by Prof Ross Tucker Exercise Physiologist & High Performance Sports Science Consultant
No parent in the world would turn down an offer for their child to be successful. This is also true when it comes to exercise and sport. “Success” can mean different things to different people. For example, “success” could mean playing sport professionally, representing the Springboks, being physically fit, completing half-marathons, or training regularly. One of the greatest inheritances we can leave children is a positive experience of sport and exercise, both now and in the future. And if they achieve their sporting aspirations, all the better. What parent, after all, does not want the best for their children?
The journey to that point, however, is fraught with challenges. As the cliché goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. All too often, our best efforts and desires steer children in exactly the wrong direction, and we reduce their chances of success.
So, the great paradox is that our desire to encourage participation and sport often becomes the foundation for a lifetime of inactivity and resentment towards sport. How badly we miss the mark, when children abandon sport, exercise and health because we push the wrong buttons too hard at the wrong time!
The challenge is to know what is best, and that requires evidence, not emotion. It needs us, as adults and well-meaning parents, to be incredibly secure within ourselves, so that we don’t fall into the trap of comparing our children to others, getting sucked into negative behaviour, and pushing those bad buttons as a result.
This series of articles is aimed at uncovering some of the secrets of long-term and short-term success. We’ll examine the pitfalls, the evidence for performance and health, and ultimately aim to arrive at a plan of action. After all, our present actions should be to ensure the best possible futures for those aspiring young sports stars. And, more importantly, foster a generation of physically active people who have healthy relationships with exercise and sport.
The performance mindset
Children in sport can be understood with one of two mindsets. The first, and the reason for many of the negative outcomes, is a performance mindset, where everything is geared towards getting a head start, learning and developing the skills and attributes that will one day create the next Roger Federer or Bryan Habana.
It’s here that most parents stumble, albeit over their own good intentions, by creating the wrong incentives that quickly become destructive.
For instance, there is research showing that children who spend more time training before adolescence (the mid-teen years) are far more likely to become injured than those who delay these high training volumes, especially when they focus on only one sport. They also risk burnout, and are less likely to be physically active as adults than children who play many sports when younger, and who don’t train as many hours per week.
This is known as specialization, and it refers to the single focus that we often associate with success. Driven in part by Malcolm Gladwell and other popular writers who have promoted the idea of 10 000 hours of practice to achieve mastery, and inspired by the desire to imitate the examples of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Serena Williams, there is a perception that unless you start young, and focus on structured practice in one sport, you’ll always be behind your peers in the race to the top. How do you accumulate 10 000 hours by your 24th birthday, for instance, if you don’t practice for two hours, five days a week, from the age of 9?
Unfortunately, both those drivers are misplaced. Evidence shows that elite athletes don’t require 10 000 hours of specialised, deliberate practice, so chasing that target is futile. Sure, it’s great message to say that hard work is rewarded, but it’s not worth becoming pre-occupied with that number when a good deal of evidence points away from it.
Secondly, for every Tiger Woods or Serena Williams, there are probably a thousand (conservatively – I suspect it’s considerably more) adults who demonstrated great early potential and now don’t even look at golf clubs or tennis rackets. Theirs is a story that isn’t told in newspapers or on televisions, but they are the vast majority.
Thirdly, as mentioned, there is strong evidence of physical and mental ‘harm’ to children who train like professionals when they are young. The race to the top quickly turns into a race to the bottom, and the next thing you know, you have 9-year-olds who are planning career pathways in sport and training like adults.
That is simply not sustainable, and it’s the reason for such widespread failure. Because here is the great irony – even if you ignore the higher risk of injury and the likelihood of burnout and resentment, research tells us that children who specialise and train more before adolescence are also less likely to become elite sportspeople. Read that again: “Children who train more and specialise before adolescence are LESS likely to become elite sportspeople”.
How about that for a paradox? Our sports systems at schools, with their over-ambitious coaches and parents, drive children to start training younger and younger in the hope that this improves their chances of success, when in fact, it has the opposite effect! Research shows that the best athletes, as adults, are those who delay high volume training and who play a number of different sports.
In other words, this performance mindset, the cause of many problems, is not a performance mindset at all! It’s a myth. The best action we can take, as adults, is to encourage children to keep the structured training time shorter, and to explore as many sports as possible. That will lead, and this is the wonderful reality, to BOTH the best chance of performance and the greatest likelihood of exercise and health later in life! Two birds? Nailed them with one stone, which we can call the “Exploratory Mindset”.
The Exploratory Mindset
What we should be encouraging in children, for health and performance outcomes, is the wide exploration of as many activities as possible, for as long as possible. In the research field, this is called diversification, and it’s based on what experts call “sampling”. That is, let children sample every activity they can, and keep their options open for as long as possible.
Practically, this is difficult to do. I appreciate that. Our school systems are driving the other way, towards specialisation with their performance mindset. But you can push back, and try to create sampling opportunities for your child, simply by facilitating and enabling their interests. Even within the gym setting, this is possible. There are so many ways to put together a training programme, and children should not be constrained to one type of exercise or even one programme. Let them explore. Every piece of equipment, every method. Provided they are supervised correctly, and technically proficient, they are accumulating skills and experience that will one day bear fruits.
So for now, the conclusion is to explore, and resist the temptation to turn children into miniature professionals. In future articles in this series, we’ll delve into these concepts in a little more detail, so that you can understand exactly why this exploratory mindset trumps performance. It will help you to appreciate physical and biological development, psychology, skill learning, and how elite athletes are really made.