If you want a child prodigy, crack the whip early. But for longer-term success, parents should back off

There is mounting evidence that early specialisation is actively detrimental.

At a tangent to the New Statesman’s excellent articles and letters about education, this column explores attainment at the top end of the scale. Despite that elitism, the message is a happy one: the fad for encouraging obsessive ultra-specialisation among children is not only misplaced, it is actively harmful. Sampling and diversity – not premature narrowness – are far more likely to underpin adult success. Childhood is good for children after all.

The theory of early specialisation has hardened into folklore. The idea is very simple, seductively so (as is often the case with pop science). It holds that parents and teachers must insist that potential high achievers choose earlier, practise harder, eliminate distraction and accumulate more hours of specialised training in one discipline. How early should this process begin? As early as possible, comes the reply. Lump more practice (10,000 hours of the stuff) on to children. That way champions are made.

To invert Yeats’s dictum: this kind of education is not about lighting a fire but about filling a bucket. Even though the theory was based on questionable social science, it was perfectly pitched to appeal to middle-class neuroses about education. It empowers the parental control reflex with a marketable philosophy – force-feeding produces winners.

Yet there is mounting evidence that early specialisation is actively detrimental. The psychologists John Sloboda and Michael Howe studied 42 gifted children at a musical academy. The researchers were surprised to discover that extra lessons for younger musicians proved counterproductive: the over-coached kids just burned out. When they reached late teenage, the best players, it turned out, had practised the least as children. The upward curve was sharpest when it began later.

Diversity was just as important. The exceptional players practised their first instrument much less than the average performers but worked much more than the average players on their third instrument. The old cliché about second (or, indeed, third) strings to one’s bow still holds.

Sport tells the same story. There is widespread misunderstanding about how to give children the best chance of reaching the top. Superimposing the work ethic and methods of adult professionalism on to developing children actively reduces their prospects. Surveys show that school coaches still believe that intense early specialisation increases the likelihood of talented players turning pro. The reverse is true. A study of professional baseball players showed that the optimal teenage education was not playing exclusively baseball but also keeping up football and basketball.

Several factors are at work here. First, a sampling period increases the likelihood of choosing the best home for the individual’s talent. Older children are also more likely to have the psychological robustness (and appetite) to enjoy the demands of intense practice; love will always eventually trump duty. Third, some skills – both cognitive and physical – are clearly transferable from one discipline to another, even if that process remains mysterious.

A study of tennis players contrasted the experience of elite professionals (who became world top 15 players) with similarly talented peers who ended up as “near misses”. The same pattern emerged. Encouraging children to follow professional-style dedication and narrowness was counterproductive. Too much tennis before the age of 15; pushy parents; a lack of sporting breadth: all proved detrimental to long-term development. If you want to produce an under-14 champion, then crack the whip early. But to maximise a child’s chances of adult success, allow ambition to emerge from playfulness and experimentation.

What about the celebrated examples of Tiger Woods and Serena Williams, whose parents predicted and pushed for their global stardom? David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene, refers to them as “unicorns”, exceptions to the typical pattern of elite achievement. They were both lucky in two crucial respects. Their innate gifts perfectly matched the first sport they played. They also had personalities that allowed them not to be overwhelmed by parental ambition. The vast majority of early specialisers have no such luck – but we never hear from the five-year-old prodigies who lost it.

Roger Federer’s education is far more typical of a great athlete. If anything, his parents were “pully” rather than “pushy”, nudging him away from taking tennis too seriously. Before settling on tennis, Federer played lots of badminton, basketball and football. In the 32-year-old’s leaping forehand smash, there are still hints of a teenage slam dunk.

My own experience also makes me suspicious of early specialisation. I gorged on cricket and perhaps that helped me to reach a certain standard quite early. Aged 18, I scored a century on my first-class debut. Over the longer run, however, I’m sure I would have been a better cricketer if I had specialised later and enjoyed a more rounded sporting education.

The evidence of my peers (though an unscientifically small sample size) reinforces that intuition. Among England Test batsmen, my closest contemporaries were Owais Shah, Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood. Shah and I were hedgehogs, who specialised earlier as pure batsmen. Strauss and Collingwood were foxes who excelled at several games. There were doubtless other factors, but Collingwood and Strauss can boast 168 combined Test caps to the nine that Shah and I managed between us.

Precociousness has its costs. Perhaps for that reason, my mother’s favourite children’s book was the story of a late-developing lion, Leo the Late Bloomer. Not that I listened. My excuse? Bad genes. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.