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Friday, May 9, 2014

Year-Round Single Sport Specialization: Not Good for Kids or Skill Development, Experts Say

Experts today—ranging from sports researchers and sports psychologists to doctors, ex-pros, general managers of professional teams, and Division I college coaches—are all expressing the same theme: year-round, single sport specialization, and its accompanying professionalism, is not good for the kids.

More significant, contrary to what most youth coaches and parents seem to think, the year-round specialization does not produce better skill than that of those who take time off from the sport to rest and to learn, and compete in, other sports.

The recommendations for rest and multi-sport experiences are not just being made for 8- or 10-, or 12-year-olds. They are being recommended for athletes playing well into high school.

Dr. James Andrews (1, 2, 3), 40-year sports medicine orthopedist, surgeon to both pros and, as he puts it, far too many 13- and 14-year-olds, makes the strongest case against specialization and professionalism—because he sees the shredded cartilage, ligaments, and tendons on his operating table every day. Some of the youth are as young as 12.

The cause is overuse due to practice and game schedules designed for 25-year-old professional athletes, not 12-, 14-, and 16-year-old amateurs. The young body, he says, was just not made for that kind of punishment. Dr. Andrews’ recommendation? “At least two months off each year to recover from a specific sport. Preferably, three to four months.”

Another orthopedist has said that whenever athletes feel aches, pain, or fatigue, they should stop practice or play, because that is when injuries occur. The doctor then added, “These kids aren’t on multi-million dollar contracts!”

ESPN The Magazine recently sponsored a study showing that the kids who participate in year-round sports enjoy every minute of it. After all, they are the center of attention and treated like pros-in-the-making. They get to travel, stay in hotels, and, of course, do not have to pay!

But is this good for the kids, Eddie Matz, the article’s author asks? Or is it ruining their childhoods?

Kids love tons of sugar, says sports psychologist Kristen Dieffenbach, but an excess of sweets is not good for them. Likewise, the year-round regimen of youth sports is not good for the kids’ long-term development.

The mantra of travel and club sports is that year-round specialization is necessary to get to the next level. But is it, asks Matz?

General managers of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Toronto Raptors say that multiple sports experiences in high school make better athletes and teammates, as well as produce fewer injuries and less burnout.

John Savage, head coach of the world-series winning UCLA baseball team, says, “We like ‘em cross trained. Stick with multiple sports as long as you possibly can, and people are going to see your tools.” Matz then follows up with this line: “Stick with one sport long enough, and people are going to see your scars.”

Five college lacrosse coaches echo the importance of multiple sports experiences through high school to produce better athletes and teammates. An informal survey of National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS) members also speaks to the benefits of multi-sports experiences.

Ex-pros have weighed in on the subject. Wayne Gretzky (1, 2, 3), Cal Ripken, Jr. (1, 2), and Bobby Orr (1, 2) say that creativity and experimentation are lacking in today’s college and professional athletes. They say this is due to specialization and the absence of free play.

Gretzky and Orr played baseball in their off-seasons and Ripken attributes his success at shortstop to the footwork he learned in high school soccer. The ponds, sandlots, and streets of yesteryear—where no adults were to be found—gave kids the freedom to experiment, to try out something new and different. This, of course, is no longer allowed in today’s adult dominated, adult controlled organized youth sports.

Tommy John says the current major league epidemic of surgeries in his name is “unreal” and “crazy.” The cause, he points out, is not overpitching in the big leagues, but a buildup of overuse as a kid, especially pitching year round. And he calls it a racket the way organized youth sports today is run, hyping scholarships and better performance to parents so they will spend increasingly more money (1, 2).

John then goes on to say that Justin Verlander is probably one of the best pitchers today in the major leagues. So he asks parents who force their kids into year-round play, “You think Justin Verlander plays baseball year-round?” The answer is a big “no.”

What does sports research (1, 2) say? Professional athletes who enjoyed plenty of free play in their younger years and participated in multiple sports show better perception, decision making, and pattern recognition than their single sport, organized and controlled counterparts. In one study these characteristics differentiated the super elite of professional athletes from the mere elite.

Most today acknowledge the importance of free play in their development as young athletes, but nearly all assume that that is a bygone era, never to return.

Bob Bigelow, former NBA player and youth sports reform advocate, says otherwise. Bigelow suggests that coaches today should periodically drop their sports equipment off at the various facilities, then disappear for two or three hours. Their instructions to the kids should be, “Just go out and play.” The kids, he says, will know what to do with the equipment!

Bigelow is not known for mincing his words about organized youth sports—he describes travel and club sports as a “caste system.”

He also has said this about adult involvement in the present world of young people’s recreation: “Parental egos and a full tank of gas—a frightening combination.”



Note on softball. Dr. Andrews, in his book Any Given Monday, discusses the health concerns of twenty-eight of the most popular youth sports, including cheerleading, which he says is “out of control” from the perspective of health, and dance. Here are a few comments about fastpitch softball.

“Unfortunately, softball lags behind all other youth sports in injury rate recognition and preventative safety rules. There have been very few rules regulating softball at any level and, as a result, softball injuries in young athletes are on the rise and are nearly as prevalent as baseball injuries.” This includes tears in the ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow, the ligament that gets replaced with Tommy John surgery.

“These young women,” Andrews concludes, “need to be protected for the sake of their long-term health, not just for their team’s win-loss record.”

Friday, February 21, 2014

Overuse Injuries—What the Experts Are Saying

The statistics on overuse injuries are astounding.
  • Thirty percent of college athletes suffer the same, with 62 percent of the injuries going to women. Low contact sports, such as rowing, softball, volleyball, cross country, and track and field, have the highest rates of overuse injury.
  • Orthopedic surgeons report seeing four times as many patients with overuse injuries than five years ago.

What is an overuse injury? In any physical activity, there is breakdown and buildup of tissue. When breakdown exceeds buildup, injury in the form of inflammation—the “-itis” in tendonitis—and mild pain result. The mild pain that athletes become aware of initially is not usually sufficient to make them cut back. With continued activity, the inflammation and pain increase gradually, though both may take days, weeks, or even months to become significant.

The cause of overuse is too much, too soon. Too much running, throwing, jumping, etc., before the body has had time to rebuild the tissue that was broken down by the excessive activity.

Treatment of overuse injury requires rest and physical therapy to build up strength surrounding the injury and manipulation to stimulate blood circulation.

Failure to treat overuse injury can lead to physical deformity and arthritis (1, 2).

The cause of these alarming statistics is generally agreed to be the rise of year-round specialization in a single sport. This in turn has meant a dramatic increase in the number of games and practices required of young, unprepared bodies.

