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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Interest vs. aptitude

As a sports fan it's hard not to notice that there are an awful lot of people go into sports other than the one for which they have the most talent.

Usually, people end up doing the sport they got fixated on as kids. If a young boy sits next to his father watching football every Sunday afternoon, he can't help but get the idea that playing football is the most glorious thing a man can do. And so, whatever his genetic destiny, that's the sport he'll pursue.

Or if he had fun playing sandlot baseball as a kid, he might end up doing that.

But as often as not, we're not built for the sports we participate in. Many, many children train for sports which they have absolutely no chance to be great at, no matter how dedicated and tough they are, because they simply don't have the build for it. Coaches like to talk about how it's not so much the size of the dog in the fight as the size of the fight in the dog, but the fact is, you don't see a lot of NFL players who are 5'11" and 150 pounds.

Every child who is moderately tall is told that he should play basketball. So he dutifully goes out for the team, and may or may not be good enough to make his high school varsity. But the average 6' 3" player who actually is good enough for his high school team probably still isn't good enough to make his college team, and certainly isn't good enough to make it to the NBA. But a lot of those kids who are merely decent basketball players could have been great swimmers.

I swam with a college kid the other day who would have been an absolutely outstanding wrestler. This kid is around 5' 5", weighs 160, and is built like a cartoon superhero. But in swimming, he is fighting his height.

There are lots of kids who play football who could have been great at another sport. Most of them simply aren't quite big and strong enough to play for a major college team, let alone in the NFL. But a lot of them are natural athletes who could have been great at rowing, lacrosse, wrestling, track, or any number of other sports.

Part of the problem is that so many kids want to be great at the glory sports: football and basketball. These are the prestige sports at most high schools. When you think BMOC, you tend to think of the star quarterback. And, the fact is, the head cheerleader is more likely to go for the star quarterback than she is for the star runner on the boys' cross country team. But who has more status, a second string lineman or a star runner? And more importantly, whose athletic skills will better help him get into college?

The East Germans are rightly condemned for the way they took children away from their parents and put them in sports schools, then fed them steroids. But they had one thing right: they would test the children at age eight or ten and then steer them toward the sport for which they had the most talent.

Parents should do the same (subtly). If your spindly little boy shows an aptitude for distance running, but all his friends play football, take him to a big time track meet so he can see all the people cheering for the guy who wins the mile. Turn on the TV when a track meet is on. Buy him a copy of "The Jim Ryun Story."

If a child ends up in a sport at which he's not great, it's certainly not a tragedy. He can still become fit, make friends, and enjoy himself. But if he has a choice between being good at something or being great at something else, why not try for the latter?


Anonymous said...

Kids these days get into sports at such an early age that it's not easy to predict what body type they will develop as adults. By the time they go through the growth spurt, it's almost to late to seriously get started at a new sport and to catch up with others in it who have done it for a while. Or, at least, in most sports good teams are so compatitive to get into that for an inexperienced teenager it's nearly impossible.
I think this is partly why we have so many "mismatched" athletes.

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- Good point. What the East Germans would do was measure the height at age ten and also check the thickness of the wrist or something like that which would give them a sense of how big a child would turn out to be. But there's certainly no way of predicting for sure.

Anonymous said...

The well funded modern sports regime in the UK is now getting fairly good at talent ID. They are particularly good at transferring talented athletes from sports which have a long skill acquisition trajectory and where the UK is not a world leader (like swimming) into sports in which skills can be acquired rapidly and in which UK is very strong (cycling, rowing), and one might cynically add that are not too competitive internationally - not many cycling Ethiopians but they'll kick your butt on the distance track. They have also done well recycling rowers into cyclists! This is done with relatively mature athletes and obviously reflects body type. My daughter's high school swim team has a number of athletes who are also national champions in rowing. They benefit from the aerobic base developed in swimming and have the size and strength to quickly excel in rowing. You might be interested in this:

On a separate note, it is interesting to speculate how the Olympics might look if the US did not syphon so many of its athletes into professional sports that are played so little internationally (basketball slightly excepted).

Is America's passion for Football, which the rest of the world doesn't understand, and it's lack of interest in many other sports that are big internationally a metaphor for the US's sometimes troubled relationship with the rest of the world? Sorry, I'm drifting....

Interesting post John. Particularly the question it raises on how much parents should try to guide their kids in their life choices.

John Craig said...

Guy -- Thank you for that long and thoughtful comment. The British are doing the right thing. I've heard of a lot of gymnasts who have been recycled into diving, and who do very well. In this country there are a fair number of sprinters who have gone into pro football, with varying degrees of success as running backs and occasionally, receivers.

I've also heard of or known a fair number of swimmers who have branched out into rowing, and have done fairly well as rowers, though in every single case I've known of, the athlete has stopped improving as a swimmer at that point. But those kinds of transitions make a lot of sense.

Personally, I think parents should try to encourage their kids to do what they're good at, if they can do so subtly. When I saw that my daughter wasn't going to be that tall, and when I saw that she had some talent at running, I encouraged her to switch, she did, and we're both glad she did. With my son, I was most definitely not subtle, but with him the choice was swimming or video games.

Is American football a metaphor for our international cluelessness? Hmm. That comment is not really cricket. Oh, speaking of which, how widely played is that game?

Anonymous said...

Cricket's popularity in the Indian sub-continent puts me solidly on the better side of that argument. Or do Americans have a greater weight than other nationalities? ;)

(PS there are still some lingering benefits of once great and extensive empire! :) )

But I will retract my ungracious tweak, which in fairness was intended to be philosophical musing rather than offence to the home team, which as you know I support with gusto.

John Craig said...

Guy --
I didn't interpret your philosophical musing as anything but that, and never took any offence, so there's no need for a retraction. I just saw the opportunity for a dumb pun, and thought I'd tweak you in turn.

Trust me, it's very hard to offend me (though I seem to find it very easy to offend others).

In a more serious vein, I'd say that sport of football itself is not a metaphor for the USA's narcissism/lack of diplomacy (every country has its own quaint customs and sports). But I would say that both the seriousness with which big time football coaches tend to take themselves and the end zone celebrations of scoring players are pretty good metaphors for our uniquely American-style brashness.

Anonymous said...

Going back to the first response on kids starting sport at an early age.... A Russian coach I know said that they would look at the children's parents to get some insight into their genetic potential. He would add with a wink that they would also check the fathers of neighboring households.

- Ed

John Craig said...

Interesting. I've read in the past that the correlation between the height of fathers and sons is .15, which means it's not that great (0.0 would be totally random, and 1.0 is a perfect correlation.)

As to your last statement, Johnny has always claimed that his real father is Sean Connery, that there's no way he could have a father as ugly as me. He refers to my )somewhat) weak chin as a "little bitch chin" and tells me I look like a gay version of Wes Studi (the evil Indian in "Last of the Mohicans").