Ever wondered what the difference is between you and Carissa Moore? Maybe growing up in Hawaii helped,or having elite surfers on her doorstep. Nowadays kids have coaches from the moment their toes touch the water. But how effective are they, and what else can a parent do to aide in their kids development?
Statistically for the vast majority of sports, children who go on to be elite professionals do a wide variety of sports when they are under the age of 12, and don’t start to specialise in one particular sport until they become a teenager. Children who hyper specialise in one sport under the age of 12 tend to only reach an average level, not an elite level – there is a levelling off during the teenage years. Age 12 appears to be a magic cut off, and after that it is more difficult to change or develop particular skills like your native language for example, or the chance at becoming a grandmaster in chess; which drops 50 fold if you haven’t taken it up by the age of 12.
It seems like in sports the period before the age of 12 is this critical time to sample a wide variety of sports, and find out what fits the child’s body type and/or what engages them mentally and they enjoy the most. We tend to imagine elite athletes like Tiger Woods, who was demonstrating his swing at age 2, and John John Florence surfing Backdoor aged 8 – those guys are the exceptions rather than the rule. The far more common road is someone like Bob Nash who didn’t even own a basketball until the age of 13, or Pat O’Connell who didn’t take up surfing until his teens.
Now this doesn’t mean a child should be spending less time playing sport, it just means they should be sampling a wide variety of sports. Young athletes report higher levels of enjoyment, higher levels of skill development and less injuries if they’re not hyper specialising. The words used within sports psychology literature to describe these types of learning are implicit and explicit learning. Explicit learning is when an individual is being told something specific, for example put your hand here; and implicit learning is when you are giving the individual time in the water to play with the sport.
So lets talk more about this.
The push towards hyper specialisation has meant structured coaching programmes under 12 have evolved everywhere, but sports science has told us that children under the age of 12 develop much better through implicit learning, so implicit learning means that you’re learning like a baby; through trial and error and repetition. Athletes who have learned skills implicitly are far less likely to loose those skills when they are under pressure; so if you have learned how to do a serve implicitly rather than explicitly, when you are on the tennis court in a final you’re far less likely to make a mistake.
This can be applied to coaching styles in large and small towns across the USA, as town budget and facilities often determines implicit or explicit coaching. It might sound surprising but if you live in a town of over 5 million people where there is a large budget and a structured coaching facility, you’re statistically less likely to make it to the elite level of your chosen sport.
Here is some mind blowing data; towns of 50,000 to 99,000 are vastly over represented in professional sports by 10 to 30 times. A researcher called John Cote from Queens University, Canada has been looking at this in 13 different sports, and has also started to profile the towns.
The small towns that don’t have the big budget or facilities for hyper specialised and structured coaching in children under 12, like a coach with a key to the gymnasium, the children will receive help with their personal growth and direction, but mostly just implicit learning. If you’re from a big city of more than 5 million people, your chances of becoming an NFL football player are 100 times lower than average across the whole population. However if you’re from a town of under 99,000 people you’re 10 times more likely than average; the difference between those numbers is obviously huge. For baseball you are 20 times more likely to turn professional and for women’s golf you are 27 times more likely to reach the elite level if you are from a small town rather than a big city.
There are a couple of important things to bare in mind here; firstly we’re talking about children under 12 – not adults. Secondly, hyper specialisation maybe more important in sports that have fewer transferable skills; so if you’re playing baseball, soccer, football, or basketball under the age of 12 you’re developing a lot of agility and ball control skills. Surfing of course does not have many transferable skills, skateboarding and swimming are helpful but the ability to predict waves is something that you can only develop from being in the ocean.
Now there is a general misconception within the population that when something is good for you, then more of it is better for you; but this is rarely the case. Most things are about dose or balance. Something might be good for you for a certain amount, but more of it might be worse for you; this is certainly true with diet, and in this case when it comes to the balance between explicit technical coaching and facilitated implicit learning; different sports fall on different parts of the spectrum.
As we know from surf coaching at Surf Simply different skills within one sport can require both explicit and implicit teaching. For example, getting people to place their hands in the correct place when they’re transitioning from laying to standing requires only explicit instruction, but then teaching people to angle their take offs down the line requires firstly explicit instruction for what they are trying to achieve and what they’re doing, and secondly implicit learning through repetition (like trial and error) in order to know exactly how much and when to angle the board on any different wave.
Sports science is still in its infancy but the research so far points towards the need to strike the balance between implicit and explicit technical coaching. If you’re younger, implicit learning is definitely better; but if you’re older a balance between the two might be better. If you have a sport with a lot of transferable skills then specialising later in life is probably better, and if you are doing a sport with fewer transferable skills then specialising earlier might be important.
So whats the take home from all of this for surfers, and surfing parents? If you want your son or daughter to be the next Kelly Slater or Carissa Moore, try to engage them in a wide variety of sports when they’re young – but sports that have as many transferable skills related to surfing as possible; swimming, skateboarding, bodyboarding, the local lifeguard club, bodysurfing – even just messing about in the ocean. Don’t worry about technical coaching, at least until they reach their teenage years. What seems to be important is continuity, and that the child enjoys what they’re doing. They will learn the sport implicitly and more importantly they will want to keep doing it. Too many kids are pushed towards competitive sports, but the best gift you can really give a child is a sport they will enjoy for their whole lives; something that will keep them fit and healthy right into old age, regardless of how many trophies they have on the shelf.