Though his mother taught tennis, she decided against working with him. "He would have just upset me anyway," she said. "He tried out every strange stroke and certainly never returned a ball normally. That is simply no fun for a mother." Rather than pushy, a Sports Illustrated writer would observe that his parents were, if anything, "pully." Nearing his teens, the boy began to gravitate more toward tennis, and "if they nudged him at all, it was to stop taking tennis so seriously." When he played matches, his mother often wandered away to chat with friends. His father had only one rule: "Just don't cheat." He didn't, and he started getting really good.
As a teenager, he was good enough to warrant an interview with the local newspaper. His mother was appalled to read that, when asked what he would buy with a hypothetical first paycheck from playing tennis, her son answered, "a Mercedes." She was relieved when the reporter let her listen to a recording of the interview and they realized there'd been a mistake: the boy had said "Mehr CDs," in Swiss German. He simply wanted "more CDs."
The boy was competitive, no doubt. But when his tennis instructors decided to move him up to a group with older players, he asked to move back so he could stay with his friends. After all, part of the fun was hanging around after his lessons to gab about music, or pro wrestling, or soccer.
By the time he finally gave up other sports—soccer, most notably— to focus on tennis, other kids had long since been working with strength coaches, sports psychologists, and nutritionists. But it didn't seem to hamper his development in the long run. In his midthirties, an age by which even legendary tennis players are typically retired, he would still be ranked number one in the world.
In 2006, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer met for the first time, when both were at the apex of their powers. Tiger flew in on his private jet to watch the final of the U.S. Open. It made Federer especially nervous, but he still won, for the third year in a row. Woods joined him in the locker room for a champagne celebration. They connected as only they could. "I've never spoken with anybody who was so familiar with the feeling of being invincible," Federer would later describe it. They quickly became friends, as well as focal points of a debate over who was the most dominant athlete in the world.
Still, the contrast was not lost on Federer. "His story is completely different from mine," he told a biographer in 2006. "Even as a kid his goal was to break the record for winning the most majors. I was just dreaming of just once meeting Boris Becker or being able to play at Wimbledon some time."
It seems pretty unusual for a child with "pully" parents, and who first took his sport lightly, to grow into a man who dominates it like no one before him. Unlike Tiger, thousands of kids, at least, had a head start on Roger. Tiger's incredible upbringing has been at the heart of a batch of bestselling books on the development of expertise, one of which was a parenting manual written by Tiger's father, Earl. Tiger was not merely playing golf. He was engaging in "deliberate practice," the only kind that counts in the now-ubiquitous ten-thousand-hours rule to expertise. The "rule" represents the idea that the number of accumulated hours of highly specialized training is the sole factor in skill development, no matter the domain. Deliberate practice, according to the study of thirty violinists that spawned the rule, occurs when learners are "given explicit instructions about the best method," individually supervised by an instructor, supplied with "immediate informative feedback and knowledge of the results of their performance," and "repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks." Reams of work on expertise development shows that elite athletes spend more time in highly technical, deliberate practice each week than those who plateau at lower levels (Figure not shown).
Tiger has come to symbolize the idea that the quantity of deliberate practice determines success—and its corollary, that the practice must start as early as possible.
The push to focus early and narrowly extends well beyond sports. We are often taught that the more competitive and complicated the world gets, the more specialized we all must become (and the earlier we must start) to navigate it. Our best-known icons of success are elevated for their precocity and their head starts—Mozart at the keyboard, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the other kind of keyboard. The response, in every field, to a ballooning library of human knowledge and an interconnected world has been to exalt increasingly narrow focus. Oncologists no longer specialize in cancer, but rather in cancer related to a single organ, and the trend advances each year. Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande pointed out that when doctors joke about left ear surgeons, "we have to check to be sure they don't exist."
In the ten-thousand-hours-themed bestseller Bounce, British journalist Matthew Syed suggested that the British government was failing for a lack of following the Tiger Woods path of unwavering specialization. Moving high-ranking government officials between departments, he wrote, "is no less absurd than rotating Tiger Woods from golf to baseball to football to hockey."