Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

You can’t raise a sports superstar, no matter what any Gladwell wannabe tells you

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Sian Beilock is a University of Chicago psychology professor who is releasing a book called, “Choke,” a research-based tome in which Beilock focuses on writing about sports performance in a way that will score her the same speaking fees as Malcolm Gladwell.

But let’s forget her conclusion, obvious to anyone who has played so much as a round of miniature golf — that high-powered athletes and others choke when they’re “thinking too much” ($25, please!) — and move onto to criticizing her and other sports-blind academics for their well-intentioned, but ultimately toxic to sports parents, research, study and surmising about how you — yes, you! — can raise a superstar. Which, as you can tell by the title of this blog, is at cross purposes with what I do.

Spoiler alert — you can’t raise one.

You can read all the research you want, all the inspirational books you want, follow the path that other famous athletes followed. But having a superstar child isn’t a thing you create, despite what the Chinese government allegedly tried to do by breeding two tall athletes to create Yao Ming. It’s a combination of good genes, your child’s desire, money (or ability to afford all the travel teams and development camps necessary) and old-fashioned luck. The Marv Marinovich school of parenting, the Dr. Frankenstein-like attempts to create a superstar, even if it does create someone who makes it to the pro level, seems to inevitably create more tragedy than success.

Just as soon as there is one path laid out for sure success — early specialization, just like Tiger Woods! — soon there becomes an equal and opposite path. Beilock’s is that a lack of early specialization is key to raising your young superstar.

It’s enough to make you feel not so bad when you hear of cuts to college funding.

Let me tell you the source of my — well, it’s not quite rage. Maybe second-degree annoyance.

I happened to find on Wired.com a post by Jonah Lehrer called “How to Raise a Superstar.” It went through various theories about superstar-raising, including the famous anybody-can-become-a-pro-in-10,000-hours gospel spread by Gladwell, which was taken to mean that even if you’re 5-foot-3, if you practice for 10,000 hours you can become a pro basketball player, the kind of thinking that has parents dropping large dough for travel teams starting at age 3.

Then Lehrer went into other theories of sporting success, including greater academic interest in whether where your child is born. As Lehrer spells out, various surveys show that your child has a better chance of superstardom, in any sport, if he or she is born a slack-jawed yokel. At least, I think that’s the implication.

However, a series of recent studies by psychologists at Queen’s University adds an important wrinkle to the Tiger Woods parable. The scientists began by analyzing the birthplace of more than 2,000 athletes in a variety of professional sports, such as the NHL, NBA, and the PGA.  This is when they discovered something peculiar:  the percent of professional athletes who came from cities of fewer than a half million people was far higher than expected. While approximately 52 percent of the United States population resides in metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 people, such cities only produce 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.

I can think of several different explanations for this effect, none of which are mutually exclusive. Perhaps kids in small towns are less likely to get distracted by gangs, drugs, etc. Perhaps athletes outside of big cities go to better schools, and thus receive more attention from their high school coaches. Perhaps they have more access to playing fields. Perhaps they have a better peer group. The scientists summarize this line of reasoning in a recent paper: “These small communities may offer more psychosocially supportive environments that are more intimate. In particular, sport programs in smaller communities may offer more opportunities for relationship development with coaches, parents, and peers, a greater sense of belonging, and a better integration of the program within the community.”

Sian Beilock looked at this research and jumped to the conclusion (as the Queen’s researchers jumped to their conclusion without actual follow-up research) that in small towns, you’re more likely to be involved in different sports “perhaps because there is less competition to make one team,” so young athletes can sample different sports, not burn out on any one of them and build confidence, and, voila, a superstar is made — basically, disproving that concentrating early in one sport is the key to success. As evidence, she looks at a budding golfing superstar in the hardscrabble small town of Smithtown, N.Y. As you might suspect, I find her analysis hilariously wrong.

[In July] 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.

I think Sian Beilock used her Jump to Conclusions Mat.

So, wait a minute. A kid turns to golf at the ripe old doddering age of 7, has a family that afford to hire Tiger Woods’ coach, and comes from a ritzy New York City suburb, and THAT proves small-town kids playing multiple sports are the future superstars?

To me, that says that the difference between kids in big cities and those in not-so-big cities — which would include moneyed suburbs of podunk shitholes like New York — is something that starts with the letter $.

Before school sports started everyone, they hit urban school districts disproportionately. Older, urban schools do not have the grand facilities of their newer, suburban counterparts. But beyond school, travel team experience is practically a requirement, and urban areas don’t have the money and programs their suburban peers do.

There is a case to be made for children trying out multiple sports, but making Smithtown, N.Y., sound like Munising, Mich. —  a real small town with kids of lesser means who really have to play multiple sports just so multiple sports can be offered — isn’t that case. I live in a crap burg of 50,000 that happens to border Chicago, and happens to be a lot less rich than Smithtown, and I can vouch that while, like in most areas, little kids try out multiple sports early, by about age 9 money matters in terms of who advances and who doesn’t, and that the few kids from around here who advance to superstardom (such as one Dwyane Wade) take various paths that all involve having someone help pay the substantial bills.

I don’t know how many, say, violinists, accountants or garbage-truck drivers come from places or more than, or less than, 500,000 people. But without research beyond the “Monte Carlo simulation” done in the studies — which sounds like something as accurate as random rolls of the dice in a casino (it kind of is, given the originator of the technique named it with Monte Carlo’s casinos in mind) — Sian Beilock or myself can’t say definitively that one path is the certain one to superstardom. All that does is sucker parents out of their money a different way when it comes to youth sports. Did the Queen’s researchers, or Sian Beilock, ever play sports? Ever spend one second looking at how youth sports operates? All they have to do is go to one Little League game, anywhere, and they’ll have to rethink their conclusions.

The bottom line is, there is no sure way to raise a superstar. There’s no age effect, no birthplace effect, no nothing. Athletes who you think will go on to greatness don’t, and some you think won’t go on, do. Too few people get to superstar status to say, for sure, there is a certain path. If there was a certain path, many would take it, and then it wouldn’t be a certain path anymore.

If your organization would like me to talk about this, I’m more than willing to come. And I won’t even charge you Sian Beilock rates, much less Malcolm Gladwell money. That is, unless I can figure out a pithy way to put my thoughts in book form. Because once I get booked by Charlie Rose, I’m a fucking superstar, man.

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