My six-year-old daughter scored several goals in her last soccer game. She plays on a mixed-gender team and stands out as one of the best athletes in the league. Even at a young age, coaches and parents see something in her that other kids may develop but don’t have yet. She has natural talent and a drive to not only want to win but to play well. On the soccer field she is focused and determined; and she is a great player. Another parent asked if I was going to sign her up for indoor soccer so she could keep improving her skills throughout the winter. If I were only thinking about my daughter’s soccer abilities, it would have been really easy to jump on that idea. More soccer equals better soccer right? And don’t I want her to be better? To be the best? No. At least not now.
I said winter soccer could be a really good great option for my daughter but she also likes basketball. I would have to see what she wanted to do. Between her young age and the fact that I have her siblings’ schedules to juggle, the chances are slim to none that she will do both. I want to offer a balance of extracurricular opportunities as well as unstructured time to my kids. Just because they are great at something doesn’t mean they will be driven to follow that thing forever. Yes, I want my daughter and my other two children to excel in life but narrowing their focus is not the way to do it.
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In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he explains that 10,000 hours of practicing a specific task is the key to success in any field. But what if the key to success is not specifically practicing one thing for 10,000 hours but emerging yourself, specifically our kids, in a lifetime of diverse activities to give life to that one passion that will drive our and their success?
Not that I am comparing my daughter to Rodger Federer or Albert Einstein, but I want to point out that while each were known for their specific talents as a great tennis player and brilliant scientist, they are and were also well-rounded humans with many skills. Both men are considered the best and geniuses at what they became famous for, but Federer was great at many sports and Einstein was a talented musician. Their road to success was based on hard work and dedication, but their variety in interests led them to drill into the thing they poured their time, practice, and determination.
I want all of my kids to benefit from both individual and team sports, because repetition and hyper focus are beneficial but so are invasion sports. I want my kids to get individual feedback while learning patterns from sports like running or tennis or swimming. But I also want them to gather anticipatory and spatial awareness skills from basketball and soccer.
I am fortunate to live in an area with an amazing parks and recreation department that has affordable options to explore more than sports. Theater, arts and crafts, dance and music classes are offered to all genders and ages. My oldest loves sports but is drawn to theater. My middle child, and twin to my daughter who excels in soccer, is athletic but has an ear for music and is a great dancer. And my active soccer star also loves to work with her hands.
A well-rounded kid is a more creative kid and creative minds tend to be better problem-solvers and people who can adapt to many situations and environments. When kids are pushed or allowed to focus on only one skill or interest, they can lose their ability to be original and flexible. My daughter has struggled with both traits.
When my now outgoing soccer player was a toddler and in preschool, she didn’t know how to insert herself into imaginative play or certain social settings. Open-ended play and free time were hard for her. Her emotional intelligence seemed to lag behind her peers, and as a result she would isolate herself or act out to get attention. Her interest in physical activity and sports gave her the opportunity to interact with kids in a different way. Not only was she burning off anxious energy, she was learning how to work as a teammate. She was also learning that she was good at basketball, soccer, and baseball. Her friends and coaches took notice too, and I watched my daughter’s confidence grow.
She now carries this confidence off of the field and court and into the classroom and on playdates. And because she is surer of herself she is more willing to engage in imaginative and artistic play. My kid is still a skeptical perfectionist, but she is learning how to work within those characteristics and not against them.
David Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World speaks to this jack of all trades, master of none mentality in his book and shows that the generalists are the ones who excel in this world. He points to musicians, athletes, inventors, and artists. And in an interview with Fatherly he talks about parents’ fears of their kids getting behind their classmates and not making the A team or the grades to get into a specific college. Because of this we push our kids to stand out and to be the best. But that doesn’t leave room for lateral change or resiliency in failure. Standing out often means being able to consistently stand in many roles. Epstein says, “Be more focused on helping [kids] find match-quality than picking some skill and hoping it’s a fit and having them drill into that.”
We can still, and I think should, push our kids to succeed in sports, music, or academics. But success isn’t about being the best. It’s about being open to try new things and learn new skills that will feed into our child’s best life.
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