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?

 

What’s the Educative Effect of High School Sports?

If my neighbors read this ESPN Grantland story about the scientist doing most of the brain research on deceased professional football players, boxers, other athletes, and war veterans, would they allow their sons to play football this fall?

Based on what dermatologists know now, my parents shouldn’t have let me play outside all summer without any protection from the sun. Burn. Peel. Repeat. Skin cancer.

Are public high school principals and athletic directors explaining the research findings to student-athelte parents so they can make informed choices about their children’s long-term health? No. Because if schools did think of football as a public safety issue, like absestos riddled buildings, and were on top of the research, they’d have a very hard time justifying fielding football teams at all.

Many citizens, like global warming skeptics who don’t want to change their lifestyles, will refute the research without carefully considering it. Culturally, there’s too much at stake. Exhibit A. This new $60m Texas high school stadium that seats 18,500. Friday Night Lights. Saturday tailgating. Sunday television. Maybe ignorance is bliss.

Most athletic directors are also boosters of sorts so I doubt they’re doing much to educate parents about the known risks of playing football. Principals would probably say they have too much on their plates and have to depend upon their A.D.’s. Hence the silence.

Principals get away with saying they have too much to do to oversee sports because we don’t think of the primary mission of schools—to enhance the life prospects of young people—and the primary mission of football as it’s played by most schools—to outscore the opponent as many times as possible for the sake of school spirit and community pride—as having much to do with one another. Coaches focus on the physical, and wins, losses, league standings, and state titles. Educators focus on students’ intellectual and social growth and future life prospects.

Everyone once in awhile a coach comes along with an educator’s mentality. And sometimes educator coached teams experience on-field success even though they don’t have a win-at-all-cost mindset. They think of their sport as a means towards an end, or ends rather, including the building of character, an insistence on integrity and fair play, and appreciation for teamwork. These coaches are beloved because they have perspective and are far and few between. They think of themselves as educators first, they manage their frustration, and they’re preoccupied with what type of citizens their teen-age athletes will be at age 26 or 36.

Instead of being integral to a school’s mission, high school football is almost always thought of as an add-on. A high status add-on that escapes critical inquiry. Given what we’re learning about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, it’s time that changes.

The newest Texas high school stadium. Deadspin, “It looks like a gorgeous place to watch boys’ lives peak before they’re old enough to vote.”

 

A More Gentle Pace

I recommend Roman Krznaric’s “The Wonderbox“. From the book flap:

There are many ways to improve our lives: we can turn to the wisdom of philosophers, the teachings of religion, or the latest experiments of psychologists. But we rarely look to history for inspiration—and when we do it can be surprisingly powerful. Uncovering the lessons that can be learned from the past, cultural historian Roman Krznaric explores twelve universal topics from work and love to money and creativity, and reveals the wisdom we’ve been missing. There is much to be learned from Ancient Greece on the different varieties of love; from the industrialising British on job satisfaction; and ancient Japanese pilgrims on the art of travel.

I just finished Chapter Five titled “Time”. I appreciate your making the time to “read me,” but my guess is you won’t follow the book link, let alone read the book because you don’t have the time. Here’s one pgraph from Chapter Five to give you the flavor flav of the book:

My adventures with time are not simply a rejection of the clock, but an embrace of absorbing the world at a more gentle pace. When I got to an art gallery, I try to visit only two or three paintings. Each morning I walk in the garden and search for something that has changed—perhaps a bud that has opened or a new spiderweb—which helps bring a stillness to the beginning of the day. I attempt to eat slowly, savouring the flavours. Almost everybody laughs at my tiny diary, which give each day a space half the length of my little finger. As it is so easily filled, it helps keep down my number of appointments. Artificial? Absolutely. But it works for me. The best way I know to have more time, to feel less rushed, and appreciate life to the fullest, is to plan fewer activities.

Krznaric doesn’t wear a watch, programs his phone and other gadgets so the time doesn’t show, and covers the built-in clocks on his kitchen appliances in an effort to resist modern society’s all encompassing artificial demarcations of time.

You may do the same a few days or weeks a year when on vacation. There’s nothing much more liberating than, temporarily at least, disconnecting from time.

Most people equate minimalism with decluttering and that’s an integral part, but planning fewer activities may be even more essential to living more slowly and simply. My North American, upper middle-class suburban peers are particularly susceptible to over planning because they fear their children will be disadvantaged if they don’t participate in nearly every extracurricular activity including sports, music, theater, religious youth or service groups, and family travel.

Chock-full family calendars, found in most suburban kitchens, are testaments to hyper-activity. Consequently, most children really don’t know what to do with “free time”. Especially, screen-free free time.

An insight worth repeating. “The best way I know to have more time, to feel less rushed, and appreciate life to the fullest, is to plan fewer activities.”

