Specialists and generalists: achieve goals through focus?


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Text comes from: Die Sigergene. Talent, Übung und die Wahrheit über außergewöhnlichen Erfolg (2020) und Es lebe der Generalist!: Warum gerade sie in einer spezialisierten Welt erfolgreicher sind (2020) from David Epstein, published by Münchener Verlagsgruppe (MVG), Reprints by friendly permission of the publisher.
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The greater the competition, the more we would have to specialize in order to be successful - at least that is the popular opinion. But that creates unnecessary pressure and is also wrong.

Specialists and generalists: achieve goals through focus?

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David Epstein is a journalist at ProPublica.

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The pressure to specialize

The pressure for early, laser-like focusing affects all areas of society. It is often said that the more competitive and complicated the world becomes, the more we have to specialize (and the earlier we have to start specializing) in order to assert ourselves successfully in life. The most prominent protagonists of the success are celebrated for their precociousness and child prodigy traits - Mozart on the piano, Mark Zuckerberg on a keyboard of a completely different kind. Whatever the area, always found in response to the ever increasing human knowledge and which ever narrower networked world there is an overemphasis on the focus.

However, this syndrome is most evident in sport and there are many myths. Tiger Woods has become the embodiment of the dogma that success is determined by the number of hours spent on reflective practice and, with it, the idea that young talents should start reflective practice as early as possible.

Are there exceptional talents recognized early on?

His father knew that his son was somehow different from other children. At barely six months old, the boy was able to balance on his father's palm as he strolled through the house. When he was seven months old his father gave him a putter to play with and the boy dragged him around in his little round playpen. When he was ten months old, he climbed off his high chair, scampered toward the golf club that had been sawed off to size, and mimicked his father's golf swing he'd watched in the garage. Because the father couldn't talk to his son yet, he drew pictures to show him how to hold the bat in his hand. "It's very difficult to teach how to putt when a child can't speak," he later commented.

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By the time he was two, an age by which the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests a child should have achieved major physical development milestones such as "kick a ball" and "stand on tiptoe," he was in the national Watching television and hitting a golf ball past the astounded comedian Bob Hope with a golf club that was so big it came up to his shoulder.

In the same year he took part in his first tournament and won the under-ten league. There was no time to waste. When the boy was three, he learned how to hit a ball out of a sand trap, and his father began to wonder about his calling in life. He knew that his son was chosen to play golf and that it was his father's duty to guide and orientate him.

The chosen one? Child prodigies are made

Think about it: if you were absolutely certain of your child's future path, you might also be preparing your three-year-old to properly handle the inevitable and insatiable media attention. He questioned his young son, played the reporter and taught him to give short, concise answers and to limit himself precisely to answering the question. That year he played a 9-hole course in California with 48 strokes, eleven over par.

When he was four, his father dropped him off at the golf course at nine in the morning and picked him up eight hours later, occasionally with the money he'd won on bets against people who doubted his son's exceptional abilities. At eight, the son hit his father for the first time. He didn't mind because he was convinced that his son had a unique talent and that, as a father, he was in a unique position to support him. He was an excellent athlete himself, despite extremely adverse circumstances. In college he had been the only black baseball player in the league. As a sociologist who had fought in the Vietnam War as a member of the Green Berets' elite military unit, he had a good knowledge of human nature and knew what discipline meant. He later instructed budding officers in psychological warfare; he knew he hadn't been a particularly good father to his three children from his first marriage, but now he felt he had been given a second chance to do better with his fourth child. Indeed, everything went according to plan. By the time his son went to Stanford University, he was already famous and his father prophesied a great future for him. His son would gain more influence than Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Buddha, he assured. "He has a bigger forum than any of them," he said. “It is the bridge between east and west. Everything is possible because he is guided by fate. I'm not sure what shape his future will take, but I know he is chosen. "

The main thing is some kind of sport

You probably know the second story, too, although you may not recognize it straight away. His mother was a tennis teacher herself, but she never coached him. When he learned to walk, he kicked balls with his mother. As a boy he played squash with his father on Sundays. He tried skiing, wrestling, swimming and skateboarding. He also played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, badminton over the neighboring fence and soccer at school.

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He later said the many different sports he had practiced in his youth helped him with his athletic development and hand-eye coordination. He didn't care what sport he played as long as a ball was involved. “I was always more interested in a sport when it was involved with a ball,” he recalled. As a child he was very playful. His parents had no particular sporting ambitions for their son. "We had neither a plan A nor a plan B," his mother said later. She and the child's father encouraged him to try many different sports. Sport was essential for him. If he were to sit still for a long time, he would become "unbearable," according to his mother.

