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.

The Meaning of Sport

“That, I think, is what sport is all about. If you follow a sport it becomes a thread which runs through your life and provides memories and narrative and meaning and context. Sport becomes a kind of companion, part of the richness and texture of lived experience. At the same time, you could argue that sport is the only thing on television that is real. The things you are watching happen are actually happening right now, as you watch. So much modern reality is mediated, packaged, predigested. This is obviously true for all forms of drama, but it is more subtly true of news and current affairs, where the effects can be more pernicious, because we’re seeing an image of the world which makes claim to be the real world. Sport isn’t like that. It is clearly artificial: it happens within a determined frame and a clear set of rules and in that sense is as mediated as human experience can be. But within that frame, when you’re watching live sport, you are watching reality as it really happens.”

—John Lanchester, “Getting Into Esports.” London Review of Books. August 13, 2020.