"We're actually preventing kids from getting better."

Clarence Fields was an all-district baseball player and all-state basketball player in Louisiana. He played Division I basketball. He played professional football.

And growing up, he played less than half the number of games that today’s average youth athlete plays on travel teams.

“Today’s travel team athletes can expect to play over 500 games between grade school and high school graduation,” he says. “It should be no surprise that burnout is on the rise.”

Summer, when school is out and tournament travel fills the calendar, is when burnout peaks. With escalating time demands, travel, and non-stop competition, it’s easy for a game to feel more like a job, and for young athletes to experience a loss of motivation or basic joy for the games they play.

The fact that burnout escalates during the summer is no surprise, but it’s not simply playing a lot of games that creates burnout. Kids like playing games. Instead, it’s worth a taking a deeper look at the situation and understanding why kids actually start loose motivation and interest.

“The basic problem is that ratio of practice and free play to officiated games is getting reversed,” says Fields. “Would you send your child to a school where she spent more time taking tests than actually learning the material?”

It’s true that high level competition is important, but the primary place athletes develop, from grade school to the pros, is still the practice field.

“So we put kids on stage and ask them to perform without having spent enough time developing their skills. Worse, when they make mistakes, there isn’t enough time in between tournaments to practice, so kids stop improving and keep making the same mistakes. That’s not fun.”

Fields estimates that, growing up, he spent 50 total hours (of actual playing time) in games, compared to 6,000 hours of practice, half of which were unsupervised.

“When you play with your friends, you’re learning how to push yourself, how to compete for its own sake, and also how to be a leader and a teammate,” Fields adds. “You’re also having fun, trying new things and perfecting your individual craft away from the structure of practice.”

Fields’ story is not unique. It’s near impossible to hear a professional athlete reminisce about his  youth without stories of all-night pick up games or obsessive practice in the driveway. Few of these stories involve parents and summer tournaments.

In a sense, when our young athletes are showing signs of burnout from the summer schedule, what they’re actually telling us about is what we’re taking away from them.

Learning

It can be easy to forget with all of the emphasis on making the cut for the best travel teams, but kids like learning. Young people are naturally drawn to games where they can develop mastery of complex skills. The beauty of sports is that they are games with fun-to-develop skills and minimal stakes for imperfection. When we ask kids to spend all of their time taking the test, as Fields puts it, all of the fun of developing mastery is replaced with the fear of making a mistake in the game (and without having practiced enough to get better).   

Autonomy

One of the great benefits of sports is that our kids get to choose the games they love, and how deeply to invest in them. The experience of investing in a pursuit for their own rewards is about as valuable a growth experience as can be conjured for young people. When the adults commit kids in advance to a non-stop schedule of traveling and games, that sense of autonomy can quickly become a distant memory.

Play and socializing

At the same time we’re traveling with kids for days on end, managing their schedules, their diets, and their wardrobes, they are entering an important life phase where they [ should be ] learning to be self-motivated and experimental learners. They’re learning how to engage deeply and creatively with their own interests, and to how to collaborate with friends and solve conflicts around those interests. If you’re hoping that, at some point down the line, they’re able to do things like choose a major in school or develop a career path on their own, these are the exact experiences where that self is supposed to be emerging. When we take the games they love, and turn them into activities entirely managed, mandated, and curated by adults, we’re handicapping them, and they’re responding by losing interest.

Rest and Recovery

Even highly engaged and successful young athletes still experience stress and pressure. As such, family should be respite from stress. But with the increased time commitment and financial pressure applied by travel teams, parents are experiencing as much or even more stress than kids, which makes it harder for everyone in the family to recover and get a break from the stress of sports.

Moving Forward

“By letting the ratio of formal competition to development get out of hand, we are actually preventing kids from getting better, and making it more stressful and expensive for everyone,” Fields says. “It’s crazy.”

And the solution is to start correcting the ratio, and putting less overall stress on families to keep up. How to do that?

“That’s another story altogether,” says Fields.

We’ll examine that story in Part Two of this post, coming soon.


Expanding Your Comfort Zone

Jon Glassberg (Cinematography) [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

Jon Glassberg (Cinematography) [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

Most of us fear failure. We do so, usually, because the thought of failure is worse than the reality.

Alex Honnold fears failure because if he fails, he could die. In reality.  

Honnold is a professional rock-climber, and since being featured in the Oscar-winning documentary, Free Solo, he is probably also the world’s most recognizable climber.

