Archery, Archery, Archery All of the Time . . . Right?

As a coach who works with young people (and I hope that you do, too) I see and hear opinions regarding “commitment to the sport” and “developing a practice regimen” often. Just the trope “it takes 10,000 of practice to develop elite-level skill” urges us to practice, practice, practice. After all, the icons of sport seem to all have started very early. Tiger Woods, possibly the greatest golfer of all time, had a golf club in his hands before he was one year old. I have seen archers shooting before the age of two. Start early, block out everything else, and you have a shot at greatness.

So, is this a message to deliver to our student-archers?

Tiger ca. two years old.

I think this is not a wise approach. For one it is laden with survivor bias. We crave information about the Tiger Woods of the world. What made him so great? How did he achieve what he has? But we never seek to survey the entire field. How many athletes took Tiger’s route and how well did they do? How many dropped out along the way? Answer: we don’t know.

There are, however, counter examples. Consider Roger Federer of tennis fame. Arguably one of the best male tennis players of all time, certainly one of the nicest. Here is an excerpt from an article in The Guardian in which Roger Federer’s early “career” was described:

“This boy’s mother was a coach, but she never coached him. He would kick a ball around with her when he learned to walk. As a child, he played squash with his father on Sundays. He dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming and skateboarding. He played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis and badminton over his neighbour’s fence, and soccer at school.

“His parents had no particular athletic aspirations for him. They encouraged him to try a wide array of sports. He didn’t much mind what sport he was playing, so long as it included a ball. 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, his parents were, if anything, “pully”, a Sports Illustrated writer would later observe. 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”.

“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 prize money 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 realised there had 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 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 mid-30s, an age by which even legendary tennis players are typically retired, he would still be ranked world No 1.I” From “Generalise, Don’t Specialise: Why Focusing Too Narrowly Is Bad for Us” by David Epstein in The Guardian magazine, July 12, 2019.

Some authoritarian countries have decided to fuel their Olympic teams by rounding up promising youths and taking them to “training centers” and having them train around the clock, starting as early as three years of age. (The parents are allowed to visit from time to time, as long as they don’t get in the way.) In these cases, athletes can be considered as disposable. If there are enough of them, those who burn out can just be sent back to their villages.

I argue that this is no way to treat a fellow citizen. None of the archers I have worked with has become a professional archer, so why would I train them as if that were their goal? All of my students were destined to be something larger than archery and if archery stays with them and contributes to their happiness, I’d consider that a success.

Urging youngsters to concentrate on archery, excluding other sports and hobbies, is a bad idea. First, it is unnecessary (or at least no one has made the argument that it is necessary) and second it cannot lead to well-rounded individuals. Were you surprised at Tiger Wood’s comeback from self-inflicted relationship wounds and then injuries? I wasn’t. What else was he going to do? What else did he train to do? What else provides his core happiness?

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