May 2012

Essays

Malcolm Knox

One-sport Wonders

Glenmore Park Junior Rugby League Club, 2007. © Newspix/News Limited

It’s the type of dewy summer morning when you can be sunburnt by 8 am. On the cricket field, 10 year olds in whites are hoping the hard ball won’t come their way, or, if it must, that they’ll be concentrating on the match and not that big woolly black dog over there.

But it’s not just a cricket field, and the black dog isn’t the only distraction. There’s another group of children staging a highly organised football practice under the eye of a yapping coach. These mini-pros are 12, but they’ve started their pre-season in December, same as their heroes from television.

To one of the other cricket parents, I comment on the strangeness of football in high summer. He replies that his son, gifted at many sports, might have to choose soon. “Maybe 11, maybe 12, he’ll have to pick his sport.” I look around, and it should have been obvious. My son’s best friend has already given up winter soccer because baseball is “his sport”. He’s ten. My daughter’s best friend plays soccer all year; it’s “her sport”. She’s eight. The cricket father says, “It’s all about, what do they call it, the 10,000-hour rule?”

Every parent of a talented child seems to have heard of the 10,000-hour rule, which Malcolm Gladwell popularised in Outliers, his 2008 book explaining “success” in life. Gladwell picked up on the work of two American psychologists, William Chase and Herbert Simon, who had studied chess players in 1973. They concluded that the pattern recognition and organisational memory that distinguished a grandmaster from the next level down came not from innate talent but quantity and quality of training. They called it the 10-year rule. In the early 1990s, Swedish psychologist Karl Anders Ericsson and colleagues found that early specialisation in “deliberate practice” of music – “effortful practice that lacks inherent enjoyment done with the sole purpose of improving current levels of performance” – was essential to attaining “expertise”. If this specialisation hadn’t started by age five, Ericsson found, the child would struggle to catch up. The 10-year rule meant 20 hours of “deliberate practice” a week, every week.

As these ideas reached a wider audience, a nice Enlightenment message – success is earnt, not just given – has been turned into something else. If you want to maximise your talent, you’ve got to specialise early. There’s sure to be some kid in Serbia who’s already got the jump on you.

So the Olympic Games in London this year will showcase as many ex-athletes as athletes. James Magnussen, Australia’s great swimming hope, is a former rugby league second-rower who still worships the Canterbury Bulldogs. He dropped football as a teenager when he was identified as having a “biomechanical advantage” for swimming, meaning, as University of Melbourne physiology professor Gordon Lynch puts it, that he has height, big hands, big feet and a large arm span. World-champion hurdler Sally Pearson is a former gymnast and swimmer. She showed talent in both sports before a track coach snaffled her at a Little Athletics carnival in Townsville. Sally was 12. Tour de France champion Cadel Evans loved skateboarding, swimming, soccer and cricket but at 14 became obsessed with cycling. The great Usain Bolt still speaks with regret of giving up his dream of playing cricket for the West Indies when, as a child, he had to knuckle down to become the world’s fastest man.

The London Olympics will be full of these young specialists. It seems normal that elite competition would enforce specialisation, except that it isn’t normal, and it wasn’t always this way. Babe Didrikson Zaharias (three Olympic track and field medals, All-American basketballer, winner of 41 professional golf tournaments) and Jim Thorpe (two Olympic track and field golds, pro footballer, baseballer and basketballer) were extraordinary cases, but in their time, as in ours, the elite mirrored society. What every Saturday-morning sports parent can see – that most kids who are good at one sport are good at several – used to be carried through life. Denis Compton played football and cricket for England; CB Fry did both, as well as holding the world record for the long jump (and was a writer, publisher, barrister, navy officer and influential figure in the founding of the League of Nations). Australia’s first cricket captain, Dave Gregory, played several sports and was also head of the NSW Treasury. Snowy Baker was a swimmer and diver who played rugby for Australia, boxed at the Olympics as well as winning state and national boxing titles, excelled in nine other sports, and starred in silent movies.

