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You can’t raise a sports superstar, no matter what any Gladwell wannabe tells you

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Sian Beilock is a University of Chicago psychology professor who is releasing a book called, “Choke,” a research-based tome in which Beilock focuses on writing about sports performance in a way that will score her the same speaking fees as Malcolm Gladwell.

But let’s forget her conclusion, obvious to anyone who has played so much as a round of miniature golf — that high-powered athletes and others choke when they’re “thinking too much” ($25, please!) — and move onto to criticizing her and other sports-blind academics for their well-intentioned, but ultimately toxic to sports parents, research, study and surmising about how you — yes, you! — can raise a superstar. Which, as you can tell by the title of this blog, is at cross purposes with what I do.

Spoiler alert — you can’t raise one.

You can read all the research you want, all the inspirational books you want, follow the path that other famous athletes followed. But having a superstar child isn’t a thing you create, despite what the Chinese government allegedly tried to do by breeding two tall athletes to create Yao Ming. It’s a combination of good genes, your child’s desire, money (or ability to afford all the travel teams and development camps necessary) and old-fashioned luck. The Marv Marinovich school of parenting, the Dr. Frankenstein-like attempts to create a superstar, even if it does create someone who makes it to the pro level, seems to inevitably create more tragedy than success.

Just as soon as there is one path laid out for sure success — early specialization, just like Tiger Woods! — soon there becomes an equal and opposite path. Beilock’s is that a lack of early specialization is key to raising your young superstar.

It’s enough to make you feel not so bad when you hear of cuts to college funding.

Let me tell you the source of my — well, it’s not quite rage. Maybe second-degree annoyance.

I happened to find on Wired.com a post by Jonah Lehrer called “How to Raise a Superstar.” It went through various theories about superstar-raising, including the famous anybody-can-become-a-pro-in-10,000-hours gospel spread by Gladwell, which was taken to mean that even if you’re 5-foot-3, if you practice for 10,000 hours you can become a pro basketball player, the kind of thinking that has parents dropping large dough for travel teams starting at age 3.

Then Lehrer went into other theories of sporting success, including greater academic interest in whether where your child is born. As Lehrer spells out, various surveys show that your child has a better chance of superstardom, in any sport, if he or she is born a slack-jawed yokel. At least, I think that’s the implication.

However, a series of recent studies by psychologists at Queen’s University adds an important wrinkle to the Tiger Woods parable. The scientists began by analyzing the birthplace of more than 2,000 athletes in a variety of professional sports, such as the NHL, NBA, and the PGA.  This is when they discovered something peculiar:  the percent of professional athletes who came from cities of fewer than a half million people was far higher than expected. While approximately 52 percent of the United States population resides in metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 people, such cities only produce 13% of the players in the NHL, 29% of the players in the NBA, 15% of the players in MLB, and 13% of players in the PGA.

I can think of several different explanations for this effect, none of which are mutually exclusive. Perhaps kids in small towns are less likely to get distracted by gangs, drugs, etc. Perhaps athletes outside of big cities go to better schools, and thus receive more attention from their high school coaches. Perhaps they have more access to playing fields. Perhaps they have a better peer group. The scientists summarize this line of reasoning in a recent paper: “These small communities may offer more psychosocially supportive environments that are more intimate. In particular, sport programs in smaller communities may offer more opportunities for relationship development with coaches, parents, and peers, a greater sense of belonging, and a better integration of the program within the community.”

Sian Beilock looked at this research and jumped to the conclusion (as the Queen’s researchers jumped to their conclusion without actual follow-up research) that in small towns, you’re more likely to be involved in different sports “perhaps because there is less competition to make one team,” so young athletes can sample different sports, not burn out on any one of them and build confidence, and, voila, a superstar is made — basically, disproving that concentrating early in one sport is the key to success. As evidence, she looks at a budding golfing superstar in the hardscrabble small town of Smithtown, N.Y. As you might suspect, I find her analysis hilariously wrong.

[In July] 14-year-old golfer Jim Liu became the youngest player to ever win the U.S. Junior Amateur. Liu took the record for the youngest win away from another golfer you may have heard of once or twice in the past – Tiger Woods.

Liu and Woods actually have some things in common. For instance, they have shared a golf teacher, John Anselmo. Anselmo coached Tiger from the time he was 10 until he went off to college and now Anselmo works with Liu. Given this similarity, you might guess that Liu and Woods probably took comparable paths to reach golf success. But, this isn’t actually the case. Jim Liu and Tiger Woods became winners by way of pretty different practice and training histories and, recent sport science research suggests, that it is Jim Liu’s environment – not Tiger’s – that is most likely to cultivate a champion.

