By specializing too early, we prevent important development in athletes.
One of my favorite people is my Aunt Betsy. For many reasons I love her, but one of the things that draws us together the most is our combined love of sports. She competed for UCLA in the 1970s in basketball and tennis. She continued her tennis career on the professional circuit for a while. Her love of tennis and sports, has always fed right into mine. I remember as a child going to tennis tournaments with her to watch Lindsey Davenport. She was the one to take my sister and I out on the court as small children and teach us the game of tennis. I became a pretty good swimmer and she was always one to come to meets near her. [As an aside, in my freshman year of college at the University of Idaho, we flew down to UCLA to swim a dual against them. It was my first ever travel meet and my die-hard UCLA fan Aunt Betsy came with Idaho gear on. It’s one of my favorite swimming memories].
As I’ve grown older we have continued to keep in touch, always most frequently during the tennis majors where we text each other back and forth. As I have developed this blog I have touched base with her more often to ask questions. I wanted to write today about a very interesting concept that came up during our last conversation about the state of tennis today. As I continued to contemplate her comments it expanded to a problem I see in child rearing in America as well as how we develop our athletes.
The comment that really started this whole exploration was this, “The women [in tennis] are not capable of improvising,” my Aunt Betsy said. She went on to explain that tennis players today are trained where to step, where to hit the ball and what combinations to make. They are not taught to instinctually play or to react and win. Tennis players are technicians and not athletes. She went on to explain that a lot of this is developed because of the nature of the Junior Tennis programs in the United States. It is so time consuming, so all encompassing. Parents and their children are taught that if you want to be a Serena Williams you have to start at 4 and devote the rest of your life to the dream. Anything less will reap failure. Thus, we have professional tennis players who have no idea what being an athlete means. By the time a kid gets to 12, the good athletes want to expand their talents or do not want to be smothered by the tennis ring, so they go elsewhere. Leaving the technicians in the sport but losing the athletes.
I know this mentality expands outside of just tennis. I competed and coached in the swimming world where it is the same. Do not miss a practice, or your whole season is destroyed, that is the mentality of the swimming world. Most competitive swim programs give their kids 2-4 weeks off a year! A year! Families must become part of the swim program. Family is the swim program.
I have heard that this mentality is in gymnastics, baseball and golf as well. The pressure to choose your sport at 5 and the expectation that the entire family must sacrifice everything for it is how we see competitive athletics. But as my wise Aunt pointed out, that does not actually create good athletes. It creates robots in the sport. It creates athletes that know how to follow a pattern but not how to think on their own. It has diminished the game my Aunt has been in for (I’ll just say a lot to hide her age) years. The game she loved. Yet is it the correct way?
I met Chrissy Evert not too long ago at a card show. Of course, my two boys (4 and 3) are learning the family heirloom game of tennis. I take them out a couple times a week with their dad’s racquetball rackets as we hit some balls and then they run around the courts, climb fences and throw balls over the gates. When my son told Chrissy Evert that he played tennis and was learning his back hand she said “Good job” then turned her attention straight to me and said very sternly, “He’s doing other sports right? You’re not just doing tennis?”
“Of course,” I said, taken aback, “He’s in baseball and we play everything you can think of in the back yard.”
She was immediately appeased and continued to talk pleasantly to myself and my son.
But it got me started thinking about this problem in American sports and parenting mentality. Chrissy Evert reached the summit of her career, she won Grand Slams. She currently runs a tennis school in Florida where Madison Keyes developed. The most important thing to her when I told her about my 4-year-old’s love of tennis was that he was doing more than just tennis. It is obvious she sees the same problem in American athletics I see and my Aunt sees.
I want to make one thing very clear, I do believe in specialization at a certain point in an athlete’s career. I have seen way too many really talented kids divide their time and energy so much that they were good and many things without fulfilling the greatness that was in them. However, that age of choosing is not 5, it is not 10. Nor any of those ages in between. Maybe we’ll come back and have the discussion of what the correct age is, but here today it is important to remember, let the 5-year-old be five. Let the 10-year-old have some days off to race bicycles through the neighborhood. Make family dinner time the most important time of everyone’s day. If there are so many practices and scheduling conflicts that your family is never together to eat, you are in too many activities. If a kid only knows how to play sports in an adult supervised and organized event, they are not fully learning from sports.
Are they playing ball with kids in the neighborhood? Are they meeting at the YMCA to play pick-up basketball with friends? These things are very important in developing athletes. Learning to play without everything being coaching into you allows for creativity that only that athlete can develop. The mentality to win and the development of strategy are important things that every great athlete has, but those are not skills taught by adults. Those are skills developed and honed by those athletes. And they can be developed racing through the park or playing pickup football in the cul-de-sac.
As our culture puts so much more pressure on athletes, it is squeezing out the creativity and intuition that is needed to be great. Great in athletics and great in life. Take a step back if you have young kids. The coaches may wail and scream, but know if they do, they are not one of the great coaches or people you need in your child’s life. If a coach only sees your child as the potential swimmer, tennis player, third-baseman, then their sights are too narrow. Maybe great athletics are in the child, but specializing too early is not the best way to get there.