Summer Reading, Continued

It’s hard to believe. August is here.

In the USA, this is prime time for my field of pediatric sports medicine.  Two-a-day practices have started in high school.  Contact in American football practices will soon begin.  This training is all taking place in the heat.  We’ve got a lot of injuries coming our way.

And yet….it is still summer, and that means vacation for a lot of us.

In the last CJSM blog post, I shared with you a book that I would consider a ‘must read’ for anyone in our profession who cares for young athletes or is interested in the mental health of athletes, especially elite ones:  What Made Maddy Run?

In this post, I want to commend to you another read, David Epstein’s new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

Mr. Epstein is likely well known to at least American readers of CJSM.  He was a keynote speaker at the AMSSM annual meeting several years ago, and was a focus of a CJSM blog post published at the time his last book came out (another ‘must read’ for our profession): The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Ability. 

The Epstein book I am currently reading, Range, is a great book for summer travels.  It was a compelling read that I could pick up on a plane, on the beach, or from my nightstand.  Mr. Epstein’s prose flows as he, er, ranges over a variety of topics centered on the theme of generalists vs. specialists.

The book’s most obvious connection to our world is via the increasingly hot topic in sports medicine of sport specialization, most notably early specialization in youth sports, increasingly recognized as a possible contributor to a high incidence of overuse injuries and burnout. Mr. Epstein explodes the modern dominant paradigm of the so-called 10,000 hour rule, making an argument that specialization may be a crucial piece for excelling only in a limited range of sports (e.g. golf, gymnastics).  That youth who start off as generalists go on to  thrive instead in most sports.

He divides the sports world (and the world in general) into ‘kind’ and ‘wicked’ environments.  The kind environment is characterized by the worlds of violin playing, chess, and golf, among other activities.  As I understand it, these are environments where repetition of specific tasks within a controlled framework is highly rewarded.

Most of the world, and most sports, exist, however,  in ‘wicked environments.’

Epstein compares and contrasts Tiger Woods’ excellence in golf with that of Roger Federer’s in tennis.  In the latter sport’s arena (the tennis court) multiple variables (most especially those contingent on the actions of the opponent across the net) dictate a need to respond creatively and immediately, and the player is rewarded in this ‘wicked’ environment for having a broad range of experience.  The former sport’s arena (the golf course) is conversely a ‘kind’ environment.  Having a deep and repetitive experience helps here.

[as an aside, I think a singular example supporting this argument is what we see happen in a golf tournament where the weather goes pear-shaped; it seems rather often that it is in that sort of environment where we often see upsets made].

Mr. Epstein goes into depth about sports in this book, but that is not his only subject.

I honestly think the reason Range is a must read goes beyond its frequent focus on our world of sports.  The book was compelling to me because I found over and over again I was drawing lessons that were applicable to me in my on-going professional life.

For that matter, the book is widely applicable to any number of professions, not merely health care.

Some of us arrive at sports medicine with a focus that has sustained us since our early education.  We may have had medical school as a goal since we were children.  We have gone down this path with little variation and we are often very good at what we do following this path.

Mr. Epstein makes the case that for many, a more discursive path will likely reward us in a way that we can better operate in our ‘wicked’ environments.  And I do think modern health care, especially in the USA, is wicked!!!  Change is the norm and we are constantly asked to respond to new technologies, new methods of doing things.  He argues throughout the book that many of us will perform better in our wicked environments if we have a broad background, perhaps characterized by multiple starts and possible failures.

As a banal example of health care ‘wickedness’, I would offer this simple story — in the nine years I have been in my current academic medicine position, the platform my institution requires us to use for promotion has changed twice (that is, we are on our third version).  Each time, I have essentially started from scratch with the need to learn and engage with a new platform. I can only hope that I will make my last step up the ladder (to professor) before we switch platforms again. Plus ça change……

If you have the time during your time off, or even if you are back at work as I am, take the opportunity to read this book.  Likewise, if you are interested in learning more about youth sports specialization, we publish frequently on the topic, and I would offer this relatively recent study on parental perceptions of sports specialization in their children.

Enjoy the dog days of summer (and if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, enjoy your winter)!


About sportingjim
I work at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio USA, where I am a specialist in pediatric sports medicine. My academic appointment as an Associate Professor of Pediatrics is through Ohio State University. I am a public health advocate for kids' health and safety. I am also the Deputy Editor for the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.

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