be come curious and then at some point in his middle teens he will come to me and say...'Dad, can you help me...I want to get better?'...and that's when we take it up to a new level...that's when he accelerates past all of these other kids that look so good now but have plateaued and got bored'.
"... I am not prepared to roll the dice with my future relationship with my son just so that he can 'keep up with the Jones's".
From the perspective of the boxing match I felt like Muhammad Ali coming back off the ropes against George Foreman in the 'Rumble in the Jungle', Pow!...rope a dope...I am the greatest...etc..etc
I'm not sure how much of a dent it made. She gave me that look where she rolled her eyes at me without actually rolling her eyes (I call it the 'no eye roll eye roll'). I think she filed it away in her brain in a folder called 'things to say I told you so about'. (she probably didn't but my paranoia has no limits!)
It really got me asking myself some questions...
How many other parents fall into the comparison trap and look at other kids of a similar age and make judgements about their child's ability or potential and then question why their child isn't as good?
How many other parents are struggling with these issues but because they don't have the information to fall back on find themselves doing things that go against their better judgement?
How many 1000s of kids all across the country are toiling under the expectation of adults who don't necessarily mean to but don't know any better?
How many parents are putting pressure on their kids without understanding the potential consequences?
Are we guilty of allowing the rise of an industry that makes false promises to vulnerable people and encourages children to be spending all of their time in so called 'talent academies' that are nothing more than modern day 'workhouses'?
The great Muhammad Ali (RIP) once said
"It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it's the pebble in your shoe".
If my son or daughter ever want to try and climb the mountain then I will be by their side supporting and guiding the journey every step of the way.
If he doesn't get there it won't be because I was that pebble!!
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What about that Jordan Speith? 21 years old, 2 time major winner and within a whisker of 3 in a row. What's the secret? As this interesting article from the Titleist Performance Institute suggests the answer could be down to him playing a lot of different sports and being an all round athlete.
Ah yes, but what about Rory? Equally skilled, also a multiple major winner in his early 20s. We have all seen the images of him chipping a ball into a washing machine aged 4. He won the World Junior Golf Championships at aged 10 and has been on a path to golfing super stardon from a very young age. His secret? Start early and stay focussed it seems. .
I see a lot of content being generated these days which I would describe as being 'anti early specialisation'.
John O'Sullivan makes some brilliant arguments on his blog over at www.changingthegameproject.com
This post by Elsbeth Vaino has some interesting observations in it.
The blog for sporting mothers called 'Mom's team' is equally emphatic and lists a number of academic studies that challenge the early specialisation world.
The IOC recently published a consensus statement on youth athletic development which emphasises this point most emphatically when it states;
"In contrast to premature emphasis on a single sport, research suggests that youth should avoid early sport specialisation, as diverse athletic exposure and sport sampling enhance motor development and athletic capacity, reduce injury risk and increase the opportunity for a child to discover the sport(s) that he/she will enjoy and possibly excel..."
Here is a link to a BJSM Podcast on this subject in case you prefer listening than more reading
Having studied this area for a while it is clear that there is definitely a wealth of evidence that supports this position and I would say that I am definitely in that camp myself. My son and daughter are experienceing a wide range of sports and most weekends are spent driving them from one thing to the next.
In contrast, every week I see parents who have children aged 7 that are training in football (soccer) 4 times per week! They have a 3-4 week break that they call the 'off season'. I see these same parents leaving tennis coaching 15 minutes early during the summer so that they "aren't late for football training".
Every day I will read articles that talk about the rising costs of childrens sports and how really young kids are being sold a dream of making it and parents are buying it for fear of not giving their children the best opportunity.
It all just seems inuitively wrong to me.
I have a thought that has been rattling around inside my head for a long time and I can't seem to shake it.
What if I am wrong?
I have come to learn that the things that we seem to intuitively understand are probably the things that we should explore and examine the most.
As far as I am aware there is no study that has shown conclusively that early specialisation is a sure fire way to stop a player achieving excellence.
Most of the evidence that I have read over the years suggests that there is a higher incidence of injury and burnout amongst early specialisers and there is also a suggestion that early specialisers can be deficient athletically but nothing to my knowledge actually provides conclusive evidence that early specialisation doesn't work.
One of the reasons for this is that it is very hard and very expensive to conduct studies that could give us better evidence that one path is more effective than the other. All of the evidence so far is either based on retrospective accounts from elite athletes or is based on small cohort studies that have so many confounding variables that it is difficult to draw any hard conclusions.
That said the pure weight of the scientific literature is pretty compelling.
At one time the weight of scientific consensus agreed tha saturated fat was a major cause of heart desease and yet a number of studies have begun to cast a seriious shadow of doubt over that theory (Gary Taubes brilliant book 'Why we get fat' provides an extremely compelling argument in this regard).
Only recently we discovered that stretching before exercise isn't all that good for you and can actually increase the chances of injury rather than deminish it.
The more I study the emerging fields of genetics, epigenetics and neuroscience the more I am beginning to be convince d that it is very hard to be prescriptive about these kinds of things...it is very personal.
Although the prevailing thinking suggests that early specialisation is a bad thing I wonder if that applies to everyone.
Maybe some kids need to specialise early to help them achieve their goals. Maybe elite sports performers that are wired with 'the rage to master' have an almost compulsive desire to perfect a specific movement pattern or skill that they are almost 'hardwired to specialise'.
Will we be able to do tests in the near future that help us diagnose which path to follow?
Equally are all sports the same?
Much is said about certain sports being early specialisation such as gymnastics and swimming (although I am highly sceptical about this assertion) so could this not apply to other sports as well where there is such a level of complexity that to become genuienley elite a player has to start at an early age or they will not achieve the required level until after their physical peak?
Have some sports become so distorted by professionalism that the endless 'race to the bottom' in search of the next bright young wonderkid has meant that there just isn't any other choice if a player has dreams of becoming world class?
I'm still in the late specialisation camp. If that means that i am somehow harming my children's chances of achieving their potential then so be it. For me it is a straightforward decision - the potential risks still outweigh the possibles advantages,
I am going to keep an open mind though...
As always, thoughts really welcome. Drop me a line here