Wow what a summer of sport! I haven't been able to sleep properly because the the orgy of human excellence that has been on the TV until late at night. The stories, the drama, the passion. Just amazing...
And the Olympics was just the starter. The Paralympics came shortly after...that's when we really got to see the triumph of human dedication, perseverance and excellence...the main course!
I do love the summer holidays... there is always some sort of festival of sport on offer that the whole country gets excited about. When I was at university it always seemed that the sporting gods had put on some major event which made it impossible to revise!
For my children it was great too...they were going to all sorts of sports clubs and activity camps and they got to experience a whole range of different activities...I got really jealous!!
My son Evan went to a weeklong cricket coaching camp...'The Freddie Flintoff Academy". What an eye opener to see 8 year old kids in full cricket whites with kit bags, pads and everything! Evan was the poor relation, he has only played windball cricket so far (I only coach windball cricket because a lot of my kids are pretty new and trying to catch a hard ball would put them off...not to mention the amount of times some of them try to catch the ball with their face!!)
But this environment was different, these kids were serious about their cricket (or at least the adults in their lives were serious about their cricket!) and they clearly knew what they were doing. The coaching was also designed to meet the needs of these kids. There were no taster sessions on offer here, the players were doing proper cricket stuff.
Now Evan really likes his cricket and he is doing quite well, but up against these kids he looked like he was a bit of a newbie. That said he really did enjoy the week and he did improve. He took great delight in showing me his catching or the shot he had learned that day or his latest bowling technique.
He had been taught techniques and he had improved...
Yes he had been TAUGHT techniques and he had IMPROVED!!
This stimulated a conversation with my wife one evening at the dinner table...it felt a bit like a boxing match...
I am paraphrasing here but it went something like this...
First she worked a good ring position...
"Look Stu, I know you are really into your coaching and your talent development stuff and you don't believe in teaching techniques and all that but don't you think that Evan should be better than he is?"
Then she got me off balance by leading with a strong jab...
"...I mean, some of those kids are really good and they are younger than him and he has a dad who is a sports coach and works in coaching and player development, shouldn't you be doing more to use your expertise to help him improve?"
Then she went for the killer overhand right....
"Aren't you worried that one day he will look back and ask you why you didn't help him more and make the most of his potential?"
Boom! knockout! my legs go from underneath me like a giraffe on ice!
I am laying on the canvas. I am wounded. But I know I have to get up and face my opponent, make it clear that I am not totally beaten. But here is the problem..I am reeling, my head is spinning. I have questions attacking my consciousness (and my ego!)
I am thinking...'what if she's right What if I am being arrogant that I know better, what if the science turns out to be wrong and I am letting him down, what if his development is delayed and I am crippling any chance of him having a career in elite sport?'
Then I realised that it was my lizard brain talking, my emotional brain was in control and I wasn't thinking straight.
To borrow a phrase from Dr Steve Peters, my chimp was angry!
I needed to give my chimp a banana, to calm it down...
The banana came in the shape of my research...
I remembered the hours of reading and study I had put into this, I remembered the stacks of books at my bedside, I remembered 'The Complexity of Greatness' by Scott Barry Kauffman, 'The Sports Gene' by David Epstien, 'The Goldmine Effect' by Rasmus Ankerssen, Peak: The New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson, 'Helping Children Succeed' by Paul Tough and 'Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverence' by Angela Duckworth
I remembered the articles I had read recently like this summary article on research into super Champion's and almost champions by Dave Collins, Aine MacNamara and Neil McCarthy.
In particular, I remembered the contrasting quotes from two of the athletes in this study...
“My parents were not really pushy,” explained one super champion, whose response was representative of her peers. “It was a kind of gentle encouragement …they didn’t get [overly] involved. They’d just come and watch me, support me. But they never wanted to know what I was doing training wise and never got involved in that way, and that helped.”
The parents of almost champions, however, were an ever-present factor, hovering over their every move.
