Thursday, August 25, 2022
Saving High School Sports, Part Two
Do remember one thing. it is that the army solves exactly this problem. they do it by enforcing participation. The bar is actually low enough for all participants to largely make, but the universal effort sees stronger achievers improve their efforts as well.
So yes, it is possible. It is also desirable. This also addresses the rate of maturation which is an issue because it easily can discard half of out potential using our present methods. So yes, all this needs to be fixed.
I do think that a cadet serrvice of sorts can be used successfully by applying three or even two month physical training sessions upon reaching identifyible maturation levels. that us either six uptake points or perhaps three per year. It should be integrated vwith puberty in particular.
That may give enough flexibility. Better yet, for many a do over can be done to ramp up fitness for the few well behind.
I have long thought that our approach to teen fitness to be seriously deficient. all this is a starting point easily maintained with regular long distance runs during off cycles.
Saving High School Sports, Part Two
The strange tale of Australian swimming.
I got such an overwhelming reaction from my last newsletter, which was on fixing high school sports, that I’ve decided to devote this bulletin to responding to the responses. (Will I devote my next bulletin to responding to the responses to the responses? Don’t put it past me.)
In particular, two of my favorite people—David Epstein, author of Range and The Sports Gene, and former elite miler Kyle Merber—published detailed critiques of my idea in their respective newsletters, Range Widely and The Lap Count. You would do well to subscribe to both newsletters, by the way. They’re very good—and free!
The heart of my high school sports argument was this.
Let’s start with this question: What are high school sports for?
I think most of us would give three answers to that:To prepare those with elite ability for post-high school competition.
To provide an opportunity for students to experience the joy that comes from exercise and competition.
To lay down life-long habits of physical activity.
I think American high schools do a really good job with Number 1. I think they do a so-so job with Number 2, and because they do a so-so job with Number 2, they do a lousy job with Number 3.
I argued that high school cross country programs were in a unique position to solve this problem, and I suggested a new competition format I call the “Pied Piper.” In the Pied Piper, each competing team would have 20 runners instead of the usual five, and the scoring system would be based on time rather than placement.
With those two reforms, races would be decided by the performance of the slowest members of any team, and not—as they are now—by the fastest members. This, I argued, would change the psychological dynamics of participation in cross country such that the runner of average ability would have a reason to join the cross country team.
Both Merber and Epstein have some bones to pick with this argument. But before I get to their criticisms, I want you take a look at this table:
What is this? It’s from a paper published in 2020 by the Australian sports scientist Stephen Cobley and his team of researchers.
I will freely admit that I am obsessed with Cobley’s work, to the point that it looms very large in an upcoming episode of Revisionist History, which airs in the fall. (I will return to that episode in much more detail when it drops.)
But—for now—this table! Cobley is very interested in directly measuring the physical maturation of adolescents. Right now we use chronological age as a proxy of maturation. But that’s obviously a very crude measure.
Cobley, instead, uses a handful of physiological measurements to come up with an estimate of an adolescent’s relative age: in other words, he can look at two 14 year olds, born on exactly the same day, and determine that the first of those kids is an early maturer, whose relative age is, say, 14 years and eight months. And the second kid is a late maturer, whose relative age is, say, 13 years and one month. They have the same birthday. But in practice, one of them has a 19-month maturity advantage over the other.
The table above shows Cobley’s maturation measure applied to the universe of elite, male, age-class swimmers in Australia who compete in the 100-meter freestyle. And what do we see? That essentially all the athletes at the top rungs of Australian age-class swimming are those lucky enough to be in the “early” or “early-normal” maturation categories.
To put it another way, the talent pool for elite swimming in Australia—a country that takes competitive swimming perhaps more seriously than any other country in the world—is arbitrarily limited to the 50 percent of kids who just happen to mature faster than their peers. I mean, take a long hard look at the “late” maturers column. It’s just a long line of zeros.
Where did the more slowly maturing children go? Well, logic suggests that they probably started swimming with the rest of their age cohort. Kids join a swim team because they love swimming. But apparently, by age 12, they’d almost all become disillusioned and dropped the sport. Who knows what happened to them! Did they all decide they liked video games more?
I find Cobley’s analysis devastating. And I think it suggests two things:Most childhood talent selection programs that perceive themselves to be perfectly meritocratic, on closer examination, probably aren’t.
And, more importantly:What looks like an absence of talent in youth sports is, in many cases, an absence of motivation: No child will persist at an athletic activity if they don’t feel they are competitive with their peers.
This is the chart I had in mind when, in my previous post, I articulated what I called Gladwell’s Law: In any sporting endeavor, elite achievement comes at the cost of mass participation.
There really isn’t any other conclusion from Cobley’s chart, is there? Australia decided to find its next generation of elite swimmers through high-stakes, competitive, adolescent competitions. And the plain effect of those competitions was to chase half the cohort of young swimmers out of swimming.
