Britteny Griner—Lifesize

Like me, you’ll enjoy this sixteen minute documentary if you have any interest in Skittles, global labor markets, Chinese culture, cross cultural hurdles, and stories of personal growth.

Yao Ming, whose reverse experience closely paralleled Griner’s, would’ve been an ideal friend/cultural ambassador/mentor.

Here’s an excellent and highly recommended Yao Ming documentary.

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LeBron James > Michael Jordan

We kid ourselves when we think we know public figures—whether actors, politicians, or professional athletes. Hell, our next-door neighbors seem like the nicest people possible, but I have no idea what goes on in the privacy of their home. All of us have inner lives and see into the mirror dimly. Despite this, we can make tentative judgements about pro athletes in the media spotlight based upon what they say and do outside of competition.

For the life of me, I do not understand the American sport fan who makes judgements about athletes based entirely on statistics and championship titles. Forget whether an athlete treats people well, obeys the law, inspires fans, and uses their fame and fortune to help others also succeed. Character is irrelevant. Championship rings trump social consciousness.

This is odd. In real life we gravitate towards specific co-workers, friends, and family based upon holistic judgments about their personal attributes—are they kind, generous, positive, self-effacing, humorous, caring? But in sports, job competence trumps everything. That’s why, to the American sports fan, LeBron James isn’t even close to as good as Jordan—two NBA championships versus six.

In the game of life, LJ has MJ beat already. By miles. Many sports analysts are not taking LJ’s letter on face value*. Their cynicism makes them suspicious of his motives for taking his talents to Northeast Ohio. I’m prone to cynicism, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt—he likes living in NE Ohio, feels a sense of obligation to the people and place that cheered for him before he was famous, and wants to inspire Cleveland third graders to also defy the odds of what society expects from them**.

And Jordan? He quit basketball to “spend more time with his family.” Immediately afterwards he signed a contract to play minor league baseball in a different state. What does he stand for besides basketball excellence? Gambling. Hanes underwear. Unbridled ego. Tennis shoes. Cash money.

Granted, I was a third grader in Northeast Ohio, so I might be biased, but LJ’s letter was so beautifully written I might ask my writing students to analyze it this fall. Then, for extra credit, he stuck it to Ann Coulter by acknowledging the World Cup final was a much more important athletic competition than any NBA championship series.

Call me naive if you must, but I’m down with LJ. And it’s important to note he’s not the only basketball superstar whose excellence is even more evident off the court. In sports, as in life, we should make holistic judgments. Magic and Durant (zero titles) also have Jordan beat by miles. There are lots of others.

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* I find this economist’s perspective interesting.

** I suspect there’s one other reason, that I haven’t heard a single person mention, why LeBron chose Cleveland. His wife wanted to return home.

What Sports Parents Get Wrong

As it turns out, some academic research is accessible and relevant to people’s daily lives. For instance, recent work on how best to parent young athletes.

Some of the findings. Travis Dorsch, sports psychologist, “When parental sports spending goes up, it increases the likelihood either that the child will feel pressure or that the parent will exert it.”

Daniel Gould, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, “The more parents do, the more they expect a return on their investment.”

Kevin Helliker in the Wall Street Journal:

This finding is likely to baffle parents who view Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters as star-studded products of heavy parental investment. It also calls into question the validity, at least in sporting arenas, of the so-called tiger style of parenting that spares no expense in the pursuit of top-notch results. Many sports parents struggle to strike a balance between supportive and pushy. A parent in the stands can help a child feel proud about doing well, as well as withstand the disappointments inherent in competition. And without parental help, most children couldn’t afford basic registration fees. But recent research suggests that large amounts of money can transform support into pressure.

Helliker adds:

How deeply Mom and Dad ought to invest in a child’s athletic activities is controversial. Jay Coakley, a University of Colorado professor emeritus of sports sociology, argues that the less the better. Greater parental spending tends to weaken a child’s sense of ownership of his athletic career, sometimes destroying his will to succeed, he says. “Kids are being labeled as burnouts when actually they’re just angry at having no options in their lives,” says Dr. Coakley.

