Steve Nash excelled as a youth soccer player before making his mark as an NBA point guard. Uruguay’s World Cup hero, Diego Forlan, was an age-group tennis champion before pursuing a professional football career. Former NBA All-Star Allen Iverson was an all-state option quarterback before leading the NBA in scoring.
Typically, when mentioning the diverse youth sporting pursuits of elite players, parents and coaches suggest that these players are simply exceptional athletes, and therefore their varied pursuits did not prevent eventual elite performance in their chosen sport.
However, what if their varied sports participation actually enhanced their development and helped them become elite performers?
In “Sport-Specific Practice and the Development of Expert Decision-Making in Team Ball Sports” published in JOURNAL OF APPLIED SPORT PSYCHOLOGY, 15: 12-25, 2003, Joseph Baker, Jean Cote and Bruce Abernathy write:
An important finding unique to this study is that the range of accumulated hours reported by the expert athletes was highly variable both within and between sports, suggesting factors additional to the total hours of accumulated sport-specific practice influence expertise attainment in team sports. Related practice, in other non-sport-specific contexts, emerges as a prime candidate as an additional factor critical to the acquisition of decision-making expertise in sport.
Rather than practice only basketball skills, this study found a positive correlation between playing other sports and developing expertise in one’s primary sport. These elite performers fell short of the magic 10,000 hours in their specific sport prior to reaching the elite level; however, they reason that the additional hours of participation in different, but similar sports count toward the magic 10,000 hours because the skills transfer between sports.
Participation in other activities may indeed be a functional element in the development of expert decision-making skill. Exposure to practice in other sport settings, especially in generic aspects of pattern recognition and decision-making, may circumvent the need for, or perhaps partially substitute for, some of the many hours of sport-specific practice needed to become an expert in team ball sports. Perhaps, unlike the domain of music, within which Ericsson et al. (1993) developed their theory of deliberate practice, sport expertise in team sports may be sufficiently multi-faceted to permit beneficial learning to occur through settings other than deliberate, task-specific practice.
While playing soccer will not enhance one’s basketball shooting or dribbling skills, playing soccer, lacrosse or another similar sport will enhance the pattern recognition skills that are vital to one’s tactical success.
In recent years, as youth basketball players play more and more basketball and specialize at earlier ages, many critics note that their decision-making skills and game awareness has decreased. Rather than specializing at earlier ages, these players may need more time plying a variety of sports to increase their exposure to and implicit learning of the basic tactical skills that are similar in many sports.
By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League