These were only the standout figures in a way of life that prized generalists. A hundred and seventy-one Australians have played state cricket and league-level Australian rules football. Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, the fearsome Test cricket attack of the 1940s and 1950s, had been top-level footballers, in rugby league and Australian rules respectively. Dual representation continued into the 1960s, but declined steeply from 1970, when South Australia’s Eric Freeman was the last man to play Test cricket and league football concurrently and, in New South Wales soon after, Graeme Hughes was the last top-grade rugby league player and state cricketer. The breed was well and truly dying out by the 1980s, when Craig Bradley, the Carlton AFL star and state cricketer, was the last concurrent elite cricketer–footballer. The last man to have played both sports at that level was Nick Jewell, the Victorian state cricketer who played one AFL game for Richmond in 1997.

“I’d always played cricket and footy, like most kids,” Jewell says. His talent had him targeted by elite organisations: as a teenager he was taken into the Australian Institute of Sport’s cricket program, then he was offered a contract by Richmond FC, where his father Tony had been a player and premiership-winning coach. “Being successful at footy was about starting early. There was the idea that you could be drafted at 18 and play AFL the next year. It’s a dream for kids that they can have that money and fame so young. So the influence actually starts from 14 and 15 when you join a TAC Cup development squad. What that means, though, is that your pre-season starts in November and games in January, which doesn’t leave time for other sport. Which is crazy.”

In the race to recruit, cricket was football’s “little brother”, Jewell says. “You thought you’d have to serve a much longer apprenticeship in cricket, so if you wanted stardom early, you’d choose football.” But in recent years, Twenty20 cricket has attracted young multisport stars. Western Australia’s Mitchell Marsh and Victoria’s Alex Keath have bucked the trend, choosing cricket, which is now offering a pathway to elite representation for 18 year olds. Corporations compete to chase scarce resources – talented children – early. But how early is too early?

*

When I was at school, nine of our cricket first XI were also in the rugby firsts. It was the same every year – the talented kids were generalists. That seems much rarer now. To test this impression, I went back to the school recently. My nephew Angus, who’s there now, quit cricket at 15. In the summer he played water polo and did weights to condition himself for rugby, and participated in specialist rugby position training. He is hardly an elite pro sportsman, yet he has the habits of one.

Private schools’ rugby facilities would satisfy any Super Rugby team. On a Saturday afternoon in autumn, watching my old school’s first XV is like watching professionals. They are big, fit, intensively coached, and they focus on rugby all year round. Interestingly, whereas in the 1970s it was government schools who overtook the private sector and supplied the talent for top-level adult rugby, that trend has been reversed, and the well-resourced specialist training from private schools now feeds the professional sport. English writer and former Test cricketer Ed Smith has observed the same swing of the pendulum there: early specialisation in non-government schools now produces the majority of English professional cricketers.

My suspicion about the loss of school-level generalists is confirmed by Andrew Webber, an old schoolmate (top cricketer, footballer and runner) who has coached elite rugby and has sons at the school. “There’s hardly any overlap now between the summer and winter firsts,” he says. “You’d only find one to three first XV players who are also at that level in summer sport, and that’s how it’s been for a while. Through the summer they do SWAT [strength, weights, athletic training] to prepare them for rugby. It’s all year round.”

The same has been observed by Geoff Spotswood, who taught at the King’s School for 14 years, played first-grade cricket and rugby league, and now coaches multisports clinics in an effort to keep children’s interests from narrowing.

“The system in schools perpetuates specialisation,” Spotswood says. “Schools encourage the prestige of rugby in particular, because that’s a good advertisement for enrolments. The heads of each sport want kids to focus on their sport, so they compete with each other. Coaches with vested interests try to influence parents, by telling them their kids are better than they are. The kids themselves are driven to believe they’re stars. At 15 or 16 they’re very impressionable. It’s hard for them to stand up against all this pressure and say, ‘No, I just want to have fun and play the sports I like.’”

