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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Diving into Coaching

Greg Louganis, arguably the greatest diver of all time, and one of the greatest Olympians of all time, just started coaching young divers.  His accomplishments are extraordinary, but as many know, having superior skills does not always transfer to superior teaching.

Louganis' skills as a coach are his knowledge of diving technique and his ability to teach mental awareness and toughness.  He emphasizes basic mechanics and does not allow a diver to move on until they have mastered skills.  Louganis also says that practice is more important than competition and he has each of his students keep a journal where they can reflect on training and goals.  Louganis reports, "A lot of parents say they're on board with it... we'll see how well they can hang in there."

Parents should trust the knowledge of a teacher or coach and be patient with them in producing results and improving technique, even if that coach isn't as accomplished as Greg Louganis.  Tiger Mom Amy Chua got it right (at least in this instance!) when she said parents should not criticize a teacher/coach in front of a child.

That said, there are areas every parent should think about before enrolling their child in an afterschool activity.  Based on years researching various afterschool activities, I recommend parents investigate the background of potential teachers/coaches in three areas: expertise, teaching, and safety.  With some of these questions you should ask the teacher, or owner, directly.  For others you will want to ask around town.  Though beware listening to everything a few disgruntled parents say; however if many parents have negative things to say you should pay attention!  These questions may seem like obvious ones, but when it comes to kids' activities, they aren't often asked-- and that needs to change especially given the level of competition and the number of injuries currently observed in children's activities.

1) Expertise- You should make sure the teacher or coach has in-depth knowledge of the activity and some credentials to be teaching the activity to others.

If you ever watch So You Think You Can Dance you know that Nigel Lythgoe is constantly complaining about dance teachers who do not know technique and are making a lot of money telling people they can dance. Unqualified teachers make it difficult for the qualified teachers who do know technique to succeed.  When I was studying soccer I interviewed one business owner who proudly told me that because he is from Latin America parents assume he is good at soccer. In fact, he is a terrible player; instead of playing up skills, he plays up his accent which he claimed parents responded to well. This owner did hire qualified coaches, but it's easy to imagine this situation going a different way.

You should exercise your right as a parent to protect your child and find out the answers to the following questions:
  • Does my child's potential teacher/coach have technical ability in the subject matter? 
  • Can they demonstrate fluent knowledge of technique?
  • Were they themselves a diver/chess player/dancer/football player, etc.? 
  • What do they know about the mechanics of how the activity works (either knowledge of mental processes or, more importantly, awareness of physiology and how the body best works)? 
  • What formal credentials do they have to promote themselves as teachers/coaches-- college degrees, training certifications, etc.?
2) Teaching- Whatever the activity is, those who work with young people should have knowledge of how to teach young people-- this includes understanding learning techniques and children's social dynamics.  This is especially true in competitive environments.  Teachers and coaches should have some knowledge of how to deal with self-esteem issues and how to mediate conflict between children, for example.

Spending time around academic afterschool activities, like enrichment classes and chess clubs, I witnessed many skilled chess and math experts who were not trained as teachers. When children cried, gave up, had short attention spans, or fought with one another, the teachers often did not know how to respond to the situation.

While of course there is not one right way to deal with any of these situations, classroom teachers learned when they were students themselves about different techniques for dealing with children at specific age levels.  Afterschool teachers and coaches would benefit from similar instruction, which would help improve their teaching and children's experiences.  Just as our society doesn't allow classroom teachers or daycare providers to be untrained and uncertified, we should be sure that those who work with our children in the afterschool hours are equally able.

3) Safety- This may seem obvious, but you would be surprised how many assumptions parents make, if only because things seem legitimate.
  • Do you know if your child's teacher or coach has ever been convicted of a crime, especially one involving a child? Not all states mandate background checks for teachers and coaches.  If you live in a state that doesn't, you should know that many of the insurance companies who insure athletic clubs/studios/gyms do have strict guidelines.  
  • Does the program have insurance? You can find out by asking who insures an organization; if the group is uninsured this should be a red flag about the legitimacy of the business (perhaps even its business standing. like filing taxes). 
  • Are teachers CPR certified? Are the physical surroundings acceptable for the physical nature of the activity (like the type of floor or the security/stability of equipment)? In addition to legal issues, you should also think about basic safety!
Remember, just because someone opens a gym or studio in a strip mall does not mean they are qualified, even on in these most basic areas. One of the programs I observed was not properly run in terms of insurance, taxes, and teacher safety.  These omissions were not committed out of malice on the part of the owner (instead they were related to financial constraints), but parents nevertheless should endeavor to be aware of these issues so they can protect their children.