Learning has to be fun

She worked as a tennis coach, but she didn't want to work with him. "He would have pissed me off," she said. “He tried every odd stroke; in any case, he never returned the ball in the normal way. It's just not fun for a mother. ”As a reporter for Sports Illustrated noted, his parents were far from demanding and didn't push him, they let him go. As the boy hit puberty he was more inclined to tennis and "if they admonished him at all, it was only to remind him to stop taking tennis so seriously." When he played a match, his mother often went out to talk to friends, and his father gave him only one rule: "Don't cheat." The boy stuck to that and gradually got really good.

As a teenager, he played so well that a local newspaper interviewed him. His mother was dismayed when she got into that Article his answer to the question read what he would buy with his hypothetical first income from tennis: "Mercedes." And she was relieved when the reporter played the tape for her and they realized he had misheard - her son had replied in Swiss German: "More CDs." The boy was undoubtedly ambitious. But when his tennis coaches decided to put him in a group with older players, he asked them to return to his old group because he wanted to stay with his friends. After all, part of the fun was the time they spent together after coaching lessons and their conversations about music, wrestling, and soccer.

When he finally gave up other sports - especially soccer - in order to concentrate fully on tennis, the other young players had long been working with strength trainers, sports psychologists and nutritionists. In the long term, however, that didn't seem to be a handicap for his athletic development. In his mid-thirties, an age when even legendary tennis aces usually retire from active sport, he was still best in the world.

The best athlete in the world

In 2006, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer first met. Both were at the height of their sporting careers. Tiger flew his private jet to see the US Open finals. That made Federer particularly nervous, but he won, for the third time in a row. Woods met him in the locker room to toast the victory with champagne. They immediately got in touch. "I've never spoken to someone who could empathize so well with the feeling of being unbeatable," Federer described their encounter later. Not only did they quickly become friends, but they also became the focus of public debate over who is the best athlete in the world.

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However, Federer did not miss the contradiction between himself and Tiger. “His story is completely different from mine,” he told his biographer in 2006. “Even as a child, it was his goal to break the record of major victories. I only dreamed of meeting Boris Becker one day or one day being able to play at Wimbledon. «For a child whose parents were not very interested in his or her athletic development and who initially did not take the sport very seriously, it is very unusual that it became one of the world's most successful athletes.

Targeted promotion or laissez-faire?

Unlike Tiger Woods' case, there were thousands of children who had much better starting conditions than Roger. The incredible upbringing and nurturing Tiger received as a child is the central theme of numerous bestsellers about developing and nurturing excellence, including an educational guide penned by Tiger's father, Earl. Tiger didn't just play golf; he was "reflective practice" - the only method that allowed the now ubiquitous ten thousand hour rule of excellence. This "rule" stands for the idea that the all-important characteristic of competence development, regardless of the respective area, is the number of focused training hours.

According to a study of thirty violinists from which this rule emerged, reflected practice is that learners "receive explicit instructions on the best method", are individually supervised by a teacher or trainer, "immediate informative feedback and information on the results of theirs Receive performance "and" repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks ". A variety of books on how to achieve excellence show that elite athletes spend more time per week on technically sophisticated reflective practice than athletes whose performance plateau has already been reached at a lower level.

Are generalists less successful?

Oncologists no longer specialize in tumors but in a particular form that affects a particular organ, and this trend is increasing every year. The American surgeon Atul Gawande noted that doctors joke about “otologists for the left ear” with the caveat that “we have to be careful what we say. In the end, maybe they really exist «. In the bestseller Bounce, which is based on the ten thousand hour rule, British journalist Matthew Syed argues that the British government is so bad because, unlike Tiger Woods, its members do not specialize in certain subjects. The rotation of ministers between different departments is "no less absurd than if Tiger Woods would switch from golf to baseball, football and hockey one after the other."

However, after decades in the midfield, Great Britain achieved with the help of programs for the sporting development of adult athletes who are initially introduced to various sports and the creation of a pool of athletic late bloomers - so-called slow bakers, as one of the key managers of the program described them to me great success at the recent Summer Olympics. Apparently, the idea of ​​developing athletes into top athletes by starting out as generalists like Roger and first trying out different sports is not that wrong.

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Many top athletes specialize late

Top athletes who are at the peak of their performance spend more time in focused, reflective practice than their near-top athlete colleagues. However, a scientific study of the development path of athletes, from early childhood to peak performance, revealed the following picture:

Later top athletes spent less time in reflective practice when they were younger in the discipline in which they finally achieved top performance; rather, they first went through a "testing phase". At a young age, they practice various sports, usually in an unstructured or poorly structured environment. In doing so, they acquire versatile physical skills that they can rely on later. They also get to know their own skills and inclinations. Only at a later age do they begin to concentrate on one discipline and to intensify technical practice. In the title of a study on individual athletes, "late specialization" was described as the "key to success"; Another study headlined: "How to become a top athlete in team sports: start late, train intensively and be determined."


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