According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are 75 million kids under the age of 18 running around our country. Of course, they’re not always “running” per se, since the average kid spends about 28 hours a week in front of the TV and an equally impressive amount of hours on line or thumbing text messages. But you can hardly blame them. The technology is unavoidably accessible and the appeal of such quality viewing content as MTV’s Jersey Shore and the Internet’s YouTube is arguably irresistible (says I, with only a hint of sarcasm). But kids are indeed running around nevertheless (or perhaps marginally-the-less). According to publicly accepted data - and the escalating mileage of America’s mini vans – over 40 million of them are playing competitive sports within a variety of organized youth programs. And the increasing level of participation in organized youth sports has been a consistent trend over the past two decades. However the question is, are kids really “playing” more?
Unfortunately, while we have good data on things like hours of television viewing, childhood obesity rates and registrations for organized youth sports, we really don’t have a good sense of how often kids engage in “pick-up play” versus “organized play.” Offering a nostalgic perspective (which is just a friendly term for an old fart’s perspective), it is clear that the ratio of pick-up play to organized play has been dramatically reduced over the past several decades. Kids are spending more time playing under the watchful eye of parents, trainers and volunteer coaches than they are playing informal (and unsupervised) driveway hoops, backyard running bases and pond hockey. All of this is part of a trend that Dr. Dan Gould, the director of the Michigan State University Institute for the Study of Youth Sport, calls the “professionalization of youth sports.”
Experts are still trying to sort out the cause – and the impact – of this emerging cultural trend. A number of theoretical explanations have surfaced. One is that the adult community (i.e., the parents) have been somehow influenced to believe that achieving excellence in youth sports can lead to the rewards of college scholarships down the road. But of course, we’ve seen the overwhelming mathematical improbability of that occurrence. Another more likely factor is simply the human ego. As adults, we have an instinctive urge to see our children thrive and excel in their lives. As a society, we have commercially and socially placed an enormously huge value on sports performance as a measure of individual worth. Put the two factors together and you can see why people freak out on the sidelines every time little Jimmy or Sally drops the ball (pun intended). We have made all of this matter too much.
So what’s the solution? Well there’s no known antidote for a problem that is still not well understood. But it seems that, since we are combating our own egos and the pressure of others’ perceptions, we should probably push the reset button on the one thing that can control both of those factors – perspective. And that’s why we should look closely at the very best athletes in the world.
The Crosby Curve
It’s been said that to achieve expertise in any endeavor, it requires a minimum of 10 years and 10,000 hours of practice. It’s hard to argue with that premise, given the difficulty of perfecting such tasks as performing a bypass operation, playing a Tchaikovsky concerto on the violin, or hitting a 90-mph fastball out of the ballpark. But when it comes to youth sports (and musical performances as well, I would suppose) our egos seem to keep us from realizing that practice is only one part of the equation for excellence. Otherwise, every kid who played hockey for 10 years and practiced for 10,000 hours would be as good as Sidney Crosby (who some would argue is the best hockey player on the planet).
The very fact that in every sport there is one rare, incredibly talented professional athlete (e.g., Crosby, Federer, Tiger, LeBron, Peyton, etc.) that rises significantly above the rest of the rare, incredibly talented professional athletes tells us that there are many more factors involved in achieving excellence in any sport (or any other discipline, for that matter) than just mere practice time. Looking at the following chart, which I call ”The Crosby Curve,” can help visualize these contributing factors.
The chart loosely represents what Sidney Crosby’s skill level might have looked like throughout his development. Let’s assume that the left axis represents the level of performance that a human being could achieve in terms of overall hockey skill, with a “10″ on the upper left corner representing the actual maximum skill level. Placing “Age” on the bottom axis, we can then track the most talented hockey player in the world as he developed his skills throughout his lifetime to date. As of today, we can assume that Crosby has achieved a level “10″ – or the maximum level of expertise achievable in his field. We can also assume that throughout his childhood, his level of skill development at any age (e.g., a level “3″ at age 5, a level “8″ at age 14) was most likely higher than just about anyone else of that same age, even compared to the thousands of kids who were logging the same amount of ice time and practice sessions as he was. Indeed, like many superstars, Crosby was widely heralded for his hockey talents even well before puberty set in.
So what does this Crosby Curve tell us? It tells us that the countless dollars and hours of time we invest in structured practice time, organized playing time, and individual lessons will still only get our children so far. As the chart suggests, the other intangibles, such as mental aptitude (e.g., desire, passion, instincts, etc) and God-given natural ability, are ultimately far bigger contributors to one’s overall skill level. The fact is that no matter how much we may want our kids to be the Sidney Crosby, Roger Federer or LeBron James of the future – or even of our present local community – we can’t manufacture it to be so. Even if we max our kids out on playing time and formal instruction, we are still faced with the reality that our kids’ “performance curve” will be well below that of the Crosby Curve. As the saying goes, “you can’t teach speed.” And you can’t manufacture talent.
So I hate to deflate the visions of grandeur that anyone has about their kid’s future draft prospects. But here’s the good news about what the Crosby Curve does to help us adjust our perspective and become more grounded: it takes the pressure off of us! By realizing that the majority of responsiblity for whether or not our children succeed in sports is actually out of our hands, we can now relax, sit back and enjoy whatever level of participation and performance they actually achieve. For most of us, this would be a wonderful epiphany; one that would free us from the burden of feeling anxious about every game; one that would create no other duty than to sign them up, drive them there, cheer for them and let nature take care of the rest.
And so for that I say, thank you Sidney Crosby.