My parents, my dad especially, was always there, shouting instructions from the touchline, pushing me to practice at home,” remembers an almost champion. “Really, I just wanted to be out there with my mates. I felt like sport stole my childhood.”
I remembered this study into children's sports specialisation that I read recently which suggested that...
"Current evidence suggests that delaying sport specialization for the majority of sports until after puberty (late adolescence, ∼15 or 16 years of age) will minimize the risks and lead to a higher likelihood of athletic success".
"Young athletes who specialize too soon are at risk of physical, emotional, and social problems. Athletes may become socially isolated from their peers and may have altered relationships with family, overdependence on others with a loss of control over their lives, arrested behavioral development, or socially maladaptive behaviors.4,14 Specializing early with intense training can lead to overuse injuries, which can cause pain and temporary loss of playing time or may lead to early retirement from the sport."
I also remembered this research dissertation I had come across by Kristoffer Henriksen at the University of Southern Denmark and this story about a young female footballer...
"I remember specifically a young girl a soccer player who had enormous potential, and who left her local club to join a bigger and more prestigious one. Her soccer career was on a roll, but everything else suffered. All her time was consumed by training and transport, and she felt she was falling behind in school. She felt she had let her old friends and teammates down and no longer felt comfortable asking them to play a friendly game of backyard soccer. And she felt an enormous pressure to succeed. In sum, she felt alienated in her own environment. When she came to me, she was in tears and close to giving up soccer altogether."
I remembered this article I read about the issues with pushy parents in ice hockey....
"It’s official. Parents have just about killed the fun of playing team sports.
They’ve done it with technique clinics, personal trainers, elite travel leagues, pricey tournaments — fine-tuning kids for athletic glory before they’ve amassed a respectable archive of knock-knock jokes".
I thought about the blog post from John O'Sullivan of 'Changing the Game Project' about the dangers of the overzealous parent and their likelihood of making kids drop out of sport where he describes a conversation with a young player...
“I just can’t take it anymore coach,” a talented but underperforming player named Kate told me a few years back. “I think I am done playing...It’s my dad. He loves me and I know he only wants the best for me, but he just can’t stop coaching me, in the car, and from the sideline each and every game. I can’t play when he is around, and he insists on coming to every game, every road trip, you name it. It’s like it’s more important to him than it is to me".
And I thought....they can't all be wrong...
So I rallied, I composed myself and I countered...
"You might be right about this and I could be wrong...but let me just map out the consequences of me taking this approach versus the approach you are advocating..."
"..if I am wrong the worst that could happen is that our son doesn't become an elite sportsman..."
"...if I take the other approach and teach him, if I push him more and get him more focussed, then the potential consequences are much more severe...he could hate sport altogether, he could drop out, he could get injured but the thing I am most fearful of is that it could damage my relationship with him because he feels the pressure of my expectation and I don't want him to feel like a failure if he doesn't live up to that expectation."
"...he is 8 years old...he is a child...he has the right to be goofy, to play, to choose when he wants to play sport and when he doesn't. He has the right to fail and to try out different things, he has the right to be free from my expectations and choose his own path...he has the right to be a child"
"...I have spend countless hours studying this stuff and I think that this is the best chance for him to achieve whatever his potential might be is for me to allow him to fall in love with sport, to explore the sheer joy of it, to develop friendships through it, to understand challenge, to be come curious and then at some point in his middle teens he will come to me and say...'Dad, can you help me...I want to get better?'...and that's when we take it up to a new level...that's when he accelerates past all of these other kids that look so good now but have plateaued and got bored'.
"... I am not prepared to roll the dice with my future relationship with my son just so that he can 'keep up with the Jones's".
From the perspective of the boxing match I felt like Muhammad Ali coming back off the ropes against George Foreman in the 'Rumble in the Jungle', Pow!...rope a dope...I am the greatest...etc..etc
I'm not sure how much of a dent it made. She gave me that look where she rolled her eyes at me without actually rolling her eyes (I call it the 'no eye roll eye roll'). I think she filed it away in her brain in a folder called 'things to say I told you so about'. (she probably didn't but my paranoia has no limits!)
