Except that Great Britain's massive success at recent Summer Olympics, after decades of middling performances, was bolstered by programs set up specifically to recruit adults to try new sports and to create a pipeline for late developers—"slow bakers," as one of the officials behind the program described them to me. Apparently the idea of an athlete, even one who wants to become elite, following a Roger path and trying different sports is not so absurd. Elite athletes at the peak of their abilities do spend more time on focused, deliberate practice than their near-elite peers. But when scientists examine the entire developmental path of athletes, from early childhood, it looks like this (figure not shown).
Eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts. Instead, they undergo what researchers call a "sampling period." They play a variety of sports, usually in an unstructured or lightly structured environment; they gain a range of physical proficiencies from which they can draw; they learn about their own abilities and proclivities; and only later do they focus in and ramp up technical practice in one area. The title of one study of athletes in individual sports proclaimed "Late Specialization" as "the Key to Success"; another, "Making It to the Top in Team Sports: Start Later, Intensify, and Be Determined."
When I began to write about these studies, I was met with thoughtful criticism, but also denial. "Maybe in some other sport," fans often said, "but that's not true of our sport." The community of the world's most popular sport, soccer, was the loudest. And then, as if on cue, in late 2014 a team of German scientists published a study showing that members of their national team, which had just won the World Cup, were typically late specializers who didn't play more organized soccer than amateur-league players until age twenty-two or later. They spent more of their childhood and adolescence playing nonorganized soccer and other sports. Another soccer study published two years later matched players for skill at age eleven and tracked them for two years. Those who participated in more sports and nonorganized soccer, "but not more organized soccer practice/training," improved more by age thirteen. Findings like these have now been echoed in a huge array of sports, from hockey to volleyball.
The professed necessity of hyperspecialization forms the core of a vast, successful, and sometimes well-meaning marketing machine, in sports and beyond. In reality, the Roger path to sports stardom is far more prevalent than the Tiger path, but those athletes' stories are much more quietly told, if they are told at all. Some of their names you know, but their backgrounds you probably don't.
I started writing this introduction right after the 2018 Super Bowl, in which a quarterback who had been drafted into professional baseball before football (Tom Brady), faced off against one who participated in football, basketball, baseball, and karate and had chosen between college basketball and football (Nick Foles). Later that very same month, Czech athlete Ester Ledecká became the first woman ever to win gold in two different sports (skiing and snowboarding) at the same Winter Olympics. When she was younger, Ledecká participated in multiple sports (she still plays beach volleyball and windsurfs), focused on school, and never rushed to be number one in teenage competition categories. The Washington Post article the day after her second gold proclaimed, "In an era of sports specialization, Ledecká has been an evangelist for maintaining variety." Just after her feat, Ukrainian boxer Vasyl Lomachenko set a record for the fewest fights needed to win world titles in three different weight classes. Lomachenko, who took four years off boxing as a kid to learn traditional Ukrainian dance, reflected, "I was doing so many different sports as a young boy—gymnastics, basketball, football, tennis—and I think, ultimately, everything came together with all those different kinds of sports to enhance my footwork."
Prominent sports scientist Ross Tucker summed up research in the field simply: "We know that early sampling is key, as is diversity."
In 2014, I included some of the findings about late specialization in sports in the afterword of my first book, The Sports Gene. The following year, I got an invitation to talk about that research from an unlikely audience—not athletes or coaches, but military veterans. In preparation, I perused scientific journals for work on specialization and career-swerving outside of the sports world. I was struck by what I found. One study showed that early career specializers jumped out to an earnings lead after college, but that later specializers made up for the head start by finding work that better fit their skills and personalities. I found a raft of studies that showed how technological inventors increased their creative impact by accumulating experience in different domains, compared to peers who drilled more deeply into one; they actually benefited by proactively sacrificing a modicum of depth for breadth as their careers progressed. There was a nearly identical finding in a study of artistic creators.