Nature vs. Nurture

Practice Makes Perfect (Or How to Raise a Sports Genius)

March 23, 2010

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Practice Makes Perfect (Or How to Raise a Sports Genius)

In South-Central Los Angeles in 1940, a Mexican immigrant gave her son a 51-cent tennis racket for his 12th birthday. After wandering over to the park and watching how the sport was played, young Pancho Gonzales ventured off on a titanic career that—despite never taking a lesson and wasting a year in Juvenile Hall for burglary—would make him perhaps the most famous American tennis player of the 1950s and 1960s.

In 21st Century America, though, it’s almost unimaginable that a poor Mexican-American kid with vast natural talent like Gonzales could succeed in tennis. (In fact, out of 50 million Hispanics, there are no Spanish-surnamed touring pros in the U.S.) A Gonzales couldn’t get that first foot on the ladder because so much of the competition is well-schooled from as young as age eight at full-time tennis boarding schools, such as the roughly $50,000 per year Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.

Similarly, it now seems implausible that Mexican-American golfer Lee Trevino, who dropped out of school to caddy at age 14, was the imposing Jack Nicklaus’s most successful rival from 1968 until Trevino was struck by lightning in 1975. Rags to riches were once common in golf, but the game today is populated by country club kids.

“Childhood specialization and costly training work well enough that there are parental investment arms race on-going in most popular careers in America.”


Why the decline in Cinderella stories? A widely-praised new book by David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong attempts to “debunk the long-standing notion of genetic ‘giftedness.’” Instead, it manages to unconsciously exemplify how political correctness paradoxically rationalizes the growing elitism and dynasticism in American life.

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One hero of The Genius in All of Us is Mozart. Not Wolfgang Amadeus, but Leopold, the composer’s father, who chose to “shift his ambitions away from his own unsatisfying career and onto his children.” Leopold made sure little Wolfie “had an entire family driving him to excel with a powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice.”

The Genius in All of Us serves as a quasi-scientific pep talk for upper-middle class stage moms and sideline dads. Even the most ambitious modern parents sometimes doubt whether their precious progeny have what it takes genetically. Shenk reassures them, however, that new discoveries have disproved all that Bell Curve stuff. What matters instead is implacable willpower.

Besides, Shenk implies, you are not only pestering your kid so he can get a college scholarship, you are simultaneously fighting racism, genetic determinism, and eugenics! Heck, you’re being Green: “… human talent and intelligence are not permanently in short supply like fossil fuel, but potentially plentiful like wind power.”

Shenk endorses a rule of thumb that has become popular among political pundits such as David Brooks and motivational speakers such as Malcolm Gladwell: innate talent matters far less than putting in 10,000 hours of practice.

Indeed, in one sense, the 10,000-hour idea is empirically reasonable. In most highly competitive, highly compensated fields, vanishingly few make it to the top with less than the equivalent of five solid years learning their crafts.

Shenk admits that just because everybody who is a winner puts in 10,000 hours doesn’t mean everybody who puts in 10,000 hours will be a winner: see, your kid also has to practice the right way, making “continual skill improvement.”

That is a wonderfully unfalsifiable notion.

Still, childhood specialization and costly training work well enough that there are parental investment arms race on-going in most popular careers in America. Among the losers are Mexican-Americans, who are more likely to respond to prosperity by having another baby instead of investing more in current children.

Baseball, long envisioned as the most democratic of American games, is increasingly dominated—among American-born players—by the sons of affluent white two-parent families who paid for them to play on “travel teams.”

For example, an ESPN Rise profile of a high school ballplayer named Austin Wilson, a 6’-4” 225 pound black outfielder, notes, “Compared to that of many top baseball prospects today, Wilson’s baseball education has been downright old-fashioned. He never played 100 games a year as a 10-year old, jetting across the country with some high-priced travel team.”

Even so, Wilson’s parents are both Harvard MBAs.

African-Americans less comfortable with white frequent-flier culture than Harvard MBAs tend to avoid baseball. In contrast, black youths dominate the top AAU basketball travel teams (which are often financed in murky ways by agents and boosters). In turn, white families wary of exposing their children to black culture increasingly steer even their tallest sons away from basketball.

Although black players from the Caribbean have been flooding into baseball, African-Americans have largely dropped the game. Conversely, even though foreign-born white basketball players, such as MVPs Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, have been flowing into the NBA, only one American-born white, Chris Kaman, has even made the All-Star game in the last half decade.

Thus, early specialization helps contribute to racial segregation.

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