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?

 

Relational Teaching, Coaching, Parenting

While visiting my favorite first year college student in Minnesota in early November, I thought about the ones I teach in Washington State. My daughter’s friend was exiting their dorm as we were entering it. “How did your advising meeting go?” my daughter asked. “Pretty terrible.” “Why?” “She got pretty mad at me. Told me to come prepared next time. I had five different schedules written down, but I was just too scared to show them to her.”

Too scared.

Fast forward to the end-of-semester conferences I had with my writing students last week. One of them, Tori said, “I appreciated your stories because at first I was intimidated by you. I mean you said you did triathlons.” Academics intimidate students through formal titles, academic language, dress (including academic robes), and rituals such as convocation and commencement. And in my case I guess, by swimming, cycling, and running in succession.

Similarly, some coaches routinely intimidate athletes and some parents routinely intimidate their children. They argue that intimidation breeds fear and fear breeds respect. But when they have an athlete or child get in serious trouble they often ask, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The answer is obvious. Too scared.

Teaching excellence takes many forms. The intimidation—fear—respect model probably works well in the military, but I believe intimidation impedes learning because it contributes to students bullshitting  their way through school. Instead of developing authentic voices, students say and write what they think their teachers want to hear and read. The technical term is “grade grubbing”.

It’s not enough to say what my teachers-to-be always do, “I want to be more than just a teacher. I want to be a role model, someone students can come to and talk about not just class, but life.” Most students are so intimidated, any teacher that wants to be “accessible” has to be intentional about adopting a less formal, more personal professional persona.

One way to do that is to tell short, personal, self-deprecating stories. Ideally short, personal, self-deprecating stories that relate to the day’s content. Students aren’t interested in the details of their teachers’ personal lives. Save those for a friend or therapist.

Pope Francis is a great example of someone intentionally passing on a built-in pedestal. In part, his tenure has started so positively because he’s foregone the traditional perks of the position, including the Mercedes and posh Vatican digs. Compared to his predecessors, he travels and lives in ways that more people can relate to.

Most likely, my daughter’s friend couldn’t relate to her advisor for a litany of reasons. Reasons I doubt her advisor will explore. Many academics, just like some coaches and parents, prefer the view from their lofty perches. Teaching, coaching, and parenting is far less messy from above. Just not nearly as effective.

What Excellent Teachers Do

Last Saturday morning, as I prepared to lap swim, I couldn’t help but notice the tumult in the lane next to me. A college-aged swim instructor held a red-faced, frantic three year old who was crying uncontrollably. The three-year old’s exasperated dad squatted like a catcher at the edge of the pool and attempted to explain to the instructor everything that had gone wrong in recent lessons.

Maybe you’ve seen That Dad. I was That Dad.

As I did my best Michael Phelps impersonation, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to my eldest daughters introduction to swimming. The more I wanted her to put her head in the water, the more she resisted. Fast forward to today. She’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On a Winter training trip with her college swim team. Her head completely in the water four hours a day. Co-captain of the team. And worst of all—faster than her dad.

The best teachers look at their sometimes immature and frustrating young students and see their best future selves. Peace Corp volunteers and program directors. Therapists. Farmers. Speech pathologists. School teachers, nurses, and artists. Loving parents. Mechanics. Authors. Carpenters. Docs. Citizens making their communities better places.

Similarly, when the best youth coaches look at their sometimes clueless and hapless athletes they don’t see future college or professional athletes, they see responsible, resilient, mindful adults.

Likewise, when enlightened parents watch their children struggle in and/or out of school, they know “This too shall pass.” They offer love, encouragement, and care. They convey confidence in their children’s abilities and see their best future selves. They know, some day soon, they’ll put their heads in the water and swim like there’s no tomorrow.

What Baby Boomers Get Wrong

The “Get Wrong” series is so popular, the Good Wife recently asked when I’m going to post on what she gets wrong. Since she’s a card carrying Baby Boomer, here’s some of what she gets wrong.

First, some context. Whether you’re aware of it or not, there’s a full-fledged generational cage match going on and the Millennials bring it via YouTube!

At first glance the vid appears to be light-hearted entertainment. In actuality, it’s poignant, hard-hitting social criticism. When it comes to generation gaps, Baby Boomers like me (I’m a tail ender) make two mistakes over and over and over.

Mistake 1—Based upon a few negative encounters with Millennials, we get so worked up, our brains shut down; consequently, we overgeneralize about all young adults. Here’s an idea Boomers, let’s stop starting sentences with “Millennials”. Any sentence that begins with the word “Millennials” is likely to be a gross and inaccurate generalization. Unless, of course, it’s “Millennials make some damn good videos.”

