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The Sampling Period

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Skye Chilton | Flickr

There comes a time in every person’s life where multiple paths are laid out and must be narrowed to one. For some, the traditional path is the one most obviously trodden; others may find themselves, as Robert Frost once did, on a road not taken.

In the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference panel “10,000 Hours vs. The Sports Gene,” authors Malcolm Gladwell and David Epstein debated myriad ways in which an athlete transitions from who they can be to the athlete they were meant to be. The nature-or-nurture argument took the bulk of the focus during the conversation–as the session’s name would suggest–but these arguments had something in common: they both overshadowed the ability for the individual to choose his or her own path. If it was in the genes, then the athlete was predestined to be elite; if it was in the environment, then the community and social environment were fate’s determinants.

But what about human agency? Regardless of nature or nurture, didn’t the athlete have to choose to enter down the path towards their elite status?

Epstein alluded to a point where an athlete might actually get to make this choice, even if that person is genetically predisposed to be an elite athlete. This point begins early in the athlete’s life–as early as childhood.

There’s a conception that elite athletes at the top of their sports–think Tiger Woods–focus and obsess over one game from infancy. Whether Woods was born clinging to a 7-iron or whether he was guided down the path to elite golfer status by his family is immaterial; golf was the end-all-be-all in his formative years and laid out his life’s path for him. But it seems, according to Epstein, as though Woods might be the exception to the rule–even among elites.

Most elite athletes begin their athletic lives engaging in multiple sports. Household names like LeBron James and Roger Federer grew up playing multiple sports and eventually chose to concentrate on one and pursue it towards elite status. The point where an athlete plays many sports until finding one that fits the best is what Epstein calls “the sampling period.” His research suggests that athletes who engage in this multi-sport sampling start further behind athletes that silo themselves into one sport from the beginning, but in teenage years, their skill trajectories cross; those that sampled multiple sports actually tend to become “more” elite.

If you take “the sampling period” out of this setting and move it into a smaller arena–say, the NBA–you might be able to tease out similar evidence that leads to both player success and team success. For example, teams like Philadelphia and Orlando have very few short-term goals in terms of wins and losses; with young rosters, they are in a unique position to experiment with the skills of their recent draft picks. Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo weren’t necessarily seen as multi-skill guards coming into the NBA this past season, but since their teams are invested in their development, they have given them their own micro-level “sampling period” in which they can try out and perfect (or throw out) new skills. Is playing Oladipo–a shooting guard–at point guard an implicit admission of tanking by the Magic, or is it an effort to tease out and hone any latent ball-handling skills? If Oladipo is tasked with scoring, handling the ball, rebounding, and other skills, is it a waste of his professional development, or does it help sharpen and focus his abilities on his one or two most apt traits?

The Cleveland Cavaliers have received plenty of criticism for the development trajectory of Anthony Bennett this season. But since the early days of the season where Bennett seemed to force what viewers perceived as ill-advised long jumpers, the Cavs can now boast about having an imposing power forward who can play under the rim, beyond the arc, and put it on the floor. It’s not to say that Bennett’s slow start wasn’t worrisome, but the work he has clearly done to improve his shooting and positioning have already started to bear fruit for him and Cleveland.

For some players, it makes sense to hone their notable skills from the moment they step into the league. For others with the ability to experiment, it might make sense to open up their bag of tricks and see if anything they like to do might be something they could do better and turn it into a real skill. Will Bradley Beal stay a midrange-heavy shooting guard for his entire career, or will Washington’s system of allowing him to initiate the secondary offense give him elite decision-making skills down the road?

And if memory serves me right, we all looked down upon the Carlesimo-era Oklahoma City Thunder when they played Kevin Durant at shooting guard. But six years later we’ve seen the MVP favorite show off ball-handling, shooting, and driving skills that are not native to small forwards approaching seven feet in height. Whether or not Durant had a natural affinity towards all these skills or if he had a professional environment that nurtured his excellence in them doesn’t matter much. He chose to take the time during his early years in the league to develop these skills. Several years later, while we’ve seen him be an elite scorer and playmaker, one cannot discount the time he spent out of position, sampling a little bit of everything basketball could offer.

Taking the traditional path has its benefits, for sure, but sometimes the road-less-traveled can really make all the difference.

Amin Vafa

Amin grew up in Cleveland, lives in DC, and somehow still manages to love watching professional basketball.