Recommendations to prevent overuse injuries are more rest, meaning time off from the sport, and more multi-sport participation, to use different parts of the body and give rest to those parts stressed in the first sport. Time off does not mean a couple off days here and there. Depending who one reads on the subject, recommendations range from ten consecutive weeks a year to two to three non-consecutive months. The doctor-run website Stop Sports Injuries Now recommends pitch counts for softball pitchers.*

Change comes slowly in almost every endeavor, but especially in sports. I recently attended a meeting sponsored by a regional softball governing body. I asked the head of the organization if anything was being done to deal with overuse injuries and if perhaps pitch counts for softball pitchers would be recommended. His reply was a testy “We leave that to the coaches.” Yet, another speaker at the meeting pointed out that “concussion training is coming,” meaning training will soon be required for all coaches. My conclusion? Such organizations are not going to do anything until they are forced into it by public opinion and the media!

Leaving control over an athlete’s health to coaches is unfortunate. Coaches do not read the research and at the high school and college levels, they do not listen to their athletic trainers. At the college level, coaches have the power to hire and fire their trainers, so if the trainer says an athlete is not fit to play, the coach tells the trainer to take a hike. As a result, a few colleges—too few—are moving their trainers out of the athletics departments and into health services where they will no longer be beholden to the coaches, but perhaps now will be able to influence them (1, 2, 3).

I am tempted to say to some of these win-at-all-cost coaches who ignore both research and medical advice, “Sooner or later, coach, it is not just a doctor or athletic trainer who is going to be knocking on your door. The next knock just might come from a lawyer!”



* It is a myth, heard too frequently and as gospel in the softball world, that softball pitchers do not need the rest of their baseball counterparts. Shoulder and elbow pain are commonly felt by all softball players, but especially by the pitchers, plus back and neck pain. Rupture of the bicep tendon has occurred in college softball pitchers due to overuse.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

And Now, The Concussion Issue

Sportswriter Frank DeFord has predicted that interest in football will eventually degenerate to a status similar to boxing, or “reach a point like smoking where it no longer can be justified.”

The reason is concussions. Youth participation in football, according to a National Sporting Goods Association study, has declined thirteen percent in the last two years. Even professional athletes today don’t want their kids to play football.

But football is not the only sport that puts our kids at risk; ice hockey, with its body and head checking, is right up there. Non-collision sports also produce concussions. Wrestling (from slams to the mat), soccer (from heading) and volleyball (from being on the receiving end of a spike) cause their share of trauma. Any collision—with another player or with the ground or floor—can cause concussion. Thus, basketball, baseball, and softball are not exempt from the matter.

Concussions and Our Kids by neurosurgeon Robert Cantu and sports journalist Mark Hyman provides everything one needs to know about concussions. A knock to the head, for instance, is not required to suffer one. The rotational forces of whiplash effect that result from hard hits to the shoulders or neck can sometimes bring about even more severe concussions.

How so? The brain floats in cerebrospinal fluid and the skull is not smooth. A concussion occurs when the brain crashes into the skull, often resulting in tears to brain tissue. Resulting symptoms are headache, nausea, dizziness, depression, sleep disturbance, and cognitive impairment (such as difficulty concentrating). Treatment is physical and cognitive rest. The latter can mean no reading, electronics, TV, or even school. Missing school, in some cases, has lasted as long a year.

Repeated concussions put athletes at serious risk. Second impact syndrome—caused by a second blow, or more—can result in death.

Concussions are deadly.

If the athlete survives his or her playing years, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) may greet the player in older age. Originally called dementia pugilistica to describe the brutalizing effects of boxing, CTE is a degenerative condition that mimics the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

Indeed, it has been suggested that Lou Gehrig, beaned many times by baseball pitchers but also known as an active brawler when the dugouts cleared, may not have died of the disease that carries his name. CTE can also mimic the symptoms of ALS.

Recommendations? Cantu says tackling should not be allowed in football until age fourteen, when bodies and minds of children have at least matured to a point where the kids can begin to protect themselves from violent hits. Checking in hockey should be banned (and, of course, so should fighting, which goes without saying). Cantu even recommends that “hit counts” be used in football and hockey in the same way and for the same reasons that pitch counts are now used in baseball.

This means that drill-sergeant mentalities who call themselves coaches of youth and who tell youngsters to “play through the pain” and not complain lest they be ridiculed as weaklings or sissies—these mentalities need to be removed from sports.

It means that hockey coaches who ignore medical advice and send kids with well-defined symptoms of head trauma back on the ice . . . well, let’s just say that sports psychologist Alan Goldberg would call that coaching abuse, which is another name for the criminal behavior known as child abuse.

It is impossible today for anyone, coach or parent, not to know about the concussion issue. Abundant information is available on the Internet and anyone who has a pocket computer (that is, a smartphone), can readily access it.

If we care about the health of our kids, we must park the ego that wants to win at all costs and put fun back into youth sports as the primary goal.

The need to win that causes or allows harm to our children must go.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

More, More, More Does Not Mean Better

Practices for recently retired John Gagliardi (1, 2), the winningest college football coach ever, were no longer than ninety minutes a day. No tackling and his players wore shorts or sweats. In games, his quarterbacks called their own plays.

John T. Reed in the 1992 season did not hold any batting practice for his youth baseball team. Batting average for all kids combined was .320. Slugging average was .463 and on-base percentage .590. Reed also seldom held pitching or grounder fielding practice. His teams, he says, were at or near the top of those categories.

Accomplishment requires innate talent plus practice. How much practice is required to bring out the talent to achieve expert status?

A much ballyhooed number these days is the 10,000 hours reported by psychologist Anders Ericsson at Florida State University. Ericsson’s original studies were of musicians. The first thing, however, a musician will tell you is that it is not a question of how many hours you practice, but how you practice in the one hour you have available. Deliberate, focused practice with goals to achieve every session is what is required. Just putting in the hours won’t cut it.

Besides, the 10,000-hour rule is an average. In chess the average is 11,000, and the amount of time required to become a master player (1, 2) ranges from 3000 to 23,000 hours. Some, though, have never achieved that hallowed standing after more than 25,000 hours of practice.

Years, meaning maturity with age, is in certain respects a better measure. Kids who begin playing a musical instrument in 4th grade and those who start in 8th are often even in skill by 9th. Reed observed that his teams improved more with age than anything else. Basketball great Michael Jordan, after all, did not make varsity until his junior year in high school and Cy Young baseball pitcher Orel Hershiser did not make a name for himself in college until his third year—after he grew, gained weight, and, as a result, was able to increase the speed of his fastball.

Quantity, in other words, to quote an old and perhaps trite proverb, does not make quality.

So why so many hours every week in youth sports and so many games? The answer we hear on the fields is that it is necessary to get your child ready to be selected by those Division I coaches, which allegedly means full-ride scholarships.

Cancel the obsession with scholarships and what is left?

