The sports gene: why parents need to relax a little

By Tom Farrey

As Americans, we tend to think excellence can be manufactured. That greatness can be created out of any piece of human clay. The Constitution states that all men are created equal, and thus, we like to think, maybe, so are elite athletes. Which explains why we have soccer academies for toddlers as young as 18 months. Seriously, I’m surprised entrepreneurs haven’t yet figured out how to sell in-utero sport training - it’s easy money.

Just don’t try out that idea on elite athletes. Like Dara Torres, who joined me several years ago for a moderated conversation with Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

In prep for my talk, I caught up with Torres, who won 12 Olympic medals between 1984 and 2008, when she was twice the age of some US teammates. Her teammates' abs looked soft compared to hers.

“For me, it’s always started with good genetics,” Torres said. “I’m not going to say it was all hard work because at the beginning it wasn’t. Growing up, I didn’t swim in the summers until I was in double-digits age-wise. Then, I didn’t even start double workouts until I was a teenager. I was one of those athletes who didn’t overdue it, definitely. Swimming just came easy to me.”

Publicly, athletes often attribute their success to effort above all else. It’s what sells on Madison Ave. No one wants to hear the playing field is not level - it muddies the message, certainly the one parents like me constantly try to convince our children of, that life is what you make of it. But in the rarefied arenas of sport, of competition through physical expression, I know this isn’t true. I’ve looked up and shaken hands with Shaquille O’Neal, mine swallowed by his. And many innate traits are not apparent to the eye.

“I was always able to visually see something done and mimic it to the T,” Torres said. “So I picked up things really quick. My strength coach, he works with some top athletes and he says that (NHL all-star) Sidney Crosby and I just pick up (new movements) so quickly. I don’t know why, I just am like that. The other thing is, I always was able to recover quickly. If I had an injury, I came back faster than anyone. If I was exhausted, I’d come back the next day no problem.”

Her perspective bears relevance to what we have learned in Project Play, including speaking with coaching leaders to consider the prospects of anchoring the U.S. sports system in the principles of age-appropriate play. If it’s true that nature trumps nurture as the true separator of Olympians and near Olympians, then can we dispense with the idea that the path to greatness is a race to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, and let parents relax a little? Can stakeholders create a model that promotes thoughtful development over careless competition? One that’s open to all children, not just those with the family resources to afford the youth sports arms race?

To inform the discussion, I asked Mike Sagas of the University of Florida’s Sport Policy & Research Collaborative to aggregate the best research on key questions related to athletic development of children to find out if there’s evidence to support popularized notions such as the 10,000 hour “rule” (there isn’t) and early specialization in sports. You can read the report here. Epstein addressed some of these topics in his terrific book as well, diving deep into the science while also unearthing anecdotal stories that challenge conventional wisdom.

My new favorite is one what Torres shared with me and which I was unaware of. After four years of swimming for the University of Florida, she tried out for the volleyball team. Hadn’t played since high school. And the coach still offered her a scholarship. Torres was that freakishly good of an athlete.

But the most instructive story might be the one of how she’s raising her daughter, Tessa. “She does dance one day a week, does swimming two days a week, and then the seasonal stuff like lacrosse or tennis, “ she said. “She can decide what she wants to do but I don’t want her just swimming five days a week. I mean, she’s seven years old.”

Tom Farrey is director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program and the author of Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. His long-form work with ESPN won Emmy and Murrow awards. Follow Tom on Twitter at @tomfarrey and the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program at @AspenInstSportsThis column was published by The Huffington Post in 2013.

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