How do you raise the next Andy Murray, the next Laura Trott, the next Gareth Bale? Anthony Hamilton, father and former manager of three-time Formula One world champion Lewis, should have some idea.
Speaking to City A.M., Hamilton is intrigued when I mention a theory popularised by authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Matthew Syed, namely that, when it comes to nurturing a future sporting superstar, so-called "natural talent" is overstated. The key, rather, is practice, practice, practice – focus, repetition, and sheer determination.
"People say to me, 'your son is so naturally talented' and my response is, no, I don't think he's naturally talented – I think he's great, for sure, and has a huge amount of natural ability and talent within him – but if we hadn't practiced as hard as we did with go-karting, I don't think Lewis would have become a great go-karter. So is talent natural, or is the focus what makes it natural?”
Tellingly, during a wide-ranging conversation spanning everything from the English national football team to Formula One, to how he and Lewis went from a council estate in Stevenage to "the top of the world", Hamilton uses the word "focus" no fewer than 18 times.
A determination to get his eldest son to concentrate on a constructive pursuit was, he says, the almost accidental start of their journey to the summit of F1. "When I got Lewis into go-karting we hadn't thought about success in F1, I just thought about improving Lewis' focus at school, and his application in life, and I wanted to do anything that would keep him away from hanging around the town like I used to do when I was a kid," Hamilton explains. "I wanted him to have a skill."
Focus, he says, is at the core of Hamilton’s latest project – a football training device named Kicktrix, designed to allow children, and grown-up kids, to practice kick-ups, or keepie-uppies, in-doors, without smashing the family china. Moving on from his management of racing drivers (he endured a somewhat acrimonious split from former Force India driver Paul di Resta, back in 2012), Hamilton has turned his attention and entrepreneurial spirit to developing a series of innovative sporting machines, of which Kicktrix is the first to be released.
I can probably make one more guy a great racing driver – but actually, I could make millions of other kids successful in life too. So that's my goal now, not to do one, but to try and give opportunities to [many] others, because it really is about belief.
Hamilton also feels that football is far more meritocratic than motorsport.
"There will be talented young people [coming into F1] who have put their time in, whose parents have had the money and the wherewithal to do that… but for someone to come from a less well-off, less affluent background, I think Lewis is the last of it," he says.
"He is the last of it, because everyone else that I'm aware of in the industry has come from an affluent background, who has money behind them. Sport should be for all [but] when it comes to motor sport, I think it's gone from a point when it used to be for everyone, and now it's just for the elite."
From Formula One to football
Hamilton hopes the device can encourage children throughout the world to focus and develop their technique. Orders are already coming in from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and beyond. "Every kid loves football. They're not all going to be professional players, but they can be all professional individuals, because it's not just about playing football. It's about developing your mind, hand [or foot] to eye coordination, your fitness, and having something to do in your house that you wouldn't ordinarily get the opportunity to do other than watch TV, sit out on the couch, play something that actually doesn’t benefit you," he says, alluding to video games. "This is educational."
Hamilton, like his son Lewis, is an avid Arsenal fan. He cites another English sporting star of West Indian descent, who also grew up in a council flat, as his footballing hero – Ian Wright. Alongside millions of other football fans in this corner of the world, he wonders why such a soccer-crazy country consistently underperforms on the international stage.
"It's all about getting time to train, to practice, to focus, and applying yourself. I also thought 'how come we haven't won the World Cup since 1966?' We've got such a great footballing heritage and my belief is that it's just a lack of practice, a lack of dedication, a lack of focus, and that's what the Kicktrix is all about."
So how do we nurture a generation capable of matching the feats of, say, the Spanish or the Germans? How do we develop the English Iniesta, the English Ozil?
For any readers hoping to transform their offspring into future superstars, the lessons appear to be reassuringly simple. Key themes repeated by Hamilton are positivity, competitive spirit, and a single-minded determination to succeed.
"I've met lots of parents who've said 'yeah my son's not good enough' or 'my daughter's not good enough', and I say what d'you mean they're not good enough? That's negativity. That's not good to be passing that down to your kids. I'll tell you what, your kids can be special, because if I look back, what made my kids so special? We lived in a council house so why would we be special? It's only because I was positive about it. And any opportunity I could get to maximise Lewis' training and ability, with his motor skills, hand-to-eye coordination, that's what I did – I focused."
So relentlessly positive is Hamilton that, ahead of the final race of the 2016 season in Abu Dhabi, he still believes Lewis will claim a fourth world championship – despite his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg only requiring a top-three finish to win the drivers' title. "I do believe he is going to win it, the right things happen to those who put in the right effort," he says.
In the beginning
Returning to the start of the Hamiltons' journey, he insists the focus on motorsport in particular was driven by a young Lewis' own determination and boyish obsession with cars.
It's important to identify what they want to do. And sometimes you have to give them an opportunity to back out because today it's 'I want to be a motor racing driver' and tomorrow 'I want to be a footballer' or tomorrow 'I want to find a chocolate chip cookie factory' or something – kids can be fickle, and not everyone is the same, but some of them you can get to dedicate and focus their attention.
The root of that focus was evident from early on, he says. "If I gave Lewis a motorsport book, where you had to learn 100 things in an hour, and a biology book or some other book and learn that in an hour, he would know the motorsport book back to front in the hour. That was obvious when he first had to take a driving test. When you're seven or eight years of age [you need to show] that you're good enough to get a racing licence for karts, and you've got to learn all the flags, [so I said to Lewis] 'if you want to go racing you've got to learn these things' – he knew them within half an hour. That said to me, this is one thing I can focus his attention on, and that’s why we then focused on doing motor sport."
Hamilton hopes the competitive aspect of his Kicktrix machine will tap into the sporting instinct that exists in so many children. The device is linked to an app, used to record one's scores (number of consecutive keepie-uppies performed in a certain period of time) and compare them to other users, including a global league table. The emphasis is understandable, coming from the father of such an obsessively competitive son.
"He was one of these kids that… he's good at everything, you know? And if he's not good at it he will practice at it. As a typical example, his brother Nicolas, whenever they would play a game or do something together, if Nic was better, Lewis would stay up all night, all day, just to beat him – and that's how competitive he is. That's the interesting thing about Lewis, he's prepared to put the hard work in to actually be the best at what he can do."
As his son guides the silver arrow of Mercedes around the Abu Dhabi race track this weekend, the message is clear – there is no silver bullet to sporting success. It comes from focus, repetition, and year after year of practice. For the next generation of budding young football enthusiasts, Hamilton believes a Kicktrix machine is a decent place to start.
See kicktrix.com for details