Archive for August 2010
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.
I don’t often pass on stories sent by an author who says nice things about me, but that’s because I don’t often get stories sent by an author who says nice things about me. So with that mind, I direct you to Neil Swidey of the Boston Globe, who wrote a Sunday magazine piece about kids and competition called “What Happened to Losing?”
It’s much better than you standard rant against the wussification of sports through no-score leagues because it’s not a rant, and Swidey points out:
If you’ve come seeking affirmation for the facile argument about the so-called “wussification of American kids today,” you’ll probably want to stop reading now.
The issue is hardly black and white. It’s true that our kids, in some ways, are more coddled and have it much easier than previous generations. But it’s also true that, in other ways, we adults have saddled our kids with way more pressure to compete than we ever faced, imposing on them at young ages daunting expectations for their academic and athletic “careers.”
Swidey, though his own personal experience as a father and coach, and through interviews and research, writes about the difficult line adults try to walk with children: how to encourage children in as non-pressurized environment as possible without hurting their feelings or discouraging them by too much emphasis on competition, especially at early age.
Does everything have to be a competition?
If you ask the Father of No-Score Leagues how you do that — and Swidey did — he would tell you there is no line. You either have competition, or you don’t. That inadvertent father of that bastard child of youth sports is Alfie Kohn, whose 1986 book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, outlines how competition is bad for everyone, children and adults included. Kids might love Kohn’s other works, such as ones in which he argues homework and grades are bad for learning.
Kohn tells Swidey that he doesn’t endorse no-score leagues, either, but not because he thinks it makes your child a pussy:
“I began my work on competition from the liberal position that there’s too much competition and it’s too intense, but if we could just manage it and scale it back, we’d be fine,” Kohn tells me. “But I came to the conclusion that it’s not the quantity, it’s the very nature of competition itself that is bad. So the liberals who say, ‘Go ahead and play tennis, but don’t try to make the other person lose’ — that’s garbage. That’s self-delusional. If you’re not trying to make the other person lose, it’s not tennis.”
Kohn and his ilk argue that any games should concentrate on activities that foster and encourage group success, like seeing how many times you can bump a volleyball in the air.
Yeah, sounds dull, right? Plus, I’m not sure the experts account for other members of the group tearing a new asshole in the one schlub incapable of keeping a volleyball in the air. Heck, Kohn’s own kids don’t even buy it completely.
But as the father of a 14-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son, Kohn regretfully concedes that even he never started a cooperative game group in his own Belmont neighborhood. And though his children have independently chosen not to play youth sports, his son has shown an interest in chess — “He’s pretty vicious,” Kohn says — which, of course, is an activity built on zero-sum, warlike themes of competition. (Fortunately, Kohn says, his son has recently moved on from chess to the guitar.)
So how do you blunt the bad parts about competition? Another expert posited these conditions to Swidey: (1) that participation is voluntary; (2) the teams are set up so that everyone has a reasonable chance of winning; (3) the importance of winning is relatively minor, so that 10 minutes after the game, you barely remember who won and who lost; (4) the rules are clear and fair; and (5) relative progress can be monitored.
Actually, those five rules have generally been followed in my youth sports experience. I’ve seen these rules violated by both kids and adults. No. 2 is the one I’ve seen most violated as a child — there’s always some jerks who wants to try to game the teams his way (and, yes, some of them grow up to run the draft for your local Little League). No. 3, of course, is the big problem with adults.
And this gets me back to no-score leagues. I’ve long declared that the reason, as a coach, that I love no-score leagues is not because not keeping score takes pressure off the kids. Not keeping score takes the steam out of the adults, which then takes some of the pressure off the kids. (Children of gung-ho athletic parents who dream of future pro success are still going to put pressure on their kids no matter what.)
Unlike Swidey and others in his article, I don’t think that children are ill-served by no-score leagues because they suddenly can’t handle it when score is finally being kept. Kids learn all about competition in so many ways outside of youth sports, their ability to deal with it, or inability to deal it, is fostered long before they look at a scoreboard. Just watch two 2-year-olds fight over a toy car.
