Thursday, January 21, 2016

When Do We Give Youth Sports Back To The Kids?

I would guess that those of you who read this regularly believe that I am spinning a broken record in my “rants” about youth sports.  I don’t bowl, I don’t play cards with the guys on Thursday evenings, I rarely fish and since I don’t own a gun, I don’t hunt.  I don’t tinker on old tractors, don’t snowmobile or play much golf.  I read a lot and I have spent a great deal of my life involved in athletics, and a large amount of that involved at one level or another with youth sports.  If it needs a category in my life, I guess it is my hobby, youth sports that is, not ranting!  Though I am sure there are those of you that think that I do that a lot as well!

I wrote an article a while back about the “dropout rate” among youth athletes in which I pointed out that a very high percentage of kids who play sports when they are young quit playing by the time they reach high school.  80% of the kids playing youth sports in this country right now will not be playing in high school.  In that article I provided information that explained this high “dropout rate” on burnout, injuries, and the stress that comes with meeting the demands of adults.

I believe it is important to take a very close look at the expectations we have for our kids.  Honestly, I think most parents you talk to who have their children playing soccer, softball, football or whatever, state that their number one priority is for their child to have fun.  But I don’t quite buy it.  That’s the response they are supposed to give.  It is the cliché answer.  For many parents, I believe that they are living out their dreams through their kids.  Maybe they didn’t have the level of success they had hoped for when they competed back in the day, or if they competed at all.  Perhaps they are hooked on the fact that sports today offer so many more opportunities than when they were kids that they don’t want to be left out.  I know for some it gives them something to brag on.  “Yep, Blake played eight baseball games in Minneapolis over the weekend.  Went 12 for 20, two home runs and a couple doubles.”  “Craig is 82 and 4 this wrestling season.  He’s headed to state next week and shooting for a state title.”  “Shelly is on a travel team playing middle and is getting looked at by college coaches at these volleyball tournaments on the weekends.”  Parents are establishing their own self-worth, their own self-esteem on the successes of their children!  Even though many parents have an idea of the statistics – 1 in 6000 Iowa boys will make the NFL and 2.5 kids in 10,000 will play in the NBA – they still think that their child will beat the odds!

The reality is that high school participation in Iowa has dropped by 16,000 kids over the past five years.  Schools in our immediate area are having difficulty fielding teams, some dropping sports or looking for another school to share with them.  Just this summer we got a request from a local school wanting to know if we would share girls basketball because they thought they would only have 10 girls at most go out, and the majority of those were 9th graders.  Last year, only two teams in the Upper Iowa Conference were able to fill a complete wresting lineup.  Our numbers at NFV are fairly solid right now, but will they continue?  Will teenagers still have the desire to play sports in high school after already having played for a number of years?  What can be done to provide solid learning opportunities for kids to learn how to play the games, and yet not make the decision to quit when they get to high school? 

One idea was shared with me a number of years ago by a long-time college baseball coach who had been talked out of retirement to coach a high school team.  Like many successful coaches at the high school level, he recognized the importance of being involved with the youth program to see that there was good coaching and that kids were learning the right way to play the game.  But he also realized that kids needed to just play and have fun like we all did back before video games and over-involved parents.  So he set up a sandlot program too.  The way it worked was actually quite simple.  First off he publicized it with all of the youth teams in town and their parents and every Tuesday morning in the summer he and three or four high school kids brought a few bats and balls to the one of the parks in town and kids showed up to play, just like we did when I was growing up.  Teams were picked and they played, sometimes using modified rules like “pitcher’s hand” or played modified games like “work up.”  There was never a day when kids didn’t show up, and while most also played in organized leagues at night it sure looked like they were have a lot more fun in the sandlot on those mornings.  

The idea above is just one.  I am sure that there are others, but the fundamental thing that I believe needs to happen is that we need to back off a bit on how many games some kids play or matches they wrestle.  Maybe instead of wrestling 80 matches, scaling it back to 40 and taking some time to go and watch older kids wrestle so your son can learn by watching older kids compete will keep a young man wrestling when he is in high school.  Perhaps instead of playing in ten softball tournaments in the summer, five will keep your daughter fresh and leave some weekends open to enjoy family or other pursuits.  In many respects with youth sports, less may in fact be more.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Marshmallow Test

In late September 2014, I was watching an episode of the Colbert Report and the host’s interview with psychologist Walter Mischel about his book The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control.  Apparently “The Marshmallow Test” was first conducted over 50 years ago in the early 1960’s at Stanford University when Mischel and his graduate students were curious about how young children reacted to choice and rewards.  This study has been referenced over the years in many different contexts, including investment companies working with adults to plan for retirement, and even on Sesame Street where our beloved Cookie Monster deals with temptation in order to join the Cookie Connoisseurs Club.  So what is the marshmallow test and what does it tell us?

