Economics teaches us that specialisation is a good thing. As humans evolved from subsistence farming into larger societies it made sense for people to do what they were good at. The example given in textbooks is cheese and wine (probably to make us students pay more attention!) It goes something like the below:
Fred is excellent at making cheese. He makes large rounds of cheese very quickly, the taste is the talk of the town, and his creations rarely mould. Unfortunately, Fred is also a bit of an alcoholic. He’s not particularly good at the fermenting process – often making vinegar instead of wine – but he keeps at it anyway because he likes drinking.
John on the other hand excels at winemaking. However, his wife is always nagging him not to drink so much and instead to put food on the table. John can barely milk a cow but he spends hours trying at the insistence of his wife.
The solution to both Fred and John’s problems is specialisation. Fred should spend most of his time making cheese, John should spend most of his time making wine, and they should trade what they produce. The result is more stuff is made in less total time, with more enjoyment, and most likely plenty of time for a long lunches at the winery.
This is of course the beginning of commerce, and the specialisation that Fred and John engage in is called ‘competitive advantage’ – they each spend their time doing what they are best at. Focusing on their strengths.
But what does specialisation and competitive advantage have to do with sport? As athletes, don’t we spend thousands of hours working on what we are not good at? It’s not as though we can trade our ability to throw well for someone else’s ability to catch well.
At first glance, the concept of competitive advantage doesn’t apply to sports. But let’s dig a little deeper and see if economics might actually influence how you coach a basketball team, or try and improve your tennis game.
The baseline competency level
The first thing to address is the catching and throwing conundrum. Obviously you won’t get picked for the baseball team if you have the best throw in the world but lack the ability to catch a ball.
Before you can specialise in anything, you first need to develop a baseline competency in everything.
Fred and John, before they could specialise, both needed some basic things first. They needed to be able to communicate, to ensure they had shelter, water, and enough to eat. None of these constitute a competitive advantage – everyone does them – but without them you can’t move up to the next level.
In sport, your baseline competency level is your pass to play. If you play basketball, you need to be able to dribble, run, shoot and so on before you can go onto specialising as a defender or a point guard.
So when our coach makes us practice the things we are bad at, what we are really doing is building our baseline competency, not specialising.
Size determines degree
But what about individual sports you might ask. Surely, individuals can’t specialise – they aren’t part of a team where everyone has different positions.
Well individuals can specialise – to a degree. But we will get to the how of that later. For now let’s look at the second part of that statement around ‘degrees’. Back to Fred and John.
The society they Fred and John live in seems pretty civilised to them. Rather than every person having to farm or wander the forests hunting and gathering, everyone can do what they are good at and trade for whatever else they need. There might be 300 people in their village with people having developed a competitive advantage in everything from breeding horses, to giving haircuts.
Imagine if Fred and John were transported to a 21st Century city. Sydney has 5 million people living in it. Some of those people don’t just specialise in making wine – there are experts in wine importation, wine critics, wine sommeliers, cellar masters who store wine, delivery guys for late night alcohol cravings, wine auctioneers and a ridiculous array of other wine related professions.
The lesson is, the larger the society, the greater the degree of specialisation.
In sports, the larger the team, the more you can specialise. Depending on his position, an American footballer might only need to be able to run 10 meters and tackle someone, or he might need to have an incredible throwing arm. But he won’t need both. Compare this to a swimmer. She can choose which stroke and which distance to specialise in, but she can’t choose to only focus on kicking, or only on the first 10 meters of the race. So the bigger the team, the greater the specialisation.
In addition to team size, the more complex the sport, the more individual competitive advantages can be developed. Take tennis. There are many skills that a tennis player needs to be able to perform. But because it is a complex sport there is still scope for specialisation. Watch any Grand Slam and the commentators will talk about a player’s competitive advantage on the court. It might be Nadal’s relentless defence, Federer’s precision, Djokovic’s serve, or Hewitt’s never-say-die attitude. Not only does size determine the degree of specialisation, complexity does too.
Specialisation in sport is about choosing what you will spend your time, money and efforts on – and what you won’t. It’s as much about choosing not to make wine, as it is about choosing to make cheese. You can’t do everything, and your body certainly won’t appreciate you trying to squeeze 12 hours of training a day in so you have time to become a master at everything.