This pressure used to wait until early adulthood. Now it reaches down into early adolescence. The famous Richardson–Chappell family is a living longitudinal study of increasing specialisation. In the 1920s and 1930s, Victor Richardson played at the highest level in seven sports: cricket, baseball, Australian rules football, lacrosse, swimming, tennis and golf. For years he attended practice seven nights a week, two sports a night.

Richardson’s son-in-law, Martin Chappell, played A-grade cricket, baseball and golf. Martin’s three sons with Richardson’s daughter Jeanne – Ian, Greg and Trevor – became the most decorated Australian cricket family. Ian and Greg both became Australian captains; Ian was also an All-Australian baseballer, Greg played first-grade baseball, and Trevor was an outstanding junior footballer and baseballer. Whereas their grandfather had continued his seven sports into his thirties and forties, Ian, Greg and Trevor specialised in cricket from their twenties. Greg’s son Jonathan, the fourth generation, inherited the family ball skills and wanted to be a professional baseballer. He played minor-league baseball in the USA, having given away other sports in his mid teens.

Greg Chappell is a fervent advocate of delaying specialisation – not necessarily to promote fun and fitness, although that helps – because it enhances expertise. “Things were different in my grandfather’s day,” Chappell says. “By the time I was 20, I had to choose. All the research shows that multiple sports complement each other. The double-sidedness of football helps with balance in cricket, and playing multiple sports exercises different parts of your body rather than continually stressing the same parts.”

Between 2003 and 2006, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the numbers of children under the age of 14 participating in sports for more than 10 hours a week increased by 44,600 boys and 50,100 girls. While nobody wants to decry kids getting out onto the sporting fields, the increase in intense sporting activity at a younger age would seem to reflect increased competitiveness, from within and around the child. Competition fuses the individual, the family, the school and the corporate. A driven, gifted child must pay a price: increasingly, that price is early specialisation.

My focus here has been on male sports, which is only to underline the role of money and status in triggering early specialisation. Where female sports are highly remunerated – tennis, golf, some Olympic sports – early specialisation is as rampant as among boys. Sally Fitzgibbons, for instance, won two track gold medals at the 2007 Australian Youth Olympic Festival, and at Kiama High School was an outstanding touch footballer, soccer player and cross-country runner. But she won a professional surfing contest at age 14 and, when offered the income and lifestyle of corporate sponsorship, chose that sport. The pressure to specialise is less in lower-paid sports. Ellyse Perry, for instance, has still found time to play for Australia in both soccer and cricket.

When I see the teenaged rugby hulks running onto a field – “They’re as big and fit as the adult Test players were in our time,” says Webber – my gut tells me it’s wrong that they should specialise so young. I think of it as Friday Night Lights syndrome: the television drama about a small-town Texas school football team, carrying the hopes and pressures of the entire town, seems to me a portrait of children robbed of their childhood; in other words, a glamourised form of child abuse. But beyond this gut feeling, does early specialisation have actual adverse consequences?

Researchers and psychologists have disputed the effects of early specialisation with increasing passion over the past decade. Much of that research was surveyed by the Crawford Report into Australian sporting culture, commissioned by the federal government in 2008–09. The report criticised a trend towards early specialisation. It did not delve into the psychological or competitive motivations behind such specialisation, focusing instead on the economic and blaming increased costs caused, in part, by expensive equipment and rising insurance premiums: “For many families, these escalating costs are increasing burdens on family budgets and the ability to support children participating in multiple sporting competitions and physical activities.” These costs were prompting parents to ask their children to choose a single sport.

To counter early specialisation, Crawford made a recommendation based on research by David Kirk, a British academic who has criticised early specialisation and recommended Sports England set up multisports clubs, such as exist in Germany and Belgium. Such clubs have kept the costs of multisport participation down and kept children’s options open longer.