Swidey also gets into everybody-gets-a-trophy leagues as well, and unlike no-score leagues, I can’t say I’m a fan of those. Not because it has ill effects such as causing killing sprees. I dislike them because all those trophies clutter up my house.
For years, I read that 13 was the magic age, the Logan’s Run of youth sports, the time when 75 percent of kids (or whatever stat you want to pull out of your rectum) quit sports en masse, bitterly, for a lifetime of obesity.
As it turns out, my 13-year-old son, Bobby, coming home today from his first day of eighth grade, told me today that he would not try out again for the volleyball team, despite being one of the last cuts as a seventh-grader, despite going to volleyball camp this summer, despite the very good jump serve he’s demonstrated in our back yard.
He announced this angrily and dejectedly after… well, actually, he was pretty darn excited when he told me. That’s because he found out his school’s spring musical, in which he played the title role of “The Wizard of Oz” last year, would for this school year be a fall musical instead, a production of “Bugsy Malone.”
Yep, the all-kid gangster musical.
While I’m sure there are 13-year-olds who are out of sports because they have had miserable coaches, mean teammates and nutball parents, it turns out my 13-year-old is getting out of sports because, like other 13-year-olds, he’s finishing what my wife has referred to as his logical path of self-discovery (a phrase she coined sarcastically to refer to my peripatetic early professional career).
My son like sports OK, and maybe he’ll play rec league basketball this winter and try out track again in the spring. But he knows he LOVES performing. He likes being on stage, and not to put to fine a point on it, he’s good at it. He got his grade’s “best actor” award last year, which isn’t exactly a preview of the Oscars, but the kind of encouraging sign that points you in the direction of something you might enjoy for a while. My 13-year-old went to a theater camp over the summer, and he’s wanting to take improvisational acting classes.
Also, he really, really, really wants to be a Marine. So I see where he wants his path to lead: Rob Riggle.
That’s a USMC hat my 13-year-old son Bobby (left, posing with his 7-year-old brother, Ryan) is wearing at the July 4 parade in Munising, Mich. No kidding: not long after this picture was taken, a Marine in full dress walked by in the parade, saw Bobby and his hat, and gave him a Marines poster. Is this how Rob Riggle got started?
Like most any father, I had a thought from Bobby’s babyhood what sports he might play. That he’s not playing any — I’m good with that. The excitement he felt telling me about the school musical made ME want to sign up for it. After a youth of baseball, basketball, wrestling, volleyball, track, soccer, hockey and other sports I’m probably leaving out (like roller-blading, which he does just for the fun of it), Bobby’s logical path of self-discovery has given him sports he can enjoy in his down time, and activities he can enjoy the hell out of most of the time.
I still need to talk to him about that Marines thing, though. It’s great he loves the idea of serving his country, and I’ll support him in whatever he wants to do. But as a parent I’ll take Bobby dying on stage over dying, for real. Maybe I can get Rob Riggle to have a chat with him.
When will coaches ever learn? The lesson of the Junction Boys — Bear Bryant’s infamous desert preseason camp for his 1954 Texas A&M Aggies –is that putting your football players through intense practices in extreme heat with no access to water is a great way to decimate your team. Of course, that Bryant’s winless Aggies of 1954 went undefeated the next year must be why so many coaches persist of thinking about the Junction Boys as an effective exercise in team-building and following your coach, like how locking Patty Hearst in a closet was an effective exercise in team-building and following your Dear Leader.
If first-year McMinnville, Ore., High School football coach Jeff Kearin wanted to follow an example of Bryant’s, he should have just gotten fitted for a houndstooth hat. Instead, Kearin put his charges through an indoor version of the Junction Boys, an indoor “immersion” cap that unified the team — at the local hospital.
From OregonLive.com (as of 10:30 p.m. local time Aug. 22):
Doctors say a unique combination of elements — high heat, dehydration and heavy exercise — is to blame for sending more than a dozen McMinnville High School football players to the hospital this week.
Dr. Craig Winkler, who treated seven of the affected players, said a workout at a preseason camp run by first-year coach Jeff Kearin on Aug. 15 probably triggered the uncommon soft-tissue condition, known as rhabdomyolysis, or its more serious counterpart, “compartment syndrome.” … [Left untreated, it can be fatal.]
