What Makes a Champion? Early Multidisciplinary Practice, Not Early Specialization, Predicts World-Class Performance


What explains the acquisition of exceptional human performance? Does a focus on intensive specialized practice facilitate excellence, or is a multidisciplinary practice background better? We investigated this question in sports. Our meta-analysis involved 51 international study reports with 477 effect sizes from 6,096 athletes, including 772 of the world’s top performers. Predictor variables included starting age, age of reaching defined performance milestones, and amounts of coach-led practice and youth-led play (e.g., pickup games) in the athlete’s respective main sport and in other sports. Analyses revealed that (a) adult world-class athletes engaged in more childhood/adolescent multisport practice, started their main sport later, accumulated less main-sport practice, and initially progressed more slowly than did national-class athletes; (b) higher performing youth athletes started playing their main sport earlier, engaged in more main-sport practice but less other-sports practice, and had faster initial progress than did lower performing youth athletes; and (c) youth-led play in any sport had negligible effects on both youth and adult performance. We illustrate parallels from science: Nobel laureates had multidisciplinary study/working experience and slower early progress than did national-level award winners. The findings suggest that variable, multidisciplinary practice experiences are associated with gradual initial discipline-specific progress but greater sustainability of long-term development of excellence.

-Arne Güllich1 , Brooke N. Macnamara2 , and
David Z. Hambrick, “What Makes a Champion? Early
Multidisciplinary Practice, Not Early
Specialization, Predicts World-Class
.” Perspectives on Psychological Science. 1-24.DOI: 10.1177/1745691620974772.

Strikes me as obviously true. Early specialization is like early optimization, and it doesn’t tend to give the best results.

Importing Excellence

“If you want to know what it is that your own country produces that is genuinely excellent, look for what the most obsessively discerning residents of London and Tokyo choose to import. Look for the choices of the otaku, the fanatic of pure information.”

—William Gibson in the introduction to Paul Smith, “You Can Find Inspiration in Everything.” London: Violette Editions, 2002.

Blue Moon Human

If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, where are you going to find time to do it again?

Or, you could be complacent. Mediocre effort. Mediocre results. Mediocre life.

We all start out wanting to excel, to be good and do it right. When does the change creep in on us, the metamorphosis that turns us into the mangy werewolf only made human by a blue moon?