The secret to Roger’s success? Arguably his parents, as they insisted he played other sports such as basketball, soccer and badminton before focusing on tennis. We’re also aware of other elements that played their part thanks to timely research. In a fascinating study on junior tennis players from 1994 through 2002, Piotr Unierzyski evaluated 1000 players age 12-13 in 50 different countries, a pool that included future stars Roger Federer, Kim Clijsters, and others. His study found that of all these players, the ones who eventually made it into the Top 100 Professional Rankings were:

  • 3-4 months younger than the mean age for their group
  • Slimmer and less powerful than their age group
  • Usually faster and more agile than average
  • They played less than the average number of matches than the ‘top players at the time’ did
  • Their average practice hours per week were 2-4 hours less than the ‘top players in their age group’
  • Their parents were supportive, but not overly involved

But what about the Tiger Woods of the world?

We often hear stories about the child prodigies – the sport stars that were destined to be great from an early age, and all it took was focused dedication and commitment from an early age. But have you heard about Todd Marinovich?

Time and time again we find that too much too soon, or having children specialise in a sport early does not pay. Children specialising at an early age in a sport very rarely materialises in success later in adulthood (in fact it may decrease chances of success later in adulthood by stopping them from finding a sport best suited to them once their body physically and mentally matures). Early specialisation also increases the risk of children suffering from wellbeing and health issues (e.g. over-use injury and identity foreclosure).

World renowned sports researcher, investigative journalist and author of The Sports Gene, David Epstein, said it best, “Those that become general athletes first, pick up sport skills more rapidly, are less prone to injury and are more motivated to stick at something for 10 years or more”. Think about that for a second. As far as being and becoming a top athlete goes, there are three critical elements:

  1. Being able to learn and adapt quicker and therefore improve faster
  2. Being able to avoid injury and therefore spend more time playing and practicing on the court or field
  3. Intrinsically wanting to do something and therefore being able to embrace and appreciate (and not be deterred by) the challenging times

So, what does that mean for parents?

  • As a rule of thumb: If the amount of hours your child is spending doing organised sport (adult-led training and games) on a weekly basis, is greater than their age, make sure you are aware about athlete burnout and monitor your child for symptoms of burnout.
  • At times, you may need to think of yourself as a ‘pully-parent’. If you child is playing a sport on multiple teams, e.g. a rep team, a school team and a club team, you may need pull all the respective coaches together so that they have an oversight on your child’s athlete-load. Being a ‘pully-parent’, also means encouraging your child try multiple different sport (especially at younger ages) and ensuring children that really like one sport, have an appropriate amount time-off from structured sport, to allow their bodies to recover.

So, what does this mean for coaches?

  • Know the difference between talent selection and talent identification. Do you make decisions on your athletes and teams around winning the weekend’s game, or around what’s best for their future? Make sure you know the difference.
  • Encourage your children to be exposed to variety. You can do this by encouraging them to play multiple sport, rotating what positions they play and mixing-up the kind of training you so children are exposed to different movement patterns.