Mistake 2—Baby Boomers are lightening quick to say Millennials suck, and yet, take no responsibility for their alleged shortcomings. That’s the brilliance of the vid. Their flaws are the direct result of our parenting, teaching, coaching. Millennials didn’t suddenly appear out of the ether like the first invertebrates. Here’s another idea Boomers, let’s stop ripping the Millennials without explaining our culpability.

Education Story of the Year—Jon Kitna Returns to Lincoln High School

In professional sports, the media spotlight tends to shine on the knuckleheads for whom there’s no shortage. That’s why Tim Tebow became a pop culture phenom. Fans long for players they can cheer for on and off the field.

Jon Kitna is Tim Tebow minus the blinding spotlight. A devout Christian, who after playing quarterback for four NFL teams over fifteen years, just retired. Here’s his top ten salary years from largest contract to smallest.

SEASON TEAM BASE SALARY SIGN BONUS CAP VALUE SALARY POSITION
2001 Cincinnati Bengals $ 500,000 $ 4,000,000 $ 1,501,440 $ 5,501,440 Quarterback
2008 Detroit Lions $ 2,950,000 $ 3,500,000 $ 5,875,000 $ 5,000,000 Quarterback
2006 Detroit Lions $ 1,450,000 $ 3,500,000 $ 2,375,000 $ 5,000,000 Quarterback
2009 Dallas Cowboys $ 1,400,000 $ 2,000,000 $ 4,000,000 Quarterback
2004 Cincinnati Bengals $ 1,000,000 $ 2,375,000 $ 3,190,000 $ 3,377,500 Quarterback
2003 Cincinnati Bengals $ 2,625,000 $ 3,626,600 $ 2,626,600 Quarterback
2002 Cincinnati Bengals $ 1,500,000 $ 2,501,260 $ 1,501,260 Quarterback
2007 Detroit Lions $ 1,450,000 $ 3,500,000 $ 2,875,000 $ 1,500,000 Quarterback
2000 Seattle Seahawks $ 1,371,000 $ 1,373,600 $ 1,373,600 Quarterback
2005 Cincinnati Bengals $ 1,000,000 $ 2,188,820 $ 1,001,320 Quarterback

source—USA Today

Instead of spending his retirement counting and trying to spend his millions, Kitna’s taken another job. Part-time math teacher at Tacoma, Washington’s Lincoln High School and full-time football coach. Teaching and coaching at his inner-city alma mater has been his wife’s and his plan all along. He’s excited to begin fulfilling his real purpose in life. Giving up the cushy, glamorous life of hanging with Tony Romo and Jerry Jones on chartered jets for late night lesson planning, apathetic math students, footballers used to losing, and slow, lengthy Friday night school bus rides on jammed freeways. Remarkable.

Sad that a story like this is left to his local paper and this humble blog. Every one of the country’s sports writing cognoscenti should be leading with Kitna’s story. How he was a screw up at Lincoln High School. How he drank way too much at Central Washington University, cheated on his present day wife, committed to Christianity, and turned his life completely around.

Whether you’re religious or not, Kitna’s commitment to service should inspire. Here’s a short video of Jon talking about his vision for the team. Football excellence as a means to more important ends. After watching the vid, I’d be happy to coach the coach on how to set personal faith—public school boundaries.

Here’s hoping he inspires a generation of students and athletes. I will be watching Kitna’s second career whether the media shines their light on him or not. And I’ll be cheering lustily for him, his team, Lincoln High, and the larger community.

More here.

Connecting With Teens

As a teacher, coach, father, person, I’ve always been pretty good at connecting with teens. Maybe for the following reasons:

1) I enjoy them, quirks and all. Well, the vast majority. I like their energy, goofiness, earnestness, naïveté. I don’t think of them as a separate specie that is up to no good. Sometimes I even abandon my peers, “cross over,” and sit with them at multi-family get togethers. Most teens rise to the level of adult expectations.

2) I look past outward appearances. I know they’re not going to look the same at 30. I don’t read much into funky haircuts, baggy pants, wild hair coloring, and piercings. Those things don’t reflect a lack of values, they’re just trying out different personas and learning to blend in with peers. One evening eighteen years ago, after a day spent exploring the Washington D.C. mall, my squeeze and I, with our one-year old daughter in tow, collapsed into chairs at a table at the Pentagon City Mall food court in Alexandria, VA. One minute later a group of about seven teens in black trench coats, with the requisite black hair, nail polish, and piercings started to settle into the table next to us. When they lit up, I walked over and calmly and respectfully said, “I don’t know if you guys saw the sign, but this is a no smoking area.” They apologized, got up and left. Exactly what I envisioned would happen.