Winkler said 14 players were admitted throughout the week, although about 30 players who attended the camp were referred to the hospital to be checked out.
Three players required emergency surgery, one on both arms. …
Players, with bedding in tow, arrived at the “immersion camp” Aug. 15 at the high school and were soon run through a series of push-ups and “chair dips,” which work out the triceps. … [A parent of a sick player] said players have told him they were not allowed to drink water until they completed the exercises.
Winkler, who doubles as the football team’s physician, also questioned the wisdom of the workouts.
Players told him “they were working out for more than 20 minutes in an enclosed room in 115-degree heat,” Winkler said. “That seems pretty intense to me. From a medical point of view, I would not allow anyone to exercise at temperatures over 100.”
Apparently players were afraid to speak up because they were all too busy trying to impress the new coach, who said the 11 hardest-working players would get to play, according to the OregonLive.com account. Plus, what high school player has ever stood up to a football coach? And lived? Of course, if Kearin deemed players were slacking off, they would have to do the drill again.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a hard workout, or even making players do a drill again if they aren’t working hard enough. But if it’s in the 90s outside, and you’re in an un-air conditioned room, you might want to make a few allowances for safety. This highlights how in almost all cases at the high school level at below, there is no medical professional or anyone else to tell a coach to back off. Maybe there is a trainer who works for the coach. So it’s upon coaches to make the smart decision — one that isn’t always made. (Perhaps it would help if coaches were instructed, or had access, to call a physician or someone who could make a medical judgment on what they could do in extreme conditions.)
Kearin is quoted at OregonLive.com that he realizes his “silence is deafening,” but that the school won’t let him talk. He shouldn’t worry. Kearin will be able to talk all he wants, under his counsel’s watch, in the at least 30 lawsuits (30 being the number of players that had to make a trip to the hospital) that will be coming against the school.
However, Kearin might have one saving grace that could keep him out of criminal court and make him the next Jason Stinson. From OregonLive.com:
But Winkler said he is also waiting for blood tests looking for the presence of creatine, a legal, loosely regulated and widely available bodybuilding supplement present in a number of weight-gain products that has been linked to an increased risk of sports-related injury.
“We’re looking to see if there’s some inciting event or some toxins that led to this massive injury,” Winkler said.
Creatine was a factor in the case against Stinson, a Louisville high school football coach acquitted last year on charges relating to the death of one of his players, who overheated during a practice on a 90-degree day. There was evidence the deceased player had used creatine, a muscle-building supplement that can accelerate dehydration. (The player also had taken ADHD medication, which has a similar effect on dehydration.)
If Kearin stuck his players in a hot, hot room and didn’t let them have water, he was stone wrong. But if any of those players were taking supplements that turned being overheated into a near-fatal illness — well, Kearin is still wrong, but it’s possible he could be off the hook legally. Hey, if Kearin is going to follow Bryant’s path, getting away with running his players into the ground early in his career would lead to a lot of success later.
LATE ADD: In another story, Dr. Winkler says that the affected players — three of whom did have compartment syndrome (out of the 19 players out of the 30 checked that ended up having injuries) — will not be tested for steroids because, according to The Associated Press, it’s believed “it would be unlikely for that many students to have access, and ‘creatine makes way more sense.'”
Are you kidding me? If one player can have a steroid connection, that person would be MORE than happy to sell to multiple players on one team. This is not a comment on whether the players were taking steroids or anything else. Again, even if they were roided to the gills (because they were so roided they developed gills), that coach should not have had them in a hotbox for drills. But the school is fooling itself if it thinks it’s not possible for the whole damn team to be juicing.
Heck, if I were the school, and I could get away with it (but maybe I couldn’t), I would insist on toxicology tests for every chemical known and unknown to man as a way to limit my liability when the lawsuits come. After all, if it turned out that the injured players were using something (again, I have no evidence they did, nor do I mean to say they did — I’m thinking like a desperate-to-save-my-ass superintendent), and the players who did not succumb to the heat were not, I would want that as Exhibit A in my defense.