Free Solo centers on Honnold’s quest to be the first person to climb a 3,000-foot vertical wall of rock, known as El Capitan, without any ropes or assistance.

El Cap-1.jpg

Free solo-ing, as the task is known, is as dangerous as it sounds. Several well-known professional climbers have, in fact, met their end doing it.

As a result, the specter of fatal failure colors every moment of Free Solo, whether it’s Honnold’s girlfriend wondering how long he will be around, the esacalating anxiety of his climbing peers, or Honnold himself, who understands the reality of his task better than anyone.

It’s not long before the film’s central question becomes “How does a person prepare to face the ultimate fear?”

The filmmakers spend some time trying to convince us that Alex Honnold is simply not normal, that he feels less fear than the average person (FMRI brain scans appear to demonstrate that his neurobiological fear response is much lower than average), and that he has an almost diabolically rational point of view.

But as we watch him train for his free climb, it becomes clear that Honnold is still human. Two training falls rattle his sense of security. Difficult sections of the route up El Cap openly inspire fear during practice runs.

We realize that Honnold may have a higher fear threshold than most of us, but he is definitely operating at his own version of the edge. After one particularly challenging practice session on El Cap, he is asked directly about how he keeps fear at bay.

“When people talk about trying to suppress your fear, I look at it a different way. I try to expand my comfort zone by practicing the moves over and over again. I work through the fear until it’s just not scary anymore.”

As the film progresses, we realize this talk of “expanding his comfort zone” is more than just comforting rhetoric. He trains, and trains, and trains, and trains. The bulk of the film, in fact, is a deep dive into his meticulous, almost maniacal preparation, and when he bumps up against a scary section of the climb, he practices it until he has memorized every millimeter of rock and every twitch of his body.

When asked about how he is progressing in tackling a particularly tricky section of the wall, Honnold recites from memory, in minute detail, a series of over 30 moves and micro-moves, all the way down to his finger and toe positions. It’s like Rainman reciting every move from an hour-long game of Twister.

But that is how Alex Honnold faces death–by practicing every finger and foothold, for over a year, until he has turned an entire 3,000-foot wall into his personal comfort zone.  

In this particular way, Alex Honnold is not all that unusual. He has learned what all people who operate in high-stakes environments, be they professional athletes, military combatants, or first-responders, understand: that the only way to achieve true confidence under intense pressure is to train intensively and systematically acclimate oneself to scary situations. The fear does not completely go away–we do not cease being human–but we are incredibly adaptive beings and we can stretch our bodies and minds to do incredible things and dangerous things, comfortably, with the right training. Some people train so hard, that they become adept and seemingly fearless doing things that seem incredibly scary or impossible to the rest of us.

In our everyday scary-but-not-life-threatening realms, (like sports or public speaking) we have a habit-adopting self-talk strategies or believing that the right body language will somehow lead to confidence and great performance. We stare into a mirror and say “you can do it!” We tell our little soccer players to “go out there and be confident!”

Those who operate under real stakes show us that real confidence in the face of fear cannot be manufactured with simple words.

Imagine if Alex Honnold, instead of training for months and months, just practiced a few times, walked up to the wall one day, with no ropes, and said: “I’ve got this!”

The documentary would not have had a happy ending.



Failure: The Secret Sauce of Sports

Fail Blog Dad-1.jpg

It is often said or assumed that sports teach life skills. But what life skills do sports teach, and how does that process work?

To answer that question, we need to start in a vacuum. An actual vacuum (not a metaphorical one).

Sir James Dyson is the inventor of the bagless vacuum, and founder of the billion-dollar company which bears his name. There’s a good chance that if you own a vacuum today, its existence started somewhere in his brain.

Dyson famously constructed 5,127 failed prototypes over fifteen years before he had his first marketable vacuum.   

We hear stories like these often - Thomas Edison’s 1,000 attempts at the light bulb, Abe Lincoln’s many career failures and electoral losses, Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school team – they’re cliches about persistence. “Success comes to those who have the will to stick with it, no matter how many times they fail or get rejected!”

There is nothing wrong with that message, of course, but the way we often tell it, it actually underplays the role of failure, even in the very examples it employs.

Persistence cliches frame failure as an ugly inconvenience, something to be ignored or defeated on the way to inevitable heroic conquest. Further, they tell us nothing about how the protagonist became so uniquely persistent. Hidden in those same stories, though, is a more important and interesting truth: that the process of failing is itself a crucial experience.

