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Want your child to become a professional athlete? Raise him or her in a small town, research suggests

In his Frontal Cortex blog at, science writer Jonah Lehrer discusses possible reasons for why small towns and cities (fewer than 500,000 people) produce a significantly greater percentage of professional athletes than larger cities.

“While approximately 52 percent of the United States population resides in metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 people, such cities only produce 13% of the players in the NHL, 29% of the players in the NBA, 15% of the players in MLB, and 13% of players in the PGA,” Lehrer writes.

The Canadian psychologists who uncovered those statistics offer one explanation:

These small communities may offer more psychosocially supportive environments that are more intimate. In particular, sport programs in small communities may offer more opportunities for relationship development with coaches, parents, and peers, a greater sense of belonging and a better integration of the program within the community.

But Lehrer, citing University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, whose book “Choke” is soon to be published, suggests an additional possibility:

She proposes that an important advantage of small towns is that they’re actually less competitive, thus allowing kids to sample and explore many different sports. … While conventional wisdom assumes that it’s best to focus on a single sport as soon as possible and to compete in the most rigorous arena — this is the essential lesson of Tiger Woods — Beilock argues that that’s probably a mistake, both for psychological and physical reasons.

Psychologically, the kids risk burnout, Beilock says. And, physically, they risk sports-related injuries that may, ironically, end their athletic career.

“This is a nice addendum to the 10,000 hour rule [the idea that people need to spend about 10,000 hours of practice before they become an expert],” writes Lehrer. “While deliberate practice remains absolutely crucial, it’s important to remember that the most important skills we develop at an early age are not domain specific. (In other words, Tiger Woods is not using the same golf swing he relied on as a 5 year old.) Instead, the real importance of early childhood has to do with the development of general cognitive and non-cognitive traits, such as self-control, patience, grit, and the willingness to practice.”

You can read Lehrer’s entire column here.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 09/03/2010 - 09:30 am.

    I like it!! What about Texas or football (and suburbs?).

  2. Submitted by sean mckenna on 09/03/2010 - 09:41 am.

    Children attending smaller schools have more opportunities to actaully “make the team” and play their chosen sport(s). I know plenty of decent athletes who did not make varsity teams (simply because of numbers) when attending high schools of 2,000 students.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/03/2010 - 10:00 am.

    Within a mile radius of where I grew up in Saint Paul, the following athletes emerged:

    1. Dave Winfield
    2. Paul Molitor
    3. Jack Morris
    4. Joe Mauer
    5. Chris Weinke (Heisman Trophy winner)

  4. Submitted by dan buechler on 09/03/2010 - 11:34 am.

    But also in a community. Good post Tester and McKenna. It is interesting to see athletes develop and they don’t necessarily do so at the same rate.

  5. Submitted by Fritz Dahmus on 09/03/2010 - 12:40 pm.

    I don’t consider a town of 500,000 a small town. This study comes up with intuitively correct conclusions…..but based on nothing. Even a high school of 800 kids has a different set of sports opportunities than a high school of 400…..much less a large high school from a “small town” of 500,000.

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