Fewer hours spent on a single sport, one would hope, which could and should mean fewer overuse injuries and more diversity of athletic experience. That would then mean rest for overused body parts from the single sport and development of other body parts from other sports.*

It could and should mean more time to spend on homework and other after school activities. We are not fans of school-night practices, especially those that go until 9:00 or 10:00pm and emphatically not of those that start at 5:00am, and earlier, in such sports as hockey.**

There is of course a curve to learning. Some quantity is required to acquire basic skill and more is required to make finely tuned professional adjustments. But too much quantity, as in a four to six hour practice, sometimes after a long week at school, or in the wee hours of the morning, stops learning and can even degrade it.

And team practices that often do not acknowledge or cater to individual differences accomplish little. Not every pitcher needs to throw hundreds of pitches every week and not every batter needs to hit hundreds of balls off a tee. Some chess players, remember, only need 3000 hours to achieve master status. Requiring such a “one-size-fits-all” regimen produces fatigue, overuse injuries, and burnout.

What about the number of games played today in youth sports? Research (1, 2, 3) clearly shows that greater learning takes place in practices, for the simple reason that that is the time in which all kids get their hands (or feet) repeatedly on the ball and their hockey sticks on the pucks. Comparable times in a game may only be a few seconds, if at all.

Games are for the adults because that is what the adults enjoy—and for the kids who get to play; they are not much fun for the bench warmers.

Are so many games good for the kids?

Baseball hall of famer Cal Ripken, Jr., agrees with the European soccer clubs whose ratio of practices to games is about three to one. Fewer games are better for development.

With so many games—80-120 a year not uncommon in club or travel sports—what kids learn to do is to pace themselves in order to endure the marathon. That’s not exactly what coaches have in mind.

But screaming at the kids to give 110% in every game—say, a fourth or fifth game of the day—grossly misunderstands childhood. The only thing “toughened up” in such a marathon is adult ego.




*Georgia Soccer recommends that its elite players take “4-8 weeks of off-season rest each year, for regeneration and recharging.”

**High school and college teams practice in the afternoons, completing everything by 5:00 or 6:00pm. This leaves the evening for rest and homework or, for college students, night classes. We know why youth sports teams practice in the evening: facilities are not available and amateur coaches cannot make it to an afternoon practice. Is this good for the kids or good for the adults?


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Not-So-Good Life Lessons from Sports

Young people learn a great deal by imitation of what adults say and do. Some may reject what they observe, saying to themselves, “I’m not going to be like that,” but repeated comments and behaviors often become difficult to dismiss.

In a previous post I presented a few less than savory life lessons for young athletes, concluding that one of the best lessons learned by a former student was to think way beyond college, and even professional sports, to project a fulfilling career to pursue for the rest of one’s life.

Sports for nearly all young athletes, after all, are a recreational pastime that sooner or later end.

Here are additional life lessons observed or heard about in our family’s five years of recreational and travel softball. Fortunately, we have not observed physical abuse or violence, such as the Junta manslaughter or the Picard assault, and we have enjoyed numerous positive experiences of coaching, sportsmanship, and camaraderie, but the influences below that many coaches and parents exhibited in front of their children are not good.
Such as:

1. Coaches and parents scream from the dugout or sideline at the umpire about a pitch, at a vantage point from which they could not possibly see the true path of the ball.

Comment: Yes, most officials are paid to take the heat and some have a skin that is too thin, but come on, parents, isn’t it time for a reality check?
2. A coach screams from the dugout, “Can’t anyone out there make a play? What’s the matter with you!”

3. A first base coach fails to get an interference call on a play at first base. He then yells to his player, “Hit her harder next time!”

4. A coach’s negative, humiliating comments brings a talented, hard-working catcher to tears after three hot, dusty games. Her sin? A single mental mistake, on the last play of the third game. Another girl who made an error is told to drop and do ten pushups in front of everyone.

5. After a line drive third out to right field, the batter rounds first base and knocks down the second base player who was heading for the dugout. The second base player had to leave for the ER with a bloody, possibly broken nose. The umpires talked at length with the offending coach. We could hear the coach vehemently protesting, “There was no way that was on purpose.” Okay, coach, but what we did not hear either from you or your player was an apology. The game was a late bracket game in an end-of-the-year tournament. The teams represented major organizations.

6. We have heard of, though not experienced first hand, coaches swearing at their players.

Comment on the above gems of role modeling: As former Los Angeles Laker coach Phil Jackson said, “Anger is the enemy of instruction,” and as many a good teacher has recognized, “Punishment stops learning.” Both comments are backed up thoroughly by twenty-first century psychological research. As for the cursing, child-protective agencies would probably call it emotional abuse.
7. A physical therapist reports that nearly all young people come to him with overuse injuries. One high school softball pitcher had a shoulder and elbow so sore that he could hardly touch her. The therapist asked the girl’s father how much, especially pitching, she was doing every week. The father replied that she was spending a few hours a day on her game. How many pitches? “Only four or five per week.”  “Hundred?” the therapist asked. No, the father meant four or five thousand!

8. A recreational softball league asks parents of all stars: “Are you willing to change your vacation, or simply give it up this year?” Travel ball coaches don’t ask. They seem to assume you should be willing to give up vacation for the sake of their sport. One 12U team lists its schedule on the web as year round, with two weeks off in December and two off in August.

Comment: Gee thanks, coach. You’re so generous with our free time! The National Athletic Trainers Association, ever cognizant of overuse injuries, urges kids through age 12 to take “2 to 3 nonconsecutive months away from a sport if they participate in that sport year round” (p. 208). Comparable research-based recommendations, adjusted for age and stage of development, are made for older players.
9. At an out-of-town tournament, coaches and parents drink beer until 3AM—many nights, actually, but especially the night before an early game.

No comment.
10. Then there is the cost of elite club and travel sports. Minimum $1500 a year for softball, $2500 for soccer, $3500 and up for volleyball (and cheerleading—$3500 for cheerleading?!).
Comment: Quite a lesson for low and middle income families. Maybe—maybe—one child can be supported in a sport, but not two. We’ve met the families and heard the stories.
Sports are about having fun and learning life lessons. Adults need to be careful what they say and do lest the wrong lessons be picked up by their children. We’ve observed too many of the wrong kind in our short tenure with youth sports.

A question for coaches and parents. What would you be doing in youth sports if there were no college athletic scholarships? Would your behavior differ?

Ken Reed at leagueoffans.org and Walter Byers, former NCAA Executive Director, have both called for the elimination of college athletic scholarships.

An interesting thought experiment!


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Obsession with Scholarships

Our family has now completed its first full year of 12U travel softball—98 games, 26 weekends plus two week-long tournaments. This does not include weekends and school nights in which there were practices but no games. I did not keep track of expenses, though StatsDad spent $11,704 on three kids in 2011.

Our daughter has turned thirteen and will be moving up to 14U soon, but in the five years of recreational and club ball plus other school sports that she has played, we have developed more than a few concerns about the direction youth sports today is headed. Parents and coaches do not seem to have many facts correct and we are concerned that some of what we see in youth sports is not good for the kids. For starters . . .

The obsession with scholarships is misplaced. Aside from the tiny odds* of landing even a partial college athletic scholarship, scholarships are not necessary to get a college education in most states in the US.