3) I like some of the same aspects of pop culture as many of them. Which helps bridge the generation divide. Turns out many of Nineteen’s friends at the Midwest liberal arts college know the contents of my iPad. What a claim to fame, the geezer who likes pop music, hip-hop, and rap. Please understand though, I don’t listen to Eminem or watch Glee in order to bridge the generation divide. The “fake it until you make it” cliché does not apply to consuming pop culture in order to connect with teens. When it comes to teens and pop culture, fake it and forget it. The interest has to be genuine. It probably helps that my adolescent self is still alive and well. Just ask my family sometime, I’ve never completely outgrown my immature, stupid younger self. My arrested development helps me connect with teens.

4) I make fun of myself and joke around more generally. I haven’t met a teen yet that doesn’t appreciate self-deprecating humor. They live in perpetual fear of others laughing at them, so when I’m making fun of myself, it’s a much appreciated respite from their normal “people are about to laugh at me” anxiety. Ten weeks into my first year of teaching in inner-city L.A. I was at war with third period U.S. History. The class could have tipped either way when one day I yanked down the large U.S. map attached to the front board and it flew off the hooks landing across my upper back. Without thinking I went full Dick Van Dyke, grabbing said map, throwing it to the ground, and stomping on it. They thought that was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. Since I was human they decided to give me a break. Over the remaining thirty weeks I built a nice rapport with those students.

5) I anticipate bad decisions and am careful not to overreact when they stumble. More commonly, adults are surprised and disappointed by teens’ mistakes. Then they assert their authority and hand out strict punishments. From this teens learn more about adult power than what they might do differently the next time they have to make a difficult decision. Error prone teens always appreciate it when adults take the time to listen, talk, teach, and individualize necessary punishments.

Coaching’s Costs and Benefits

My Atul Gwande bro-mance or man-crush continues to build steam. He begins his most recent New Yorker essay explaining he’s been a surgeon for eight years and. . . for the past couple of them, my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better.

He points out that top athletes and singers have coaches and asks whether you should too. He asks the question in the context of his own story of contacting his mentor from med school, a well-known highly respected doc, to see if he’d be willing to observe him in surgery and offer suggestions. I recommend the whole essay, but long story short, Gwande breaks through his plateau as a result of his mentor’s objective, insightful, detailed feedback.

Mid-point in the essay, Gwande explains how teacher-to-teacher coaching is one of the most promising reforms being implemented in some school districts.

He also acknowledges that many of his fellow docs and many teachers probably aren’t quite secure enough to open themselves up to pointed constructive criticism.

But he fails to mention another at least equally significant hurdle, sufficient money to compensate experts for their coaching time. School districts have to release coaches from their own classrooms meaning substitutes have to be paid for or everyone has to teach larger classes. And I can’t believe he expects teachers, lawyers, dentists, and other professionals making far less than professional athletes or elite singers to pay for coaching out-of-pocket. It’s unclear how financially strapped school districts and hospitals are supposed to add in coaching costs.

If only I had a magical “financial resource” wand. Now that I’m in better touch with my stubborn, self-defeating self-sufficiency, I see areas in my life where I could benefit from coaching.

In late August the personal trainers in mom’s swanky FL health club were doing some intriguing exercises with their clients. Made me want to toss medicine balls and run around with giant rubberbands around my ankles. And I’m sure I could benefit from swimming, running, cycling, triathlon coaching. Listening/marital bliss coaching. Cooking/nutrition coaching. Gardening coaching. Bicycle maintenance coaching. Golf coaching. Social media coaching. Parenting coaching. Writing coaching.

You get the drift.

What Does Olympia Bear Girls Swimming Foretell About the Future?

The hard working, talented, quirky goofballs suggest the future is brighter than all the doomsdayers would lead you to believe.

We just completed our first five extra-long practices. Everyone put in the necessary work and got along well. Coach is seemingly trying to disprove my thesis from awhile back–that people don’t change. He’s more flexible than before, letting his hair down and deferring to the captains and his assistant coaches. Relaxing.

Because they applied themselves, the girls improved their technique and began to get in shape. Lots of impressive new ninth graders. I ran stairs with the team in four groups, the ninth graders, the sophs, the juniors, and the seniors. I told the ninths that I didn’t know what to call them. They didn’t really appear to be freshmen. Freshwomen might be a tad racy. The politically correct term on college campuses is “first years”. Then a brilliant suggestion, “Fresh”. Some of the Fresh are going to make life miserable for their elder teammates. In total, three girls had the audacity to run the stairs faster than me. I told them they may have to switch to x-country.

I told the team that Coach just celebrated his 47th wedding anniversary and was planning on swimming 1.75 miles in Lake Washington over the weekend. I pointed out that’s the amazing thing about swimming, you can do it a heck of a lot longer than football, soccer, probably any other sport. During this preseason, the girls are unplugged for four hours every morning, running stairs, talking, stretching, talking, planking, talking, practicing, talking, racing, talking.

