Sunday, December 22, 2013

Nature, Nurture, Luck? What Leads to Success?

When I interview prospective teachers, I pull a couple of questions out of left field with the intention of getting to know a little bit about them that I might not otherwise find out.  The first question is “What is the last book you read?” followed by “What book has made the greatest impact on your life?”  I won’t go into the purpose of each question at this point, but I now have a new answer to the second one if it were asked of me.  A couple of years ago I read Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers.   My cousin gave it to me when we were together on a trip to Costa Rica and insisted that I read it.  I was actually familiar with it as I read a review in a magazine and had intentions of picking it up.  Well, I started reading the book in the airport in San Jose and could not put it down.  So, why has it had such an impact on my life?  Well, here we go!
Gladwell, journalist, bestselling author, and speaker, became interested in the factors that contribute to high levels of success, looking in a variety of different areas to support or dispel notions that we have.  He looked into some interesting places, including Canadian hockey to explain why such a very high percentage of players on rosters of elite teams were born in the first three months of the calendar year.  He dug into Bill Gates’ background trying to figure out why he was able to achieve such great wealth, as well as into the lives of the Beatles, who became arguably the most successful musical act in human history.  Gladwell looked at two people with exceptional intelligence that ended up with significantly different wealth, and how a New York law firm rose to one of the most successful in the world.
Each chapter focused on a different “contributor” to success, or at least what some of us attribute to being successful.  He digs into the above mentioned topics to identify why they are successful, actually, exceptional.  What he shares is actually fascinating.  First and foremost, Gladwell refers numerous times throughout the book that the key to success in any field is what he calls the 10,000-hour rule.  Coaches, directors, teachers, and others have preached the practice-makes-perfect philosophy for years.  Gladwell claims that to a large extent, the key to success is practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.  To put that in perspective, that means practicing a specific task for an hour a day, every day, for over 27 years!  The incredible thing is that there are people that have done this, and they are truly exceptional.  While I don’t remember specifics, Steve Alford, one of the greatest pure shooters in the history of college basketball, shot for hours on a daily basis.  The time that professional golfers spend on the practice range are incredible.  And while I fought every minute of practicing the piano, those who are at the top of their field put tremendous focus on practice.  Gladwell found that over the course of four years, the Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1200 times, easily reaching the 10,000 hour rule, as did Bill Gates at age 13, who acquired a high school computer in 1968 – well ahead of most students – and was able to meet the 10,000 hours of computer programming.
While practice is the fundamental contributor to success, Gladwell researched other factors as well, sharing about how family, culture, intelligence, family, and luck factor into a person’s success, and at each step through the book he questions whether successful people deserve the praise that is heaped upon them.  For example, Gates happened to live in a community where the schools had access to “cast off” computers and a very aggressive parent support organization that sought out these computers for their children’s schools.  While Gates would still be a highly intelligent and most likely successful individual, the fact that he was in the right place at the right time cannot be discounted.  A similar example has to do with the birth dates of Canadian hockey players who are born in the first three months of the calendar year.  In Canada leagues are set up to include children born January 1 to December 31 of the same year and at a young age, those born earlier in the year are generally bigger and more mature than those born later in the year.  Thus, they are more likely to get selected to all-star teams and elite leagues, giving them access to more ice time and better coaching.  In some respects, this follows the concept of “the rich get richer,” and simply because of when one is born, there are advantages.
So what about intelligence?  Certainly this is an advantage when it comes to being successful.  While important, Gladwell argues in the book that it is not the most important factor in determining success.  To prove his point, he cites two individuals: J. Robert Oppenheimer and Christopher Langan.  Oppenheimer a noted physicist is most often referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb.”  Langan owns a horse farm in Missouri.  What they have in common is an incredibly high IQ:  195.  To put that in perspective, Gladwell claims that Einstein had an IQ of 150.  According to Gladwell, because of this tremendous gift both men should have become very successful, but as he points out, intelligence alone is not enough.  Individuals need access to other tools, and in Oppenheimer’s case, his families wealth opened doors for him, attending the finest schools and associating with people of great success as he grew up in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan.  Langan grew up in poverty in a rural area, was often beaten by his stepfather, and for the most part taught himself his high school curriculum.  By his mid-40’s he has worked as a construction worker, cowboy, forest service firefighter, farmhand, and a bouncer.  While he has been recognized the smartest man in America and developed a theory of the relationship between mind and reality, because of a lack of social skills and a lack of tools from growing up in poverty, Gladwell states that he did not come close to reaching his potential.
Reading this book has put a lot of things in perspective, especially as I work with students and families in my role as an educator.  We all want to be successful, and when it really comes down to it, there is no replacement for practice, practice, and more practice.  My experience is that most high school kids do not want to put in the time practicing.  There is a disconnect between where they want to go in life and what they need to do to get there.  When one looks at the performers and athletes at the top of their field, most of us have no idea what they have done to get where they are.  To reach that level takes more than most of us are willing to give.  That’s why there are so few who are truly exceptional.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Are Our Expectations Really Too High?