College, in today’s world of budget crunches and annual tuition increases, is still affordable (p. 17). Forty percent of students in the California State University system receive no financial aid at all. And only sixteen states in the US charge a higher rate of tuition and fees at public 4-year institutions than the Cal States. California and New Mexico charge the least for community colleges.

The path to a college education is simple. Two years of community college, then 20-40 hours a week working at a job to pay for the rest at a four-year state institution. Your son or daughter may not get the degree in four years—it may take five or even six years and he or she will be complaining that one foot is in the grave—but the degree will be obtained.

And as I have pointed out before the non-athletic students will likely earn more money upon graduation than the athlete, because the non-athlete will have accumulated work experience and internships that look good on resumes when applying for jobs. Athletes are often too busy with their sport, spending up to 45 hours a week on it, to gain work experience.

If your child does well in high school (and this does not have to mean “straight A’s”), he or she will do well in college. If he or she does well in college, the same will be true in graduate school. Getting a college education is not rocket science . . . well, unless your child decides to major in rocket science!

Now we’re not saying you should pass up a scholarship if it is offered. You should apply for everything when considering college, especially the academic and need-based grants (but minimize the loans—$20-25,000 maximum for the entire college career). College is doable without the scholarship, no matter how humble your situation.

So parents and coaches, relax. Enjoy the game.

And coaches, please don’t mislead parents into thinking that anything in the scholarship area is a shoo-in.

The so-called full ride scholarship is quite rare, except perhaps at some top football and basketball schools and for a very few elite athletes in other sports. A 50% scholarship at a $50,000 a year private university still leaves a lot of money for mom and dad to fork over. And this may not include the $12-14,000 for room and board, plus books, transportation, and personal expenses. Tuition and fees at Cal States are currently about $7000 a year and at the University of California schools are $14,000. Rates in other states for public institutions are similar, though higher in some states.

Athletic scholarships also, as few parents seem to know or understand, are not four-year contracts. They are for one year at a time and can be taken away for poor grades, poor performance, or injury. California did pass a law recently providing protections and benefits for athletes at certain well-heeled institutions, but all parents of an athlete who are now, or soon will be, negotiating with a coach and university should print out and keep handy the list of protections suggested by the National College Players Association.

Getting informed is your best protection.



*The stats, of course, depend on who you read. Cindy Bristow says the chances are one in 500 for all girls currently playing softball to win an NCAA scholarship. Scholarshipstats.com provides these numbers (click tab above for expanded stats):

•    Only 7.8% of high school softball players went on in 2012 to play college ball.
•    Fewer than 1% of high school players received a Division I scholarship.
•    One out of two women, though, on a brighter note, who made it on a college team did receive some financial aid from softball.

Life Lessons from Sports: What about the Sixty Years after College?

(Originally posted April 9, 2013, on Jerry Kirkpatrick's Blog.)

In ancient Roman schools, boys who failed to learn their lessons were beaten on their bare backs with a ferula, a long piece of flat wood. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and we rarely hear about corporal punishment in the classroom, even of the kind I recall from childhood, like the paddle, knuckles rapped with a ruler, or kneeling on raw peas. Treatment of this type by a teacher today would be called assault and battery.

Yet in collegiate sports a coach who shoves his player “to motivate” him merely gets a mild rebuke from the university administration. Another coach, who threw basketballs at his players’ heads and knees, kicked them, and called them insulting names, has recently been fired . . . but only after the smoking gun of video went viral on the Internet.

Life lessons from sports? To be sure, quite a few life lessons are being learned by the victims of these coaches. What it’s like to be abused by a caretaker would be one. And, paraphrasing Menander, the lesson that you haven’t been trained unless you’ve been flogged. Sadly, many of the players, typical of abuse victims, defend their abusers by saying “it was for my own good.”

Remove the physical abuse from consideration and a dictatorial drill sergeant mentality, which would not likely be tolerated in a classroom teacher, still dominates coaching in sports. The mentality is often defended under the blather of providing valuable “life lessons.” Dependent robots and obedience to authority are what these coaches want and get.*

Independent thinking is the life lesson kids most desperately need to be learning—at home, in the classroom, and in sports. They need to be thinking about what they will do with their lives after the sports end, and the sports will end in college, if not sooner, for nearly all of them. What happens then? Get a job stocking shelves at Walmart?

Half of all college athletes after they graduate make less money than their non-athletic counterparts. Why? Because they don’t have the work experience and internships to put on their resumes that the non-athletes have. Athletes are expected by their drill sergeants to spend up to 45 hours per week on their sport. Throw in two hours of homework for every hour in class and not much time is left in the week. The “solution,” of course, for college athletes is to take fewer units and perhaps not ever graduate, or take puffcake courses like billiards, bowling, and water color painting.

Walmart is a fine place to work, but working there after college is not why one gets that degree.

If  the words “fraud” and “exploitation” come to mind in relation to amateur sports, there is good reason. The National Collegiate Athletic Association deserves the epithets the most. Fraud because, as scathingly chronicled, with analogies to slavery, by civil rights historian Taylor Branch (1, 2), there is nothing amateur—in expertise and, especially, money—about today’s sports. And exploitation, because the kids never see a penny of the billions they earn for their universities.

Scholarships are payment, no? No. The so-called full ride, contingent on not getting injured, still leaves an average of $3200 a year to cough up out of pocket, leaving some of the kids from poor families without grocery money or bus fare home for spring break. Another life lesson learned!

The obsession that parents and coaches in youth leagues have over landing a scholarship to college is, to put it mildly, absurd. Aside from the minuscule chance of being granted one, scholarship is still not necessary in most states to get a college education.**

In my thirty-plus years as a college professor, I have had my share of athletes in the classroom. One Division 1 football player told me his practices were from 2:00 – 6:00PM. My class started at 6:00, so he was always late. After four or five weeks, I never saw or heard from him again.

Another football player (at a different school) attended my class just after completing his first season in the National Football League. He made two pointed comments to me about why he was in that seat. One, that unlike his teammates he was determined to finish his degree. The second was his observation that when playing in the NFL you are just a  highly paid blue-collar worker. Meaning there was no way he was going to remain a blue-collar worker (or become a stock clerk at Walmart) when his playing days were over. This student went on to a successful career in the NFL and now has an equally successful career in business.

Projecting and setting goals beyond sports. That’s a good life lesson.



*”Legal, even celebrated child abuse” in Olympic gymnastics and figure skating was exposed by Joan Ryan in her 1995 book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. “Absolute subservience” is how she described the demands of certain famous coaches.

**This assumes that education is what these parents and coaches really care about, as opposed to bragging rights about the child getting a scholarship to a Division 1 school. Forty percent of students in the California State University system receive no financial aid at all. They earn their education the old-fashioned way, going to community college for two years, then working 20-40 hours a week to earn the rest at a Cal State. And California is no longer among the least expensive states in which to attend college.


