Specialist Versus Generalist: Who Wins?

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?

There are 17 comments

  1. pete

    I suppose the biggest benefit of a generalist approach is that there are other aspects/or avenues to pursue or focus on following failure (injury or other) in one chosen sport. Meaning you don’t have to sulk on the bench if running needs to be sidelined, because you can pursue skills in your other sports, as opposed to biding your time or making do with a supporting activity (cross-training) until you can return to your primary (read only) calling.

    Hope that makes sense :)

  2. Scott Baldwin

    Haven’t yet read Range (it’s on my bedside table to read after I finish The Passion Paradox).

    In athletics I’m a generalist because I don’t have the time nor money to specialize, I enjoy the variety and learnings I get from doing different things, and I, like the tennis example, often find things or patterns in one discipline that I can apply to others. I see generalists as gatherers and synthesizers.

    That said there’s also value in T-shaped people — those capable of many things but with an expertise in at least one thing. You could say that it why I’m probably mostly an ultramarathon runner these days, but I still do shorter races, faster varied workouts, and road/track running.

    My field of Product Management is filled with both generalists and specialists, but others have found that my ability to pull from “various tools in my tool belt” is a huge advantage. But the T-shaped product manager is more valuable to many.

  3. John Vanderpot

    As someone who also spends a lot of time with young people, I am increasingly appalled by the commitment and resources put into a single pursuit — they’re kids! And yes, it almost never ends well, the “dream” a long, long way from anything realistic…when meanwhile, it seems like an afternoon of chess can sometimes benefit the aging ultrarunner more than grinding out some more miles on the wrong day?

    I’ll keep an eye out for the book, sure did like his first one!

  4. GR

    It depends on aspirations. In a family of highly successful NCAA Division I runners, general team sports were played up until high school (basketball, football, soccer, volleyball, baseball) and then there came the specialization with running. But even within high school and collegiate running there are two distinct seasons that still lead to generalization and variety – cross country (trail running) in the fall and track in the spring. So in one season you focused on strength, effort-based training, higher volume, varied terrain, and on the the backside of the season on focused purely on speed, sharpening, tactics, and freshness.

    I think in the world of MUT, we see some highly successful athletes that spend half the season running (Kilian, Remi) and the other half involved in skiing-related activities.

    I think in skill sports (Tennis – Williams Sisters / Golf – Tiger Woods / Soccer – Messi/Ronaldo) you have the outlier phenomena that can lead to all-time greats, but the science is pretty solid on participating in a variety of sports leads to great success in a specialized sport.

  5. Todd

    I grew up play soccer, basketball, baseball, football,…I was up for anything that just involved being active. I have continued playing soccer into my adult years. Recently I wonder if playing all these sports–soccer in particular–helped with technical downhill running. I am just an average trail runner, but I love running hard and fast on downhills and it comes easy to me. Soccer involves a lot of coordinated quick foot and leg movements, much akin in my opinion to running technical downhills.

    An interesting aside: is I was in the prime of my soccer playing years while in college, but I was not a runner then. But where did I go to college? Ashland, Oregon. And I was there when Ashland was the place to be for ultrarunning.

  6. Tim I.

    One of my favorite runners compliments (generalizes?) his training with, luge, croquet, speed golf and beer pong!

  7. Paddy O'Leary

    Excited to read Epstein’s book. Cheers for the tip, AJW.

    Playing Gaelic football and hurling, riding horses and running a bit in my childhood years, and then lacrosse in college, I have such an appreciation for the variety and freshness I took into my true running years in my mid-20s. It was refreshing to see the amount of people who transferred across from team sports into ultrarunning, and have had lots of success in their new sport.

    When I coached a bit of lacrosse in my first few years in California, it was a relief to see that some parents allowed their kids to choose and play multiple sports throughout the season, and enjoy it. Unfortunately, we were still seeing parents so focused on single sport and building towards a college scholarship even as early as 5th grade. Madness.

  8. Coach MK

    Is it single-minded focus, though? Sports are decreasingly run through schools anymore as budgets are slashed, so it’s not the same as my high school years. Sure, a lot of specialization is happening but I’m not sure we are really evaluating the decision matrix fairly or representing options completely. Maybe I feel this more as a mother because people try to explain things to me without asking how our family arrived at these conclusions, but there are a lot of assumptions in these conversations.