A short time ago I was watching one of my favorite program, The Colbert Report, and the guest was America's Poet Laureate, Billy Collins.  He and Stephen Colbert read the poem that I have included below.  Having a 17-year old daughter, it struck home to me.  It does kind of make you think that perhaps we are not expecting enough!

To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl
by Billy Collins

Do you realize that if you had started
building the Parthenon on the day you were born
you would be all done in only two more years?
Of course, you would have needed lots of help,
so never mind, you’re fine just as you are.
You are loved for simply being yourself.
But did you know at your age Judy Garland
was pulling down $150,000 a picture,
Joan of Arc was leading the French army to victory,
and Blaise Pascal had cleaned up his room?
No, wait, I mean he had invented the calculator.
Of course, there will be time for all that later in your life
after you come out of your room
and begin to blossom, at least pick up all your socks.
For some reason, I keep remembering that Lady Jane Grey
was Queen of England when she was only fifteen
but then she was beheaded, so never mind her as a role model.
A few centuries later, when he was your age,
Franz Schubert was doing the dishes for his family,
but that did not keep him from composing two symphonies,
four operas, and two complete Masses, as a youngster.
But of course that was in Austria at the height
of romantic lyricism, not here in the suburbs of Cleveland.
Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?
We think you are special by just being you,
playing with your food and staring into space.
By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,
but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.

Monday, November 25, 2013

How About Soccer? Trapshooting? Lacrosse? Bowling?

Three years ago a presentation was made to the North Fayette Board to add bowling as a competitive sport.  A few folks have informally asked if we would consider trapshooting.  Soccer is a growing sport in the state, with northeast Iowa basically that last part of the state to see growth.  Lacrosse . . . well not in Iowa, but it actually is the fastest growing girl’s sport in the country and the second fastest growing boy’s sport.  Now that we are a bigger school, can we add athletic opportunities for our students?  A few folks have asked that question, and being a parent of a child who really enjoys one of the sports mentioned above having played soccer since he was in 1st grade, I too have a vested interest in some expansion.  However, before we jump in and start adding, there are some things to consider.
Obviously cost is a factor.  There is no getting around it with school budgets being what they are.  The financial obligation goes pretty deep and for some sports, costs can add up quickly.  Some of those costs come from the activity fund and others from the general fund, including coach’s salaries and transportation.  Depending on the number of events and trips, just those two costs will easily exceed $10,000 annually.  Throw in uniforms, equipment, possible maintenance, insurance, and other costs and it can become a significant amount of money to start up and sustain a program.  One sport that has not been mentioned, but is one that is growing at the collegiate level and at high school on the west coast, is girls wrestling.  From a cost perspective, that would likely be on the lower side because most of the high priced items needed for that sport are already in place.
Another consideration is whether NFV can be competitive if the sport were to become part of our program.  Some folks will say that “winning isn’t everything,” and I am fine with that.  But at the same time, unless a team is competitive, it can be very demoralizing and could very easily lead to the quick demise of the sport.  Schools that add sports often phase them in, sometimes scheduling only junior varsity contests for a couple of years in order to develop the program.  One of the best volleyball programs in the nation, St. James Academy from Kansas opened around ten years ago.  They started with a 9th grade program and moved into a junior varsity schedule the second year.  It was only in year three that they entered varsity competition.  They did that with all of their sports, including baseball where they have already won multiple state titles. 
Related to being competitive, in my opinion it is imperative to have a strong feeder program.  In this day and age, you cannot have a “high school only” team.  You have to have a strong youth program.  If NFV were to add soccer, there has to be a strong youth program in place and students ready to play at the high school level who have played for five or six years.  That is what is in place in other sports, and in order to be competitive as mentioned above, it is imperative.  At the present time, there is a growing youth soccer program in our community and should it expand so that kids can play up through middle school, then there would be a foundation of student-athletes with experience in the sport that can play.
A final consideration, and this may be more personal than others, is that if additional activities were added, there must be a broad base of support.  Different sports require different numbers of participants.  Regardless, it does not make sense to add a sport if there would have to be heavy recruiting to field a team.  More important, to sustain a program going forward, more than “just enough” would have to be interested. 
This conversation will eventually come around and it is important that different aspects of the issue are put on the table.  There is more to it than having a few folks interested in having a new opportunity.  