It really got me asking myself some questions...
How many other parents fall into the comparison trap and look at other kids of a similar age and make judgements about their child's ability or potential and then question why their child isn't as good?
How many other parents are struggling with these issues but because they don't have the information to fall back on find themselves doing things that go against their better judgement?
How many 1000s of kids all across the country are toiling under the expectation of adults who don't necessarily mean to but don't know any better?
How many parents are putting pressure on their kids without understanding the potential consequences?
Are we guilty of allowing the rise of an industry that makes false promises to vulnerable people and encourages children to be spending all of their time in so called 'talent academies' that are nothing more than modern day 'workhouses'?
The great Muhammad Ali (RIP) once said
"It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it's the pebble in your shoe".
If my son or daughter ever want to try and climb the mountain then I will be by their side supporting and guiding the journey every step of the way.
If he doesn't get there it won't be because I was that pebble!!
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Whenever I enter into a conversation about sport for young people, the discussion almost always ends up centring around the 'Relative Age Effect' (RAE). RAE is a cultural phenomenon whereby children who are born at a given point in the year (usually the 3 months or so after a cut off point for the purposes of age grades) are disproportionately represented among their peer group in representative age group teams.
The theory goes that these children are more cognitively and physically developed than their peers who are born later in the year group and so have an advantage over their relatively younger and less developed teammates.
Check out this video for a great example of a player with a major physical advantage over his peers.
A study by David Hancock, Ashley Adler and Jean Cote published in the European Journal of Sport Science in 2013, entitled "A proposed theoretical model to explain relative age effects in sport" sought to examine this phenomenon. In the study they propose that RAEs are more than just about physical advantage. They suggest that the effects are amplified by pretty powerful social influences driven by the influential people in children's lives which serve to increase the gaps between those that benefit from relative age advantage and those that do not.
"...social agents have the largest influence on RAEs. Specifically, we propose that parents influence RAEs through 'Matthew effects', coaches influence RAEs through 'Pygmalion effects' and athletes influence RAEs through 'Galatea effects'".
So what are the Matthew Effect, the Galatea Effect and the Pygmalion Effect?
'The Matthew Effect' is so called in reference to the book of Matthew in the bible which describes the 'rich getting richer' phenomenon in the 'parable of the talents', "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath". In simpler terms, those who have ability are given extra support which increases that ability which in turn prompts more support.
Malcolm Gladwell provides an easily understandable explanation of this phenomenon in his bestselling book 'Outliers' (you cen get it in my library) where he describes the over representation of Canadian ice hockey players born in January, February or March (the 3 months after the cut off date for age grade teams) having a doubly disadvantageous impact as the players that are older and better are provided with additional training and access to more advanced coaching opportunities which reinforces the issue as these players improve more rapidly than other who are not given such access.
The 'Galatea effect' is a social experience where people's own opinions about their ability and self-worth influence their performance. This can often be seen as players evaluate their ability by comparing themselves against their peers.
The 'Pygmalion Effect' refers to the phenomenon in which the higher the expectations placed on people the better is their execution of a given activity. This effect was made famous by the film 'My Fair Lady' where Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador's garden party by teaching her to act as if she were a member of the upper classes.
So to summarise these 3 effects in practice we are presented with a perfect storm where:
Parents are throwing support and resources at their kids if they think they might be good at something. It makes sense that the player who turns up to everything and has access to best schools and coaching is going to do better than the player who doesn't. Just check out the car park of a junior sports tournament for an idea of what we mean
The player is viewing their ability and their potential through comparisons with their peers, If one players sees that they are better then their peers through being an early maturer then that has a powerful reinforcing action on that player (and presumably a negative response to those without that advantage)
Coaches are reinforcing both of these effects by paying more attention to those with more ability and raising their expectations. Players respond to this and rise to the expectations of the coach wheras those that do not recieve this patronage assume that they are not as good.
My latest newsletter to my subscribers I talk about this from a practical viewpoint as I am presented with these effects on a daily basis and I suggest a series of solutions to potentially help offset their impact.