While, thankfully, I am not aware of anyone I ever worked with being convicted of any crimes involving children, they do happen. Just this month a gymnastics coach in Arizona was arrested on suspicion of child molestation (though not in the gym itself).  Less than a year ago another gymnastics coach was arrested in Connecticut on similar charges.

In many families the three areas of expertise, teaching, and safety will be weighted in different ways. Some may value safety more, while others place less emphasis on expertise. Every parent will make the right decision for his/her child, but that decision should be made based on as much information as possible. Sadly, nail salons are better regulated and have more safety requirements than gyms, studios, and practice spaces where children can die or suffer catastrophic injury.

Parents, always, always ask questions and do your due diligence before signing your child up-- and once everything checks out, you can rest easier in deferring to the judgment of the teacher or coach.  Who knows, your child may end up learning from an Olympian!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ranking Gladwell

Cars. Colleges. Countries.  These are just a few of the things we routinely rank-- and they are the three examples Malcolm Gladwell draws upon in his most recent New Yorker piece, "The Order of Things." (I'm assuming the alliteration is coincidental.)

His argument, in a nutshell, is that in any ranking system the formula matters.  That means both the variables in the formula that produces the rank and who the people are who write these formulas.  People are inevitably influenced by their own biases, as are the formulas and the rankings themselves. Nothing groundbreaking there.  Besides the element of, "So, what?," what I dislike most about the article is that no alternative is suggested.

The reality is, whether we like it or not, we are always going to have rankings.  And, with better technology available, it is both easier to quantify a range of things and rank them, and to spread the news of those rankings.  We famously now have national rankings for 11-year-old basketball players at sites like The Hoop Scoop and HoopsUSA.

Speaking of children, from the moment they enter this world they are ranked and ordered, by their Apgar score.  After that they routinely receive a number that represents their percentile rank for height/length, weight, and size of head at doctor's visits. Soon enough these kids enter the educational system and they receive percentiles that rank them based on what goes on inside those heads.  And, of course, then comes the all-important SAT score, and the list goes on.

Being ranked is a part of modern life.  Understanding what those numbers and rankings actually mean should be our goal, and list makers should be as transparent as possible about how numbers are produced.  Turning away from rankings isn't realistic at all.  And we should continue to study rankings, especially how institutions respond to them and how those numeric signifiers can actually shape behavior (For great work on this subject check out the work of sociologists Michael Sauder and Wendy Espeland.  Sauder is someone Gladwell should have spoken with-- though, full disclosure he is my officemate, so I'm a bit biased!).

I think Malcolm Gladwell is one of our best writers social scientists-- I certainly rank him in my top three.  But overall, this particular effort, by my evaluation, doesn't rate very high in the order of his work.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bad*ss (Women) Athletes

After getting some feedback on my blog post on the Iowa State Wrestling Championships, I expanded it into a more complete discussion on Title IX, including a bit on boys playing on girls' field hockey teams. Check it out on The Huffington Post. Please leave comments and share by clicking through!

In related news, I am just so impressed by two female athletes getting a lot of press this week.

1) Justine Siegal- She became the first female to ever pitch batting practice in MLB this week (both for the Indians and also for the A's). Siegal has also coached all-men's baseball teams and played on them. Not only that, she chose to wear a patch to honor Christina Taylor Green, the wonderful child gunned down so horrifically in the Arizona shootings last month. And, on top of all this, Justine's daughter was there to watch her mom pitch in spring training. Like I said, bad*ss.

2) Ida Keeling- She is 95 and runs 60 meters in 29.86 seconds. I can't do that now. Like I said, bad*ss.

