Linda C. Neumann

On the school athletic field, it seems that everyone expects and reveres top-level performance. A common expectation is that schools will offer special programs and opportunities to help athletes develop and hone their abilities in competition. Equally common is allocating money in the education budget to athletic programs, facilities, and equipment.

“The athletically gifted, in our society and in almost all cultures across the globe, are highly respected, looked up to, and even admired for their athletic gifts,” says SENG board member Steven Pfeiffer, a psychologist and professor at Florida State University. “This special status comes early, to some as early as the elementary grades. The intellectually or academically gifted child, on the other hand, quite often is teased, taunted, disparaged, and treated with anything other than admiration, particularly in elementary and middle school.”

Pfeiffer observed what he considers to be this striking difference in treatment between athletically and intellectually gifted students when he served as a sport psychologist for the women’s soccer program at Duke University. This experience provided him with a unique opportunity to learn more about the lives of elite, young, female athletes. According to Pfeiffer, he discovered similarities as well as differences between the two groups of gifted students.

One of the most important similarities he found is that all children fortunate enough to have a gift – athletic, academic, or artistic – require the same basics to reach their potential: good teachers, hard work over an extended period of time, and often a mentor to guide them. He observes, “No matter what the gift, natural ability alone rarely, if ever, leads to full actualization of one’s talent. This lesson is often a difficult one for both the highly gifted athlete and the highly gifted student to accept! Whether it’s long hours spent on the playing field and in the weight room or it’s long hours spent in the physics lab, one needs to put in the time and commit to sweat and hard work to accomplish big goals!”

The disparity in attitudes toward the athletically gifted and the academically gifted can be hard for both students and parents to take. Pfeiffer states, “I spend a lot of time talking about this difference with gifted youngsters that I treat in my private practice.” With parents, who may feel that their academically gifted student is being short changed, Pfeiffer works to change their focus from the short term to the long term.

In the here-and-now, parents of academically gifted children are often focused on how to provide their own gifted son or daughter with a more challenging and intellectually stimulating classroom experience. “This makes a lot of sense,” explains Pfeiffer, “but if the parent pushes too hard or in a way that antagonizes others, the outcome may not be beneficial for the gifted child.”

To avoid this situation, Pfeiffer asks parents to think about how they would like others to describe their son or daughter in the future – to focus on the long-range goals, wishes, expectations, and fears the parents have for their gifted child. With this shift in focus, according to Pfeiffer, “parental concerns quickly take on a new, different, and, I would argue, very important slant – a slant well-worth discussing.” The discussion of long-range and short-term goals becomes even more interesting and productive when teachers and gifted students join in. It can help all parties re-frame their view of a child, and it can help parents and teachers formulate a new set of long-range goals to consider as they address immediate, unmet academic needs.

Partnerships such as those that Pfeiffer’s discussions help forge between parents and educators can help minimize the differences between the treatment that athletically gifted and the academically gifted students receive. But what about the glory? What can academically gifted students do that will bring them the rewards and recognition that those who excel athletically often receive? The answer is competition, and there are plenty of competitions open to those who excel in areas such as mathematics, science, geography, writing, and the arts. To start your search for competitions like these, check the resources below. Academic competition might lead not only to glory, but to scholarships as well!



Karnes, F.A., & Riley, T.L. (2005). Competitions for talented kids. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press. Tallent-Runnels, M.T., & Candler-Lotven, A.C. (2007).

Academic competitions for gifted students: A resource book for teachers and parents. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

For more on giftedness, see these books written or edited by Steven Pfeiffer:

Olszewski-Kubilius, P., Limburg-Weber, L., & Pfeiffer, S.I. (Eds.). (2003).

Early gifts: Recognizing and nurturing children’s talents. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press. Pfeiffer, S.I. (Ed.). (2008). Handbook of giftedness in children. NY: Springer Publishing.

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