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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.

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Press, press…

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Pull.

Malcolm Gladwell, the author for whom you can blame 1,000 sales conference references to “The Tipping Point,” strikes again in the New Yorker with another lengthy article delving into the secrets of innovation and success. And this time, he’s completely full of shit.

I’m not a steady Gladwell reader, but all I know is that “How David Beats Goliath” takes eight web pages to say, with dubious evidence, what Sun Tzu said about 2,500 years earlier in 18 words: “So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.”

My particular youth sports beef comes with Gladwell using as evidence how a supposedly unskilled team of 12-year-old girls from Redwood City, Calif., were shaped into an elite basketball fighting force because their coach used a press defense. He wonders why more teams don’t use it, pointing to example’s of Digger Phelps’ undermanned 1971 Fordham team upsetting a UMass squad featuring Julius Erving, and Rick Pitino’s continued success with a press defense even though his talent is supposedly so thin, Antoine Walker is his only notable pro.

Gladwell might know tipping points, but I’m not sure he’s so wise on basketball strategy. The press works if you have a team that relentlessly practices it, and a team playing against you that doesn’t know it’s coming or doesn’t practice for it. I would guess that 100 percent of the teams Redwood City played never played anyone else with a press defense, and didn’t have a college basketball-playing daughter of a former NFL star helping out in practice.

Plus, the effectiveness of the press goes down the higher level you go. Yeah, a press can work great at the 12-year-old level because most kids’ ballhandling skills aren’t good enough to overcome it. But when Pitino tried that in the NBA, he got hammered. Even on the college level, for every Fordham-over-Dr.-J’s UMass upset with the press, there are 100 teams that try it and watch the ball fly past them for easy layups. Apparently Gladwell also missed how slow and methodical Michigan State bounced Pitino’s Louisville team out of this year’s NCAA tournament.

The rec leagues I’ve coached in (junior high/late elementary coed) limit the press to either a certain point of a game (elementary level) or when you’re down (junior high). By doing so, it prevents a game that gets out of hand either way — either a team never able to inbound the ball, or a pressing team getting blown out. Anyway, why don’t I have them defend the whole court instead of the last 24 feet? Because no one is scoring from 50 feet out. I tell my kids to move out the big people, and except for kids we know can shoot from 16 feet out, give player on the outside a lot of space. Then get the rebound and leak out on the fast break — that’s where a commitment to playing the whole floor worked for the teams I’ve had.

Gladwell misses the point when he fawns on the press defense. You coach based on how the strengths of your players match the weaknesses of others — no argument there. But questioning why everyone doesn’t use the press more is way too simplistic a point. So is Gladwell presenting as fact that Pitino uses the press because he ALWAYS has substandard teams. The current starting lineup of Lawrence North High School would disagree.

Any coach who believes their success is completely tied to his or her own system is delusional — and so are the writers who swallow that line. If you don’t have talent on you team, your precious system goes down the crapper. Anyway, you could make an argument on the flipside — the reason so few NBA successes come out of Pitino’s system is because it doesn’t prepare players for what they’ll be doing in pro ball.

By the way, the Redwood City team Gladwell talks about with girls who hadn’t played, or weren’t terribly talented? I bet they weren’t a bunch of kids who had never touched a ball. I don’t care how many practices they had — if the girls didn’t have some speed or coordination already, the press would have failed in a hurry. And as far as development, this coach could be hurting his kids because as they advance and have to play more halfcourt ball, they’ll have no idea what to do.

Gladwell is a good writer, but I think he’s whiffed here. If Dean Oliver presented evidence to show the best ways to attack a defense, I’d listen more, because at least Oliver, the director of quantitative analysis for the Denver Nuggets, puts together statistical models to prove his points. Gladwell’s message is supposedly that teams should concentrate more on attacking their opponents’ weaknesses, but don’t a lot of coaches do that already?

By the way, even if successful, the press can cause you a lot of headache. Just ask Micah Grimes.