I’ve written before about Richard Williams’ genius. As the story goes, Williams, the father and childhood coach of Venus and Serena, would hide their racquets once a year as a check on their motivation. The first day they’d celebrate a break from his rigorous practices, but by day two they would empty every closet to find the tools of their trade. That was all Williams needed to continue pushing.

Hard to imagine, but Lucy Li, an 11 year-old sixth grader, has qualified for the Women’s US Open this June at Pinehurst No. 2. Ten years ago, I watched 14 year old Michelle Wie play in the Women’s US Open at Pumpkin Ridge, west of Portland. Here’s hoping Li’s parents learn from Wie’s. Wie was considered a once in a generation talent—exquisite swing, athletic, and much longer than the other women. Everyone assumed she’d rewrite the record books. The only record she set was for unfulfilled potential. Most people who cover the LPGA blame her dad for his over involvement in her life and career. Only recently, since graduating from Stanford and establishing her own home in Florida, has she had success on the LPGA tour.

I hope Li’s parents don’t push her too hard. Obviously, the talent is already there. Odds are, her success will hinge on how much she enjoys the game. I have some unsolicited advice for mom and dad Li. Hide her sticks on occasion.

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Why the Donald Sterling Fiasco Won’t Initiate a Dialogue on Race

The headline read, “Hall of Famers expect league to support Sam”. Of course the league will support Michael Sam, the all All-American defense lineman at Missouri who is the first openly gay active player in the history of the NFL.

But not because NFL locker rooms are especially progressive places. Some players are sensitive to people’s differing sexual orientations, others are decidedly not. As the Donald Sterling illustrates, social media will silence the Decidedly Nots. Sterling went from owner of the Los Angeles Clippers to a pariah in 72 hours. Similarly, any player caught communicating homophobic things about Sam will immediately feel the full weight of instantaneous social media. And any hope for commercial endorsements will be dashed.

One thread of the Sterling coverage has been “If anything positive comes of this, we need to initiate a discussion on race”. There’s little chance of that because social media tends to create a mob mentality with everyone racing to tar and feather the offending homophobe or racist. That creates a chilling effect on what would help initiate a discussion on race—each of us reflecting honestly on how we pre-judge people different than us. Instead of introspection, we pile on the offending person like an unthinking football player ignoring the official’s whistle.

Unlike social media, education depends upon dialogue and dialogue requires that people trust their point of view will be respectfully listened to. The key is to distinguish between racist or homophobic thoughts, words, and actions. Excellent teachers learn to work sensitively with homophobic thoughts and words, but when it comes to hateful actions, of course people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Excellent teachers learn to work with racist or homophobic thoughts and words by exploring their underlying root causes by asking students questions such as “Why do you believe that?” They know that seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. They expand students’ worldviews by introducing them to unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and sometimes travel. And by teaching students to substitute curiosity for negative preconceived notions, so that they too learn to ask others, “Why do you believe what you do?”

What I’ve Been Reading

Would Jesus Support the Death Penalty? Many Christians strangely believe that Jesus wouldn’t support the death penalty even though they do.”

The Tale of Two Schools. Fieldston and University Heights are in the same New York City borough but worlds apart. How much understanding between their students can a well-told story bring? A lot it turns out.

The Hunt for El Chapo. The story of how the world’s most notorious drug lord was captured. Sure to be a movie.

Louis C.K. Against the Common Core. When a comedian points out the way in which the current priorities don’t add up, it earns even the attention of those who haven’t thought much about school since they graduated. But the brutal math of the New York City school system is no laughing matter.”

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Entering students at my uni will read this novel and discuss it during orientation in early September. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that steadily gets more and more interesting up to the very end. After 50-75 pages, I may have set it aside if it hadn’t been “assigned”. The story of a family of five. The dad is a psychology professor at Indiana University. Recommended. It will resonant strongly with those most sympathetic to the animal rights movement.

Bill Simmon’s Big Score. How a failed newspaper writer built a new kind of media empire at ESPN. I’ve completely tired of Simmon’s act, but still found this an interesting “new journalism” case study. A few factoids. The four major sports are worth a combined $91.2b. ESPN’s worth $50.8b making it the most valuable media brand in the world. Bill Simmons has 2.6 million twitter followers, I’m up to 46. 