Do you know of any other bad*ss and stellar female athletes doing exceptional things?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Beauty and Brains: Cambridge Goes Glitz

This past weekend Miss Boston 2011 was crowned. MIT senior Dianna Leilani Cowern competed, though she lost out to Sara Carlisle.  The coveted crown was placed on Ms. Carlisle’s head by the reigning Miss Massachusetts 2010, Loren Galler Rabinowitz, who also graduated from Harvard in 2010.

Ms. Galler Rabinowitz was second runner-up in last year’s Miss Boston pageant (the first runner-up also had a Cambridge connection, as she is a student at Harvard’s Divinity School).  But she went on to win a different preliminary pageant, Miss Collegiate Area, and then the Miss Massachusetts title. So Ms. Cowern still has a chance to help Cambridge sustain its presence in the Miss America program this year.

Over the past decade Cambridge, but Harvard in particular, has emerged as a site of beauty pageant winners. Who would have thought? But with the scholarships available through the Miss America Pageant, and the rising cost of higher education, pairing brains and beauty has never made more sense.

I’ve been able to identify the following Harvard-MIT Miss America contestants (only those who have made it to the national pageant in Atlantic City/Las Vegas). Do you know of others?

  • 1995- Marcia Turner, Harvard, Miss Massachusetts
  • 1998- Elizabeth Emerson Hancock, Harvard, Miss Massachusetts
  • 2002- Laura Lawless, Harvard, Miss Arizona
  • 2002- Carrie Ann Haberstroh, Harvard, Miss North Dakota
  • 2003- Laurie Gray, Harvard, Miss Rhode Island (Top 10)
  • 2003- Nancy Redd, Harvard, Miss Virginia (and Top 10)
  • 2003- Erika Harold, Harvard Law School, Miss Illinois and Miss America (Erika had already been admitted to HLS when she won, so she deferred her entrance and graduated in 2007)
  • 2004- Allison Porter, Harvard, Miss Washington
  • 2004- Erika Ebbel, MIT, Miss Massachusetts
  • 2006- Allison Rogers, Harvard, Miss Rhode Island
  • 2009- Anne Michael Langguth, Harvard, Miss Iowa
  • 2010- Loren Galler Rabinowitz, Harvard, Miss Massachusetts

Sunday, February 20, 2011

This Week in Stage Mothers on Reality TV

Stage moms are taking over the airwaves-- from Fox to TLC to E!. Should we be validating this type of (mis)behavior?

1. The American Idol Moms: If Toddlers & Tiaras was a reality show about 15-16-year-old (very talented) African-American singers

I hope they make it far, as the moms are just so entertaining to watch. Wouldn't want to see those women turn on one another though (especially the mom who was exhaling smoke as she critiqued the group's practice). Then again, if this was "The Real Housewives of American Idol," that would make great TV. Calling Andy Cohen!

2. Speaking of Toddlers & Tiaras... This week's life lesson:

You should watch the whole episode (either on TLC or on iTunes) to see Ashley-Noelle learn to "shake her booty" from her dad and have potty training undone by her mother (in her cupcake dress, she just has to use her pull-up). All of this clearly will help her build confidence so that someday, as her mother hopes, Ashley-Noelle will "just be able to walk up to a stranger and to just be able to tell them about Christ." There is also the requisite pixie stick breakfast with little Lily, along with a new first-- Coke with a sugar packet added!

Also, if you live in Des Moines, Iowa you seriously missed out today. Your daughter could have been in Eden Wood's "Cutie Patootie" video!  As a reminder, click here to see Eden perform on The Talk.

3. My Kid is Gonna be Famous- Starbound Dance Competition (NJ)

Actually, this particular show, and the mothers on it, were so terrible, the Internet refused to keep any clips online.  Unlike T&T, the editors don't have much fun, making the show less interesting to watch.

But E! is re-airing the dance competition episode tomorrow morning at 10 am. A great way to celebrate your day off of work.  You will be shocked, confused, and maybe even horrified at the talent, or lack thereof, at the Starbound competition.  The winners are especially confusing, even for this competition afficionado.

If you can't catch the replay, you can read some of the transcripts here.