Specialization vs. Generalization

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, July/August 2015.

During their high-school years, I trained two brothers. They were bright and athletic. When I first met them when they were in middle school, they mentioned a desire to play basketball at Stanford University in the future. Despite their similarities, they differed. Everything appeared to be easy for the older brother, whereas the younger brother tended to work harder. The older brother had varied interests, whereas the young brother focused more on basketball. The older brother was regarded as the better player almost until the day that he quit competitive basketball, but it was the younger brother who set records at his university and played professionally. The older brother, when he chose to quit basketball, pursued his other interests in music and found success. 

Early specialization is a contentious subject within youth sports, but the overlooked aspect is that to become an expert performer in a discipline eventually requires specialization. Whereas research generally supports sampling and diversification at young ages, specialization after the onset of puberty is required to attain an elite level of performance.

Whereas early specialization in a single sport or activity at a young age is problematic, the lack of specialization can be equally problematic. Parents want their children to be healthy, happy, and well-rounded, but this mentality can lead to goodness, not greatness. Renowned strength coach Dan John says that being elite is not the same as being healthy. Reaching an elite status in any sport often requires an unhealthy obsession and lifestyle. In my example, the younger brother trained so hard and so much that he developed stress fractures in his hip during high school and eventually had knee surgery in college.

Kobe Bryant is a model of drive, self-determination, and single-minded focus. He set out to become the best basketball player ever to play the game, and his on-court accomplishments at the end of his career will put him in the conversation. Baron Davis, on the other hand, often was admonished as a waste of talent, despite a lengthy, though injury-plagued career as a starting point guard in the NBA. He was criticized for lacking the same single-minded focus as Bryant, and people often wondered “what if…” about his career.

The contrast between Bryant and Davis provides some insight for the parents of budding (wannabe) superstars. Bryant is a specialist: He is a basketball player. He devotes his energy to maximizing his basketball talent. Davis is a generalist. He was a prodigious talent on the court, but he also founded an internet start-up, produced a documentary, and completed his bachelor’s degree at UCLA. In my story, the younger brother was Kobe-like in his dedication to working out to maximize his basketball talent, whereas the older brother followed a similar path as Davis, allowing his broad interests to steer him in different directions.

We tend to favor a romantic ideal of an amalgamation of Bryant and Davis. We believe that a child with the single-minded focus of Bryant combined with the generalist sensibilities of Davis would be wildly successful. The problem is that it is almost impossible to do both. As the older brother’s lingering interests in music deepened, he had less time to pursue basketball. As the younger brother reached more competitive levels of play, he had less time and energy to devote to other pursuits.

If Kobe Bryant lacked his single-minded focus, would he be as great on the basketball court? Bryant is notorious for his offseason workout dedication, often described as six to eight hours of daily work. He is a perfectionist and spends the offseason looking to add new dimensions to his game, as evidenced by his work with former NBA All-Star Hakeem Olajuwon on his post footwork several summers ago. Without this dedication, would Bryant have maintained his level of excellence for so long? Would he have multiple championships and accomplishments that rank near the top in NBA history?

If Baron Davis had a single-minded focus to maximize his basketball talent, would he follow his diversity of interests? If Davis spent the offseason in grueling six-hour workouts, would he have the time and energy to start a company or direct a documentary?

John wrote that an elite athlete has made the choice to be elite. Bryant clearly made that choice, and he embraces the work and the effort required to maintain his body, his athleticism, and his skill. In contrast, Baron Davis often reported for training camp out of shape and overweight because he spent his offseason following his other interests rather than training six hours per day. He played pick-up games at UCLA and worked out, but not like Bryant. In a sense, despite his prodigious talent, he did not make the choice to be elite.

When a professional athlete, or a person with his obvious talents, chooses to pursue many interests rather than a single interest, the public tends to criticize the person. When our professional athletes are found to be more Renaissance Man than singularly focused, they are met with derision. Fans sit on their couches and complain. Having multiple interests is viewed negatively by an unrelenting fan base. However, don’t most teachers and parents encourage this behavior of high-school students? We encourage teenagers to pursue excellence in many activities. We applaud the high-school student-body president with the 4.0 GPA who plays varsity soccer, plays the violin, and performs in a spring musical. In high school, this is how we measure success: Excellence in a wide variety of activities. We tend to believe that this excellence carries forth.

High-school excellence, however, is not expert performance. Becoming an elite performer in track & field, math, acting, or the violin requires more dedicated practice. There are thousands and thousands of actors starring in high-school productions every year, and very few George Clooneys. Being good in relation to a small population (a high school) is not expert performance. It is very possible to be good in many things; it is very hard to be an expert in more than one thing. Even Olympic decathletes, the greatest athletes on earth, are experts in the decathlon, but they are merely good in any single event, falling short of an elite Olympic performer in any of the individual events.

Baron Davis and Kobe Bryant provide an interesting juxtaposition. As a parent, would you prefer your child to have a wide array of interests and never reach his or her potential in any of them, or to have a single-minded focus and become an expert in that one thing? In my example, although they are in their early 20s, I feel as though both brothers are happy with the road that they pursued. The younger plays professional basketball, and the older brother is living the dream in southern California, making music, dating a model, and pursuing his varied interests and passions.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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