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Back You are here: Home Sports Other Is the All-Rounder on the Endangered List?
Thursday, 30 April 2015 00:00

Is the All-Rounder on the Endangered List?

Written by  Rogan Summerton

In the polished heart of the 1980s, in the dimly lit halls of Westville Boy’s High School there walked a god. He was rangy, blond, and bore the cinematically perfect name of Errol Stewart. And Errol Stewart was awesome!

 school sports all-rounderErrol Stewart was awesome partly because he was cool, partly because he was nice, partly because he was academically equal to anyone else, but mostly because he was the best all-around athlete any of us had ever seen: an electric backline player in the First XV rugby team, an aggressive opening batsmen and wicket-keeper, one of the most talented hockey players in the province and, with his out and out pace, a track star.

He was selected for the SA Schools Cricket and Rugby side, and he was selected for the Natal Schools hockey, athletics and tennis teams. He was living our South African sports dream, and the dream of everyone we knew.

Then, in the space of a few years, that dream changed.

Maybe it was the rise of superfocused prodigies like Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters. Maybe it was the rise of parenting as a competitive sport. Maybe it was the sudden focus of television on youth sports, which lost its community base and morphed into a free-market bazaar of travel teams, trophies, festivals and tournaments, with each kid and parent seeking the holy grail of success: a bursary to a better school or even better to catch the eye of a scout and get signed up to some professional franchise or team.

By the time the mid-nineties rolled around the Errol Stewarts’ of this world had all but vanished from the landscape like the white rhino. In his place stood a different species: the specialists.

Every sport became a highly organized year-round enterprise: rugby and hockey in late summer, winter and early spring, cricket in summer, early winter and spring. Suddenly kids had to choose before they turned 10 or so, or risk falling behind the pack. The logic seems straightforward: if you want to be good at a sport, you should play intensively year-round. It makes perfect sense.

It was also, in retrospect, a perfectly bad idea. While early specialization works for a lucky few, an increasingly large wave of research has provided proof that early specialization doesn’t work so well for the rest of us. Let us count the ways:

  • 1) early specialization increases the chance of injuries.
  • 2) early specialization creates worse overall athletes.
  • 3) early specialization makes kids less likely to participate in sports as adults.
  • 4) early specialization creates a falsely high barrier to participation, eliminating kids who might otherwise succeed in a more open system or other codes

I think the bigger point is this: when it comes to athletic skills, we are natural omnivores. Our bodies and brains are built to grow through variety of activities, not just one.

Think about what happens when you play multiple sports. You develop whole-body skills like balance, quickness, core strength. You cross-train skills from one sport to another.

It is not a coincidence that many top performers were multiple-sport kids growing up. Roger Federer played soccer until 12; Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant did the same. No one can match the Australian rugby player’s ability to catch the high ball (sad but true) because they are raised on a steady diet of Aussie Rules. The reason they possess such brilliant footwork, ability and vision is because they built those skills, over time, by being omnivorous.

Most important, multi-sport kids develop a far more useful skill: how to learn. They learn how to adapt to different situations, make connections, and to take true ownership over the improvement process.

I’d also argue that multi-sport kids have a better chance to stay emotionally healthy, because they’re free of the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket pressure that goes with specialization — a pressure that can lead unhealthy patterns when it comes to relationships and emotional stability. (See: Woods, Tiger.) They are free of the sense that, should they fail, they are at risk of losing their identity, and letting down their parents.

So the real question is, what do you do? How do you nurture a Errol Stewart in a Tiger Woods world? Here are three useful approaches, courtesy of Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport, who’s written widely on the subject.

  • Delay: wait as long as possible before choosing a single sport to pursue. It varies according to sport, but research puts the ideal age for specialization around the early teenage years.  (That doesn’t mean you start at that age, of course, but rather that you start getting serious.)
  • Diversify: embrace all possibilities to broaden skills. Experiment and cross train.
  • Co-operate: seek ways to build connections between the silos of individual sports, so that families are not forced to choose one over the other too soon.

Perhaps few will agree with me, perhaps because of the desire that any half decent athlete has of making a career of sport with the lure of big money, the specialists will be with us for eternity. Yet there is something about the all-rounder that cannot be denied- they are the true ultimate athlete.

So here’s to the good old fashioned all-rounder and a quest to bring them back from extinction. What are your views?