How to Nurture Special Skills and Gifts in Young People

On Monday, March 26, 2012, the United States soccer team failed to win a qualifying game against El Salvador and, as a result, will not be able to participate in the 2012 Olympic Games.

On Tuesday, March 28, 2012, on a National Public Radio program, there was a lengthy set of interviews with different U.S. soccer experts.  The general conclusion all of them reached is that the U.S. lags behind other countries because it does not have a sufficiently robust program for identifying great future soccer players early enough and for developing their skills in the most intensive training and competition environment.

This story was most interesting because it compares and contrasts with stories from other sports that grabbed my attention when we decided to develop and film From the Rough.  Those countries that decide to focus on a sport or competitive activity to excel in international competition tend to do far better than those which simply use the talented participants that decide they are interested in competing and make the effort to excel on their own.

This plays out in many sports and games.  The Dominican Republic has a disproportionate number of professional baseball players on Major League teams because it has some of the best baseball academies in the world and it identifies the top talent very early.  Canada has done the same with respect to ice hockey for decades.  Russia has always excelled in chess because it decided decades ago to identify great talent and nurture that talent.

The United States has not made a decision that its government should get involved in early talent identification, but the commercial and business opportunities are so lucrative in football and men’s basketball that major corporate sponsors are willing to pay for the early talent development teams and leagues that give the U.S. the ability to excel in global competition.  It is no coincidence that football and basketball are the only consistently profitable sports for high school and college school athletic programs and that scholastic athletes are often exploited for the commercial benefit of the colleges and universities.  The great athletes who compete in the Final Four in basketball or in the BCS championship bowl games in football generate huge revenues for their school athletic programs, but are not allowed to share in any of that revenue.

The U.S. makes no effort to create training and development opportunities for other sports. In golf, other countries create government sponsored or funded academies to develop talent.  In other sports, the U.S. relies heavily on volunteers who develop locally strong programs, on wealthy patrons for talented athletes, or on families with high incomes or wealth.  Not surprisingly, only a small portion of the athletic talent that could be developed for sports that are unprofitable at the collegiate and professional ranks gets developed.  We make potentially great athletes and their families work very hard to raise the money to develop their gifts.

The U.S. lives with the fiction that particularly gifted athletes should get the same education and be part of the same athletic programs as other less gifted students.  We make the assumption that they will better educated and more socially adjusted adults because we have not pulled them out of the school systems and school sports programs.  The unintended consequence of our implicit philosophy is that we get the worst of both worlds: they are often indifferent students who spend a lot of time competing at an inferior level and not developing their special talents.

We need to devise systems in which people who are gifted in sports, games, music, drama, or some other activity can have that gift recognized and nurtured.  We should then build special education programs around the intensive training that gift or talent requires.  My younger son was an exceptionally good chess player, but he was disadvantaged against competitors who attended private schools in New York City.  Those schools provided private tutors and were very flexible in giving the chess players the opportunity to participate in the long international tournaments that took over 10 days at a time during the school year.

My son ultimately decided not to continue to pursue chess after his junior year of high school.  That was a great decision for him because he made it voluntarily for the right reasons: he was not prepared to pay the price required to excel in chess.  We learned recently that a player against whom James frequently competed, Fabiano Caruana, now 19 years old, (whom James was able to beat once and tie once in five matches) is now the sixth ranked chess player in the world.  Why?  It was because his parents moved him to Europe in his early teens and structured his life to enable him to excel in the sport in which he had both passion and skill.  It would not have been the right decision for James, but it was the right decision for Fabiano, because he could develop his gift.

These special early development programs have to be created and managed with great care to avoid situations in which they exist for the economic benefit of sponsors, major league teams, coaches, scouts and agents at the expense of the athletes and their families.  The Dominican Republic has been criticized by many for exploiting children and their families, as was well described in the article in the Americas Quarterly,http://americasquarterly.org/node/2745  which outlined the often fraudulent and exploitative tactics of what Dominicans call buscones, who operate as go-betweens to find boys for various baseball academies.

Canada has done a far better job creating structured and properly regulated programs for gifted ice hockey players, as the development handbook published by Hockey Canada, the governing body for youth amateur hockey development programs indicates, http://www.hockeypei.com/pdf/resources/CDM%20Handbook.pdf.

Why is this an important enough topic for which I should devote a blog?  I remember a profile of Peggy Fleming, one of the greatest Olympic gold medal figure skating gold medalists in history on ESPN.  When Ms. Fleming was interviewed about why she was so successful, she said that everyone has some special skill or gift that can be developed.  She said that she was fortunate enough to recognize her gift at age 3 and that her family and everyone around her helped her nurture and develop that gift from that time forward.

Clearly, not everyone has a set of basic skills that enable them to aspire to be a future Olympic gold medalist or a professional athlete, but everyone has a set of skills and passions that can be discovered and developed.  Contrary to what some may believe, someone who is pursuing his or her passion can also be a better student and can be positioned to succeed in pursuits other than the area of their passion.

My son James became a better student, a better athlete, and a more confident person because of his excellence in chess.  He applied lessons from chess to other parts of his life.  James, my wife and I met with Josh Waitzkin, the boy whose chess life was profiled in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer when James was in high school.  Waitzkin, like James, walked away from chess toward the end of high school. He went on to excel in the martial arts, in software development for chess instruction, but he also wrote a wonderful book called The Art of Learning, in which he discussed how his chess success taught him how to tackle other pursuits.

Some athletes succeed when they complete their athletic careers, but many do not.  Too many successful athletes are exploited while they are earning money and discarded by the parasites who exploit them when their prime earning years are over.  To some degree, this is a result of the fact that these athletes are drafted into professional sports at a young age before they have developed other life skills.  This is why the debate about eligibility for professional sports for high school graduates and for collegiate freshman athletes is such a complex subject.  Clearly, there is greater vulnerability the younger and poorer the athletes are.

However, the real problem is not the age of the athlete, but the robustness of the support system around him or her when he or she starts to earn significant money.  The goal should not be to delay or deny opportunity, but to create a support system for those who cannot afford such a system for themselves.  Professional sports teams have well-developed support resources, as I learned from touring the Tennessee Titans practice facilities years ago, with financial counselors, physicians, and other expert resources made available to athletes.  These same resources should be available to much younger gifted athletes, especially if they cannot afford to acquire them directly.

In many respects, we need to move from mass education and training to more customized and personalized individual development across a wide range of fields.  Everyone needs certain core bodies of knowledge and skill, but how we deliver and imbed it in our young people needs to be more tailored than it is today.