Essay: Contemplating When, How, and If to Develop Human Potential in Kids

So pregnant with expectation, we register our dear children for sports.

I arrived at UCLA freshman year, in 2001, living and breathing the sport of swimming. At 18, I was a swimmer. Broad shoulders, tan skin, those wisps of chlorine-fried, swim-cap-torn hair around my face. My team and I walked across campus as a proud pack, dripping suits dangling from our bags, ice packs Saran Wrapped to our muscular bodies. With eyes red from morning practice, we stayed up late finishing papers like our nonathlete peers, prideful that we could do it all. Adidas fueled our confidence; we rocked that True Blue and Gold gear 24/7. On the inside, the identity was rooted even deeper. It’s who we spent high school growing up to be, and neither of my parents saw it coming.

My mom, who’s a flutist, started me on the violin at age 3.  There are more seats in the orchestra for violins than for flutes, so this was her gesture in giving me a leg up. When my younger sister came along, she started at age 2 playing a ruler taped to a tissue box. At 3 I had an actual 1/16-size wooden violin with a horsehair bow that used every day to practice “Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo.” By age 5, I graduated from the first Suzuki violin book. I played for 11 years and then I was finally allowed to quit and focus entirely on what I wanted to do, which was swim.

My own daughter is just 8, but with my athletic history blaring between my ears, I am hyperaware that she may be nearing an age when sports potential starts to show, and it feels like choices about what to practice and for how long could matter. It’s hard not to project my identity as a swimmer. I just registered her for a swim-team tryout, which I avoided until she asked. I know this experience is loaded for me, like baseball is for what seems like everyone else.

I started my daughter on violin at age 3 because, in my experience, that’s what you do. But it wasn’t a fit, so she quit after two years. She’s danced since 18 months, and she’s tried softball and gymnastics. She liked musical theater and didn’t care for chess. I went to her toddler recitals and witnessed her incredible talent. And now I can look back, rose-colored mom glasses off, to see that she was just a little bouncing cutie in a sequined dress. This fall she wants to play soccer and try volleyball. And from what I’ve read, this is all OK. She should not specialize anytime soon, according to science reporter Daniel Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. For what he calls “the development of human potential,” for kids and young teens, it’s helpful to stay active and build a variety of skills, in sports and otherwise.

It’s true that Tiger Woods started golfing as a toddler and became the best in the world. And yes, Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell confirms that 10,000 hours of focused practice will lead to mastery over a skill. But parents can take a deep breath, because Epstein’s research shows that starting a sport early isn’t the one key to success. In comparing elite athletes and near-elite athletes, many who specialized early also peaked early. They were more likely to play on the club team during college than compete for the NCAA, which reminds me that I’m not messing anything up by not pushing my daughter into a specific sport. If I am raising an elite athlete, I won’t miss it. And trust me, that’s not what I’m gunning for.

Whether I want us to be a sports family or not, my kids will let me know. I’ll feel deeply when I see my daughter swim, like my mom did as I played that mini violin. I can quietly walk the grief cycle when certain dreams don’t pan out and get excited to see the ones I never imagined.

Listening to Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast, I’ve heard the author ask unhappy adults what they liked to do when they were 10. Because that’s back when they still knew how to play and had free time to experiment. Long past my swimming days, approaching 40, I hear you Rubin. The development of human potential, it’s a really long game. It’s key for people of any age to know and make time to do what makes them happy. I loved to swim—until I didn’t. By junior year I was in chronic pain and had set goals elsewhere, and one day, I got out of the pool mid-practice and didn’t go back. I could pivot because as much as I was a swimmer, college—as well as the opportunities and distractions that come with it—rounded me out into what was to come.

So this is the plan: I will register my daughter for activities, drive her to the practices, listen, notice, support, and encourage. When I’ve consulted my nonathlete friends about what they did in high school, one of my favorite people looks back and describes one of her interests as “fine dining.” This could get really fun.

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