The Comparative Society

(Originally posted March 22, 2013, on Jerry Kirkpatrick's Blog.)

High school English teacher and poet, John Wooden (1, 2), also known as the highly successful, 27-year coach of UCLA basketball from 1948 to 1975, learned from his father that the key to success was never to compare oneself to others.

Compete only with yourself, Wooden the son would tell his players, by striving to do better than you did yesterday, last month, or last hour. During halftime Wooden would often not even talk about the other team, only about how each of his own players could improve in the second half.

Focus on bettering oneself, says Wooden, is what builds confidence, poise, and integrity, not to mention winning ball teams.

A “competitive society” is what most think our pseudo-capitalistic economy today is and beating the other guy—the ultimate comparison—is what competition supposedly is all about. But economic competition, as I have written before, is precisely the comparison-free bettering of oneself that Wooden describes.

Capitalism is a system of social cooperation where everyone wins by trading value for value. Entrepreneurs do not spend their days and nights thinking about how to beat the competition, but about how to improve their products and make them more affordable. Winning large market share is consequence of the focus on improvement, not the goal. Wooden would certainly concur with this description of economic competition.

In today’s obsessively comparative society, beating others shows up everywhere, especially and unfortunately in areas that relate to children. We have tiger moms forcing their children to take the “right” courses, attend the “right” schools, and play the “right” musical instruments. Why? To keep up with the Joneses, or rather, more specifically, to do better than the Joneses.

Our entire educational system, through grades, exams, and degrees, is institutionalized comparison. The no-child-left-behind act has merely ossified the system by making teaching to the test virtually mandatory and pushing advanced topics to lower and lower levels, such as algebra in sixth grade and reading and writing in kindergarten. And, of course, requiring lots of officiously mind-numbing busywork, usually called homework.* Why? American test scores are lower than those of the Japanese. We must be better!

“Pushing to lower levels,” meaning to younger ages, is not the prerogative of our education system. Organized youth sports continues its trend of putting younger and younger children through increasing hours of practice and game playing, week after week after week. Why? We have to be better than the other guy, we have to get our kids scholarships to get into college, and we have to prepare them properly, starting at the youngest age, or they won’t be able to compete at the high school or college level.

Indeed, education and youth sports share a similarity: both are dominated and controlled by adults. Traditional education systems, as Ken Robinson has amusingly pointed out, are created by college professors, which means their ultimate goal is not to meet the needs of students, but to turn out more college professors just like them.

Organized youth sports are organized and operated by adults for the sake of their own, adult needs. If the sports were organized for the children, fun and development would still be the primary goals. For many youth sports today, winning has become the only thing.

In education much can be accomplished by turning learning activities over to the kids. Hole-in-the-wall experiments conducted by 2013 TED Prize winner, Sugata Mitra, have spectacularly demonstrated how children can eagerly and without adult supervision teach themselves.

In a New Delhi slum, Mitra literally put a computer in a building wall, then walked away. The slum children, who had never seen a computer before, not only learned how to use it, but also learned English and, in other experiments, learned all about DNA! Most of the teaching came from each other. Minimal facilitation by grannies, not Oxford- or Cambridge-trained instructors, are all that has been needed to increase the learning.

If “truth is what works,” to borrow a much-reviled phrase from William James, then removal of the comparisons of grades, exams, and degrees in education seems to work. It works in Montessori schools. It works in hole-in-the-wall experiments.

Now if we can only implement the Wooden philosophy of removing comparison in sports. Regrettably, short of a return to the sandlot where kids are in charge, this does not seem likely.

When enormous amounts of money drive sports at the college and professional levels—twelve times as much money, for example, spent on athletes in one athletic conference as on academic students—can anyone seriously expect parents to turn their backs and say, “Let’s just do it because it’s fun”?

Perhaps what we need is to encourage more English teachers and poets to become coaches!



*This is not to say that advanced math and reading and writing cannot be learned at early ages. Montessori schools, by adapting the topics carefully to stage of development, inspire early learning every day, and without homework. But our traditional public and private schools do not teach via the Montessori method. They use the carrot and stick—grades, exams, and degrees—as motivators. Independence is not their goal. Obedience to authority is.


“Miniature Adults,” the Marketing Concept, and a Montessori Approach to Organized Youth Sports

(Originally posted October 12, 2012, on Jerry Kirkpatrick's Blog.)

Being aware of and catering to the needs and wants of customers is the essence of marketing. The textbooks call this the “marketing concept” and emphasize that everyone in a business, from the president down to the lowliest stock person, should not make any decision or take any action without first considering the effects of the decision or action on customers. Contrary to what Marxists and leftists of all types say, it is through customer satisfaction that businesses earn their profits.

But the marketing concept applies to any organization that has constituents—nonprofits, as well as governmental agencies. The broader principle says simply: acknowledge and, to the extent possible and appropriate, satisfy the needs and wants of the person with whom one is interacting. This is not some self-sacrificial duty. Rather, it is the good manners of recognizing another person as an individual human being.

The problem is that many people, to use a popular expression, “get so caught up in themselves and their own egos” that that they become incapable of seeing life from another person’s perspective. The consequence of this type of behavior is inconsiderateness and disrespect. The problem is especially prevalent among parents and teachers in relation to young children, exemplified in acute form by adult attitudes in organized youth sports.

Bob Bigelow, former professional basketball player, has nailed this phenomenon in his book Just Let the Kids Play. As the title implies, the rise of elite or select teams in organized youth sports—those teams that hold tryouts and cut less effective players when better ones are found—has robbed youth not just of the fun of playing a sport, but also the chance of developing into a talented athlete later in adolescence.

With astute turns of phrase, Bigelow states: “The worst thing we adults do in youth sports is to forget that these players are not miniature adults or high school stars in some kind of larval stage. They are children, with bones that have yet to develop, with minds that are not thinking the same way that we are thinking” (pp. 107-08). And, because these teams are all organized and managed by adults and often include travel out of town, out of state, and perhaps even across the country to play games on a schedule that would exhaust an adult professional team, Bigelow quips: “Parental egos and a full tank of gas—a frightening combination” (p. 111). Some of these teams consist of children as young as five!

The notion that children are not small adults comes from developmental psychology and was championed by Maria Montessori. Children have needs and wants that vary widely by age and most particularly differ from those of adults. The Montessori approach to education adapts learning to the appropriate developmental stage while giving the child as much independence and control in the learning process as possible. Bigelow, without any mention of Montessori in his book, urges the same approach in youth sports.

As Montessori hands over much of the teaching and learning to the children, Bigelow recommends the same for youth sports. For example, recalling the days on sandlots where no adults or coaches were present, children played, made up their own rules, and coached each other on the field. To bring this spirit back into organized youth sports, Bigelow recommends that baseball and softball players up through sixth grade should be the coaches on first and third bases, an idea that would turn most adult coaches today apoplectic!

