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lessons learned How do kids become good at one sport when they are adults? By not playing just that one sport

Study shows that partaking in multiple sports fosters more creativity while equipping people better to handle challenges later in their career

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Emma Raducanu. Photo: Getty Images

Emma Raducanu. Photo: Getty Images

Emma Raducanu. Photo: Getty Images

It was one of the stories of the sporting year: 18-year-old Briton Emma Raducanu coming from nowhere to win the US Open, just a couple of months after sitting her A-level exams. In a sport like tennis – which requires so much of its stars from an early age – it was easy to assume she was the product of early specialisation, or perhaps pushy parenting, the kind that is so closely synonymous with the Williams sisters.

The only issue? It wasn’t true – not for any of them.

Although Serena Williams grew up on a tennis court alongside her sister Venus, under the tutelage of their father Richard, the 23-time Grand Slam winner also did ballet, gymnastics, taekwondo and athletics in her youth. These days, many tennis pros may be the product of academies that see them specialise in the game before the age of 10, but Raducanu was different, saying her father “threw me into every sport you could imagine.”

Perhaps the greatest success story among those who specialised early – Tiger Woods – is also something of a fallacy, given that for all his golfing obsession as a child, he also played baseball and ran cross country and track.

But whatever about individual cases, by now the overall research is now clear: those who specialise in just one sport at an early age are more likely to eventually plateau at a lower level than those who wait.

A meta-analysis published this year, covering 51 studies that tracked over 6,000 athletes, found the best-performing underage athletes started playing their main sport earlier and engaged in more main-sport practice at an early age, which led to faster progress relative to their peers.

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Serena Williams

Serena Williams

Serena Williams

No surprises there, of course, but on the march to senior success the story of the tortoise and hare comes to fruition – the study finding world-class adult athletes “engaged in more childhood/adolescent multi-sport practice, started their main sport later, accumulated less main-sport practice, and initially progressed more slowly than national-class athletes.”

As Áine McNamara – a professor in elite performance at DCU, who has spent years researching in this area – puts it: “Early specialisation is a really good foundation for short-term success, but you’re unlikely to be good as seniors. Most people are either-or: good as juniors or good at seniors.”

But why is that? And how should coaches or parents balance the pull of early specialisation with protecting a prodigy’s long-term development?

First, an explainer: Most who’ve spent any time on this topic will have come across the 10,000-hour rule, made famous by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’, which argues that it takes that amount of practice to master a skill – whether it’s violin or knocking 65s over the bar.

The theory, however, has been largely debunked in recent years, and in his superb book ‘Range’, David Epstein explains how world-beating champions actually spend less time on their chosen sport between the ages of 12 and 15 but more time between the ages of 18 and 21 than less accomplished peers.

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Serena Williams

Serena Williams

Serena Williams

There are some highly specific exceptions (gymnastics and chess), but otherwise it’s clear that focusing on one sport early is more likely to lead to stagnating at a lower level.

The best senior athletes, according to Epstein, “tend to have what some scientists call a sampling period where they try a variety of physical activities, gain broad general skills, learn about their interests and abilities, and delay specialising.”

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The findings are replicated outside of sport, with Nobel laureate scientists being 22 times more likely to have a hobby outside of work than typical scientists, while exceptional musicians are far more likely to have played three instruments before specialising, compared to more mediocre ones.

The reason? Developing skills and facing challenges across multiple sports fosters more creativity, equipping people better to handle challenges later in their career, while specialising early can lead to lower motivation and potentially increased injury rates.

But as McNamara explains, the true issue isn’t so much with early specialisation as early elimination.

“Just being the pianist, ballet dancer, soccer player,” she says. “Clever pathways and parents will say they want you to (ultimately) be a tennis or soccer player but will deliberately plan that they do other things to provide psychosocial outlets.

“A good pathway should encourage participation in other activities, like being in Shamrock Rovers’ U-13 academy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play hurling on a Sunday, it doesn’t mean you can’t run with your school on a Wednesday. It just means, at a stage, you have to prioritise sport-specific practice.”

The multi-faceted approach might not lead to success at U-12 or U-14 level, of course, but it’s the safest bet for long-term mastery.

“If we have a kid who’s really good as a seven-year-old but I want them to be really good as a 27-year-old, I might counterintuitively slow them down now to make sure they get the experiences to be really good later,” says McNamara. “That can be really tough because you want success for your athletes, but having that long-term view is really important.”

But in a world like soccer, where prodigious performers are recruited at increasingly young ages, how to resist the market forces and that need to impress scouts?

Liam Kearney, head of the academy at Cork City FC, encourages players to continue with the multi-sport approach up to U-17, though he says about half of their players have already specialised at U-14 and U-15 level.

“Usually when a player is very good at one sport. they can play well at many sports, but we try not to force any kid into a decision because you can push them away from it by doing that,” he says. “At U-17 level, we ask them to make a decision about what they want to do and that they need to discuss it with their families. If they want to go hurling, we’d 100pc support that.”

Kearney played hurling and Gaelic football until the age of 16 before moving to England to join the Nottingham Forest academy. He spent two years there before returning to Cork City in 2003, which ultimately led to the start of a long and successful League of Ireland career. Looking back, he sees how his background in Gaelic games stood to him.

“My head of academy in Nottingham Forest, Paul Hart, used to say, ‘ye Irish have that little bit of aggressiveness and determination’ that the English lads in the academy didn’t all have. I think about that when I’m in this role.

“We’re not in the position of English clubs where we’re full-time professional academies, but I’d be slow to stop a lad playing GAA.

“There’s huge value that comes from GAA and rugby and other sports that can add to their personalities as a footballer in terms of aggression, work ethic, and values. I’d be slow to quench that too early.”

When a talented 14-year-old joins the academy Kearney’s goal, naturally, is to start them on a path to senior success, but he knows it’s about more than what happens on the pitch.

“We’re developing players for our first team and perhaps further afield while recognising that’s not going to be every player,” he says. “We’re educating them on values of the club, the finer details about everyday life: punctuality, attitude, decency, and respect. Within the football environment that’s very important. We’re (creating) good footballers, but great people as well.”

But how to square the balanced approach with the trend of Premier League clubs who are scouting players before the age of 10? And why do so many now feel the need to do it?

“If I’m Man United or Chelsea and picking players from seven or eight, we know most of them won’t make it. but there’s socio-political economic reasons why I’d select them,” says McNamara. “If they’re in my academy, they’re not going somewhere else, and they’re cheaper to develop than buy. There’s all sorts of reasons to do it, but if you select early and do it developmentally right, you can get positive repercussions. A good pathway should also encourage participation in other activities.”

What might that look like?

“If I’m in a football academy training three times a week, I probably don’t want to be in an inter-county U-14 squad that’s playing three times a week at the same intensity,” she says.

“So I might play club (Gaelic) football at a lower intensity. There has to be a developmental trade-off. It’s not just taking part in these sports that helps you become good. It’s coach-led practices, skill development, learning within those activities.”

McNamara was a PE teacher before she became a researcher in talent development, and she can see much room for improvement in how things operate at grassroots level in Ireland.

“Whether it’s the Olympics or junior B football, it’s about building a foundation of fundamental skills and the earlier we can put those in and bulletproof them, you’re allowing people to make more of their potential,” she says. “If I transition to secondary school with poor fundamental movement skills and I realise I’m pretty s***e compared to my peers, then I’ll go, ‘you know, sport is not for me.’

“Early doors in any pathway, youth coaching should be developing competence – the ability to run, jump, hop, skip, throw, strike – and confidence to give it a go. A problem at primary PE and maybe secondary is it kind of mirrors the diversification argument: offering lots of activities to kids and hoping something sticks.

“It’s like throwing lots of books at my toddlers and hoping they learn to read. I want to teach them grammar, sentence structure, so they can pick up any book and read for pleasure and that’s what PE should be about: the fundamental thing rather than letting teenage girls do some yoga and hoping it keeps them engaged. No, teach them to run, skip, hop and then they’ll play hockey, athletics, or whatever, at their level.”

One sports star with a richly varied background who specialised late – very late – is Niamh Briggs, who was capped 62 times for Ireland at rugby and was the top points scorer in their 2013 and 2015 Six Nations wins.

Briggs played hockey, camogie and Gaelic football in her schooldays at St Augustine’s College, Dungarvan, and only specialised in rugby at the age of 23, having helped Waterford to the intermediate All-Ireland football final that same year.

“I don’t think I’d have ever achieved what I could’ve without the background I had in all the multi-disciplinary sports,” she says. “When I started playing with Munster, I didn’t know anything about the laws of the game, but I could kick, I could run hard and I could see space from playing Gaelic (football) and camogie.

“That catapulted me quicker than I should have.”

Briggs is now head coach of the UL Bohemians’ women’s team and technical skills coach for Munster’s U-18 women’s squad, and she’s keen to relay to players that there’s no rush in specialising.

“I’ve a lot of girls coming up to me saying, ‘ah, I’ve a camogie championship,’ and they’re almost afraid to say it. I’m like, ‘go and play, there’ll be loads of rugby games.’ Watching the Munster underage boys, the youths, U-20s, they’ve kids involved with Cork football and hurling, Clare football and hurling, and they make it work because they understand the benefit of these sports contributing to them becoming really good rugby players.”

But Briggs can increasingly see how an obsession with success at Junior and Senior Cup level is fostering a single-minded approach among many.

“They’re almost semi-professional academy players, it’s mad,” she says.

“If you go down the route and take the professionalism out of it. It’s only important (to specialise) at 16, 17, 18. Before that it should be about developing the athlete but also the person.

“Very few will make it as professionals so we should be encouraging kids to get into athletics, gymnastics – things that will give them really good foundations no matter what they do in later life. I think sometimes the professional side of the game has been slow to do that.”

One thing McNamara would love to see is better cooperation between sports, which all too often see each other as adversaries in the tug-of-war for talent.

“We’re a small place. The kids move from sport to sport to sport, but the delivery of how we support kids on a pathway from five to 20 is very siloed,” she says. “If you can have coherence and alignment, even better – if systems talk to each other.”

It’s something Kearney also hopes to see, both within soccer and externally.

“Collaboration is a huge thing,” he says. “It’s not there at the moment where we can sit around a table and discuss grassroots up to international and League of Ireland. We need to be more together in terms of communication and everyone trying to get on the same page.”

Kearney knows what systems abroad are doing to develop talent and while he says the coaching structures and playing style taught at League of Ireland academies is “really, really good”, he believes the shortage of government funding is holding the game back.

“Investment is huge. At the moment I’m asking coaches to be out three nights a week and travel to Derry or Sligo at the weekend and the funding just isn’t there within a club or probably the FAI to get these players anywhere near where they’d be if they were in England, with how professional and how full-time that is.

“I’m not seeing anybody at the top level discussing that. Now is the time to invest in what we have here. It is good, but we’re relying on people’s good nature too much.

“These (coaches) are qualified and need to be respected for what they’re putting in. The structures can be better, the facilities can be better, and all that adds to a better product and a better player going forward.”

In the end, that’s what those working at the coalface of Irish sport all want: that the current wave of young talent makes a successful transition to the senior ranks. But when it comes to guiding their path, it’s worth bearing in mind what Epstein recently wrote about those who mastered their various fields.

“Sometimes what works best for short-term progress actually undermines long-term development. In other words: optimal development often looks, at first, like falling behind.”

Or to put it another way: it’s a long old way to the top tier. The wider the base of the sporting pyramid, the more likely a youngster is to eventually reach the peak.

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