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Q&A With David Epstein, Author of RANGE

I recently finished reading RANGE at Marianne Werdel’s suggestion, and found it enlightening, eye-opening, and just plain fascinating!

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Author David Epstein, who also wrote THE SPORT GENE, agreed to do a Q&A with me to delve a little deeper into the concepts he explores in the book. Enjoy!

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ParentingAces: In RANGE, you posit that certain activities require early specialization and focus in order to reach the highest levels while others require later specialization and a more general approach to early development. In the world of Junior Tennis, however, early specialization has become more and more the norm as parents (and coaches) put their children in daily lessons and drills, even pulling them out of traditional school settings so they can train more. What lessons do you hope parents of young athletes will take away from your book?

David Epstein: First, I completely understand why parents do that. The trouble is that the science is pretty clear that the way to develop the best 10-year-old is not the same as the way to develop the best 20-year old. I don’t think we’re going to reverse the trend of escalating early specialization over night, or perhaps at all. So I want to give two thoughts here:

1) I would advise parents to get and read the 1988 paper, “The Socialization of Elite Tennis Players in Sweden: An Analysis of the Players’ Backgrounds and Development.” [You can read the abstract and purchase the entire article here.] No study stands along, but I think this paper is representative of principals that parents should consider. (And a number of the players studied were in the top 15 in the world.) The study used future elites and future lower-level players who were at the same level during their early teens, and only diverged later. Players who plateaued early dropped all sports other than tennis by age 11, whereas the eventual elites continued dabbling in multiple sports until 14. Regarding the future elites, Carlson wrote: “Tennis was just one among other sports. Their participation in tennis proceeded within the frame of an unsophisticated and harmonious club environment without great demands for success.” Additionally, one of the key differences between future elites and lower-level players was how stimulated they were in the training environment (varying up the activities helps), and how “permissive” the environment was—essentially, how rigidly structured. The future elites were in highly stimulating and permissive environments, while the lower-level players were the opposite. Most worrying was that for both sets of players, but especially among lower-level players, girls were put in very “restrictive” and rigid environments, which frequently leads to quitting. As one of the players in the study—who was ranked among the best few players in the world for years—put it: “I was able to start out slow with tennis…I advanced step by step.” There are many paths to the top, of course, but this seems to be the norm.

2) I think there is a middle-ground between excessive specialization and rigidity and complete formless dabbling. And I think Judy Murray—mother to Andy and Jamie—is one of the people who captures this in her camps. (Full disclosure: she has said nice things about my book, but I promise I was saying this about her before that.) She has kids doing things with rackets and balls that seem “tennisy” enough, but often they are, say, playing through tree branches or some such thing. So I think it’s tennisy enough to satisfy parents, while creating a stimulating environment and, importantly, capturing the benefits of variable practice and diverse problem solving, which I discuss more in chapter four of Range. I think this is similar to why almost every iconic soccer player grows up play futsal, which is soccery, but often played on sand one day and cobblestones the next, and replete with variable challenges.

PA: Grit is a popular buzz-word in junior tennis these days. As defined in RANGE, grit is comprised of work ethic and resilience as well as a consistency of interests or direction. Is grit a good predictor of future success as a tennis player? Why or why not?

DE: That’s actually how grit is defined by grit researchers in their studies, I just reiterated it in Range. And to answer that definitively, I’d have to see some research on grit in tennis. So, a couple things: first, Angela Duckworth’s newsletter edition at the end of this May was titled “Summer is For Sampling.” She notes that it took her a decade of her adult life to figure out where she could best apply her grit. She continues on to say: “It is neither necessary nor healthy for [kids] to be steered toward one career or another before they are ready to make that decision for themselves. So what does grit look like early in life? A young child who decides today that she wants to become a doctor but thinks tomorrow that she’d rather build houses. A teenager who decides, no, she won’t go out for track this year and instead will see what it’s like to write for the school newspaper.”