Tiger Woods was raised to play golf by his father, Earl Jones. Woods started hitting balls as soon as he could hold a club and didn’t do much throughout his childhood that wasn’t tied to the game. Jim Liu, on the other hand, swam and played tennis early on. In fact, Liu didn’t pick up a golf club until he was close to seven-years-old when his family moved to a house on a golf course in Smithtown, NY. It was then that his father decided it would look odd if no one in the household actually played the game. Smithtown is not large, a population of 115,715 people according to the 2000 U.S. Census. This is in contrast to the sprawling 3 million plus metropolis of Orange County that Woods grew up in.

I think Sian Beilock used her Jump to Conclusions Mat.

So, wait a minute. A kid turns to golf at the ripe old doddering age of 7, has a family that afford to hire Tiger Woods’ coach, and comes from a ritzy New York City suburb, and THAT proves small-town kids playing multiple sports are the future superstars?

To me, that says that the difference between kids in big cities and those in not-so-big cities — which would include moneyed suburbs of podunk shitholes like New York — is something that starts with the letter $.

Before school sports started everyone, they hit urban school districts disproportionately. Older, urban schools do not have the grand facilities of their newer, suburban counterparts. But beyond school, travel team experience is practically a requirement, and urban areas don’t have the money and programs their suburban peers do.

There is a case to be made for children trying out multiple sports, but making Smithtown, N.Y., sound like Munising, Mich. –  a real small town with kids of lesser means who really have to play multiple sports just so multiple sports can be offered — isn’t that case. I live in a crap burg of 50,000 that happens to border Chicago, and happens to be a lot less rich than Smithtown, and I can vouch that while, like in most areas, little kids try out multiple sports early, by about age 9 money matters in terms of who advances and who doesn’t, and that the few kids from around here who advance to superstardom (such as one Dwyane Wade) take various paths that all involve having someone help pay the substantial bills.

I don’t know how many, say, violinists, accountants or garbage-truck drivers come from places or more than, or less than, 500,000 people. But without research beyond the “Monte Carlo simulation” done in the studies — which sounds like something as accurate as random rolls of the dice in a casino (it kind of is, given the originator of the technique named it with Monte Carlo’s casinos in mind) — Sian Beilock or myself can’t say definitively that one path is the certain one to superstardom. All that does is sucker parents out of their money a different way when it comes to youth sports. Did the Queen’s researchers, or Sian Beilock, ever play sports? Ever spend one second looking at how youth sports operates? All they have to do is go to one Little League game, anywhere, and they’ll have to rethink their conclusions.

The bottom line is, there is no sure way to raise a superstar. There’s no age effect, no birthplace effect, no nothing. Athletes who you think will go on to greatness don’t, and some you think won’t go on, do. Too few people get to superstar status to say, for sure, there is a certain path. If there was a certain path, many would take it, and then it wouldn’t be a certain path anymore.

If your organization would like me to talk about this, I’m more than willing to come. And I won’t even charge you Sian Beilock rates, much less Malcolm Gladwell money. That is, unless I can figure out a pithy way to put my thoughts in book form. Because once I get booked by Charlie Rose, I’m a fucking superstar, man.

Video games are ruining my athletic children!

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Billy Shepherd, a former Indiana Mr. Basketball and ABA player who now is a sports parenting advice guru (and whose father was the athletic director when I ran cross country and track at Carmel, Ind., High School), takes a question about a common holiday problem: kids not getting the hell off the new video game system. From his column in the Crawfordsville, Ind., newspaper, that is understatedly and appropriately called The Paper:

Dear Billy,

I think my wife and I have made a big mistake. We bought our two boys (6th and 3rd grade) the [W]ii game for Christmas. All they have done the last eight days is play the game non-stop.

While both are good athletes we are now concerned that they will spend more time playing wii than actually practicing sports.

Any suggestions? We had heard that the game was great for teaching sports, but we are concerned because of the lack of physical activity. Are we being over concerned in your viewpoint? Old Time Parents in Indy

[youtubevid id="CBSwm-mPXhQ"]

Meet Old Time Parents in Indy’s children, Buckner and Garcia.

First, I’ll give you Billy Shepherd’s response, which is sort of even-handed, reasoned approach that is the hallmark of good sports parenting. Then you’ll get my response.

Dear Old Time Parents,

What you are seeking is a balance for your kids. Only you as parents can make those decisions. Do you have time limits on the games? Do you make them go outside and play which results in physical activity? How are their grades in school?

Once school starts back you need to place restrictions on when they can play the video games and for how long. Try and balance it with homework, sports activities, and computer time. Keep a close eye on their grades and keep them involved with their sports.