When a reporter asked Thomas Edison how it felt to fail 1,000 times, he replied: “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” James Dyson similarly claimed that “each failure brought me closer to solving the problem. It wasn't the final prototype that made the struggle worth it. The process bore the fruit. I just kept at it.”

What they speak of is more than just persistence. It is an ability to reframe failure as learning, to commit to a difficult, uncertain process and trust oneself, and to continually bounce back from adversity. It is a complex of sub-skills which are crucial to success, and do not come easily. In fact, they are developed patiently and painfully, through repeated, frustrating failure.

Great athletes, as well as great businessmen, inventors, artists, and leaders all display this collection of skills–often referred to with terms like resilience, growth mindset, or process orientation–and few if any are born with them. Look into the biography of any uniquely successful person, and you will find not perfect, upward trending graphs of successes, but a life almost predictably marked by key failures or disappointments. And it is not the disappointments themselves which are the signature of the journey, but the unanticipated value of the disappointment.

The Value of Failure

Failure gets our attention.

Big disappointments are memorable. They leave a mark because our nervous systems are biologically designed to remember impactful negative events. If your friend gets attacked by wild boars in the woods, the incident will leave a mental scar, and you will never forget where the wild boars hang out. Memory is a survival mechanism. Today, we don’t deal with many mortal threats, but our mistakes and disappointments are still “sticky”. It’s not because they are fundamentally bad, it’s because they are calling attention to something that is wrong in our situation, our choices, or simply in our ignorance of key realities.

Failure is the most potent form of learning.

As articulated by creators like Dyson, great success does not happen in spite of failure, it happens because of failure. When trying to do something challenging, there are inevitable obstacles for which there are no existing instructions; if the solution were obvious or known, everyone would already be doing it. In those moments, failure is your only teacher. The feedback of the trial-and-error process is your only hope. Thus, it is no surprise that embedded in so many great achievements and discoveries is a crucial moment of failure in which the hero suddenly recognizes a new path to success.

Failure is necessary for developing emotional resilience.

When attempting something difficult, there are inevitable obstacles Dyson refers to as “pain points,” where the task becomes so frustrating that, at that point, most people give up. Emotional resilience is well known to be a valued skill, but there is no easy method to train for or practice it. The only way, in fact, is to repeatedly expose yourself to such pain points, and practice the art of letting go of the painful emotion and moving forward with the task. It’s no accident that people who succeed where others have failed are exceptionally absorbent when it comes to the pain of setbacks. It’s not that they were born that way, it’s that resilience was the price of admission, and by the time you know who they are, they’ve paid their pain taxes.

Failure is necessary for developing true Autonomy and Competence.

When we are born, we are basically helpless. We cannot walk or feed ourselves. The first several years of life are about learning not only functional independence (walking, communicating, making a bowl of cereal), but overcoming the experience of powerlessness. The only way to develop a sense of efficacy and independence as a developing human is by taking risks, making mistakes, and learning from them. The experience of failing and learning is fundamental. And becoming successful in a field or in life is no different. It is highly dependent on the exposure to risk and failure. There is only one way to truly internalize the idea that we are capable, and with that feeling, continue to lean into the basic adversity of living.

Back to Sports

Almost everything an athlete does, whether throwing a pitch or executing a half-court press, has a definable goal, a clear risk of failure, an immediate and tangible outcome, and an immediate chance to try again and get better. This operates on a small scale, say with a basketball player practicing dozens of shots in the space of a single drill. It also happens on a larger scale, with basketball games and seasons, where the athlete can test skills in dynamic situations, and compare performances over time.

As a bonus, kids (tend to) play sports because they actually enjoy them and choose to invest themselves, so there is both joy and enthusiasm, and a real chance of disappointment.

In other words, it would be difficult to design a better environment for productive failure. Sports don’t automatically work to provide this environment, though. A few conditions have to be met:

Kids have to choose sports and be self-motivated.

The processes outlined above only work if kids care. If their emotional investment is in service of pleasing adults (or worse, to not disappoint adults), the risks-and-rewards equation breaks down entirely.

Kids have to be allowed to take risks and responsibility and fail.

Parents and other grown-ups involved in sports are, naturally, programmed to protect kids from pain and disappointment. But when we adults get over-involved, and when we prevent kids from experiencing disappointments and failures or owning them, we actually destroy the most valuable part. We’re also sending another message…

Kids have to get the message that failure is part of the process.