Duckworth, of course, is the guru of grit, and I guess parents should take their own conclusions from how they think her words apply to their childrens’ situation. To me, it sounds a lot like the advice of the “Dark Horse Project” researchers I write about, who study how people find work with high “match quality”—the degree of fit between their interests, abilities, and what they do.

Secondly, I think it’s important to keep in mind the effect size of grit in studies. I think the work is both fascinating and valuable, but it’s also worth keeping in perspective. That’s true of all social science, because there is no magic bullet. If you look at Table 3 in “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals,” by Duckworth et al., you can see that grit does explain some of the variance between people in success in things like grade point average in Ivy League schools and performance in the National Spelling Bee finals. If grit explained 100% of variance, that would mean it was the only thing that mattered to differences between people. (It would also mean that there was no randomness, which is never true.) The table shows that grit explains between about one and six percent of the variance, depending on the study. That’s definitely important, but it also means it is a small piece of the overall picture, and we should keep that in mind.

All that said, let’s say you have already somehow selected a group of kids into tennis for whom tennis is the perfect fit for their abilities and interests, and somehow you are psychic so you know that before they even go through puberty. (Since you aren’t psychic, providing the sampling period that I write about is the best way to figure this out.) In that case, if you “restrict the range” of kids, as statisticians would say, to those who are perfect fit, then I expect grit would be very important for tennis progress, because you have essentially taken care of many of the other variables already.

PA: Tennis Parents are oftentimes consumed by giving their young players a leg up in the sport by buying the latest equipment or employing outside specialists to help with things like conditioning and mental toughness. In RANGE, you share the story of Gunpei Yokoi and his work with Nintendo. What lessons can parents and coaches take away from Yokoi’s experience in order to help developing tennis players reach their highest potential?

DE: Interesting question that I have definitely not gotten before! I hadn’t even thought of Yokoi in the context of tennis. To give a quick explanation, Yokoi did not score well on electronics exams in college and so had to settle for a low-tier job as a machine maintenance worker at a playing card company in Kyoto, while the top scorers when to big companies in Tokyo. The playing card company was in trouble, and needed to diversify. Yokoi realized he wasn’t equipped to work on the cutting edge, but that so much old information was available and overlooked that rather than creating some brand new technology, he could combine older technologies in ways that specialists were missing because their focus was too narrow. He called this philosophy, “lateral thinking with withered technology.” By withered technology he meant tech that was already well understood, and often cheap, and lateral thinking meant taking something that was ordinary in one area and applying it in another where it’s extraordinary. Long story short, he did that repeatedly and helped turn Nintendo from a small, struggling playing card company into a titan of toys and games. His magnum opus was the Gameboy, the bestselling video game console of the 20th century. When I think about this in the context of my own athletic life—I played football, basketball, baseball, and ran track at various times in high school, and went on to run Division I track in college—it reminds me of the fact that everyone is clambering for some fancy new training method or gizmo, when the basics of training are generally well understood and often overlooked. And most of the best training principles aren’t super fancy. I think there’s a danger in chasing the cutting edge when it means we’re moving to try to make a difference at the margins—with often unproven methods—while losing sight of the basic principals that can make much more than a marginal difference. The phase where you’re looking for the 0.5% advantage makes sense at the professional level, but I think it’s a distraction at lower levels. Not to mention, often a source of unneeded stress. If Yokoi had been a coach, I think his advice would have been that quality implementation of the older, tried and true and well-understood principals of training is a far bigger source of advantage than chasing marginal benefit at the ill-understood cutting edge.

PA: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Australian professional tennis player, Ashleigh Barty, but she embodies several of the tenets contained in RANGE. After devoting her early years to tennis and having some success as a pro, she left the sport at age 18 to pursue a career in professional cricket where she also found success. Two years later, she returned to tennis and is now the #1 ranked player in the women’s game worldwide. How can we help parents and coaches understand that taking a break from the sport might be the best thing that can happen to a young player? How can parents and coaches use Ash’s story to help prevent burnout in junior tennis players?