Balance is the key to help develop any young person socially and physically. Be sure to monitor their time in all facets of their lives, just not video games. That way you will have well rounded young men as they continue to grow up, whether they play sports or not.

I’ll put it more practically and succinctly, Old Time Parents in Indy: get the stick out of your ass! Why did you buy them a Wii and somehow expected a sixth-grader and a third-grader to have natural restraint in playing it? It’s been freaking freezing in Indianapolis over the holidays. What do you want them to do, go outside and play Who Gets Frostbite First?

When kids get a video-game system for Christmas, they do nothing but play it for the bulk of vacation. It happens. Old Time Parents, I bet when you got your first hula hoop, you were swinging your hips with excitement for the next two weeks. I bet your own Old Time Parents worried you would never do anything productive ever again. Also, have you notice your sixth-grader and third-grader have probably spent more nonfighting time together the last two weeks than they have in their life? The beauty of video games is they can help siblings bond like nothing else.

I agree with my former athletic director’s son that once school is back in session, you can and should put limits on the video game playing. However, I wouldn’t start out by saying, you have only X amount of video games and/or screen time (a term I detest. I’m not sure why. I just do.). I would say that you have these responsibilities, and once they are fulfilled, knock yourself out on the Wii (not literally, because you can the way the controllers get swung around). I’ve found that works wonders with my own kids. Punishment is much more effective when you take away what they already have in spades. Plus, you don’t give the Wii the succulent flavor of forbidden fruit.

So I’m in agreement with the concept of what the ex-Memphis Sound has to say, though we differ in technique. And in our desire to tell people to get the stick out of their ass.

Written by rkcookjr

January 4, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Are you a crazy sports parent?

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Maybe you’ve never attacked a hockey ref or inspired a coach to come into the stands after you. But you might be a crazy sports parent and not even know it.

imageGood job today, son! Just for that, we’ll let you sleep inside tonight!

I am defining “crazy sports parent” as someone who is a little bit too into what his or her child is doing athletically, and is at risk for popping off at a moment’s notice, thus earning worldwide Internet ridicule. I recommend to you sports parents that you take this quiz to see if you might have a problem. This is not a complete run of all the possible disturbing behavior that lies beneath, but this should give you a good start at identifying whether you have a problem. Or whether it’s one of those OTHER parents. Can’t be you. Not at all.

1. How many T-shirts do you own that match your child’s travel team uniform?

A. None.

B. One to three.

C. I have a walk-in closet devoted to them.

2. How many picture buttons of your children are on your jacket?

A. None

B. One for each child.

C. Just my jacket? Not counting the ones in my cubicle, on the bulletin board in the kitchen and pasted to my dashboard? And you don’t mean just for my oldest, right?

3. When your child seems to be losing interest in a sport, you:

A. Support the child’s decision to leave it, and see what else there might be of interest.

B. Have a talk to get the child to give the sport another chance, just to be sure it’s not a temporary feeling

C. Force your child to stay in, what with the cold sweats you’re getting over the possibility of your social life falling apart.

4. You get pumped when:

A. Your child shows enjoyment and improvement.

B. Your child appears to be playing better than others.

C. It’s the Fort Wayne Lees Inn & Suites this weekend!

5. You’re not sure you like your child’s coach. You:

A. Stay quiet. Unless the coach is doing actual harm, no sense getting involved.

B. Make arrangements to talk to the coach, calmly, about your concerns.

C. Start a gossip campaign to get him fired.

6. You don’t like the referee’s calls. You:

A. Stay quiet. It’s just a kid’s game, after all.

B. Grumble to yourself, and remind yourself it’s a kid’s game, after all.

C. Start a gossip campaign to get him fired.

7. Your interaction with other sports parents is:

A. Limited. A hello or occassional remark suffices.

B. Friendly. You chat a little during games.

C. You size up who is “in” and who is “out,” and make sure you set the parameters of all interaction. You start a gossip campaign to get any threats knocked to the “out” column.

8. You have a child who excels at a sport. Your other children are:

A. Special in their unique way, and equally lovable.

B. Not as likely to take care of you financially in your old age.

C. Joining the same sport as that sibling in a desperate bid for your attention.

9. A doctor says your child has an injury that carries a risk of permanent damage should he or she continue playing. You react by:

A. Telling your child, with great understanding for the disappointment that might be involved, that it’s time to stop playing.

B. Getting a second opinion, just to be sure.

C. Dismissing the doctor as a sports-hating quack who probably got wedgies in junior high. Then you give him a wedgie.

10. In taking this quiz, you feel:

A. Like you have a healthy relationship with your child and sports.

B. Smug satisfaction.

C. “Are you trying to imply something? Because I’ll make sure the other parents NEVER talk to you AGAIN!”

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