His main point is that adults need to back off because development in athletics does not really blossom until after puberty. (Former National Basketball Association star Michael Jordan did not make his varsity high school team until junior year.) Playing on an elite team at five or eight or ten does not give anyone an advantage, but getting cut from such a team at five or eight or ten sends a clear message to the child that he or she is not good enough. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many a coach, as Bigelow points out, has seen uncoordinated freshmen and sophomores become stars in their junior and senior years.

It is a myth and a shame, as he puts it, that so many adults think “more, more, more” at a younger and younger age means better. It does not. It may mean overuse injuries and burnout. It may mean, as one young man told Bigelow about his experiences with youth hockey, “[It] stole my childhood.” The young man started learning to play hockey at age three and quit at thirteen because he hated it. Subsequently he became estranged from his father who had driven him to every practice and game.

Bigelow’s book zeroes in on what I have examined before: the stage parent syndrome (1, 2, 3). Stage parents push, that is, coerce, their children to do what the parents think their children should be doing. Often, the parents live vicariously through their children’s accomplishments. What parents are unaware of in this process is their children’s physical, cognitive, and emotional needs. The adults’ actions are all about the adults.

Not that adults do this deliberately or in a mean spirit. Most think they are doing what is best for their children . . . but the science isn’t there. Multiple sports experiences and free (unsupervised and unorganized) play produce better perception and decision making among elite athletes. The needs and wants of youth are to have fun. Just as fun should be the goal of any career one chooses to pursue, fun should be the goal of all sports, whether at the high school, college, or professional level, but especially at the youth level.

Youth sports is about the kids, not the adults.


There Are More Important Things in Life Than Softball

(Originally posted October 7, 2011, on Jerry Kirkpatrick's Blog.)

The impetus for this post is once again my daughter’s softball. She is currently playing in what is called “travel,” as opposed to “recreational,” ball and the seemingly endless string of practices and games almost every weekend tempt me to recite the title of this post to other parents.


Not that I want to take anything away from my daughter’s talent and desire to excel in a fun sport, nor the same of the other parents’ daughters, but a sense of perspective may be in order, especially considering the low odds of winning an athletic scholarship to college, the risks of injury (1, 2, 3) and burnout before even getting to that point, and the studies that now show multiple sports experiences and deliberate (unorganized) play develop better perception and decision making than the single, year-round specialization many young athletes today endure.

Sports, of course, are not the only activity of youth in which a nearly 24/7 pressure-cooker atmosphere exists. Music, dance, and drama teachers, and the children’s parents, not to mention the academic teachers, can also lay it on thick; the term “stage mom” (1, 2) that comes to us from the theatre keeps coming to mind.

Part of the obsession many coaches, teachers, and parents have about sports, or the arts and academics, stems from a misunderstanding of the differences between the less accomplished and the more accomplished, or between “amateur” and “professional.”


By “professional” here I mean only a greater degree of skill and dedication, not “paid professional,” though the young persons may be aiming for professional careers in sports or the arts or science and the coaches and teachers may be grooming them for that goal. In softball the difference is between “recreational” and “travel” ball and in the arts it may be the difference between performing in the local community and attending a select arts high school.

The assumed differences between these two levels, as stated by one youth baseball organization, include the possibility of failure and rejection in travel ball, but not in recreational; the alleged life lesson to sacrifice leisure to hard work so success will follow; and the supposed lack of need for instruction at this “nearly professional” level. There are kernels of truth in all three of these differences, but these kernels get distorted when coaches, teachers, and parents lose perspective, forgetting about the whole of life.

Take the difference about the possibility of failure. Even at a lower level of skill, such as in a marching band or softball, not everyone participates one-hundred percent of the time. Only some band members may perform in the pep band at basketball games and even fewer in the swing band. Soloists at the spring concert may be fewer than a handful. The same is true for softball; not everyone can be pitcher.


More important, not achieving an initial goal need not be viewed as failure. A clarinetist, for example, who transfers from a small-town marching band to an arts high school orchestra may not earn one of the top four positions in the orchestra. This eye-opening awareness of the greater skill of others should be experienced as motivator, not a threat to success or happiness. There is no more important attitude to cultivate than seeing others’ achievements as an inspiration.

To say that youth should sacrifice leisure to hard work so success will follow is misleading, especially if it is presented as “we expect you to give up your vacation” for the sake of softball, or music, etc. Paid professionals do not do this, except on occasion, mainly because they know their schedules well in advance. The problem with youth sports is that communication, advance or otherwise, is often lacking, leading to surprises in the schedule.


Hard work, yes; and all children who enjoy an activity, whether it be sports, the arts, or a business or science club will, if not hampered by authoritarian adults, devote long hours of concentrated attention to improving their knowledge and skill. This concentrated attention is sometimes, unfortunately, interpreted by adults as “sacrifice” in the sense of giving up a higher value for the sake of a lower one. “Dedication” and “self-motivation” would be better descriptors.

The notion that higher levels of skill do not need instruction stems from the term “director,” such as the director of a play or conductor of an orchestra. Some coaches claim the same prerogative for their advanced teams. But direction means guiding the skills of others to produce the effect the director envisions.


That in itself is teaching, and all directors, including conductors and coaches, provide a variety of instructions to their performers to accomplish what they want. That coaches at the highest level of professional sports are teachers became obvious during the 1987 National Football League strike when secondary players were hired as substitutes to play games while the stars were walking picket lines. Much commentary was made about the expert teaching abilities of various coaches.

When a coach, or conductor or director, says that he or she assumes a certain skill level and is not there to teach, I would beware that blind obedience is what is wanted, as in “I expect you to have the discipline to do what I say.” “Discipline,” however, means acting in accordance with one’s own self-imposed guidelines. It is the mark of an advanced skill. Even at an advanced level, coaches, teachers, and conductors should aim to help turn caterpillars into butterflies.

Total commitment at the expense of everything else—spending every weekend and a few week nights on one’s sport or art, because “that’s the way we do it here” or because “that’s the only way to get a scholarship”—is obsession of the stage parent type. When the commitment does not originate in the child, injury or burnout or even parental estrangement can result. Perspective on why an activity is being pursued needs always to be kept in the forefront of parents’ minds.

Tiger Mom or Stage Mom?

(Originally posted February 17, 2011, on Jerry Kirkpatrick's Blog.)

The recent hullabaloo over Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal article generated at least one response identifying a similar obsession in American moms. Chua, who acknowledges that her behavior is not unique to the Chinese, coerced her daughters, often punishing and shaming them in numerous and, to many Americans, shocking ways, to insure that the daughters would be the top in their classes and play the “right” musical instruments. The American version emphasizes child beauty pageants, various sports competitions, and after-school SAT courses to game the test and insure acceptance to the “right” colleges. In a previous post, I touched on the achievement-by-proxy motivation of the stage-mother syndrome. Both kinds of parental behavior go by the old-fashioned name of authoritarianism.

