Are you better off for having NOT windsurfed from the cradle? Harty champions ‘generalism’.
It’s been a great day and as you finish it off with a flawlessly timed planing carve gybe, a familiarly sarcastic voice whines in you inner ear – “That was pretty good for an old fellah – just imagine how good you’d be if you’d taken it up earlier and really specialised? Ah well, never mind, too late now.” I empathise, and yet recent evidence suggests that the nagging voice is misinformed.
I first set foot on a board aged 21. Up until then I’d trained as a gymnast (until I grew too tall); played 3 months of first division rugby in France (3 months was all it took to discover I wasn’t good enough) and had a go at any sport that caught my eye. I was also in the middle of a 4 year language degree; sorry, this is not supposed to be an ego-caressing exercise … it will be relevant. Then when windsurfing fell into my lap, never have I connected so deeply and obsessively with anything before or since – I’m sure you recognise the condition. Three years later I was competing on the pro circuit.
At 25 I was comparatively ancient compared to my racing peers. Guys such as Ben Oakley, Barrie Edgington, Dave Hackford and Dave Perks, had all taken the sport up in their early teens. My initial and everlasting impression was that they were … better. In course racing they just seemed to smell shifts before they arrived and had instinctively perfect board and sail trim. An elite swimming coach told me quite categorically that you can’t teach that sort of stuff, it’s something you only pick up as a youth when brain and body are sponges for information. And it’s only as you’re growing through adolescence that you’ll develop the specific strength and musculature needed to excel at your chosen sport. In his own sport he said they wouldn’t accept any kids into the elite program over the age of 10. Bad news – my windsurfing goose was cooked. Or was it? Had in some way my generalist early life been an advantage?
Tiger vs Roger
Tiger Woods and Roger Federer have set new standards of excellence within their respective sports of golf and tennis. The Tiger story is well documented. He picked up a golf club aged 7 months in his baby walker, imitated his dad’s swing aged 10 months, was on national television aged 2 and by 21 was the best golfer in the world. His was the story quoted in many books about the need for early specialisation. But Roger Federer’s path was very different. He was a good natural athlete, but early on did the lot – skateboarding, skiing, handball, wrestling, basketball, badminton etc. He didn’t specialise until he was about 12. So the question is, which path is the norm for champions? Well contrary to popular opinion, it’s the Federer path. Research reveals that the majority of elite sporting folk have had what is known as a ‘sampling’ period where they try out a number of sports, during which time they learn a variety of physical skills. They also discover what they really like as well as their physical abilities. They delay specialising and this seems to be a definite advantage in sports which take place in a ‘wicked’ world.
Kind and wicked worlds
‘Kind’ and ‘wicked’ are terms coined by the psychologist Robin Hogarth. Golf is almost unique in that it’s a ‘kind’ learning environment. People take turns, the ball is static, all the patterns repeat, you get immediate feedback from good and bad shots and there are rarely any surprises. Other sports, like tennis, are more dynamic. You need to anticipate the flight of the ball and the position and movements of the opposition. There are very few patterns and in high pressure matches the next step is not always obvious, resulting in the need for a lot of spontaneous decision making. That’s a ‘wicked’ learning environment. Most of the business of living is ‘wicked.’
It’s proven that specialising early is the best way to make immediate gains, but undermines your future development in activities where you need broader skills. There is a famous saying – ‘breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer’ – ‘transfer’ means your ability to apply your skills to unseen situations. You won’t get a more ‘wicked’ learning environment than windsurfing, which even in the most benign conditions demands constant evaluation, anticipation and decision making. No run in or out is the same – never has there been a call for a broader set of skills, which you can gather from many sources.
Looking at some of the greats of our sport, many had ‘sampled’ (and are still sampling) other sports. Jason Polakow was a committed motocross rider as a junior; Anders Bringdal trained as a skier before he discovered windsurfing; Robby Naish was a surfer; Kai Lenny does everything to do with water. And when it comes to designs, so much inspiration, such as in foiling for example, has come from those with experiences outside windsurfing.
If the match fits …
I was talking with a very accomplished windy friend the other day, who although not a pro, has a reputation for practising manically and has reached a very high level. He puts his attitude down to his musical training where he embraced and actually enjoys repetitive practice – focussing on a phrase and drilling it and tweaking it until it’s perfect.
There’s another element afoot here. As the economists say, ‘If the match fits, it looks like grit.’ In other words, if you’re enjoying what you’re doing (i.e. you’ve found your perfect match – windsurfing, guitar, baking … whatever) then what looks like hard work is actually fun. There are many stories of averagely motivated athletes who suddenly become the most committed practisers, simply because they’ve found something they enjoy. You found windsurfing after trying many things, but because you love it, you will practise with an enthusiasm that might have been lacking had you taken it up as a toddler. Well back to my own story, having decided I was rubbish at light wind course racing because I’d taken it up too late, I discovered I was pretty good when it got windy. “How do you hang on?”, asked one of my younger peers, “I don’t know, it feels a bit like a rugby training session …”
Peter Hart – 30th Sept 2019
Lola Hart (aged 12) committed to windsurfing (having already tried football, ballet, surfing, tennis …). Photo Hart Photography.