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 quite have yet. She has natural talent and a drive — to not only want to win, but to play well.
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.
Winter soccer could be a really great option for my daughter, but she also likes basketball. I have to see what sport — if any sport — she wants to do this winter. Between her young age and the fact that I also have her siblings’ schedules to juggle, the chances are slim to none that my daughter will play both sports. And more importantly: I want to offer my kids a balance of extracurricular opportunities as well as unstructured time. 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.
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 do want to point out that while each are known for their specific talents (a phenomenal tennis player and brilliant scientist), they are/were also well-rounded humans with many skills. Federer is skilled in many sports and Einstein was a talented musician. Their road to success in their respective fields was based on hard work and dedication, yes — but their variety in interests led them there.
I want all of my kids to benefit from both individual and team sports. I want them to get individual feedback while learning patterns from practices like running or tennis or swimming. But I also want them to gather anticipatory and spatial awareness skills from basketball and soccer. Also, perhaps more importantly: I want them to do non-sports activities, too.
I am fortunate to live in an area with an amazing parks and recreation department that has affordable extracurricular options to explore beyond just sports. Theater, arts and crafts, dance and music classes are offered to all genders and ages. My oldest loves sports but is also drawn to theater. My middle child (the 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 now more sure of herself, she is more willing to engage in imaginative and artistic play. My kid is still a skeptical perfectionist, but she’s learning how to work within those characteristics — 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 truly excel in this world, whether they’re musicians, athletes, inventors, or artists.
In an interview with Fatherly, Epstein talks about parents’ fears of their kids getting behind their classmates — not making the A team or earning the grades to get into a specific college. Because of our own fears, we push our kids to stand out and 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 trying new things and learning new skills that will feed into our child’s best life.