The “stage mother” concept illustrates the possible consequences of such an overbearing parent and the Broadway musical Gypsy eloquently dramatizes what can happen. In the musical Rose, the mom, drags her two daughters, June and Louise, from city to city to perform in vaudeville shows. Disliking the pressures of the business, June elopes. Later, as vaudeville begins to wane, Louise stumbles onto a talent for striptease, taking the name and becoming the famous Gypsy Rose Lee. The mom is devastated and in real life—the musical is based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee—becomes estranged from her two daughters for many years.

The psychological consequence of authoritarianism is either rebellion or submission. Rarely is there anything in between. In Gypsy, June and Louise reflect the former reaction to the coercion of their mother. Submission means going along, losing one’s independence and individuality, seldom being able to pursue one’s own interests because of the demands of the activity and parent. Burnout in sports is well known, usually occurring in high school after years of pressured practices, perhaps year round, that began at the age of six. Parents of these pressured kids assume that nothing is wrong, because the child seemingly goes along with all of the practices and tournaments. The parent may even claim that his or her child is having “so much fun.” An outside observer, however, may be compelled to raise an eyebrow and ask, “Is she?” Objectivity may be lost even on well-meaning parents in today’s pressure-cooker life.

There are, of course, exceptions to this overbearing parental control. My brother is a professional musician who began playing the piano at age five, gave a solo recital at age eleven, and practiced something like six hours a day in high school, at one point getting two hours of practice in before school in the morning. I don’t recall a single time in which he was forced by our parents to practice. So did his talent and drive come from our parents? No, we were a blue-collar family and our parents’ musical talent amounted to singing hymns as members of the church congregation. My brother’s motivation was all internally generated. (This is not to say that our parents were not authoritarian. They were, but in other areas of our lives.)

In addition to the strident obedience to authority that the tiger-mom, stage-mom syndrome exhibits, the values pursued are insipidly conventional. Why only piano or violin, as Amy Chua insisted? There are great tuba players in the world and they perform the great tuba concertos. Would it be so terrible if your child played the tuba? Or the banjo? Or did not want to learn a musical instrument at all? The answer is that it would be terrible . . . to the parents’ pseudo-self-esteem. And that is what this hubbub is all about.

The “right” musical instrument, the “right” sport, and the “right” college are right only if the child, not the parent, given family finances, chooses them. The parent may be consultant, cheerleader, and chauffeur, but not dictator over what the child should pursue. Independence and individuality require making one’s own choices and pursuing one’s own chosen values, sometimes in the face of opposition or expressed doubts of others. Success, accomplishment, and self-esteem all result from having done it “my way.”

Playing the “right” musical instrument, the “right” sport, or getting into the “right” college  are doing it the Jones’ way. Keeping up with the Joneses and fearing what the Joneses might think are what the tiger-mom, stage-mom parent is most concerned about. This is a prescription for dependence.

Yes, There Is Crying in Softball

(Originally posted January 14, 2011, on Jerry Kirkpatrick's Blog.)

In youth sports these days, a favorite refrain from adults, especially male coaches, is “There’s no crying in . . . [name the sport].” The phrase, taken from the 1992 Tom Hanks movie A League of Their Own, has even come into the vernacular with people now saying “there’s no crying in . . . [name the profession].” Certain phrases that become common can be charming, such as “where’s the beef?” or “it’s time to make the donuts,” but this one about crying is not just hurtful, its speakers are woefully unaware of psychology and the full context of the source of the phrase.

Let’s take the source first. Coach Jimmy Dugan, the Hanks character, screams criticism at one of his players for making a mistake. The player, a member of a World War II all-women’s baseball team, cries. Coach Dugan continues to scream, this time in disbelief, and recites the famous line.

A few points about this scene need to be remembered. One is that coach Dugan, who enjoys the bottle, has a less than savory character. Another is that during the screams, Doris, a character played by Rosie O’Donnell, tells the coach to leave Evelyn (the crier) alone. Then, the umpire follows up with this advice to the coach: “Treat each of these girls as you would treat your mother.” At which point the Hanks character lets out an X-rated remark to the man in blue and is promptly ejected. The scene concludes with Doris happily and proudly asserting herself by saying, “I’m in charge now.” The phrase “no crying in baseball” is hardly endorsed as admirable.

So why do so many people, especially men, like to recite this line? And why do they say it to younger and younger kids, especially nine- and ten-year-old girls, playing softball? Does no one remember the 1993 movie In The Line of Fire in which Clint Eastwood, playing a secret service agent, cries on screen? Real men, I’m tempted to say, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries do seem to cry and it seems to be okay. Why isn’t it okay for nine- and ten-year-old girls to cry?

The answer is that many men are embarrassed by crying. They see it as a sign of weakness and will do anything to avoid crying themselves, especially in front of anyone close to them, such as their wives, and certainly not in public. If they are in charge of a sports team and one of their players begins to cry, they become uncomfortable, worrying about what everyone else in the area—parents, opposing coaches, umpires—may be thinking of them. They feel compelled to do something, to fix the situation, hence the exhortations about not crying.

But crying is a sign of pain, not weakness. Striking out for the last out of the inning or making a mistake on the field can be just as painful as taking a line drive on the knee. Pain requires comforting, not rebuke. Telling anyone, especially a child, that it is wrong to feel something only encourages psychological repression, which can lead to a muted emotional life as an adult and unpleasant, angry emotions coming out at the wrong time or place.

There can be complicating factors in the situation that need to be fixed. A shortstop or pitcher must get out on the field, but is still crying over her strikeout, and the umpire is urging the coach to keep the game moving. However, there are alternatives to rebukes and sending an upset girl to the field with the clich├ęd line to “shake it off.” Comforting words and a request from the umpire for thirty more seconds can do wonders for the pain of the strikeout and perhaps turn coach into a hero of a ten-year-old girl, maybe even of some of the parents in the stands.

There are also other ways of responding to the “no crying in baseball” line of coach Dugan’s. Why is it just crying that should not be a part of baseball? Why not other emotions, such as laughter or anger? I’m tempted to approach coach Dugan and say something like the following, in disbelief, of course: “Hey coach. Are you angry? . . . You’re angry?? . . .There’s no anger in baseball!”

Sports, especially the youth variety, would probably be a lot more fun if adults abided by that admonition. And if the popularity of this new phrase were to spread, we would soon be saying, “There’s no anger in business . . . or politics . . . or education!” And what about laughter, reducing the argument to the absurd? Can we not also say, “There’s no laughter in baseball!”

The point of this post is that emotions have their place in life, which includes sports. Emotions should not be denied.

On Extrinsic Motivation, Bureaucracy, and the Stage-Mother Syndrome

(Originally posted May 18,2009, on Jerry Kirkpatrick's Blog.)

Carrot and stick motivation, especially the latter, as opposed to communication, persuasion, and appeals to inner values, are alive and well in today’s world. The question is, why are such extrinsic sources of motivation so common? A number of reasons can be given.

