Can You Buy Talent and Athletic Success?


Paying to play is fast becoming the new norm in youth sports, especially as youth athletes move into more competitive age brackets and join high-powered travel or club teams. According to ESPN, one hockey family has spent $48,850 on their teenage daughter’s hockey career so far. We as sports parents all want the best for our young players and we want them to succeed in their athletic careers, however long or short that may be, but can you actually buy sports talent?

For better or worse, plenty of sports parents are investing thousands of dollars into sports Can You Buy Talent and Athletic Success?camps and clinics or one-on-one coaching sessions for their youth athletes, certain that this is the key to turning their child into a college (or even pro) athlete. And while the many argue that early specialization can lead to burnout or overuse injuries, plenty of sports parents feel that turning their kids into athletic “experts” is the only way to go. And the best way to do that is get as many hours on the field/court/rink as possible as quickly as possible.

They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to make someone an “expert.” However, there are some natural skills that a player cannot learn, no matter how much money they spend on training or how many hours they put in.

A recent study of baseball players found that the average player had 20/13 vision as opposed to normal 20/20 vision. What this means is that they can see at 20 feet what a normal person would need to be at 13 feet to see clearly. That gives a hitter an enormous advantage when it comes to striking a ball being thrown towards them at 95mph from 60 feet.

Young baseball players with slightly better eyesight might be better hitters right out of the gate simply because they can see the ball clearer. When you add 10,000 hours of practice on top of a slight natural talent you might just end up an MLB superstar. The same is true for top tennis players, where speed and eyesight is also critical to success. “…science suggests that players like Federer not only rely on their superior perceptual skills, but also have created an even faster internal simulation of a ball’s flight that can help position them for a winning return.” Natural talent, plus years of practice to hone one’s skills, help make the best athletes in the world.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he argues that these slight natural advantages, like being just a little bigger or a little faster when a player is younger, compounds into huge advantages down the road. For instance, an 8 year old football player that is a little bit faster than his teammates is going to come across as a superstar on the field. He might get “drafted” onto a more competitive youth football squad and his natural talents will be further developed by better coaches, more practice time, and a more competitive environment that pushes him to excel. His teammates may not have been any less talented than him at 8 years old, but since they didn’t get picked to be on the “fast track” the discrepancies only grow over time.

If your child just doesn’t like sports, no amount of one-on-one coaching is going to turn them into a superstar athlete because those 10,000 hours have to actually count for something. After all, 10,000 hours of walking is not going to help you win the next Boston Marathon, right? But could sports parents turn their naturally gifted child into the next Derek Jeter if they were willing to pay for that “fast track?” Maybe.

What do you think? Can you buy athletic success given enough time?