Ordinarily you would want to side with a school over some corporate weasel trying to bully it out of its beloved mascot and logo, except that the Internet has made it abundantly clear that many schools have shamelessly stolen their beloved mascots and logos from someone else.
The Lahontan Valley News in Fallon, Nev., chronicles the consequences of logo theft in its area, starting with a school that filched its tiger logo from Towson University. Really? Towson? In Maryland?
The story notes that a “quick Internet search” will find you hundreds of examples of logo, ahem, borrowing, but you don’t have to go far beyond Douglas High, the school that took the Towson Tiger, to find schools with a very loose reading of trademark law.
Locally, Wooster (Indianapolis Colts), Damonte Ranch (Southern Methodist University), Spanish Springs (Washington State University), McQueen (Army) and South Tahoe (Minnesota Vikings) have all derived their respective primary or football helmet logos from other sources with few modifications in recent years.
Other specific sports programs both in the area and nationally have carried direct copies of college or pro team logos and fonts on their uniforms.
If you want a sense of how much ripping off happens just in Nevada, without a casino necessary, check out this site of Nevada high school football helmets. What’s stunning is how few schools didn’t rip off Iowa, USC, Florida, SMU, Missouri, Virginia Tech, Michigan and the New England Patriots.
Here you can see Tom Brady in the Patriots’ throwback uniforms… oh wait, that’s the Liberty Patriots of Hendersonville, Nev.
The Lahontan Valley News points the foam finger at Collegiate Licensing, the trademark arm of the NCAA, for going after the local schools, who seem like pretty easy targets. Here is Douglas High Principal Marty Swisher on finding out his school with a scofflaw:
“The letter came as a surprise to us,” Swisher said. “We weren’t making any substantial profit off the logo, we’re 2,500 miles away from the school in question and we’re obviously not in competition with Towson. The boosters sold merchandise with the logo the past few years, but that money goes right back into the athletic program.
“But the law is the law.”
Yes, the law doesn’t say, “Steal any trademark you want as long it’s at least 2,500 miles away, and isn’t in competition.” Damn the law!
Fortunately for these schools, the NCAA and other trademark-holders tend to pat their simpleton heads and tell them they can use the logo until the uniforms wear thin. Literally, not in the eyes of trademark holders.
The football team at Dearborn (Mich.) Fordson High School reflects the population of its student body, in that both are heavily of the Arabic persuasion.
The challenge for the football team comes when Ramadan, a holy month in Islam whose most prominent feature is the requirement that Muslims refrain from eating and drinking in daylight hours. Dearborn Fordson has learned from past experience that when Ramadan falls during football season, not eating and drinking, intended to bulk up the spiritual strength of the players, tends to sap their physical strength. Plus, players refusing water during hot August practices can be a tad dangerous.
So the Tractors, as they are called, came up with a way to solve the conflict between two religions (Islam and football), prevent heat exhaustion AND give their players a legitimate excuse for breaking curfew. From the Press & Guide Newspapers in Dearborn:
Fordson coach Fouad Zaban said the plan was to work from midnight until about 5 a.m. during the preseason, which this season falls during the period of Ramadan fasting.
“We’ve always had to practice and do some work while most of the kids were fasting and we’ve done what we can to adjust everyone’s schedule,” said Zaban, “but this is the first time we’ve had the opportunity to really do something about it.
“School hasn’t started yet and we don’t have a game for three more weeks, so we can change our schedule around and now we won’t have players running around out there when it’s 90 degrees and they can’t get a drink of water.
“It’s a safety issue, but we think it’s going to be fun, too.”
On top of that, the players will get to spend their fasting time the easiest way possible: sleeping.
Actually, having midnight practices might not be a bad idea for the non-Muslim football population as well, at least as a way to beat the heat. Already this summer, there have been reports out of Atlanta, Kansas City, Rowan County, Ky., of high school football players being taken to hospitals because of heat exhaustion. In the Louisville area — where one Jason Stinson was tried but acquitted after one of his players died during a hot practice — one Christian high school is starting before sunrise.
And its training table isn’t even halal.