Let’s look at the specialisation choices that you do have.
1) Choosing to be an athlete
You probably overlooked this one, but it’s the most important of the lot. Unless you are playing a sport where you are earning millions of dollars a year, there are probably plenty of other things you could do with your life. Ask yourself – is being an athlete the best use of my time on Earth? What’s really important to me – money, fame, being the best, friendships, making an impact, having a voice etc – and is being an athlete the best path to achieving that. If it’s not, maybe you should specialise in something else.
2) Choosing your sport
Most athletes fall into a sport when they are young. It might be a sport their school offered, a sport their parents pushed them to do, or simply the convenient club near your home. But if you were to truly look all your physical and mental attributes, would you have chosen a different sport for yourself? If you have an unnaturally strong upper body maybe you’d make a great kayaker. If you are flexible and unafraid of heights cliff-diving might be for you. If you are a natural leader maybe you should be captain of a team. You get the idea. Pick a sport you will naturally excel at.
3) Choosing your position (team sports only)
If you play a team sport look at your qualities and find the position that suits you best. If you are a short volleyball player you’ll make a better libero than blocker. If you are tall netballer but can’t shoot, you might look at the goal defence position. If you have incredible reflexes perhaps you should be the soccer goalie.
4) Choose your skills
Assuming you have your baseline competency skills under control, you next want to choose which skills or attributes you will dominate. It will be the things that come naturally to you. Taller gymnasts might focus on skills that require twisting or flexibility movements, whereas shorter gymnasts are more suited to power movements. A baseball pitcher might focus most of their efforts on their fast ball, rather than other types of throws. Usian Bolt isn’t the world’s best at starting races, but he has certainly mastered running technique once he gets going. Having one or two skills that you specialise in makes you stand out, and makes you feared by your opponents.
5) Choose your strategies
Just like you specialise in the skills you are best at, so too should you specialise in the strategies you are best at. Design the game in a way that plays to your strengths. In football a team might believe their strength is speed and teamwork so develop a strategy around moving the ball with many quick passes amongst players. In boxing, your competitive advantage might be the power behind your punch so your strategy is to conserve your energy until you see an opening to unleash on your opponent.
6) Choose your training
This category of specialisation is a little broader, but it requires you to creatively design your training in such a way that you develop your competitive advantage. Cyclists were one of the first sports to realise this. Because the sport is not complex in terms of the skills required, there are fewer competitive advantages to be had – fitness is the major one. Altitude training was a way of training that further developed this specialisation. Interval training is a completely different, but highly effective, way of training for marathons. The temptation is always to train the same way your competitors do, but to just train more. Instead, you could specialise what you are doing at training – changing the location, intensity, frequency, sparring partners, pressure, coaching style, cross-training activities and so on – to help you develop your chosen competitive advantage.
If you are still wondering whether specialisation is a good thing for you… it’s already too late. Unless you are living out in the woods all alone and making everything from your shelter to your dinner yourself, you’ve already specialised. Someone else built your home. Someone else grew the vegetables in your dinner. And more specialists than Fred and John could imagine helped create your wine and cheese.
Specialisation makes everyone better off. Fred and John get to have the afternoons off because they are efficient at making just the one product. People in cities today have access to a dizzying selection of products because the size of our civilisation has allowed a huge degree of specialisation. And as an athlete you get to play the position, or sharpen the skills, that you are best at in order to win.
So the question is not ‘should I specialise?’ The real question is, are you consciously choosing your specialisations? Do you know what you excel at? Are you deliberately reinforcing that with training to become even more of a competitive advantage?
Did you decide to be an athlete in the first place?
Did you choose which sport you are best suited for?
Did you select the best position given your attributes and abilities?
Do you focus your efforts on developing the skills that will give you a real advantage?
Do you consider which strategies to spend your time on?
Do you design your training to build your specialisations?
Your coach might tell you that you need to master everything. The truth is, the best athletes in the world have all specialised to a degree. They are all known for something.
What’s your specialisation?
What’s your competitive advantage?
What will you be known for?