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Should your child pursue a career in sports? #61

Quote of the Week

“Athletes in the Great Britain cycling Olympic team who were identified using physiological measures needed nearly four years fewer to reach elite level than athletes selected due to their performance results. To put it bluntly… while practice is important for fine-tuning existing skills, no coaching or instructional method will compensate for a lack of talent.” – Understanding expertise: A multidisciplinary approach by Fernand Gobet, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the London School of Economics.

Hi, this is the GenWise team– we bring out this newsletter to help parents and educators to complement the work of formal schools and associated systems. We can help our children thrive in these complex times only by exchanging ideas and insights and working together. We are also a founder-member of the Gifted India Network– if you are interested in issues related to gifted education and talent development, an easy way to keep updated about talks, programs and resources is to join the Gifted India Network telegram channel (

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Should your child pursue a career in sports?

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Should your child pursue a career in sports?

In this post, we share GenWise mentor, Dr. Bhooshan Shukla’s twitter thread on this topic. Sport is good for everyone, irrespective of one’s ability. Beyond the physical, mental and social benefits, the psychosocial skills that top sports requires make for high achievement in any field (see this past edition of our newsletter for more about this). But when sports is chosen as a career, a rational reality check is needed early in life.

Dr. Bhooshan Shukla’s thread

I often hear parents saying – we have told him/her that if you are not great in studies, it is okay. We can make you a sportsman/businessman! My heart sinks when I hear this. Let’s talk about the “sportsman” part of this.

As a child, if you want to take up any sports as a serious persuit in life, you aim for the international stage- being in top 5/10 in the world, Olympic medal, representing India at international level, etc. This would be a reasonable goal for a child (less than 10 yrs). 

Unless you have that kind of ambition / desire / 🔥 in you, professional sports is not really your thing. 

One important thing that parents forget to check altogether is innate talent and level of achieved proficiency. By the time child is 12-13-14 parents need to take a serious check on the sports career path. 

A child that plays 2 hours of football in housing complex with neighbours and spends 6 hours watching you tube videos about football is in trouble if they are already 13-14 yr old. 

Fact – combined chances of representing India in any one of – cricket, badminton, TT, tennis, chess, swimming, wrestling, etc. are actually less than getting CS seat at IIT Bombay! Yes. That’s the truth. And IIT has yearly guaranteed intake!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not telling you to get your kid out of sports coaching and put them for IIT garbhasanskar batch. I am requesting you to take a reality check at 12-13 yr of age. 

Playing a game seriously is great for now and for all of future. Being a sportsperson has immense benefits in personal, health, social and work domain. But if you are looking at career in sports, then be rational. If you are not in national under 16/18 team… You need to look elsewhere unless your parents are loaded. For people looking at “sports management” career (MBA in Western University in the subject), triple check credentials of your advisors. 

Almost everything related to professional career in areas associated with sports is combination of excellent skills, superlative hardwork, unbounded optimism, lots of luck and smartness to recognise luck as it has a habit of dressing badly. 

Some characteristics that I have seen in kids who went on to play at national level – 1. Focus – they have very little interest other than their sports. 2. Motivated action – they go to extraordinary lengths to train, practice and play 3. Sacrifice – they learn “denial” early on they stick to diet, gruelling physical training regime, exclusion for age appropriate persuits. And don’t grumble about it. 4. Self starters – they need some help from parents but parent don’t need to nag them for behaviour, training and motivation issues. 

5. There is clear ability to feel less negative emotions, obstinate nature about getting back on feet, ability to turn anger and frustration into more hard work. 6. They are always ready to make a deal in favour of their sport. Look for these qualities in your child. 

These are natural givens of a dedicated, competitive and motivated person. Back them with all your might. They will be successful in any area of life that they choose. Sports or otherwise.

Crafting a career strategy by layering your skills

Dr. Bhooshan’s thread points to the fact that there are generic characteristics for success in any career- thus everybody must learn to focus, be disciplined, collaborate etc. At the same time, expertise and high achievement require building on some innate talent (or combination of talents). In other words, having recognized one’s talents, translating that into expertise requires developing these generic psychosocial skills.

As we discussed in the ‘How Recognizing Aptitudes helps us go from Good to Great’ edition of our newsletter, strategy has to be built on strengths, not on overcoming weaknesses or limitations. As Peter Drucker says-

A person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weakness, let alone on something one cannot do at all.”

James Clear explains this well in his blog post ‘The Myth and Magic of Deliberate Practice’. Using the analogy of a game of cards, he explains that you have a better opportunity if you are dealt a better hand, but you also need to play the hand well to win. Clear suggests that one strategy to ‘play your hand well’ is by ‘layering your skills’ and quotes Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, to explain this strategy.

“Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.” -Scott Adams, Creator of Dilbert Comics

Parting note on ‘talent materialism’

While it is important to help your child to attain her/ his potential, Dr. Bhooshan points out the dangers of the obsessive tendency of some parents (especially Indian parents) towards ‘encashing talent’. In the Gifted India Network panel discussion on ‘Identifying and Nurturing Giftedness in the Early Years’ (see the recording of the session here, from 1:11:33), he says-

“(for many Indian parents)… unless a so called talent is directly encashable, it has no value in life. Somebody’s interest in Physics is unlikely to make them the next Bill Gates. He or she may spend their entire life working on equations, figuring out if a certain galaxy is coming closer or going away, which is perfectly fine. But this is intolerable for a lot of parents.. they need to understand that everything is not encashable in life.. in fact most of the things in life are not encashable.”

Famous author, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., talks in an interview about some of his very talented siblings (more talented than him in his opinion) who led very happy lives but were not particular about using their talent to make money. Below is an extract from the interview in which he speaks about his sister.

“VONNEGUT: She wrote wonderfully well. She didn’t read much- but, then again, neither in later years did Henry David Thoreau. My father was the same way: he didn’t read much, but he could write like a dream. Such letters my father and sister wrote! When I compare their prose with mine, I am ashamed. INTERVIEWER: Did your sister try to write for money, too? VONNEGUT: No. She could have been a remarkable sculptor, too. I bawled her out one time for not doing more with the talents she had. She replied that having talent doesn’t carry with it the obligation that something has to be done with it. This was startling news to me. I thought people were supposed to grab their talents and run as far and fast as they could.”-Excerpt From: Vonnegut, Kurt. “Palm Sunday”


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