For example, in the academic world of professorial tenure, faculty can almost never be fired. As a result, some administrators and chairs resort to stick tactics such as making meetings “mandatory,” providing sign-in sheets to yield evidence that faculty attended, and reciting stories like “back when I started to work in business, I said ‘yes sir!’ when the boss requested something of me.” None of these work and they certainly do not endear the administrators or chairs to faculty. In rare cases, professors have been docked a day’s pay for not attending a meeting or returning from a conference a day late. Needless to say, this tactic is even less endearing. Why do administrators and chairs feel they must wield these sticks?

The easy answer is that people tend to do what they were taught by their parents and significant others. And extrinsic, coercive methods of motivation continue to dominate our culture. But the academic world, especially the state-run university, is bureaucratic. Its management is top-down with myriad rules and regulations to guide lower-level decision making. Bureaucracy is the means by which government bureaus are run. In contrast, business management is bottom-up with policies derived from the needs and wants of paying customers and the requirements of making a profit. Employees are often viewed metaphorically as intermediate customers who perform valued services for management. Coercing and talking down to employees can lead to unhappy customers and unpleasant bottom lines. The profit motive, an extrinsic source of motivation for entrepreneurs, ironically encourages appeals to inner values in employees.

Bureaucracy encourages a legalistic, rule-bound mentality. It says, in effect, you can only do what has been codified. This leads to the generation of hundreds of thousands of rules and laws to control behavior, coupled with the impossible-to-follow proviso that ignorance of the law is no defense. This is why the bureaucratic state has become the modern form of dictatorship, a system of excessive law. A truly free society, on the other hand, says you can do whatever has not been codified, i.e., you can do whatever you choose provided you do not violate the rights of others. Rules and laws are few and they are abstract principles. Communication, persuasion, and appeals to inner values become the primary means of relating to others. Intrinsic motivation is allowed to develop.

In addition to the external structure of bureaucracy as spur to extrinsic, especially stick motivation, an insecure psychology has to be another source. Local organizations, such as youth sports leagues, that issue edicts to parents that meetings or practices are mandatory, vacations are expected to be given up for sake of the sport, and games may be forfeited if a snack-bar work commitment is not met, are certainly pushing the limit of respectful communication among adults. Not that one should issue such edicts to children either.

The question is, why do the leaders of these organizations talk to other adults this way? The easy answer again is probably that they do not know better, as they have never learned alternative communication techniques. But for some the reason may be deeper, a psychological need to live the sport through one’s children to compensate for their own failings in the sport earlier in life. It is called achievement by proxy. As a result, such stage mothers or fathers—little league parents—push everyone hard, especially themselves and their children, and they brook no excuses for failing to make practice or the snack bar. Nothing is more important than the sport and they assume everyone else should have the same values. They become blind to the needs of others, especially the needs of their children.

The push for longer and longer seasons for younger and younger children, along with an apparent obliviousness to youth injuries, probably stems from this compulsive psychology. But then a similar psychology also probably operates in some (or many) bureaucrats who seem to need to prove something about themselves by issuing new edicts—new rules or laws. The more rules or laws with their names on them, the better they feel. And stick motivation seems to be all they know.

Extrinsic motivation can have its place in appropriate situations, but an excessive use of it, especially the stick part, often becomes a power trip. Appeal to inner values is the better way to go.

Caterpillars into Butterflies

(Originally posted June 13, 2008, on Jerry Kirkpatrick's Blog).

I don’t know where I’ve been for the past several decades but I had never heard the expression “turning caterpillars into butterflies” used in relation to teaching. That is, until this spring when my daughter’s softball coaches used it several times to explain their goal of coaching twelve eight-and-under girls. Add to this the coaches’ commitment to “no child left behind”—meaning every girl on the team, no matter how young or inexperienced, would learn how to throw, catch, and bat or, if an older veteran, how to improve these skills—and you have a heck of a model of teaching. Winning certainly was not the only thing, and most of the girls did not seem to attach any significance to it, but winning did follow from the teaching.

So what does the metaphor mean for teaching? It is a biological process that turns caterpillars into butterflies, occurring naturally with proper nurture and a minimum of interference from predators and the elements. For teaching, this means that children are natural learners and therefore do not need to be forced to learn. They need guidance and motivation perhaps more importantly than any particular knowledge content; they need encouragement, not coercion, angry yelling, or contemptuous denigration. The goal of teaching is to build confidence in the child’s own ability to learn such that the child can continue to learn throughout life without need, or with only occasional need, of additional teaching. The butterfly knows how to fly and does not need additional “instruction” or development. A clipped wing, however, will destroy it.

Many years ago, when I was in high school, I played in an orchestra of extremely talented teenagers. (Almost all, I should say, were far more talented than I.) Several different conductors would direct us in weekly concerts. Only one knew how to get the butterflies to fly. He was a motivator of adolescents and young adults and was well liked. He would make exclamations like “Sound! I want to hear sound from you!” and “Brass, I can’t hear you!” Which to trumpeters, trombonists, and French horn players was a call to action. Not loud noise, but beautiful, controlled, and confidently self-assertive sound that made the difference between amateurishness and near professionalism.

The keyword here is “controlled,” for that is what skilled musicians exhibit—control of air stream and finger movement for wind instrument players and control of muscle movements for stringed instrument players and percussionists. Control is also what skilled athletes exhibit, in muscle movement of course, but also, as sports psychologists point out, in their thoughts about playing the game. The good motivator is the one who finds ways to make sure their students or musicians or athletes get their heads in the game and keep them there.

In contrast to the above orchestra motivator, one stern task master of a conductor succeeded in clipping the wings of the orchestral butterflies with one simple but true statement. He said, “Remember, the audience is applauding the composer as much as they are you, the performers.” Message: “don’t think you are so good.” The statement is true about audiences and, often, their standing ovations, but to say it to teenagers was utterly deflating to their developing egos. The conductor did not ask for sound and he did not get it. Was he predator or the elements? Take your pick. Demeaning comments kill confidence and a willingness to perform.

Patience is a requirement of good teaching and the passage of time is what is required for a caterpillar to pass through the chrysalis stage to turn into a butterfly. Let me conclude this post by bringing back my daughter’s softball coaches and describing their seemingly infinite patience with even the youngest, most inexperienced girl on the team, a girl who would tend to get down on herself and say “I can’t do it.” At one practice the assistant coach must have thrown thirty or forty balls to this girl for her to swing at, and with each swing she would fail to make contact. Periodically, the coach would stop to make an adjustment in her stance, then he would pitch more balls. On about the fortieth pitch . . . boom. A big pop fly went to shortstop. High fives, the coach insisted, were called for from all the other players; then he picked up the girl and said, “I don’t want to ever again hear you say that you can’t do it.”

A week or two later, the same girl made contact with the ball in a game that helped drive in winning runs. This caterpillar metamorphosed into a beautiful butterfly and that is the ultimate payoff of good teaching.