What Makes A Sport Superstar?

by Dan Such
5th Nov 2018

Whether it’s sport, science, politics or anything else, a question many people’s ask is: what makes a superstar? Sitting at home on the sofa or a plastic seat at a stadium, people across the world marvel at the talents and composure of athletes, but what makes them an expert in their sport?

Since completing my cricket coaching qualifications aged 18, I’ve been inspired to create the next batch of future cricketing legends. Experiencing positive influences from a early childhood is undoubtedly important in determining success; whilst a book by Matthew Syed called ‘Bounce’ emphasises the ‘10,000 Hours Rule’. I.e. that a person must spend at least 10,000 hours mastering a skill to justify classifying themselves as an expert. If anyone else has read this book, I’m guessing that the majority had the same reaction as me: HOW and WHEN can I fit in 10,000 hours of practice?

Throughout the book, various case studies are mentioned, explaining how different ‘superstars’ were brought up and developed, however the story of the Hungarian chess player Laszlo Polgar stood out the most. It describes how Polgar and his wife introduced chess to their three daughters at a young age and proceeded to develop their whole lifestyle around the game by making the pieces and the rules of chess seem like toys. When Polgar’s daughters began beating veteran chess players in chess clubs around the country before they reached 10 years old, you can blatantly see the effect this early development had on their lives.

This got me thinking, could this be the reason for so many sports players mastering skills in their respective fields quicker and more efficiently? By examining some of the great sporting icons globally, we can start to see that this early desire to succeed was paramount to their success. Pittsburgh Penguins legend Mario Lemieux is hailed one of the greatest ice hockey players of all time, yet he began playing hockey with kitchen spoons and bottle caps in the family basement before his father created an ice-rink on his front lawn. Wayne Gretzky, aptly nicknamed ‘The Great One’, started skating aged 2 and would spend every hour of free daylight on the ice practicing skating and shooting. Away from ice hockey, Lionel Messi was playing local club football aged 5 and by 11 was playing for Newell’s Old Boys, who went on to lose only 1 match in 4 years. Serena Williams and her sister Venus were playing tennis from age 4; they’d spend hours and hours with their father honing their skills before moving onto tennis academies age 9. Finally, and probably one of the greatest stories told, Tiger Woods was introduced to golf by his father aged 2 and very quickly excelled. By age 3, he shot a round of 48 on a par 3 course, by 8 he was the Junior World Golf Champion (9-10 year old event) and had broken 80 shots for a round.

Together, these stories show just how dramatically early influence and integration into a sport can effect one’s future success, with each player creating a legacy for their field. It’s interesting how something so seemingly simple drove these superstars to new and unbelievable levels in their sports. People focus on training techniques, tactics, nutrition, when perhaps what they should really be focussing on first is the basics. By starting early (and enjoying it), all of these superstars were able to complete a huge proportion of the 10,000 Hour Rule before their introduction to life in education and the real world so that when this time came they were already developing skills to make them even better, rather than setting out to discover their talent.

Even when things go wrong and life overtakes superstars, that desire and expertise developed at infancy is ingrained, re-focusing them to achieve. Take Virat Kohli, one of the greatest cricketers of the modern era. He started playing aged 3 and continued to show a desire for cricket until his father enrolled him at the West Delhi Cricket Academy aged 9. Kohli was rumoured to be India’s next greatest cricketer after Sachin Tendulkar, but life in international sport and the fame and fortune it brings took his eye off the bat and his life outside of cricket took over. Fortunately, this ingrained expertise enabled him to re-focus his life and his cricket to become the fastest cricketer to score 10,000 One Day International runs. I don’t believe that other cricketers, who do not have that same ‘superstar’ desire and expertise, would have been able to do the same.

The Answer:
Introducing junior programmes for children under 9 years old is a huge step forwards. In cricket, the new All-Stars Cricket Programme has already enrolled over 40,000 children aged 5-8, the roots to developing their love and expertise in the sport. Programmes like Rugby Tots, Mini Tennis and Little Kickers are also fun and interactive programmes that encourage children to play and enjoy sport. Ultimately, we just need to get them active and healthy. From a performance perspective, this is the beginning of someone’s journey to become the next Lionel Messi, Mario Lemieux or Serena Williams. If the golden rule of mastery is practicing skill for 10,000 hours, then let's get children with talent started on that path early. From stories and documentaries we know this: superstars start young and are developed throughout their junior sporting careers, whether in the actual playing or simply the introduction to the equipment and rules of the game. This is where coaches need to ensure that they are inspiring all generations to give these junior superstars the best chance to reach for the stars. A coach can train up to 40 children per junior sport programme, but you never know, you may be giving that one child the foundations they need to become sports’ next greatest superstar! 

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