Childhood Skill Acquisition: The Tiger vs Federer Approach

Childhood Skill Acquisition: The Tiger vs Federer Approach

Dr Tessa Grigg and Bindy Cummings

As parents, we are all wanting to offer our children a rich learning environment. When considering skill acquisition, there are a number of differing methods and theories, so finding the best approach for your child can be confusing. 1 Matthew Syed , a researcher in the UK, supports the 10,000 hours rule2. You can become the best at anything if you practice enough, and the earlier you begin, the easier it is. Right? Tiger Woods began playing around with golf activities when he was 7 months old 1 and became the greatest golfer in the world at 21. Also supporting this theory are the Polgar sisters. Their father taught them chess from a very early age to see if he could create superior learners1. Two of the children grew to be chess grandmasters.

However, these children missed what is called a ‘sampling period’. This is a time when a child tries a wide variety of activities and develops skills and information associated with those pursuits.

Roger Federer had a long sampling period. He played many sports as a child, including tennis, skiing, wrestling, basketball, swimming, handball, soccer, skateboarding and more, developing many skills along the way. He started playing tennis in a more focused way when he was eight years old, and he has achieved outstanding results over a very long period of time.

When researchers looked at university students, early specialisation had initial economic gains, but this tailed off, and it was the students who specialised later who had higher incomes long-term. It is thought that they had a better fit for their chosen career because they had tried a range of options and developed a wider range of skills. The ‘early specialists’ changed careers more readily, possibly as a result of specialising too early and not finding their best ‘fit’ 1.

When you look at students’ practice of musical instruments, it appears that exceptional musicians practice less than average musicians until the exceptional musicians are learning their third instrument1!

Epstein1, another UK researcher, clearly states that children benefit from a long sampling period, during which time they can develop their preferences and acquire a wide range of skills. As parents, we need to be mindful of this and ensure that children are exposed to many varied activities.

Current wisdom in the dietary world says to eat food as close to the source as possible and eat ‘a rainbow’ every day, (foods that are different colours, red, green, orange, yellow, brown and purple). It is similar with learning environments – rich and effective learning needs to include ‘a rainbow’ of activities. Our GymbaROO-KindyROO programming and teaching teams work to include this ‘rainbow of activities’ in every class at every age and stage of development. We are helping children develop the basics of many skills, giving them the ability to participate in a broad range of sports, academic, cultural and musical disciplines in their futures. While we are not attempting to create world-class athletes, actors or musicians (although some GymbaROO-KindyROO graduates have and will carry on to the world stage!), our children benefit from these insights, improving the quality of their general skill acquisition, their learning and their lives.

Dr Tessa Grigg (PhD, Dip Tch ECE and Primary) is the Research and Education Manager for GymbaROO-KindyROO. She has a wide range of experience teaching young children and adult students.

Bindy Cummings  (B.Ed hons) is a teacher, a GymbaROO early childhood neuro-developmental consultant and the co-creator of GymbaROO’s Active Babies Smart Kids series. 


  1. Epstein, D., Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialised world. 2020, London, UK: Macmillan.
  2. Syed, M., Bounce: The myth of talent and the power of practice. 2011, London, UK: HarperCollins Publishers.