DE: I wasn’t familiar with Barty’s story until someone who read the book sent me a message about it. Very cool! And there are, of course, as many different paths to the top as there are people to travel them. But I think we too often consider stories like Barty’s to be “in spite of” success stories, when we should think of them more as “because of” success stories. Although, given that there are so many forces working against allowing someone to do this—even if it is useful—it’s still “in spite of” in that sense. In any case, I think the way you put it is part of the answer—parents and coaches should use Barty’s story. Period. That might be a hard sell, because it’s counterintuitive. And in the U.S., where the development pipeline is pretty Balkanized, often the only incentive for the coach of eight-year-olds is to specialize eight-year-olds. And, as Upton Sinclair put it, it’s tough to get someone to understand something when their salary depends upon not understanding it. So the matter of incentives, as always, is important. But Barty’s story should at the very least convince everyone that this sort of thing is possible—at least—even though our collective intuition seems to be that it couldn’t possibly work, never mind create the very best player in the world. And yet it did! But this is what I write about in the introduction, we usually don’t hear these stories. We hear the more 10,000-hours-centric stories, even though they are the exception, not the norm. Maybe it’s useful for parents and coaches to keep in mind the classic research finding that breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Transfer means the ability to take your skills and apply them to problems you haven’t quite seen before. And as the level of the game goes up, that’s what you have to do. (I recommend reading Si Ramo’s Extraordinary Tennis for the Ordinary Player. Ramo is best known as the “father of the intercontinental ballistic missile,” but he was quite the polymath. This book shows how very fundamentally different the sub-elite and elite game really is.) So if you want to improve the ability to transfer skills, you need broad challenges early in development. I would say Barty embodied that, and luckily wasn’t written off because she’d “fall behind.” That’s the real tricky issue here. Doing what is best for longterm development sometimes entails forgoing a short term head start, whether that’s in sports or learning math. But that conundrum is also why I thought this would be an interesting and hopefully worthwhile topic to write about.

About David Epstein: 

(Reprinted from his website)

David Epstein is the author of the #1 New York Times best seller Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World , and of the New York Times best seller The Sports Gene, which has been translated in 18 languages. (To his surprise, it was purchased not only by his sister but also by President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.)

He was previously a science and investigative reporter at ProPublica, and prior to that a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, where he co-authored the story that revealed Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez had used steroids. His writing has been honored by an array of organizations, from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, to the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Center on Disability and Journalism, and has been included in the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology. His story “Following the Trail of Broken Hearts,” on sudden cardiac death in athletes, was chosen as one of the top 100 stories of the last 100 years by Columbia Journalism alumni.

David has given talks about performance science and the uses (and misuses) of data on five continents; his TED Talk has been viewed 7 million times, and was shared by Bill Gates. Three of his stories have been optioned for films: a Sports Illustrated story on the only living Olympian to have survived a concentration camp; an Atlantic/ProPublica piece detailing the DEA’s fraught pursuit of Chapo Guzman’s rivals; and a 2016 “This American Life” episode he wrote and narrated about a woman with two rare diseases who shares a mutant gene with an Olympic medalist.

David has master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism, and is reasonably sure he’s the only person to have co-authored a paper in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research while a writer at Sports Illustrated. (Like many of the characters in Range, he has benefitted from a winding career.) He has worked as an ecology researcher in the Arctic, studied geology and astronomy while residing in the Sonoran Desert, and blithely signed up to work on the D-deck of a seismic research vessel shortly after it had been attacked by pirates.

David enjoys volunteering with the Pat Tillman Foundation and Classroom Champions. An avid runner, he was a Columbia University record holder and twice NCAA All-East as an 800-meter runner.

For more information on RANGE and to purchase it through our Amazon Shop, click here. A huge thank-you to David for answering our questions!

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