On deck—American Crucifixion by Alex Beam. The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.

In the hole—Family Life by Akil Sharma.

 

Sports are Not a Metaphor for Life

First a note to international readers. In the U.S. the first two weeks in April is many sports-minded people’s favorite time of the year because of a confluence of great events highlighted by the college basketball national tournaments and the tradition-rich Masters golf tournament. There’s also the start of the professional baseball season and the beginning of the professional hockey and basketball playoffs. And this year there’s going to be a pretty special footrace in Boston next Monday, the 21st.

Few, if any, expected to see the Universities of Connecticut and Kentucky play for the national basketball championship. Combined, both teams lost nineteen games during the regular season. Similarly, Bubba Watson looked completely lost on Augusta National’s greens during Saturday’s third round. Most people thought it was Louisville’s, Arizona’s, or Florida’s tournament to lose and Matt Kuchar’s turn to break through in a major championship. Few were shocked when Bubba fell behind by two strokes early during Sunday’s final round.

But Bubba, following Connecticut’s and Kentucky’s lead, rallied to play his best golf at the most important time, and won by three strokes. My takeaway is this. Next week in Boston, pay no attention to who is in the lead at the halfway mark. In fact, don’t place too much importance on who is ahead at the 20 mile mark. In keeping with this sports season, someone unexpected will assert their will on the field over the last few miles. Call me crazy, but maybe even someone not from East Africa.

When I first sketched this post in my head, I was playing around with what, if anything, these athletic contests have to do with how you and I should live. But I was forcing it because athletic competition is not a meaningful metaphor for life. Because only one team hoists the national championship trophy and only one golfer puts on the green jacket each April.

In life, the more our family members, close friends, and co-workers flourish, the better our lives. The key to that is cooperation in the form of mutual support. In contrast, family, friendship, and co-worker competition inevitably results in petty jealousies, anger, and dissension.

And yet, sometimes there are sublime moments of cooperation in the heat of athletic competition. For example, at one of last year’s major marathons, the two men leading the race passed one water bottle back and forth. Maybe they were Stoics even more focused on giving their best effort than finishing first. And often the most awe-inspiring moments are compliments of young athletes, like high schooler Megan Vogel, who flat out reject win at all costs thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

Kikkan Randall Take Away—Find Joy Everyday

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Condensed from Jim Caple of espnW:

Tuesday was supposed to be more than just a great day for Kikkan Randall, it was also to be a great day for American cross-country skiing, its best day in nearly four decades.

America has won only one Olympic medal in the sport, and that was 38 very long years ago when Bill Koch took the silver medal at the 1976 Innsbruck Games. That’s nearly four decades of endless frustration, disappointment and losses by very large margins. The United States has been such an underdog in the sport that four-time Olympian Kris Freeman compares America beating cross-county powerhouse Norway to a Little League team beating the Yankees.

But Tuesday was going to be oh, so deliciously different.

Randall, the 31-year-old Alaskan skier with pink-streaked hair, won five World Cup races last year and won back-to-back World Cup races last month. She is a two-time world sprint champion. She said the Sochi course was favorable to her style. Everyone . . . picked her to win gold in Tuesday’s sprint free race.

Instead, Randall didn’t even reach the semifinals.

She started off well in the fifth quarterfinal heat, taking the lead by skiing powerfully up the 1.3-kilometer course’s hill. She held the lead as the athletes entered the course stadium and raced toward the finish line.

Then, Germany’s Denise Herrmann passed her. (Because the top two skiers advance from the quarterfinals, Randall still was in good shape, though.)

But then Norway’s Marit Bjoergen passed her.

Because the two skiers with the next two fastest times overall also advance, Randall’s chances still were looking decent.

But then Italy’s Gaia Vuerich passed her just before the finish line.

Randall still had a chance to advance as the second qualifier (aka, a “lucky loser”) if her time had been fast enough, but it wasn’t. After waiting many anxious seconds, she learned she had been too slow.

