A Sporting Childhood #2 “Why are they so good at every sport they try?”



There are children who are very skilled at another sport for example cricket, football or rugby then decide to play hockey for the first time and need to learn to use a hockey stick. The children who play cricket have an obvious visual advantage with the finesse of their hands and arms and thus are able to control the stick with ease quicker than the other children. But the children who play football/rugby have an underlying knowledge of the tactics required in sport and ‘translate’ them to hockey e.g. they know that getting the ball wide is a good tactic. I once coached a child who was 14 who had never played hockey in his life but played rugby and cricket for his county after 3 months of being coached to play hockey he was the best player on his team due to the underlying cognitive skills learnt from the other sports.

Many people know a family or individual that seems to be naturally great at every sport they try. A personal example I can relate to is my older sister: at one point she was playing many sports at a high level where Hockey and Tennis were the prime two. Since as long as I can remember when we talk about my sister’s sporting childhood a common phrase is mentioned “She is more talented at sport than her four brothers”. Before I would have likely agreed with this as the evidence was true: She simply played more sports at higher level than her siblings.

The scientific approach

Now if we take a scientific approach to this evidence we can dissect the reasons behind this. If I had to rate the five of us in order of our overall sporting skill (based on level of sport played) from age 12-18 it would go:

  1. Clare (2nd Child)
  2. Me (3rd Child)
  3. Charlie (5th Child)
  4. Andrew (4th Child)
  5. David (1st Child)

Some people say that children get progressively better compared to their siblings acceding by birth order. As an example the youngest child is usually the best at sport as they grow up with older siblings who play sport with them. In my example my eldest sibling is the worst at sport, maybe this is because he had no older siblings to teach him and practice sports skills with.

Now if we rank in order the five of us based on hours of sport per week from 12-18 years old (School/College respectively):

  1. Clare (26 hours / 30 hours)
  2. Me (14 hours / 25 hours)
  3. Charlie (7 hours / 10 hours)
  4. Andrew (4 hours / 1 hour)
  5. David (2 hours / 0 hours)

By looking at the above you can see that there is a perfect correlation between hours played at school and college and the level of sport played. Now there is a two tailed question that can be asked:

Does my sister play lots of sports because she has talent?


Does my sister have talent because she plays lots of sports?

If you asked me these questions when I was younger and looking up to her I would have said it was the 1st question without a doubt but now after learning the science of cognition and skill acquisition I know that the second question is a lot more likely. I do not disagree that people can have natural aspects that make them better than others in sport e.g. Usian Bolt’s long legs or a power lifters short arms and legs which provide more focused power.

What I am saying is that talent in terms of cognitive expertise is learnt and can not be a birth advantage. As usual I like to translate this into a mathematical equation to make it easier to understand (similar to my previous post about luck):

“Skill = Time Practiced x Technique”

Talent = Skill + Overall Cognitive Expertise (O.C.E)

O.C.E = Total Time Practiced From All Skills (Not Just Sports)

Putting this into an example of my sister against myself. Lets say that our technique in a sport we have never played before where our previous skill does not transfer: Archery, is the same = 1/10 :

Skill = Time Practiced (per week) + Technique

Clare: 30 = 30 x 1

Me: 25 = 25 x 1

This is just a number to show an example and cannot be used to accurately compare us but it gives a nice example in order to explain how talent effects skill. Now let’s go back to the child I spoke about at the start who became the best player in the team even though he had only played hockey for 3 months. He played rugby and cricket a total of 12 hours per week, So lets say that the technique from cricket helped him with his cognitive skills whilst learning hockey 4/10 (sometimes known as hand-eye coordination).

Skill = Time Practiced (per week) x Technique

48 = 12 x 4

Comparing this to the archery example it is apparent that this child was better (relative to his age and peers) at hockey at the start than what me and my sister would be at archery.


To answer the question in the title, why are some children good at every sport they try? It can be simply put: They have a strong underlaying “talent” for sport which has to be trained during many hours of playing different sports. As my sister said on the day of posting this: “You get out what you put in”. Tactical knowledge is also very important so I will talk about this in my next blog post.


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