Last October, our youngest son, Lindell, said he wanted to sign up for basketball. Lindell had never played on a basketball team before, but he had spent the previous two summers playing in the street with his older brothers, Ford and Owen, where he learned that he enjoyed shooting hoops.
We were delighted that Lindell wanted to do a winter sport since that had typically been a slow season for him, outside of sledding at the neighborhood hill and family ski trips.
“But am I too late to play basketball?” Lindell asked.
“No, registration goes until November,” I said.
“No, I mean, am I too old to start basketball?”
Lindell was 10 years old when he asked this, so Dustin and I were confused. In what world is a 10 year old “too late” to start anything?
The answer, unfortunately, is our current world of elite sports and travel teams. We adults have known this was coming. There has been endless blog posts and magazine articles written about premature specialization in youth sports. Now, however, that culture has trickled down and become the norm for our children — children who think if you’re not specializing in a sport by second grade, you’re “too late.”
It’s easy to see how we got here with mega-stars like Tiger Woods putting since he was a toddler and Serena Williams playing tennis at 3 years old. But I can’t say that I remember it being this way when I was growing up. Back then, people did a fall sport, a winter sport and a spring sport, and usually, none of them were the same. I honestly don’t have any memory of sports being a huge deal until sixth or seventh grade.
I never tried track and field until I was in junior high school, and I never hit a softball until sixth-grade physical education class. I ended up doing well in track and not so well with everything else. My greatest success came with piano, which I didn’t begin until I was 13 years old. Dustin didn’t play high school baseball until he was in 10th grade. And my brother, Will, didn’t learn to play an instrument until he was in his 30s, and now he’s in a bluegrass band.
“You are never too late to try something new,” Dustin told Lindell. And then, because Dustin is obsessed with sports history, he shared stories of famous athletes who didn’t even get into their sports until relatively later in life.
Tim Duncan played 19 years for the San Antonio Spurs and is considered one of the best forwards of all time. But Duncan was a swimmer until ninth grade, when Hurricane Hugo destroyed his hometown pool, and he switched to basketball.
Lorenzo Cain, centerfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers, only tried baseball his sophomore year in high school after he was cut from the school’s basketball team. Until then, Cain had not even owned a baseball glove.
Larry Walker, who played for the MLB for 17 years, was a rising hockey star until he switched to baseball when he was 16.
Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, who played 18 years in the NBA, had never held a basketball until he was 15.
Antonio Gates, one of the highest scoring tight ends in the NFL, originally wanted to play basketball. He switched to specialize solely in football when he was in college.
MMA star Randy Couture didn’t start fighting until he was 33 years old and Rocky Marciano didn’t become a professional boxer until he was 25.
And Fauja Singh, who has broken many world records for running, didn’t enter his first race until he was 89 years old and he retired from racing at the age of 101.
We signed Lindell up for basketball that night, and he enjoyed his time on the team. He might not be the next Michael Jordan, but he intends to keep playing every winter. Because even though the Lorenzo Cains of the world show us that all-star history makers can come onto the scene late in the game, the number who achieve this level of success is exceedingly small. But that shouldn’t stop everyone else from learning something new — at any age.
In our quest to find the next Tiger Woods or Serena Williams, our society has sadly forgotten that you don’t have to be a superstar to enjoy and benefit from every type of sport. We have made athletics about finding “the best,” and the next generation has responded by not trying anything in which they might not excel.
Dustin’s examples of late-blooming athletes shows us that not everyone who graces the cover of ESPN magazine was recognized as a standout by their kindergarten year. More broadly, however, it shows us that many people don’t find their talent — in sports, music, art, academics — early and without a lot of trial and error.
Lindell loves basketball, baseball, skiing and playing the piano and trumpet. He likes to write stories, make stop-motion movies, build things with a hammer and plant vegetables in the fall. I don’t know where he will ultimately excel and specialize, but I’m excited to watch him figure it out.
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