Specialist Versus Generalist: Who Wins?

An essay about the potential benefits of being a generalist rather than specialist in life and sports.

By on May 31, 2019 | Comments

AJW's TaproomIn nearly three decades in education and athletics, I have engaged in an annual debate with students and parents about generalization versus specialization. As fall sports get underway, I make my way around to the first few practices to survey the teams and assess how things look for the upcoming season. Invariably, when I make a list in my head of the kids I thought would be joining the soccer/cross-country/volleyball teams, there are a few missing. I ask the coach, “Hey, where’s Billy/Sally?” Their answer comes down to some version of this, “He/she has decided to focus this fall on preparing for basketball/hockey in the winter, so he/she is not playing.” Every time this happens, and trust me, it’s happened dozens of times over my career, a little part of me dies inside. It seems that the time-honored tradition of the three-sport scholastic athlete has fallen by the wayside in this age of focused specialization.

Now, there are several things to blame for this phenomenon, such as for-profit youth sports organizations and the misguided dream of college scholarships at the top of the list. But in my experience this single-minded focus so early in a kid’s life often leads to burnout and frustration for all parties. Thus, it was with great excitement that I devoured David Epstein’s new book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Epstein, the former Sports Illustrated columnist and best-selling author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, paints a picture of success that flies in the face of hyper-specialization and gives hope to those of us who believe in the well-rounded generalist, the Renaissance person, and the three-year letter winner.

Epstein cites a wide range of generalists in business, the arts, and athletics, and his most thoughtful example, in my opinion, is his discussion of the great Swiss tennis player Roger Federer who dabbled in a wide range of sports–skiing, soccer, and basketball–before finding his calling in tennis. Epstein notes that Federer was able to master his craft because and not in spite of his generalist approach. His participation in other sports gave him the tools and the experiences he needed to excel in the mentally and physically grueling environment of competitive tennis at the highest level.

Obviously, Epstein’s thesis got me thinking of the role of the generalist in ultrarunning. While many, myself included, have written about the single-minded focus and discipline necessary for success in long-distance running, perhaps a more generalized approach would lead to even greater success? Maybe participation in other sports, not just cross training in the typical skiing/cycling/swimming ways but in true out-of-the-box ways like soccer, basketball, golf, bowling, or chess could help to craft a more well-rounded athlete with the tools to achieve success both physically and mentally in a sport that can be as confounding as it is simple.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week is another fantastic offering from Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware. They recently released their SeaQuench Ale, which is touted as “the most thirst-quenching beer we’ve ever brewed.” And they are right! SeaQuench is a fascinating blend of Kolsch, Gose, and Wheat beer, which is salty, tart, and citrusy. It literally defies description but is really quite good and extraordinarily unique.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Would you consider yourself a specialist or generalist in athletics? If you actively play other sports besides running, what are they and how do you think all of your sports complement each other or you as a person?
  • How about in your chosen profession? Is your profession a field of specialization or generalization?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.