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Mom's Advice to Prepare Boys to Become Men

A while back I shared an article from Dr. Tim Elmore's blog about what parents should say when their kids perform.  As I have read more from Dr. Elmore, I continue to come across what I consider very good pieces of advice for parents in terms of raising this generation of young people who will in the not too distant future become our leaders.  As I read the article that I have linked for you, I recalled a statement made to me a long time ago from a veteran wrestling coach.  I was a rookie coach taking some lumps with a very inexperienced team.  I don't remember what lead to the comment, but it had to have been something about a particularly tough wrestler and perhaps his dad.  The old coach said, "Show me a tough mom and I'll show you a tough wrestler.  How tough the dad is had nothing to do with our tough the kid is."  In this article, you will see from a very successful mom, some of the keys to how she raised what are some very successful sons.  I hope you enjoy the article!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Are You D-I?

In the 28+ years that I have been a teacher, coach, and administrator, I have worked with close to 2050 students.  In that time, I have taught, coached, or been the principal of five students who have received Division I athletic scholarships.  For those of you that do not know, college athletics is basically divided into six “classes” of athletics – Division I, II, II as well as NAIA, and two categories of junior colleges.  Division I is where the big boys play, like Nebraska, Ohio State, USC, Iowa State and yes, even Iowa.  There are a number of differences, but most observers will agree that the best level of competition is at the Division I level, commonly called D-I.  That is also where most of the money and television is, and when we hear about full-ride scholarships, this is the level of competition where those for the most part exist.  So, when you look at the numbers, of the 2050 students that I have worked with, .2% of them have been awarded a Division I athletic scholarship.  Nothing else needs to be presented to show that the odds are not with you if this is the goal that parents have for their child.
Of those D-I athletes that I have worked with, Nick Clausen was a three-year starter at Iowa State for Jim Walden’s football team and was awarded a full-ride scholarship.  Andrew Long had a scholarship to Iowa State and then at Penn State to wrestle.  Madison Frain is currently a scholarship softball player at University of South Dakota, and Colin Bevins had a full-ride football scholarship to play football at Iowa State until he chose to leave the team this past July.  Another student Quin Leith wrestled at Cornell University in New York, but the Ivy League does not award athletic scholarships, though he was awarded various grants and financial aid assistance such that it made it possible for him to attend.  In addition, Teresa Breyfogle turned down track money at Wyoming and Iowa State in order to play basketball and run track at a D-III Buena Vista, and Kalab Evans said “no” to a baseball scholarship at Kentucky and opted to go to a community college to start his baseball career.  So, of all of the students I have worked with, two – Clausen and Bevins – actually received a full-ride scholarship. 
The NCAA, the national governing body of about 1300 institutions of higher learning, determines how many athletic scholarships can be awarded in each sport at each level.  For instance, in D-I men’s basketball, coaches can only award 13 full scholarships, while women’s basketball coaches cannot award any more than 15.  If there were not limits, then the wealthiest schools could outspend the rest, which would certainly upset any balance that may exist on the playing field.  Recognize as well that there are differences between men and women in some sports due to Title IX in an effort to bring about parity in the entire athletic program as they is no women’s equivalent to football and the 85 scholarships that a school can award to those athletes.  And, at the D-I level, in men’s sports the scholarships award to football and basketball players must be “full rides,” meaning that they cannot be divided among athletes.  In other sports they have to be divided as not enough full rides can be given to even fill a team.  For instance, baseball teams get 11.7 scholarships that have to be divided among 30-35 players on the active roster.  It is highly unusual for a baseball player to receive a full scholarship.  D-I wrestling teams can award 9.9 full scholarships, which is interesting because the team has ten weight classes to fill, not to mention having other wrestlers on the team to provide depth.  So, when someone tells you their son got a “full ride” be very skeptical.
The reality is that a very, very small percentage of high school student-athletes are going to win an athletic scholarship, partial or full ride.  The percentage is right at 2% and those given by Division I schools are less than 1%.  Over one million boys play high school football, but less that 30,000 received any kind of scholarship to play that sport at the D-I or D-II level.  The odds are a little better for girls, but not much, though in some sports the odds are a lot better.  What sport has the great opportunity?  Women’s rowing!  However, last I looked, there are not many rowing teams in Iowa high schools!
I am all for dreams and aspirations.  I do think that many parents are a little out of hand hiring private strength and conditioning coaches as well as private technique coaches and spending money on academic test taking coaches, travel and select teams, and maybe even sending their kids off to some of these new full-time academies that are popping up in our country.  The amount of money they will spend will never be recouped unless their child becomes a very successful professional athletic.  But that is not to say that athletic success at high school won’t open some doors.  It does.  But let’s look at it through clear rather than rose colored glasses.
If you want to learn more about college athletic scholarships, I refer you to CBS’s Money Watch and this web site: