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How to Create a Sports Superstar

Early sport specialization isn’t the way to produce a champion

Last week, 14-year-old golfer Jim Liu became the youngest player to ever win the U.S. Junior Amateur. Liu took the record for the youngest win away from another golfer you may have heard of once or twice in the past - Tiger Woods.

Liu and Woods actually have some things in common. For instance, they have shared a golf teacher, John Anselmo. Anselmo coached Tiger from the time he was 10 until he went off to college and now Anselmo works with Liu. Given this similarity, you might guess that Liu and Woods probably took comparable paths to reach golf success. But, this isn't actually the case. Jim Liu and Tiger Woods became winners by way of pretty different practice and training histories and, recent sport science research suggests, that it is Jim Liu's environment - not Tiger's - that is most likely to cultivate a champion.

Tiger Woods was raised to play golf by his father, Earl Jones. Woods started hitting balls as soon as he could hold a club and didn't do much throughout his childhood that wasn't tied to the game. Jim Liu, on the other hand, swam and played tennis early on. In fact, Liu didn't pick up a golf club until he was close to seven-years-old when his family moved to a house on a golf course in Smithtown, NY. It was then that his father decided it would look odd if no one in the household actually played the game. Smithtown is not large, a population of 115,715 people according to the 2000 U.S. Census. This is in contrast to the sprawling 3 million plus metropolis of Orange County that Woods grew up in.

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So, what does all this have to do with creating a superstar? A few years a ago, sport scientist Jean Côté and his colleagues discovered a phenomenon they termed the birthplace effect. While poring over the statistics of over 2,000 U.S. and Canadian athletes in the NHL, NBA, MBA, and the PGA, the researchers noticed something interesting - a relation between the size of the city kids grew up in and their likelihood of making it on the professional sports sceene.1 It turns out that growing up in a smallish city such as Liu's Smithtown, and having the opportunity to sample different sports as Jim Liu did, were better ingredients for sports success than specializing in one sport early on.

The sport scientists found that the percent of professional athletes who came from cities of fewer than a half million people was higher than what would be expected by chance alone. In contrast, the percent of professional athletes who came from cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants was a good deal lower than what you would expect by chance. While nearly 52% of the United States population resides in cities with more than 500,000 people, such cities only produce about 13% of the players in the NHL, 29% of the players in the NBA, 15% of the players in MLB, and 13% of players in the PGA. Dr. Côté and his collaborators have now confirmed that this same phenomenon holds for American women in the Women's United Soccer Association and the LPGA.2

Perhaps because there is less competition to make any one team, children in smaller cities get the opportunity to sample many different sports and competitive environments. Exposing kids at an early age to a variety of pressure-filled situations helps them adapt to whatever comes their way when the stakes are high.

Sampling a variety of activities also lowers the likelihood of burnout in one sport and increases children's feelings of confidence because they get to see the results of their hard work in different settings. In addition, playing different sports lessens the occurrence of sports-related injuries that may end an athletic career. It's common today for a 10-year-old baseball pitcher to need the tendon replacement surgeries for an injured elbow that were previously restricted to college and major league pitchers. This is the type of injury that sports medicine doctors argue is the direct result of arm overuse and sport specialization at too young an age.

Findings like the birthplace effect suggest that we need to rethink the idea that kids should receive year-round training in one sport early on. Although this early specialization certainly worked for Woods, for most kids, less sport-specific training seems to be the key to athletic success. Of course, this doesn't mean limiting practice overall. Indeed, smaller cities offer more opportunities for unstructured play than larger cities, which results in more opportunities to hone general coordination, power, and athletic skills. These longer hours of play also allow kids to experience successes (and failures) in different settings, which likely toughens their attitudes in general.

The end result seems to be athletes like Jim Liu, who when asked whether he will feel any added pressure now that he has won the Junior Am said, "I welcome pressure. I don't think of it as that big of a deal. If you're meant to win the tournament, it's just going to be your day."
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1Côté, J., MacDonald, D. J., Baker, J., & Abernethy, B. (2006). When ‘‘where'' is more important than ‘‘when'': Birthplace and birthdate effects on the achievement of sporting expertise. Journal of Sport Sciences, 24, 1065 - 1073.

2MacDonald, D. J., King, J., Côté, J., & Abernethy, B. (2009). Birthplace effects on the development of female athletic talent. Journal of science and medicine in sport, 12, 234-237.

 

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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