On the other hand a paper produced by Professor Dave Collins and Neil McCarthy from the University of Central Lancashire, recently suggested that RAEs may well be a necessary requirement for the development of talent. In the paper the authors studied the progression of players through a professional rugby academy and discovered that those who actually make it through to the pro ranks are actually more represented by those who are born later in the year.
One of the conclusions that they draw from this stems from the 'rocky road' theory which suggests that for players to truly develop their abilities they need to be presented with challenge which ignites a passion in them and fuels their development.
In this case the proposal is that the younger players are challenged by being smaller or less able which makes them adaptable, gritty and streetwise. The older players have it comparatively easy when they are younger and as such they rest on their laurels and don't develop as much as they could or should so that when size and speed and skill all even themselves out in adulthood, the ones who have had to adapt have the advantage.
I do know of parents that have timed the conception of their children to ensure that they benefit from the relative age cut off in education and sport so it is clear to me that some people take this very seriously. I have 2 children born either side of the education cut off so I will be interested to see how they both develop. Already, my son Evan, who is relativey old for his peer group is a bit of a cruiser while my daughter, Isla who is the youngest in her school year group is displaying grittiness.
Then again it could just be that Isla benefits from having to play catch up with her rough and tumble older brother!
I think that this is a complex topic but if coaches and parents are aware of the pros and cons then they can ensure that the affects of relative age challenges can be mitigated or even used to the child's advantage.
Diabo Johnson has already experienced plenty of Matthew, Galatea and Pygmalion effects in his short life. I write this blog in the hope that I can help players on both sides of these effects be surrounded by people who can ensure that their effects have a positive impact on their lives!
"In 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:
1) early specialization increases the chance of injuries.
2) early specialization creates worse overall athletes (more evidence here).
3) early specialization makes kids less likely to participate in sports as adults.
4) early specialization creates a falsely high barrier to participation, eliminating kids who might otherwise succeed in a more open system.
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."
This post cause a massive ammount of debate in the comments area and I put forward my own view (as you might have guessed I would) I thought I would share it here.
For me...this is actually a moral argument as it raises questions that relate to the best way for us to bring up our children. Some think that they need to provide opportunity and put investment into their children from an early age to give their kids the best chance in life. Others are fearful that this approach will have the opposite effect in the long run as a generation of 'pushy parents' sees a generation of kids fall out of love with a sport that they have been doing for too long.
Within rugby we have researched this area as we have a major problem with kids leaving the sport between the ages of 16 and 24 and we have discovered that the earlier kids start playing the more likely they are to drop out. We also discovered that the main reasons for drop out relate to burnout due to boredom or the attraction of other sport which suggest to us that the varied diet of sport for as late as possible is very important. We are working very hard to ensure that our talent selection systems are now starting much later (i.e. post maturation) so that we keep windows open to kids who have great athletic ability and drop out of other sports. From our perspective we hope the other sports keep going with their early specialisation models as we may well benefit long term!
Much of the problem stems from the fact that kid's sport has become big business. The weight of evidence in support of the late specialisation model (see this link for some more http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130423172601.htm) is pretty heavy and yet people are still finding spurious arguments in support of it...why...because their livelihoods depend on it!
The problem is that every time we get an elite star that came from a early specialised background that this is presented as the case for this model, the media love to report this and it then takes on a bit of a folk following as a story. What nobody will consider is the 100's of kids that did the same but didn't make it and dropped out. It comes down to a straight trade off...the odd elite star and the risk of large scale drop out or a healthy sport full of lifelong participants and the promise of more elite stars as a happy by product.
The challenge for sports administrators is that we try to use research and logic to strengthen our argument but we are fighting against a powerful triumvirate of the hard line opinions of a commercial industry fueled by parents who are emotionally attached to the futures of their children which is in turn powered by the media's delight in a romantic story of the 'boy or girl done good' by trying hard from early childhood.
I am fearful that the only way that this super tanker can be turned around will be be when it is too late....