What an exciting opportunity! When my daughterâ€™s coaches approached my wife and me a few years ago about pursuing an elite track (dd was then Level 7), however, we demurred. Hereâ€™s why:
Although ddâ€™s coaches had trained extremely successful athletes ex-US, we didnâ€™t fully understand how the education of an elite athlete in this country could help my daughter to achieve her long-term goalsâ€”unless she turned out to be a star. I understood that my child would have to either use her gymnastics as a springboard to achieve her long-term goals or achieve those goals despite the long training hours. It happens that my wife used to share a medical suite with another physician who had been one of Americaâ€™s most successful Olympic athletes; I suppose that his educational prospects might, at the least, have been undiminished by the spectacular results of the long hours that he had devoted to training, but my wifeâ€”as a Division 1 athlete but hardly a starâ€”had learned that an extra twenty hours a week could be more fruitfully devoted to independent undergraduate research than to team practice if her goal was a career as a physician/scientist. Thus a clear goal is useful, and a clear head is required to understand how to achieve it, for there are different pathsâ€”but those paths may be influenced by luck (read injury) as well as by tenacity and ability. As thoroughly middle-class and suitably concerned parents, I suppose the question we asked was this: If we choose to allow our dd to devote so much time and effort to gymnastics, what happens if she is merely very goodâ€”and what happens if she is hurtâ€”and how would that affect her long-term prospects?
Along those lines, Iâ€™ve been interested for some years in the study of expert performance by psychologist Anders Ericsson, who suggests that ten thousand hours of dedicated practice is necessary to achieve real expertise in a field. (This doesnâ€™t count the time spect chalking up; instead it counts only those minutes devoted to intense concentration similar to that of a chess grandmaster studying a world championship game or a violinist practicing a very difficult piece; elites clearly have the edge here over other gymnasts, simply because they devote more hours, and presumably more intense minutes, to the sport.) Unfortunately, most of us donâ€™t have much of that time available, and we have to choose how to parcel those minutes out. Some people may choose to devote their available periods of intense concentration to gymnastics, and some of them do very well. We suggested that our daughter should devote those limited hours of intensely-focused efforts towards areas that we feel will have a longer-term benefit. Because we decided to prioritize our childâ€™s education, she will never reach the elite level and, in fact, I doubt that sheâ€™ll ever even get to Nationals by defeating those Level 10 athletes who focus much more sustained attention on gymnastics than we allow her to do, but weâ€™re looking years down the roadâ€”sheâ€™ll be fine. Your daughter will be fine, too, although she may choose a different path.