The accepted wisdom is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to excell at any discipline, but teaching kids to be good at sport is actually more complicated than that, finds Matt Gaw.
It’s the primary school sports day this week and I’m feeling guilty. While my preparation for the centrepiece “dad’s race” has been almost flawless (the personal trainer, the fitness shakes, the shiny new running spikes), my five-year-old son has hardly balanced an egg in anger.
Granted his raw ability and giddy enthusiasm may be enough to see him through this time (we have medal hopes for skipping, running and a strong chance of a good showing in the sack race) but I fear his woeful lack of dedication could put him on course for being nothing more than an “also ran”.
After all, practice makes perfect. Or at least, that’s what popular wisdom would have us believe, with writers and authorities lining up to tell us that it takes 10,000 hours of practice and graft for an athlete to become distinguished from the rest. First formulated in a 1993 paper by Anders Ericsson, professor at the University of Colorado, the 10k hour concept has been popularised in Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and most notably by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers .
According to such thinking if my son is to stand a solid chance at competing at a serious level (and not being embarrassed at future sports days) he needs to put in serious levels of work. By my reckoning, if he wants to hit the magic 10,000 hour marker and swap the egg and spoon for an Olympic start in 2028, he needs to train for two hours a day.
Only two hours a day?! I hear you say. Easy, especially considering that he will probably do many more hours of training in the run up to the games. Who knows, if he really puts his back into it, he might even be able to have some down-time on his sixth birthday or a lie in at Christmas.
Of course, I’m joking (he will be up at the crack of dawn this Christmas). But the idea of early specialisation, where a child is intensively drilled in a single discipline does appear to have been normalised. A glance at any forum-based discussion on children and sports is guaranteed to mention 10,000 hours at least once.
But does it work? According to Stewart Laing, senior lead performance pathway scientist for the UK talent team, working for the English Institute of Sport, the simple answer is no.
“The list of things that are related to possible risks of early specialisation is physical and mental exhaustion, risk of over-use injuries and increasing risk of premature drop out,” he explains.
“In targeting the 2028 Olympics by drilling one item, you risk them (your child) dropping out of the sport prematurely, while they might naturally go on and progress anyway.”
Instead, argues Laing, it’s important that children experience a wide range of sports, especially those with “foundational elements” like swimming and gymnastics.
He adds: “Gymnastics has a huge transfer over in terms of spatial awareness the ability to rotate roll and twist. All of those things are transferable. I have just run the Girls For Gold recruitment campaign for canoeing and we’ve got athletes there who have gone into sprint kayaking that come from a multitude of backgrounds, some come from equestrian, athletics, hockey, some golf.”
Jacquie Beltrao, Sky presenter and former Olympian, is currently supporting her child’s push to take part in tennis at a top level.
“I think parents have to ask the question ‘Am I doing this for me, because I didn’t realise my sporting ambitions?’ Or ‘Am I doing it for them because that’s what they want to do?'”, she says.
“The main thing about sport and people that do well at any sport, whether it is running, cycling or tennis, is they have a real passion for that sport. That passion has to come from themselves, it’s not going to come from their parents no matter how much you want it. It has to come from within the child.”
Echoing Laing’s advice about trying a variety of sports, she adds: “Your job as a parent is to make them try as many sports as possible and see if they have an aptitude for something, or really fall in love with something.”
So, does this mean that sport for children should just be about the taking part in as many possible events? And furthermore, does this also mean winning goes out the window?
Not so, according to Beltrao.
“Children have to do competitions and go to practice once or twice a week,” she says. “If they are asked to compete, you should get them to compete, because that’s what it’s about and it’s how they learn. It’s also when parents learn whether children are up for it or not. You don’t want to waste your time pushing them into competitions if they don’t like it, but equally if they like the training let them train.”
Laing sounds a note of caution about the number of competitions young athletes take part in, but agrees. “Competition for development is important, and by that I mean developing the mindset and attitude of competition.”
There is another point worth bearing in mind. Most advice so far points to parents as having a purely supportive role in the development of young athletes, as opposed to drill sergeants standing over whimpering five-year-olds. But this doesn’t mean parents can’t be, or shouldn’t be, involved in guiding their child, especially when it does come to specialisation later down the line.
Beltrao explains her views were reinforced after a conversation with the father of double Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist Laura Trott. “He said what you need to do is carry on doing the sport you do and if it’s not happening for them at the age of 14, whip them out and put them into something else. If you’ve trained all your life as a gymnast, there nothing to stop you being a track cyclist, you’ll probably have factors that will translate into another sport.”
So, while my training will continue (after all this could be my last chance for glory) the badgering of my five-year-old will stop. Indeed he is already planning his own sporting schedule. It’s now just a case of finding a sword-fighting class and a ski jump in Suffolk.
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