Stephen Curry walked onto the court for his warmups before Monday night’s Golden State Warriors game, and Luke and Johnny de Grosz were already in their seats, waiting for their favorite NBA player.
Luke is 12, Johnny is 16 and both play basketball for their schools. It’s the sport they like the most, they said, but it’s not the only sport they play. They’re also on the lacrosse, basketball and soccer teams, their father said, as they stared at Curry instead of checking their Snapchats.
“They have enough time when they get older to specialize,” said Kurt de Grosz, an insurance executive. “Why not play as many sports as you can for as long as you can?”
It turns out the player on the court was raised the same way. Curry is one of the world’s best basketball players. And it might be because he grew up playing other sports, too.
Curry is already the most popular NBA player among kids. His approval ratings these days are close to ice cream’s. There was once a time when children wanted to be like Michael Jordan. Now they want to be Curry. But following his example doesn’t mean they have to grow up as the best shooter who ever lived. It may be as simple as dabbling in other sports when they’re still young.
That’s because Curry is also the poster child for a saner approach to youth athletics. In an age of hyper-specialization, Curry has reached the pinnacle of his sport by doing the exact opposite. He played basketball, but he also played some baseball, football, soccer and basically everything else in a sports buffet. What worked for Curry, experts say, could work for everyone.
As sports scientists continue to study how elite athletes develop, many of them have come to the conclusion that early specialization is the wrong approach. In the last five years, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the International Olympic Committee have published research supporting the position that children should sample different sports, rather than picking one too early.
They have found that specializing in one sport at a young age is unnecessary and may even be unhelpful. Early focus on one sport—and only one sport—can increase the risk of overuse injuries and raise the potential for burnout. It also robs impressionable athletes of a diversity of experiences that can benefit them as they develop both as athletes and adults. The final argument against specialization may be the most obvious of them all: It’s not as fun.
“It’s been proven scientifically to be a much better path to success to try lots of different sports,” said NBA executive vice president Kiki Vandeweghe. “I think Steph Curry is a great example of that.”
Curry is only 28 years old, but he grew up in another era. It seems impossible now to play college basketball, for example, without playing basketball all year round. This is also a time when many parents are pushing their kids to rack up hours of intense practice at a young age. It would be more useful, however, if they spent about 20 minutes each day drilling their fundamentals instead of practicing too much, said Florida State psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, whose 1993 study of violin students was eventually the basis for the 10,000-hours theory of success.
“This idea that you have to restrict yourself is a total misrepresentation,” Ericsson said. “The more practice you squeeze in does not necessarily lead to improvements but may, in fact, lead to the acquisition of bad habits.”
By now Curry’s upbringing is common knowledge. Curry’s father, Dell, was a longtime NBA player, and yet Stephen went nearly overlooked as a high-school recruit. What’s less well-known is that basketball wasn’t the only sport Curry played even as he came of age in NBA arenas.
Curry was also a natural at baseball, like Dell, who was such a talented pitcher that he was drafted by Major League Baseball teams out of high school and college. It was on the baseball field, not the basketball court, where Curry was spotted by Davidson coach Bob McKillop, whose son, Brendan, was on a 10-year-old summer team that won North Carolina’s state title with Curry in center field. Curry hung up his cleats not long afterward, but not forever: He was the leadoff hitter and shortstop on his intramural softball team in college.
Basketball, though, was always the sport he enjoyed best. Most NBA players would say that. Some would be lying. But with Curry there is actual proof. In a television interview when he was 14, he was asked a question that’s common among teenagers these days: Why did he stop playing baseball? “I liked it, but I was more interested in basketball,” he said. “I was kind of better at it. And I wanted to practice more on it and try to make it to the pros if I have the chance.”
He didn’t limit himself to basketball, though. Curry earned a high-school letter in track and field, and he’s a scratch golfer to this day. There is mounting evidence that such a catholic approach actually helps elite athletes with pattern recognition and hones their hand-eye coordination in a way that translates to other sports. Warriors coach Steve Kerr and player-development assistant Bruce Fraser call it the “ball-and-stick” theory. It postulates that in any game with a ball or a stick, even one that’s invented on the spot, a person with incredible coordination will be pretty good. Curry, whose superpower is his remarkable hand-eye coordination, may be living proof of the ball-and-stick theory.
The early selection process for youth sports today, especially in big cities, makes no sense to Queen’s University psychologist Jean Cote, who advises children to sample many sports and specialize in several before they invest in one. “We’re wasting a lot of talent by telling kids they’re not good enough because they’re not mature enough,” he said.
Curry, the NBA’s two-time most valuable player, could be a case study. It was only when he reached college that he began concentrating solely on basketball, and Kerr was the Phoenix Suns general manager when he went to a Davidson game in 2007 to scout Curry and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, whom he’s now coaching against in the Western Conference finals. After the game, he bumped into Dell Curry, who introduced Kerr to his wife Sonya. She had one question for her son’s future coach: “Do you think Steph can make it in the NBA?”
Write to Ben Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org