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Physical activity generalists versus specialists

By Shirl J. Hoffman

Do you have in-depth experience with a particular physical activity (a specialist) or a broad range of experiences with a number of different activities? If you are like most people, you are more of a generalist than a specialist. Limiting practice and training to one particular activity allows you to develop depth of capacity in that activity. On the other hand, exposing yourself to a broad range of different kinds of training and practice experiences increases your breadth of capacity for a number of different types of skills and activities.

Physical activity generalist: Physical activity generalists are individuals with experience in a broad range of skills and activities. A person who has developed low-average to above-average competency in, say, rock climbing, wrestling, ice skating, football, and baseball is an example of a generalist. The advantage that accrues to generalists is the enjoyment and satisfaction that come from being able to take advantage of opportunities to engage in a variety of activities. The disadvantage is that competence is not highly developed in any single activity, thus depriving the individual of the experiences that come from demonstrating excellence.

Physical activity specialist: Physical activity specialists are those who devote themselves to developing depth of capacity in a single activity or a narrow range of activities. The young girl who wants to become an Olympic gymnast must commit herself to training, practicing, and competitive schedules; she is unlikely to be found on the tennis court, golf course, or swimming pool on a regular basis. Tiger Woods is extraordinarily skilled in golf but apparently is not a great dancer. The advantages that accrue to specialists are the pride and satisfaction that come from being able to do one activity or a small number of activities at an above-average level. The disadvantage is that the individual misses out on opportunities to engage in a number of different activities. Concentrating efforts on a single physical activity can result in remarkable proficiency, as anyone who watches national- or international-class athletes can appreciate. These in-depth experiences can result in some amazing capacities.

  • Through practice, Michael Kettman managed to spin 28 basketballs simultaneously.
  • With intensive training, Anthony Thornton developed the capacity to walk a distance of 95 miles (153 kilometers) in 24 hours...backward.
  • Chris Gibson developed the capacity to perform 3025 consecutive somersaults on a trampoline.
  • Narve Laeret smashed 90 concrete blocks by hand in 1 minute.
  • Practice and training allowed Ashrita Furman to walk more than 80 miles (over 23 hours) around a track in Queens, New York, balancing a milk bottle on his head.

These examples are striking testimony to the way in which in-depth training and practice experiences can improve the sophisticated nerve, muscle, and cardiorespiratory systems that allow us to perform.


This is an excerpt from the book Introduction to Kinesiology, Third Edition, edited by Shirl J. Hoffman.

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