Researchers describe a typical child’s sporting life in three phases. From 7 to 12 years is the “sampling phase”, writes Kirk, when “young people participate in a range of sports … their main motivation is fun and enjoyment, and … the emphasis is on playing rather than training”. From 13 to 15 this moves into the “specialising phase” when “the range reduces, perhaps to three or two, and motivation begins to shift from fun and enjoyment in itself to competitive success and enjoyment of winning”. At 16 they move into the “investment phase”, which “usually signals a focus on one activity and a commitment to intensive training and competitive success”.

It is during the transitions that “dropout rates rise steeply”, and as “young people progress through early to mid adolescence, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to play sport for all but the most able and mature”, Kirk writes. The size differences between children of slightly different ages become most marked in adolescence, explaining another of Gladwell’s ideas from Outliers, which is that the majority of professional sportsmen (in his example, ice hockey) are born in the month that made them the oldest in their age group as children.

Disillusionment with sports results in poorer health and fitness, by Kirk’s argument. The younger the transitions from sampling to specialisation to investment occur, the higher the dropout rate. Canadian academic Joseph Baker writes:

 

Perhaps the most damaging evidence against advocating the early specialisation approach concerns sport dropout … Investigations of participants who drop out of sport have consistently indicated that lack of fun or enjoyment is a predominant motive for discontinuing participation in a given sport … Recall that a defining characteristic of the deliberate practice activities …. is that they are not inherently enjoyable. The types of training advocated by the early specialisation approach may be at odds with the level of enjoyment necessary for a long-term commitment to physical activity involvement. 

 

The harm for those who drop out of physical activity is obvious. Less so is the harm for those who keep going.

Spotswood has “no doubt at all” that early specialisation is counterproductive even for the most talented. “Specialisation narrows their social group and limits their experience. Repetition of the same movements risks overuse injuries. Mentally they get stereotyped from continually practising the same skills. The more variety of sports kids play, the broader their skills base. And what happens to the kid who trains all summer for football, then gets a season-ending injury in March from over-training? Why should he have to deal with all that disappointment at a young age?”

Greg Chappell, who has coached cricket since the 1990s and is now the national talent manager for Cricket Australia, says: “Hitting endless cricket balls doesn’t make you a better batsman. I grew up having two 15-minute net sessions a week. Specialisation can entrench bad habits and cause staleness and eventually burnout. I thought that playing baseball, football, tennis or whatever actually made me a better cricketer.”

Although the 10,000-hour rule seems seductive in engendering ‘expertise’, Baker summarises several studies that found that limiting the range of skills practised would “limit overall motor skill development. This, in turn, may affect long-term physical activity involvement (and therefore long-term health) by decreasing the likelihood of participation in alternative physical activities.” These studies found impairment of social and psychological development by narrowing the child’s peer group and leading to social isolation. Excessive training without adequate recovery led to staleness and burnout. Repetition of specialised acts during crucial periods of physical development led to more stress injuries, particularly in the legs and back, now borne out in the unprecedented number of days lost to injury in AFL and professional cricket.

The case against early specialisation is so strong that you would think it self-evident. Canadian academic Jean Côté, who has led the field in studies critical of early specialisation, surveyed all current American professional athletes and found a strong bias in favour of coming from a small town. Côté suggests that because of a less competitive climate, children sample many sports for longer, benefiting when they enter, later, the ‘investment’ phase. In other words, the best way to become a pro is to delay specialisation.

As so few of our quasi-professional children are going to reach the top, there would seem a much simpler reason to resist the push to specialise: regret. In my own case, I played competitive sport so intensively in adolescence that I quit my favourite sports, rugby and cricket, by 21. Now I wish I’d played for longer, but I was burnt out. Nick Jewell, also, regrets having to choose. “You’re under so much pressure to choose, but … if you choose the wrong sport you quickly fall out of love with it. I’ve seen it happen a lot.” But he’s still a young man of 35, and has time to set things right. “A couple of years ago, I made a comeback to football.” He plays and coaches football at Heatherton and cricket at Frankston. “I encourage everyone in both clubs to play as many sports as they can. It’s so much fun playing footy again. I feel like I’m 14.”

Malcolm Knox
Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and has won a Walkley Award for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life.

May 2012

May 2012

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