Quite simply, the test was set up with pre-school children to see how they would respond to a choice between receiving one reward that they could eat immediately and a larger reward that they would have to wait alone for for fifteen minutes.  Could these kids be patient?  Could they delay their gratification?  The study showed that for the most part they could not.  A minority of the children would eat the marshmallow immediately, but only about a third could delay their gratification long enough to reach the fifteen minutes and get the second marshmallow.

We know that students are impulsive and we hear a lot about this generation that demands instant gratification.  They are said to lack patience and want things now.  But in reality, this is nothing new.  Mischel determined this 50 years ago and the study has been replicated numerous times with different rewards and a variety of modifications.  Mischel has stated that there are some obvious factors that influence the choice kids make, such as respect for authority and the ability to trust.  Age is also a factor in the ability of a child to delay gratification.  What is interesting is some of the correlations that have been drawn from the original and follow up studies.

From an educational perspective, one of the most interesting came about in the late 1980’s and 1990.  Those students who as pre-schoolers were able to delay gratification became teenagers and were described by their parents are more competent, and then those same kids who delayed gratification had higher SAT scores than those who were not able to delay.    So, those who exercised patience and the ability to put off gratification scored higher on the SAT test.  And, brain research done in the past ten years shows differences in the prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum between those with low delay times and those with high delay times.  
It does appear that as the old saying goes, patience is a virtue.  Yet it would appear that in this fast food, video game culture we live in, instant rewards and gratification surround our kids.  However, it isn’t something new and the way to deal with it is pretty much the same as it has always been.  Presenting children with “if/then” scenarios and helping them weigh the benefits of waiting is perhaps the most successful.  Good things do come to those who wait, as is evident from the SAT scores, and we need to stress the idea of greater reward.  Even those people who we sometimes categorize as “overnight successes” have generally put in years of work to get where they are today.  Reaping the reward does not happen in the short term very often, and teaching that to our kids is something that will save a considerable amount of negative emotion through the years. 

If you would like to learn more about Walter Mischel and the implications of his research, enjoy this video on YouTube:

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What About Kids That Don’t Have a Home?

We are fortunate in our school districts that we don’t have to spend a great deal of time on matters related to homeless youth.  In fact, some would be surprised to know that we actually have had homeless students in the six-plus years that I have worked in this district.  They are not visible to the public because they do not fit the stereotype of the vagrant living off the street in urban parts of the country.  But they are here from time to time, living in a car with their mom or bouncing from couch to couch in friend’s houses.  Or, they might be taking refuge for a while in someone’s home because they were left behind by the only parent in their life.  Overall, we are fortunate that in our community that we know one another and there are a number of people that care, and for the most part the struggles that come with being homeless rarely impede on a child’s life.

However, it is troubling that in the richest country in the world we have children that do not have a home.  A report entitle America’s Youngest Outcasts from the National Center on Family Homelessness estimated that 2.5 million kids in America were homeless at some point during the 2013 calendar year.  That is incredible!  How can a country with so much, a country with excess, not provide for its most vulnerable?  We can argue that it is a parent issue, or we can say we don’t want a country based on socialism, or put forth any number of other arguments.  But regardless, there is no better measure of a society than how it treats its children.  And on that, we get an F.

It would also appear that at the same time we are seeing more homeless kids in our country, the federal government is making progress in reducing the number of homeless veterans and chronically homeless adults.  There have been some very strong advocates for those groups, and rightly so.  But it does not appear that the same can be said for the plight of homeless families and children.

Nationally, child homelessness increased by 8% from 2012 to 2013.  In the North Fayette district this year, 52% of our elementary student population is on free or reduced lunch, the common measure for students living in poverty.  This certainly positions many youngsters in dire circumstances and just one step away from having a home.  This can have a devastating effect on the child’s educational development, not to mention their emotional and social development.  The stress it causes on parents also has a significant effect on the kids.  And again, how can this be in a country that has so much wealth?

The standard of living in rural Iowa is not too high, which is one of the reasons that the problem in the heartland is not to the extent that it is in California and in the south.  But it is a challenge because it is a big change to the status quo.  The strength of our nation has been the middle class with a value system that included a strong belief in upward mobility through education and hard work.  That is not the same today.  Generational poverty is more prevalent and is accompanied by a lack of hope.  The mindset of children coming from a life of poverty is much different, and one that we are going to have to deal with more and more if the current trend continues.  This nation does not have an education problem.  It has a poverty problem.  Let’s challenge our elected officials to place a focus on fixing that.