“That final gear wasn’t quite there and then I fell apart there right before the finish and didn’t get a lunge in,” she said. Official results indicated she was actually five-hundredths behind Vuerich. “I’m sure I’ll be living those moments hundreds of time in my head.”

After a television interview. . . Randall walked down the steps to the mixed zone to speak with reporters. Tears flowing down her cheeks, she leaned against a barrier and buried her head in her arms.

This was only natural, given that she carried the tremendous weight of her country’s hopes for cross-country. Randall didn’t just want a medal for herself, she wanted a medal to boost the sport throughout America. She wants more Americans out on the trail, learning how wonderful and fun her sport is while improving their health and fitness.

“It’s rough, but that’s sport, right?” Randall said of her disappointing day. “You prepare your whole life for something like this and it’s over in 2½ minutes.”

It’s especially rough because of the cross-country system that alternates sprint styles every Olympics. One Olympics, the sprint will be raced classic style; the next it will be free style. The free sprint, Randall’s specialty, will not be held again until the 2022 Olympics, when she is 39.

I admire Randall for going all in on medaling, but wonder if she’ll think it was worth it. “The joy,” some wise person once said, “is in the journey.” I’m sure Randall isn’t feeling too joyful right now, but in time I hope she feels the effort was worthwhile. That she has positive memories from some training sessions; and other victories; and her world travels; and most especially, her friendships with teammates, fellow competitors, trainers and coaches. Despite the bitter disappointment of not achieving her ultimate goal, I hope she feels her life is richer as a result of the attempt.

Sometimes I’m asked if I’m going to do another long distance triathlon. The key question for me is whether I could enjoy the extensive training required. If I do re-up, I will think of the race as just one small part of the larger equation.

Although I get the allure of sporadic, specific instances of accentuated risk/reward like Olympic competition, I prefer stitching together meaningful daily routines that tip the balance towards deeper relationships, better physical health, and greater spiritual enlightenment. Yesterday was a great day not just because it was my birthday, but because of small, simple joys—a longish morning swim workout; a green tea latte; unexpected emails from distant friends; unexpected sunshine; a walk with the wife and labradude; phone conversations with my two fav college students; and dinner out at Gardner’s.

Gardner’s is a bit fancy pants, but Kikkan Randall taught me something today. Don’t live too far in the future. Find joy everyday.

 

Youth Fitness Should Trump Athletic Competition

“Combined participation in the four most-popular U.S. team sports—basketball, soccer, baseball and football—fell among boys and girls aged 6 through 17 by roughly 4% from 2008 to 2012.” [Wall Street Journal]

Docs and others are worried because “It is much more likely that someone who is active in their childhood is going to remain active into their adulthood.”

Forgotten in this discussion is the fact that there are lots of ways to be active. When it comes to youth, we focus far too narrowly on athletic competition at the expense of fitness.

One common theory for the decline is that social networking, videogames and other technology are drawing children away from sports. And of course football faces a more specific challenge, “growing concern that concussions and other contact injuries can cause lasting physical damage.” The Journal speculates on other causes including increasing costs of participation to excessive pressure on kids in youth sports to cuts in school physical-education programs.

I was intrigued by one student’s story in the article:

Fifteen-year-old Jessica Cronin is the daughter of a former three-sport high-school athlete. But Jessica doesn’t participate in high-school sports, choosing to spend her time outside of class volunteering in her community and going to her temple youth group each Wednesday. “I considered doing track, but it takes up so much time,” said Ms. Cronin, a sophomore at Bethlehem Central High School in Delmar, N.Y.

Since most fifteen year-olds can run 6-7 miles in an hour, I suspect Jessica prefers her community service and youth group activities because they’re based on cooperation more than competition. Most young athletes don’t care about winning as much as their coaches. They’re not anti-competition per se, they just can’t relate to, and therefore resent, many of their coaches “win at all costs” approach.

That’s why a lot of young people gravitate to alternative sports like ultimate frisbee and alternative activities like skateboarding.

Survey youth basketball, soccer, baseball and football coaches about what’s most important to them and their athletes long-term health probably won’t make the list. Too many youth coaches are fixated on scoreboards and win-loss records. School principals, athletic directors, and parents aren’t doing enough to train, hire, and reward coaches who think about team sports as a context for healthier living.

