Month: February 2014

What Makes a Good Sports Parent?

Of all the master coaches I know, John Kessel might be the best. Not because of his brilliant coaching of his sport (which happens to be volleyball), but more because of the way he thinks.  John is enthusiastically obsessed with the Big Questions: What’s the best environment for learning? How can you ignite motivation in young people? What is great teaching made of?

Earlier this week, John happened to see a presentation contrasting the habits of good classrooms and bad classrooms. After brainstorming with colleagues Leslee Harms and Cassie Weaver, he came up with the following poster, which highlights the key elements of a high-quality sports program.

I think it’s absolutely spot-on — and what’s more, applies to a lot more than just sports. In fact, if there’s a clearer road map to creating an effective learning environment, I haven’t seen it.

Tale of Two Sports Programs  11x17

But of course, that’s just the start.

For the next project, John would like to come up with a similar road map for the single group of people who need it most: parents. His idea is to have the readers of this blog (and others) compile a similar list for parents: Call it: “A Tale of Two Parenting Styles.”

And that’s where you come in.

Would you be interested in offering John your ideas and suggestions on what makes an effective sports parent, and what doesn’t? Feel free to add however many you like; the only request is that you follow the above format. I’ll get it started:

  • Parent A: Focuses on wins and losses as the measure of success
  • Parent B:  Focuses on long-term learning.
  • Parent A: Spends the car-ride home asking detailed questions about the game, the kid’s performance, and the coach
  • Parent B: Spends the car-ride home being supportive, listening to music, talking about life outside sports

What do you think? Can you help John get this done?

PS – You can find John’s blog here, and more good posters here that, like the above, are free to print out and share (I especially like “Be a Coach” and “Be a Player”).

PPS – For inspiration, check out this hilarious animated video that John made with his son Cody, depicting a a coach’s conversation with a Parent from Hell.

The Unprepared Person’s Guide to Performance-Boosting

unpreparedIn a perfect world, we all arrive 100 percent prepared for every test, game, or performance.

In the actual world, this does not happen. In fact, we  occasionally show up fantastically unprepared. In fact, just this morning, my 15-year-old daughter had such a moment: a math test this afternoon, and she’d barely studied.

Fortunately, modern science is here to rescue us. Specifically, science that reveals the surprising power of small environmental cues to activate unconscious triggers in our brains.

There are entire books written about this subject (my favorite is Adam Alter’s wonderful Drunk Tank Pink) and I recommend checking them out. But in the meantime here are a few quick performance-enhancing tricks that you can use in a pinch. Keep in mind that the science is in its infancy, and that many of these studies have tiny sample sizes.

But that’s okay. After all, you’re desperate.

  • 1) Think about your ancestors. This experiment in Germany showed that students who spent a few minutes thinking about their forebearers (either great grandparents or more distant) improved  performance on a memory test by 30 percent over students who thought about friends or shopping. The reason? We’re social animals. Your ancestors are the reason you exist. Thinking about them seems to activate our senses of belonging, confidence, and control.
  • 2) Wear red, especially in sports. This is a weird one, but apparently true: a 2004 study of 457 Olympic wrestling matches showed that when competitors were seeded identically, the ones wearing red won 62 percent of the matches. A similar finding was done with a half-century-long study of English soccer teams (though the fact that powers Manchester United and Liverpool both wear red might have something to do with that). Scientists theorize it has to do with the fact that red holds an evolutionary link to dominance and aggression, and thus triggers unconscious feelings of dominance that improve performance.
  • 3) Spend a few minutes staring at a photo of trees, or (better) take a quick walk in the woods, which has been shown to improve performance on a memory and attention test by 20 percent.
  • 4) Listen to relaxing music, which improves the body’s ability to handle stress, lowering cortisol levels and buffering against negative emotions.
  • 5) If you’re a woman speaking to a group, look at a picture of Hillary Clinton: this experiment showed that exposure to Hillary’s face (as opposed to her husband’s face or a landscape) substantially improved the public-speaking abilities of women. (Sorry, guys — no similar effect found for men.)
  • 6) Chew gum, which improves blood flow to the brain and improved recall by 20 percent on a short test.
  • 7) Exercise, which has a similar blood-flow effect, and, in the long run, helps build a better brain.
  • 8) Take a quick nap, which has all kinds of cognitive benefits (especially if you follow the official rules of high-performance napping).

