Don't Specialize in a Sport, Specialize in Life

The path to athletic achievement is the same as the one that will elicit results in the classroom, relationships with peers, parents or significant others.

I get it, you want your kid to get a full scholarship to a D1 school and then get drafted by the pros.

Scarcity kicks in and you realize that if your kid is playing a particular sport for six months of the year and other kids are playing for 12, there is no way your kid's development will keep up. You've invested time, energy and money into them being the best player they can be; better specialize ASAP!

Pascal Siakim plays for the NBA's Toronto Raptors but grew up playing soccer. In fact, he played his first organized basketball game only eight years ago. Wait, that means I have been playing basketball longer than Siakim—let's just leave that right there. Beyond my self deprecating humor, the speed of his development as an athlete is simply outstanding.

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I get it, you want your kid to get a full scholarship to a D1 school and then get drafted by the pros.

Scarcity kicks in and you realize that if your kid is playing a particular sport for six months of the year and other kids are playing for 12, there is no way your kid's development will keep up. You've invested time, energy and money into them being the best player they can be; better specialize ASAP!

Pascal Siakim plays for the NBA's Toronto Raptors but grew up playing soccer. In fact, he played his first organized basketball game only eight years ago. Wait, that means I have been playing basketball longer than Siakim—let's just leave that right there. Beyond my self deprecating humor, the speed of his development as an athlete is simply outstanding.

I do understand that Siakim is an extremely special case. That being said, the fluidity of his movement and the fact that he has adapted and enhanced his game each year, shows his ability to learn new skill sets. However, he may not simply be acquiring new skills, but actually transferring deeply imbedded movement skills into a new domain.

Two highly developed abilities that demonstrate his transferable skill set are, his body control (most notably his signature spin move) and finishing with both hands on contested layups—both of which can be directly related to his background as a soccer player. Soccer requires a great deal of body control, as you often need to bend your body around an opposing player to get a touch on the ball. While finishing a contested layup requires as much ambipedal coordination as it does ambidextrous coordination. Both of these skills, which have everything to do with Siakim's success, indicate a direct correlation between his soccer background and unbelievable rise as a star in the NBA.

These are Siakam's stats over his first three years in the NBA:

 

 

The fact that Siakim's soccer skills have transferred to make him a better basketball player, combined with his relative short career from beginner to professional, totally debunks the myth that sport specialization is a crucial ingredient in one's success. Let's delve into what we as a society need to begin to instill in today's youth (and anyone else striving for more in their life).

How athletes can begin to transfer the success they have in their sport, into their life. Whether it is a baby learning to walk or an athlete learning to shoot a free throw, learning a skill follows a very simple feedback loop.

Step 1: Awareness

To make ANY change in your life the first step is always awareness. What am I trying to accomplish? How am I currently progressing toward that goal?

  • Basketball: Based on the internal feedback (I missed all of my 3-point shots last game) and external feedback (the coach told me that he needs me to contribute with some 3-point shooting this season), I know that I need to improve my 3-point shooting.
  • Academics: Based on the internal feedback (I always find math class really challenging) and external feedback (math is consistently the lowest mark on my report card), I know that I need to improve my performance in math class.

Step 2: Develop an Actionable and Time-Oriented Plan

What steps do I need to take to go from what I am trying to accomplish to accomplishing that goal?

  • Basketball: I will put up an extra 100 shots a day before practice for the next month.
  • Academics: I will stay after class and ask for clarification regarding any questions I do not understand for the next entire unit.

Step 3: Implement

Take the actionable steps necessary to accomplish your goal.

  • Basketball: I will put a calendar reminder one hour before practice to ensure that I get the extra 100 shots up for the next month.
  • Academics: I will write out the steps the teacher explained in words that I understand to ensure that I can complete the homework for the next entire unit.

Step 4: Reassess, Re-identify and Repeat

Based on the outcome of your actionable steps, what progress towards achieving your goal did you accomplish?

Identify with ANY of the success (no matter how small) that you achieved toward accomplishing your goal. Feel the success and congratulate yourself for it.

Finally, with a newly developed awareness and activated neural success return to step 1.

  • Basketball: I have improved my 3-point shooting by 5 percent in games over the past month. The improvement in my 3-point shooting is incredible. I feel so much more confident in getting my shot off.
  • Academics: I scored 5 percent higher on my unit test. That is the first time I feel like I truly understood the content. I actually felt confident handing in my test.

From a baby learning to walk to someone learning how to shoot a free throw the steps are the same. What does this have to do with improving society as a whole and empowering youth athletes no matter their socioeconomic status?

The path to athletic achievement is the same as the one that will elicit results in the classroom, relationships with peers, parents or significant others.

The best thing about this process is that you can use it to improve any facet of your life. The better the athlete gets at understanding how systems have played a part in their athletic development, the more they can apply these same systems to other areas of their life.

The power of the mind is often overlooked when it comes to great achievement. More than a systematic approach that will enable success in challenging avenues of life, this process will teach people to fall in love with the journey, celebrate micro goals and continually strive to set and work towards personalized goals.

The structure of the brain actually backs this systematic approach up:

  1. The amygdala creates emotion which evaluates how important the goal is to you.
  2. The frontal lobe does the problem solving which specifically defines the goal.
  3. The amygdala and frontal lobe work together to keep you focused on, and moving toward, situations and behaviors that lead to the achievement of that goal, while simultaneously causing you to ignore and avoid situations and behaviors that don't.

Dopamine, which is known as the 'feel good' chemical released in your brain when we get something that we want. One way to get your brain to release dopamine is by setting and achieving small goals, which is what this whole system is predicated on.

I understand that we will not all get Pascal Siakam results on the court or in the classroom and that improving your 3-point shooting by 5 percent may take an entire year of hard work. Two things that this system will ensure that happens however is more important than the 5 percent and that is one falling in love with the process and beginning to develop your identity around the micro successes and progress that you attain throughout the lifelong journey of learning. Once you realize this, the game is already won.

Photo Credit: Prostock Studio/iStock

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Topics: GOAL SETTING