Generalisation vs specialisation with regard to skill development
As previously discussed in the long-term athletic development article, Balyi (2001) was a firm believer in what is now considered the 10,000-hour rule. Something examined extensively by Gladwell (2008) in the book “Outliers”, he delves into the relevance of successful individuals having practiced their way to the top.
He provides examples like The Beatles who played thousands of gigs in Hamburg throughout the 1960s which equated to approximately 10,000 hours of practice in just a year or so. A further example is Tiger Woods who famously started playing golf aged 2 and won his first tournament aged 4. Having played golf every day from such a young age he quickly reached a considerable number of hours of specific practice in a very short time which is evidently one of the major reasons he went on to be the greatest golfer of all time. This is the personification of early specialisation and this concept was quickly adopted by many as an absolute necessity if someone wanted to make it at the highest level of any sport. However, many still stand by the more generalist approach which encourages developing a good base level of skills that can be applied to a specific sport further down the line, rather than mastering just one specific skill and then being unable to compete at any other sport later in life.
Another factor mentioned by Gladwell (2008) is the chance of finding themselves in a fortunate location in which to succeed, The Beatles were fortunate enough to find themselves in Hamburg during a rock and roll boom and Tiger Woods was lucky enough to have a golf fanatic as a father. John (2009 & 2020) describes this as ‘genes and geography’. This concept was explored further by Epstein (2014) in ‘The Sports Gene’ in an attempt to discover the genetic code to sporting success. On the one hand it would appear from the work that there is not a specific ‘sports gene’, however on the other hand, there are certain genetic traits identified which can increase an individual’s chances of excelling at a particular sport. His findings also back up the notion of geography being a defining factor. For example, if you’re fast and born in Jamaica chances are you might become a sprinter, whereas if you’re born in Texas you’re far more likely to play American Football. Nevertheless, success in either American football or sprinting must be preceded by a significant amount of practice, whether it’s 10,000 hours, more or less, is open to debate.
The notion of extensive practice appears to be more specifically linked to sports heavily reliant on closed skills, such as golf, gymnastics, sprinting, where outcome is linked to factors within the athlete’s control. This is because athletes can repeatedly practice a particular skill until they have absolute mastery. However, a more generalised approach to training of certain physical qualities is essential for more open sports where reaction to an external stimulus is often required.
Although there are examples of where children will choose to specialise at an early age and this may be supported by parents, as educational professionals and coaches when working with the majority of young athletes, it is important to provide them with the opportunity to develop as many skills as possible especially during their younger years. By providing a generalised approach to physical development, we are building the foundations and therefore enabling a wider range of opportunities in the future.
Epstein, D. (2014). The Sports Gene: Talent, Practice and the Truth About Success. New York: Vintage Publishing.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. UK: Little Brown and Company.
John, D. A. (2009). Never let go: A Philosophy of Lifting, Living and Learning. Aptos, CA: On Target Publications.
John, D. A. (2020). Attempts: Essays on Fitness, Health, Longevity and Easy Strength. Aptos, CA: On Target Publications.