In fact, I now realize Gladwell’s Law is an imperfect summary of Cobley’s findings. Australia isn’t just curtailing mass participation in age-class swimming. It’s also massively compromising its ability to find talented swimmers. So let me add an addendum to Gladwell’s Law: In any sporting endeavor, naïve attempts to encourage elite achievement also come at the cost of . . . elite achievement.
When I say, then, that I think cross country teams need to be four times the size they are now, I’m making two arguments. First, if we keep the field open to slower-maturing athletes, we’ll find and nurture a lot more great runners in the end. And second, if we make mass participation purposeful for the mass participant—if each runner’s performance matters to everyone else on the team—we’ll help prevent the shocking attrition that currently characterizes youth sports.
So. With that clarification, let us consider the objections of Kyle Merber and David Epstein. And let me declare my conflicts of interest here: I have gone running with both of them, I think the world of both of them, and I think they write brilliant newsletters. (Once again! Subscribe to both!)
First, David’s objections. He doesn’t buy Gladwell’s Law. What about Jamaica? he asks. Everyone sprints in Jamaica, and Jamaica simultaneously produces the world’s greatest sprinters.
Or what about Norway? Norway is a tiny country with an extraordinary level of mass participation in sports, and it punches way above its weight at the Olympics. “Mass participation,” David writes, “doesn’t seem to be getting in the way of elite achievement.”
I hate to say this—because I love picking fights with David!—but I actually think he and I are in agreement here. Or at least, he’s in agreement with the amended version of my argument that I made above.
Cobley’s analysis of Australian swimmers doesn’t suggest that the process of looking for gifted swimmers necessarily chases half of the aspiring swimmers away. He’s just suggesting that we need to be mindful of the psychologically debilitating effects of badly constructed age-class competition.
Cobley actually has a very clever solution, about which I go into detail in my podcast. (You’ll have to listen to the episode when it airs!) And that’s David’s point as well: There are solutions. How does Norway do it? “Participation and fun are the priorities. Costs are low, and optional,” David writes, “And there is—get this—a national prohibition against keeping score or ranking kids before age 12.”
Exactly! That’s one good way to resolve Gladwell’s Law—or, should I say, Gladwell’s Somewhat Overstated Observation. :) (My mistake was in calling my original formulation of Gladwell’s Law a law, since laws are things that are presumed to have an immutable quality. All I was really doing was making a comment about the perils of naïve talent development programs.)
Now, to Kyle Merber’s response. Kyle’s argument is more focused on the Pied Piper idea itself, and he makes two points.
First, he wonders whether making a cross country team’s prospects dependent on the performance of its slowest runners is a good idea—especially if we're trying to promote mass participation.
“Potential high cross country runners aren’t necessarily intimidated by running itself—18.1 million Americans signed up for a road race in 2018. But what percentage of the non-running-averse population would still find running enjoyable if there was suddenly an added element of external pressure? Surely there’s a sizable percentage of would-be high school harriers who wouldn’t come out for the team if there was an expectation that their performance matters—that in their first ever race it could be them that sinks their team’s chances at a collective victory.”
I’m not buying it. Why are all those slow-maturing young athletes quitting Australian swimming? Not because of pressure. They quit because finishing dead last time and time again is really, really dispiriting. They quit because they feel irrelevant, in the same way that the non-scoring “alternates” on today’s cross country teams feel irrelevant. And feeling relevant is the key psychological variable here.
I should also point out that Kyle was and is a really, really good runner. He has had a realistic chance of winning nearly every race he’s ever entered. Now that’s pressure—which I think is why he worries as much as he does about the weight of expectation. But I wonder sometimes whether elite runners forget that the psychological stakes for us mere mortals are a little lower. What feels like a burden to a world-class runner feels like belonging to the rest of us.
Kyle’s second point is that the Pied Piper, as I’m envisioning it, is way too big:
“The second I heard Gladwell’s field-expanding suggestion, I had flashbacks to being shoved to the ground at the start of a chaotic race in high school and fearing for my life as the stampede trampled over me. With 31 teams plus additional individual qualifiers, the New York State Federation meet had 285 girls cross the finish line at Bowdoin Park last year. The Pied Piper essentially triples the size of every event!”
Kyle is totally right! If we’re going to have 900 entrants in high school cross country races, we’ll have a logistical nightmare on our hands.
Kyle suggests replacing the traditional race with something closer to the Ekiden, which is a long-distance relay race that’s incredibly popular in Japan. I love that idea! I can also imagine breaking the race into waves that leave every 15 minutes, which would have the effect of making the final outcome even more suspenseful. Of all the potential problems facing the Pied Piper, however, the size of the event is the one I’m least concerned about.
In fact, if the high school running community was forced to convene an emergency summit to deal with the crushing problem of over-participation at cross country meets, I would say: I can die happy now. My work is done.
[Photo: Lintao Zhang / Staff]