Baby Sports Stars: Can A Toddler Be A Sports Prodigy?

How early can you see extraordinary sports ability? Well, consider that, in Europe, toddlers are being signed to professional contracts as footballers (soccer players). For example, last fall a 20-month-old was scooped up after his father had posted a YouTube video showing his ball handling and kicking skills.

While sports signings have gotten younger and younger over the years, this story is intriguing to say the last because, well, it’s really hard to tell what toddlers are going to be like when they grow up. We could dig up examples of many athletes who showed promise at an early age, or advanced abilities. You can watch a clip of a toddler named Tiger Woods hitting a golf ball on national television when he was not yet three years old. And of course, the discussion doesn’t have to be limited to sports – similar stories could be found about musical prodigies.

We will have to wait more than a decade to find out how these toddlers fare as professional athletes. They may in fact turn out to become professionals and maybe even excel. But before we see a surge of YouTube videos of kids demonstrating their sports skills, let’s keep a few things in mind.

First, it’s really hard to figure out who’s going to be great even when athletes are turning professional at the normative ages. Think about the extraordinary time, effort and expertise that goes into drafting professional football players. Think about the careful decision making that results in a player being selected as a first round draft pick. The assumption would be that they all become stars. In fact, over the last decade or so, only about 30% of all the first round draft picks have been selected as Pro Bowl players.

Check out the list of Heisman Trophy winners (“the most prestigious award in college football”) and see how many have become stars. Think about who’s not on that list, players like Tom Brady. Consider his career trajectory. He was a backup quarterback for his first 2 years in college, and was drafted in the 6th round with the 199th pick. Yes, 198 players were drafted before the player who is frequently called the best football player ever. Have a look at the 6 quarterbacks drafted before Brady and see how their careers compare to his.

The point is that it’s hard for decision makers to look into that crystal ball even when athletes are of age and have gone through all the requisite training before turning professional. There are certainly objective benchmarks that are measured as they do in the NFL scouting combine. Interviewing is done to assess character and motivation. There is no shortage of performance data and video. Yet it’s still a probabilistic process at best.

All of this is offered because many of us want to put our children in a position to excel at earlier and earlier ages. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But the problem becomes when the stakes get raised when kids should just be growing up and learning to love the things that they are doing. Excessive pressure to achieve is not to be confused with support and encouragement to do their best. There’s no need to document this pressure. You can see it at any age. Certainly not all parents, not even the majority of parents. But that feeling is palpable. Kids aren’t just playing a game. They are performing with a lot riding on it, well before an age where that should be a relevant concern. And that fact is kids are most likely to succeed when they invest their time in something that they like and learn to love.

Some “prodigies” do in fact go on to experience great success as professionals. Many don’t. We often hear about the “numerator” in that fraction – the number who achieve that level of success. We don’t typically hear as much about the “denominator” – those individuals plus all those who don’t reach that ultimate level of greatness.

So when you hear about prodigies, or see other kids who look like they are going to be stars, don’t up the pressure on your kid. Make sure they are getting the most out of their experiences – their successes and their failures. Encourage their effort and enthusiasm and determination and their growth. Let them find their passions over time, even if it takes some time. And in that process they will define their own success.

Also check out the following blog posts on “success”:

Success and Character

Authentic Success

The Triple Package

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