    I wish sports was like it was when I was in high school so my kids could do as many as they want Year-round. I’m from rural TN and sports were lifelines for the non-farm kids. I live in a big city now and make roughly 12 times what my parents earned when I was growing up, yet i can’t afford for my kids to join the local teams (which points back to what you said about the rise of for-profit sports, but our local elementary school doesn’t offer sports so the options suck). If asked I’d probably say ‘we are focusing on Shiloh’s soccer” as a polite way of sidestepping the money conversation. Who wants to hear, “DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS SH*T COSTS MONEY DOES NOT GROW ON TREES!!! AND A PARENT IS REQUIRED TO ATTEND EVERY PRACTICE NOWADAYS DID YOU KNOW THAT?? AND THEY PRACTICE 3DAYS PER WEEK AT 7PM AND I WORK AND MY HUSBAND WORKS AND HAVE 3 OTHER KIDS WHY THE EFF WOULD WE ADD MORE TO THIS SCHEDULE????? WE ARE OVERSTRAINED AND OVERSCHEDULED WITH JUST ONE SPORT MY EIGHT YEAR OLD. PLAYS. ONE. SPORT.”

    Just saying…it’s not always the parents. Sports have changed. One sport is a huge time and money suck, to the point that I am not allowing my 4 kids to do more than one, selected from a very short list. And we are definitely affluent, think of all the wasted potential and opportunities lost for families less affluent than my own.

  9. Sabrina Little

    This reminds me of a great line in The Great Gatsby: “I was rather literary in college—one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the ‘Yale News.’—and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the ‘well-rounded man.'”

    “the most limited of all specialists, the ‘well-rounded man.’…” That always stuck with me. Great writing, AJW!

  10. Chris

    I grew up skateboarding and backyard snowboarding, and playing street ball games with my friends and running around the woods building forts and camping out. I began to run in high school at night after my homework was done, as a way to exercise and disappear from my normal routine for a moment. In trail running I still have the skateboarder’s eye for terrain and rhythm and in trail racing I still have the team spirit of cooperation and competition I learned playing wiffleball and basketball in the neighborhood street all summer as kid. I look at my newborn son and I know that my wife and I will encourage him to move his body through the world by his own power in as many ways as possible, alone, and with others. Team sports are a wonderful way to do this, as are the endless fun and free activities that the imagination and resourcefullness of childhood bring. Hooray for the generalists, thanks AJW!

  11. AT

    Running was always in some way in the mix for me, I didn’t realize it though. It was more unstructured than a concentrated effort. I ran for my MS/HS, and ran a variety of events, but honestly, it was more of a “thing to do,” than having any aspirations with the sport. Hindsight now in my 30’s, basketball, running hurdles and the 400m relay helped fine tune coordination, running mechanics and overall athletisicm. Football built a baseline of full body strength in the weight room with running and agility drills. I take all those learned skills and apply them to running as my favorite pursuit these days. Still touching base with those other skills on a regular basis, but growing up a generalist for me, helped tremendously in the long haul.

  12. Trevor

    In the world of ultrarunning athletes, I think its worth noting the different styles of multi-sport built toward more performance: trailrunning/cross country ski/cycling/swimming , vs. seeing some runners who embrace trailrunning/rock climbing/mountaineering etc every activity is a way to get closer to the mountains, performance be damned.

    I came to ultrarunning from the world of hiking, simply wanting to ‘hike faster’. People who come out of track/marathon world have a different mentality. Just different paradigms but its worth it for people to stop and maybe reflect holistically on the activities they do and where the drive is coming from. My biggest epiphany with all this this past year was when I realized I did not want to run around a 1 mile course for 24 hours (or some such) — I want to be in the mountains (or desert/wilderness/coastal chaparral etc). Whether I’m bouldering or running a 100 is actually moot in the scheme of things.

    Lately I have started ‘re-learning’ rock climbing as a way to force a reckoning with real adventure running, mountaineering, and coming up against real limits of my physicality and psyche (just like in ultrarunning). I just have to re-build all my lost upper body strength!

  13. Tyler Baxley

    Stellar Article! Having spent the last couple of years in graduate school studying Sport Psychology, this very topic resurfaced time and time again. I was lucky enough to study under Dr. Wade Gilbert, who is a coaching scientist and did his post-doc at UCLA (spent time w/ Wooden). For any coaches out there, I’d recommend his book “Coaching Better Every Season”. It merges research w/ applicability – very practical! Thanks for shedding light on what I would consider a critical topic (as it pertains to overall youth development)! Also, this might be of interest: https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/fear-greed-broken-dreams-how-early-sports-specialization-is-eroding-youth-sports

  14. DRB

    Dr. Tommy John Jr. and his dad (of whom the famed “Tommy John Surgery is named) are outspoken advocates of the position that you are advocating, Andy. I think that alone speaks volumes. My son started in (virtually year-round) travel baseball as a 10 year old. Fortunately we saw it for what it was and stopped his participation in it early on, but most of the kids who continued on in the program had suffered career-ending injuries by the time they were in high school. It is sad and unnecessary. Excellent article about an important topic.

  15. Wayne Chan

    I think you already have great examples in ultra running. You have Kilian Jornet who grew up as a mountain athlete and still continues to do skimo. You have Devon Yanko who grew up playing basketball. The last one off the top of my head is Dylan Bowman who played collegiate lacrosse.

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