At one point, Sixteen yelled over during a kick set, “Hey dad, tell me to ‘Pick it up!'” “Okay, ‘Byrnes, pick it up!'” She then hoisted her posterior 8 inches higher above the water. All of her lanemates laughed uncontrollably. Fool me once.

I ask one senior where she wants to go to school and she says Stanford. Backup, USC. Unacceptable I tell her. A Chinese-American fresh jumps out to stretch a sore shoulder and says “It’s probably violin practice.” I’m guessing there’s a Tiger Mother behind that tiger.

My hope is the coaches and parents can focus broadly on the process this season instead of narrowly on district and state time cuts. In the broad scope of things, high school is over in a flash. The most important questions aren’t how fast did you swim or how many points did you score, but did you learn to work hard, did you swim to the best of your abilities, did you gain confidence in your physical strength, did you get along with others, did you enjoy it enough that you want to continue doing it well into the future?

One Size Fits None

A warm welcome to DCRainmaker readers who are pouring in as a result of Ray linking to my recent “Where’s the Romance?” post. My most read post of all time, by a considerable margin, is one titled “School Mission Statements”. Do a Google search for “school mission statements” and it’s the fourth link, but whose counting? Ray gets 6,000 hits a day, a little more than me. If yesterday’s record uptick in readership continues for very long, “Where’s the Romance?” may give “School Mission Statements” a run for its money.

Now back to regular programming.

Read an interesting swimming article recently that detailed the different mindset of sprinters. Even elite Olympic caliber sprinters don’t like training and get bored extremely quickly. (Was that the rare double adverb? Is that legal? Shouldn’t I know that?) The ability to adapt to differences and individualize one’s coaching, teaching, campaigning, and sales pitches often distinguishes swim coaches, teachers, politicians, and salespeople as particularly excellent.

In teaching it’s referred to as curriculum differentiation. Curriculum differentiation occurs when a teacher adjusts his/her lesson plan so that it meets the needs of all students.

Amazingly, nearly all of the car salespeople I’ve interacted with seem to be reading from the same script. None of them have successfully read me. If they had, they’d bypass the small talk about what I do for a living and my family which I can’t stand and focus exclusively on the car’s features (which they often are unable to do very well).

The high school coach that I help and I sometimes get frustrated with some girls that don’t practice very hard. They sleep-swim, stop to adjust caps and goggles, stretch their shoulders, go to the bathroom during main sets, and in some cases miss practice altogether. But now that I think about it, they tend to be the sprinters. Their natural tendencies and our workouts are misaligned. They’ll probably never embrace the process, or the long, sometimes monotonous and always tiring rhythms of distance training.

If I’m ever a head coach, I think I’ll design three different workouts—a sprint one, a distance one, and a distance-lite one. The sprint workout, which will emphasize intensity and variety, will last about 60% as long as the others. Instead of coasting for ninety minutes, they’ll go real hard for 50 minutes.

Thinking in Decades

Seventeen, who will be eighteen shortly, grew up playing soccer. She was usually one of the weaker players on one of the better teams. Probably the fault of my genetics. Also, soccer was first and foremost social, so she hardly ever played between organized practices and games.

Her uneven play never bothered me because the effort was there, she usually enjoyed it, and she learned how to compete. At the beginning of high school, she applied those lessons to a new sport, swimming, and continues to improve in the water as a result.

This summer some of her former teammates and her formed a recreation team for one final run before they head off to different colleges. No practices, just two games a week. Last night was the final game so I thought I better turn up.

Arriving late, I see the opposing team’s forward streaking down the field all alone set to go in for an easy chip shot. But wait, Seventeen has the angle and she’s FLYING and she disrupts the girl’s momentum just in the nick of time. Is that my daughter? Amazing. A parent tells me she had rolled her ankle pretty badly a few minutes earlier.

I detect a slight limp, but she’s a gamer, loving every minute of it. No pressure, playing with great friends, for FUN. She’s a different player than I’ve ever seen, relaxed, confident, making smart pass after smart pass, checking girls, face red, sweating, focused, animated, just plain getting after it.

Parents, teachers, all adults who work with young people often suffer from “present tense myopia”. We get mired in young people’s physical and social awkwardness without any sense of their more physically and socially competent future selves.

I remember when Seventeen was in second or third grade and was making lots of simple spelling errors (yeah, yeah, probably the fault of my genetics). An elementary education colleague suggested “chilling” because it would naturally improve given her love of reading. He was right.

Parents should prominently display a “This too shall pass” sign somewhere in their kitchen as a reminder that children are constantly evolving.

In the end, it’s far less important how capable a seven or eight year old is in football, baseball, basketball, golf, soccer, swimming, spelling, reading, writing, or math than a seventeen or eighteen year old.

What a kick (pun intended) watching Seventeen last night. Nurture and support the young and then expect them to surprise you too.