As we drove to school today, I told my daughter some of these tricks. At this exact moment she’s chewing gum, thinking about ancestors, and staring at trees (as luck would have it, she was already wearing red). I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Hey Parents: Quit Raising Specialists and Start Raising Omnivores

Sports-STACK-629x240In the glossy heart of the 1980s, in the dimly lit halls of East Anchorage High School there walked a god. He was rangy, blond, and bore the cinematically perfect name of Trace Savage. And Trace Savage was awesome

(Just say it out loud: Trace Savage.)

Trace Savage was awesome partly because he was cool, partly because he was nice, but mostly because he was the best all-around athlete any of us had ever seen: quarterback of the football team, starting forward on the basketball team, and track star. He was living our American sports dream, and the dream of everyone we knew.

Then, in the space of a few years, that dream changed.

Maybe it was the rise of superfocused prodigies like Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters. Maybe it was the rise of parenting as a competitive sport. Maybe it was the ESPN-ification of youth sports, which lost its community base and morphed into a free-market bazaar of travel teams, trophies, and tournaments, with each kid (read: parent) seeking the holy grail of success: the college scholarship.

By the time the mid-nineties rolled around Trace Savage had vanished from the landscape like the white rhino. In his place stood a different species: the specialists.

Every sport became a highly organized year-round enterprise: indoor soccer in winter, hockey in summer, baseball all year round. Suddenly kids had to choose before they turned 10 or so, or risk falling behind the pack. The logic seems straightforward: if you want to be good at a sport, you should play intensively year-round. It makes perfect sense.

It was also, in retrospect, a perfectly bad idea. While early specialization works for a lucky few, an increasingly large wave of research has provided proof that early specialization doesn’t work so well for the rest of us. Let us count the ways:

I think the bigger point is this: when it comes to athletic skills, we are natural omnivores. Our bodies and brains are built to grow through variety of activities, not just one.

Think about what happens when you play multiple sports. You develop whole-body skills like balance, quickness, core strength. You cross-train skills from one sport to another.

It is not a coincidence that many top performers were multiple-sport kids growing up. Roger Federer played soccer until 12; Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant did the same. The reason they possess such brilliant footwork and vision is because they built those skills, over time, by being omnivorous.

Most important, multi-sport kids develop a far more useful skill: how to learn. They learn how to adapt to different situations, make connections, and to take true ownership over the improvement process.

I’d also argue that multi-sport kids have a better chance to stay emotionally healthy, because they’re free of the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket pressure that goes with specialization — a pressure that can lead unhealthy patterns when it comes to relationships and emotional stability. (See: Woods, Tiger.) They are free of the sense that, should they fail, they are at risk of losing their identity, and letting down their parents.

So the real question is, what do you do? How do you nurture a Trace Savage in a Tiger Woods world? Here are three useful approaches, courtesy of Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport, who’s written widely on the subject.

  • Delay: wait as long as possible before choosing a single sport to pursue. It varies according to sport, but research puts the ideal age for specialization around the early teenage years.  (That doesn’t mean you start at that age, of course, but rather that you start getting serious.)
  • Diversify: embrace all possibilities to broaden skills. Experiment and cross train.
  • Co-operate: seek ways to build connections between the silos of individual sports, so that families are not forced to choose one over the other too soon.

I’d add one more word: Connect. One of the main reason specialization is hard to resist is the parental peer-pressure that comes with joining any “elite” team. When every other family on the team is skipping school to travel to that “prestigious” out-of-state tournament, it’s awfully hard to say no. So I’d suggest seeking out other parents, kids, and coaches who share the multi-sport view, and working together to create fun, homegrown, omnivorous alternatives.