The audacity. Slate’s Rachel Larimore disagrees with Krznaric and myself. In Defense of Busyness.

How ’bout you?

Slowing to a complete stop recently on the Deschutes River in Sunriver, Oregon

The GalPal’s morning “to do”—sit by the river.

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.

Ephemeral Victory

A Sports Illustrated story. Synopsis. A South Pasadena High School pole vaulter thought she won a meet and league title for her team on her final vault until the Monrovia coach pointed out she had a string friendship bracelet on which is against the rules. The pole vaulter was disqualified on the technicality, giving Monrovia the victory and league title.

I’m going to guess this was what the Monrovia coach was thinking upon seeing the bracelet. “We got em’. Victory is ours.”

Here’s an alternative idea. Let’s assume that none of the South Pas or Monrovia girls are going to become professional tracksters. And let’s assume that in ten or twenty years few people will remember or care about who won the meet and league title. And let’s speculate on how the Monrovia coach might have processed things had he been thinking more like an educator.

Specifically, what if he had asked, “What’s the take-away for my athletes if we claim victory based on the technicality? What is it if we refuse to stake our claim to victory? Which is likelier to result in classy adults?”

Or what if he had quickly huddled up with the team and asked them what they thought they should do? “Coach,” I’m betting they would have said, “let’s go congratulate them on their victory.”

Tell the Truth. . . Most of the Time

This thirty second sportsmanship commercial produced by the Foundation for a Better Life got me thinking about how in sports an “ends justify the means” mentality often dominates. Why is that?

We’re used to seeing wide receivers trap balls and pop up as if they caught them before they hit the ground. Similarly, we’re using to seeing outfielders pop up after trapping line drives as if they were legit catches. And as the commercial highlights, in bball players routinely deny having tipped a ball.

One definition of morality is doing the right thing when no one’s looking, in some sports though, we seemingly accept whatever it takes to win.

Can’t athletes be both passionate about winning and ethical?

I take a car crash approach to YouTube comments, try not to look, but in the case of this commercial, I couldn’t help myself. One commenter made an interesting point by saying it’s important to defer to the third, impartial party to maintain control and that the refs wouldn’t have liked having their call questioned. Is that a legit explanation for the status quo or is it a weak rationalization for lying? Most people ripped the player for admitting to touching the ball before it went out of bounds.

Again, why do we expect people to tell the truth when completing their taxes, but take an “anything goes” approach to winning? If you’re over thirty five you might remember the fifth down game. Gotta love Bill McCartney‘s (of Promise Keepers fame) stirring response.

Maybe it’s just the major sports. Golf is well known for requiring honesty and as Rosie Ruiz found out, generally you have to run the whole 26.2 miles of a marathon.

What am I going to do all about this? The next time I race my daughter in the 500 free, I’m going to get my counter to flip from 13 to 17 and hope no one notices. If they do, I’m sure everyone will cut me some slack.

Shirking Responsibility

I wonder, is it within your nature and my nature to shirk responsibility?

Educators often complain that students don’t take sufficient responsibility for their mistakes. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re slow to accept responsibility for some of our unflattering actions. Too often, instead of admitting fault and applying ourselves to resolve problems, we expend energy trying to pin mistakes on others.

Example one. A friend’s son’s team lost a close football game this season “because the ref threw the game” as a result of a “vendetta” against the firey head coach. As the poor calls built up, the other coaches and my friend went nuts, and no surprise, the players complained mightily about the outcome long after the final whistle. Youth learn more from what we do than what we say, but in this case is was a combination of what was said and done. I told my friend the coaching staff taught a powerful lesson that day. When things don’t go your way, pin it on others. 

What if they had said, “Refs are human and make mistakes. Usually they balance out. If we had played as well as we’re capable, the game wouldn’t have been that close. We will not be the type of team that pins losses on the refs. We will take responsibility for tough losses. Now go congratulate the other team and remember the lesson of this game: if you let the other team hang around, anything can happen.”

Example two. Recently some college presidents have made noise about suing the investment teams that are managing their shrinking endowments. Here’s what I’d like to ask each of these presidents. Are you kidding me? These are the same investment teams that the presidents were praising the last few years for their double digit returns. News flash, markets go down. The lesson of 2008, sometimes a lot. Unless some of the investment teams were from the Madoff school of investing, and guaranteed annual gains, the presidents need to accept endowment losses without blaming their once golden money managers. 

Example three. From a distance it appears as if the gay marriage backers who opposed Prop 8 in California didn’t like the outcome and want a do-over. I know this controversy is white-hot and complex. What I don’t understand is how can any state allow propositions of questionable constitutional quality onto the ballot in the first place? Didn’t the state election commission ask “If the proposition passes, will it run afoul of the constitution?” Assuming the election commission was competent, I believe the opponents of Prop 8 should accept the fact that 52% of voters supported it and focus their energies on reversing the decision in the next election.