The Age of Achievement: Emphasis on Prodigy Hurts High-Achieving Kids


By age five, Dylan Heinstein was already topping podiums at national snowboarding competitions within a year of starting the sport. By age ten, Heinstein was driving seven hours each way to and from Mammoth Mountain every week to train during the winter season. His routine: leave for Mammoth as soon as classes ended on Wednesday, do homework in the car, snowboard for the next five days, and return to school after having missed several days of class.

Now a senior at Berkeley High School (BHS), Heinstein experienced a childhood that is not unfamiliar for a growing set of “prodigies” — children who excel and specialize in a sport or creative pursuit at an unusually young age. In the five years since his last snowboarding competition, Heinstein has continued to work through the mental effects.

“Once you have that taste of being the best at something on such a high level, it’s really hard to rewire your brain to be okay with not [being the best],” he said.

The obsession with extraordinary achievement in early childhood has become common in mainstream American awareness. Stories of 14-year-olds reaching the Olympics or 17-year-olds winning a Nobel Peace Prize have shown a whole generation that they don’t need to be older in order to break boundaries in their chosen disciplines.

Yet, along with record-shattering achievement and early specialization comes a host of issues — burnout, injury, self-esteem struggles, and a loss of the exploration that comes with a normal childhood, to name a few.

Heinstein displays his national snowboarding medals.

Heinstein displays his national snowboarding medals.

Fiona Firepine

Otto Harris, a BHS junior, began playing classical guitar when he was nearly five years old. Committing to the instrument at a serious level, he studied and performed for the next twelve years despite not enjoying it and losing motivation even as he improved.

Due to the difficult nature of his craft, “It never felt like I was getting better because I kept getting harder and harder pieces, and that demotivated me.”

For some, the emphasis on prodigy and pressure to succeed are self-enforced.

According to Dr. Nora Garcia, chief of pediatrics at the Berkeley Kaiser Medical Office, “The vast majority of kids put their own pressure on themselves. They think it’s what their parents want.”

This is the case for Simon Starbuck, a junior and the concertmaster of the BHS chamber orchestra. “Nobody is really telling me I have to be perfect, but [for] every musician, we are all our worst critics,” Starbuck said. “This is magnified if you are known to be good … as that pressure to comply with your own rumors and stereotypes is a lot.”

Harris felt similarly. “My dad offered to let me switch multiple times and I told myself, ‘I have to keep doing this,’” Harris said. “At that point, I had spent nine or ten years doing it, and I had to keep doing it … I had already put so much time into it, I can’t stop now.”

On the other hand, Heinstein’s commitment was rooted in true enjoyment. “I really did legitimately love snowboarding. It was something that I just could not live without. It was like my life blood,” he said.

To what degree, however, does outside influence impact how prodigy is shaped?

Heinstein attributed at least a small part of his early commitment to what he called “immigrant parent perfectionism,” which he is familiar with due to his immigrant mother. His parents’ support — whether driving to the mountains each weekend, arranging private coaching sessions, or traveling to Keystone or Breckenridge in Colorado for Nationals at Copper Mountain — played a major role in his success.

Many children who excel in their field are often surrounded by people far beyond their age group in order to accelerate growth.    At age six or seven, Heinstein had long outpaced the snowboarders of his own age group. He then trained together with a team of thirteen-year-olds in order to ensure his continued progress. Similarly, Harris often played at concerts where all the other performers were adults, feeling the increased pressure as he performed.

When speaking about her patients, Garcia said, “The number one stress I’m seeing is that people just don’t feel happy, and they can’t really even put into words why they’re not happy.”

Heinstein affirmed this. “Because I wasn’t up in the mountains enough, I didn’t have any long-lasting friendships there, and I wasn’t at home long enough to have long-lasting friendships there, which made me frustrated with the sport at times,” he said.

He added that prodigy at a young age can be detrimental to young people’s self worth.

“In my child brain, it was such a fall from grace to go from number one in the nation to just number one or number two at the school. … It does give you this really false perspective,” Heinstein said.

Additionally, both Harris and Heinstein described feeling limited in branching out to other activities. “I feel like I lost time that I could’ve done other things I wanted to do more,” Harris said.

It appears that prodigy is by nature unsustainable for many. Chief among Heinstein’s myriad of reasons for leaving the world of snowboarding competitions was the risk of injury. By the time he switched to an adult snowboard at age eight or nine, doing halfpipe events meant being up to 30 feet in the air, and his jumps were launching him up to 80 feet above ground.

“By that age, I was wearing pads everywhere. My friends were breaking their collarbones, getting concussions, starting to do flips … Getting the wind knocked out to me was a pretty regular occurrence,” he said.

One instance stood out to Heinstein. He was six, and while doing a frontside 360 jump, his flexibility caused his knee to come up into his chin, and he bit his lip hard. Afterwards, “I was eating things in tiny slices and drinking out of a straw,” Heinstein recalled.

As the medals and complex tricks increased, so did the risk of injuries. By that point, his parents encouraged him to quit.

For Harris, it was burnout that made classical guitar unsustainable. After over a decade, he finally quit, due to his increasingly busy schedule and a loss of passion. Though he rarely plays classical guitar anymore, he still enjoys casually playing, and is in some ways grateful for the foundation it gave him.

“When you’re doing something at a high level, there’s definitely this expectation for the rest of your life,” Heinstein said. “You will think that if you have the capacity to be the best, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. I was teaching myself that I was allowed to be bad at things.”