Switching from a competitive team sport orientation to a fitness one should start with wider, better lit roads with generous sidewalks so that most young people can walk, bike, blade, skateboard, or run to and from school. Next physical education classes should emphasize life long activities including walking, running, yoga, swimming, and related activities. Students should be encouraged to compete against their younger selves to walk, run, cycle, and swim farther faster.

When fitness trumps athletic competition physical education classes and team sport practices will be more fun than video games. There should be little to no standing around. I have fond memories of some high school water polo practices where our conditioning consisted of a crazy obstacle course that culminated with a celebratory jump off the three meter board. We improved on the coach’s design by firing balls at one another mid-air. Granted a nose was broken and that was in the Pleistocene Era before the first lawyer emerged from the primordial ooze. Practices would be shorter because the emphasis would be on quality of activity more than quantity.

Who is with me?

 

When Nationality Binds and Blinds

You know the story. A former NBA player recruits a team of retired professional basketball players to play an exhibition game in front of Kim Jong Un on his birthday. Obviously, the players haven’t spent any of their post NBA lives learning anything about life in North Korea. The whole trip, especially the players clapping adoringly while the team leader serenaded Kim Jong Un with “Happy Birthday”, was almost too surreal to process.

Understandably, the media was quick to criticize the player and his friends. But the national-centric nature of the media’s criticism warrants criticism. And as far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been any. Never mind that 1m North Koreans died during famines in the 90s, that hunger is still a daily reality for most North Koreans, or that state prison camps have doubled in size since Kim Jong Un’s ascension two years ago. Learn more here.

The media’s criticism has focused on only one thing, American missionary Kenneth Bae, whose story is tragic. Bae, who is in declining health, is being held against his will for allegedly cataloging the extent of hunger among North Koreans under the guise of Christian missionary work. Bae’s story deserves media attention, but not at the expense of tens of millions of ordinary North Koreans whose daily lives have always been a living hell.

Our passivity about the plight of ordinary North Koreans explains the myopic media coverage we’ve been subjected to. Interestingly, Bae was born in South Korea and moved to California when he was 17 or 18 years old. Overtime he not only gained citizenship, he secured the one thing that seems to make him far more important than all the North Koreans combined, a U.S. passport.

Our passivity about our media’s national-centrism is an embarrassment. The North Korean media spotlight is in actuality a sporadic lighting of dim, fast burning individual match sticks. Given that, it’s especially important that our first instinct is always to honor the humanity of everyone held captive in North Korea irrespective of their nationality.

On Talent and Effortless Style

Fascinating essay last week by Don Van Natta, Jr. on the 1973 Billy Jean King-Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match that 50 million Americans and I watched on television. I was eleven and still remember it.

Riggs was a masterful hustler who “stayed in the barn” early in high stakes tennis and golf matches, meaning he purposely played well below his potential to lure his opponent and other bettors into a false sense of accomplishment. Then, mid to late match, Riggs would “come out of the barn,” play as well as possible and ultimately win. The art was in the timing.

The most talented, compelling artists almost always appear to be at least partly in the barn. As if they always have another gear or two in reserve. That’s what makes their performances so compelling. My first memory of this phenomenon was probably around the “Battle of the Sexes” when I was awestruck by a televised Dionne Warwick performance. She seemed to be expending about a third of her energy. Here’s just one example from the video archives:

When My Betrothed dances, she’s partly in the barn. And when watching my friend Brian ride his bike, with his rhythmic high cadence, perfectly still body, and oh so steady pace, I think, “Damn, if only it were that easy.”

Lake Center Dive is an immensely talented and stylish, up-and-coming foursome that conveys that “partly in the barn” feeling big time. Dig these examples:

Of course, an individual or group can only make something look effortless when they combine natural talent, intense commitment, and serious preparation.

My Betrothed, Brian, and Lake Center Dive owe people like me, who try to compensate for a lack of talent through extra effort, with a huge debt of gratitude. The rough edges of our extra effort is what makes the truly talented appear so stylish in comparison.