Kids aren’t stupid. They see that the world around them values success and winning, and punishes imperfection. The only way they can learn to approach failure as a learning experience, and become the resilient, courageous people they need to be, is if we adults create environments where it is safe to make mistakes, and that it is important to learn from them. Sports can either be the perfect place for this to happen, or the place where fear of failure becomes permanently stamped in their young psyches.

We want the world for our kids. But in order to have it, they must learn to experience it in full.

Justin Baker is guest writer for Trusted Coaches, the founder of Mindful Power, and a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota.




How do you prepare for the biggest moment of your life?

 In a few hours, 80 or so football players not named Tom Brady will take part in the single most consequential event of their lives. (Brady just has Super Bowl week permanently marked as “busy” in calendar).  

If they make a big play, it may be remembered for generations, replayed thousands of times, and all people who associate themselves with a certain metropolitan area will want to hug them and buy them a drink until they die.

If they make an egregious error in a crucial moment, they may spend the remainder of their lives to trying escape the shame, and may seek to redefine themselves by adopting a cause or investing in an organic farm.

This is not an exaggeration. Ask Scott Norwood and Adam Vinatieri. Ask Lorenzo Charles and Chris Webber. Ask Bill Buckner.

Only a rare few even understand the weight of such a moment.

The question is, how can the human mind process that level of pressure?  Better yet, how does it (since we see athletes manage to do it so often)?

The fact is, for all the examples we have of athletes who have crumbled under the pressure, it is still a small percentage. Most athletes manage to at least perform somewhere in their typical performance range (which, if they are on such a stage, is world-class). How do they avoid panic? How do their shaking hands grip the ball?

The answer is as mundane as is it surprising: ROUTINE.

In Bounce, author and former world champion table tennis player Matthew Syed outlines how even in low or no pressure situations, high level athletics virtually require habituated responses.

Regardless of the sport, at the highest levels, things move too fast (think team sports like soccer, basketball, football) or are too complex in terms of fine motor (think golf or tennis) for athletes to be actively thinking about everything they are doing.

So the athletes train for thousands of hours, and learn to trust their trained responses, paying attention to a small handful cues in the heat of the moment. If it looks easy, it’s because for them, it is.

For normals like the rest of us, it’s like approaching a set of stairs and deciding which foot to land on the first step. It’s actually a fairly miraculous act of balance, coordination and information processing, one that babies take years to learn, and that is incredibly hard to program an algorithm to do, but you do it while texting your mother, because you have practiced responding to an approaching staircase every day for decades.  

Still, allowing trained responses to flow in high level, high stakes competition is not easy, because as much as the athlete attempts to just focus on the simple cues and trust his training, many other thoughts and distractions can interfere. And the higher stakes, the harder to avoid the thoughts.

This is where routine comes in.

Elite athletes don’t just practice skills. They practice entire processes. Watch baseball players between pitches.  Watch the elaborate pre-putt routine of a golfer. Watch olympic athletes preparing for a race, checking every inch of equipment and apparel, closing their eyes and mentally rehearsing every second of race.

This stuff is more than superstition or psyching oneself up; it is the result of years creating an entire mental and physical universe where only trained responses live, and purposely stepping into that universe. And it is the athlete’s best defense against nerves, distraction, or anything else that might potentially interfere with doing what he is trained to do.

Neurons in the brain learn to fire together and in sequence with training, so by linking behaviors together over and over, we build very sticky sets of habits where the end result we want–the clean swing, the made free throw, the correct read of the zone defense–is the very likely end result of an entire chain of events we have practiced thousands of times.  

When you see a player getting into a routine, he or she is deliberately passing through the gateway of a very sticky routine, a whole universe of attentional states, neural linkages, and grouped actions. If it looks like a “zone,” well, that’s not far from the truth.

If you hear player who makes a crucial interception in the Super Bowl say “I didn’t even hear the crowd,” it’s at worst only a mild exaggeration. He has trained his attention, over thousands of trials, to be one-hundred percent on the eyes of the quarterback and the spacing of the receivers at that moment, and crowd noise simply wasn’t part of his attentional universe.

The irony of being high level athlete is that the key to stepping up on the biggest stage of your life is making sure that your brain and your body act like they have every other day of your athletic life.

What’s possibly even more ironic is how truly difficult that can be to accomplish.