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Friday, March 18, 2011

The Chess Star, with Pop Singer Looks

This week's New Yorker has an interesting article, "The Prince's Gambit," on Magnus Carlsen (written by D.T. Max, who incidentally wrote one of the more terrifying non-fiction books I have read in recent years, The Family That Couldn't Sleep).  Carlsen is a twenty-year-old chess player from Norway, with Justin Bieber-esque looks, who is ranked first in the world.  When I was doing research on scholastic chess several years ago Carlsen was making a splash as a young prodigy-- at that time he was the second-youngest Grand Master in history (he is now the third)-- so I read the piece with great enthusiasm.  Max's discussion of the role of computers in chess was well-done, as were descriptions of important games, even if my chess knowledge isn't deep enough to really understand the nuances of the strategies.

What really spoke to me in the article, and where my own knowledge is deeper, was the description of how Carlsen got started with chess. Carlsen is quoted, "At the time I started to play chess, I was a pretty much normal kid." His father, Henrik, taught him and his older sister how the chess pieces move when Magnus was five.  But neither Magnus nor his six-year-old sister, Ellen, were terribly interested and Magnus instead played soccer and skied, and the whole family played Monopoly, hearts, and bridge together. At seven, Henrik reintroduced chess, and Magnus became fascinated by the game, studying and playing on his own.  It wasn't until a few years later that he began serious private lessons, much later than other "prodigies," and later still when he began taking the tournament world by storm.  This excerpt from the article is especially evocative: "Carlsen's family was not unlike those American families in which the parents are careful not to tell their children that they have to excel but the children sense it anyway... A friend of Carlsen's from school, says, 'My impression is that Magnus chose to play chess by himself, but he has this feeling that he satisfies his dad by it.'"  While Carlsen describes himself as lazy, meaning he doesn't study and prepare for tournaments like other professional chess players, his innate interest in the game and his curiosity have propelled him forward, supported by his family. 

Max suggests that one of the reasons why Carlsen keeps getting better at chess, even at an age when many prodigies peak, is because he trains less with computers and relies more on his own judgment.  But I would argue that his genuine curiosity for the game, which was self-motivated but supported by his parents, also is a big reason why he is still playing, competing, and winning at such a high level.  Children perform better and stick with activities longer when they have an innate interest and an intrinsic motivation.  Unlike many American children, he was likely not rewarded by large trophies and similar prizes, which sometimes hinder rather than help children's continued involvement.  Many American parents would benefit from Henrik's example of gentle nudging over time, while promoting other activities as well.

One area where I had lingering questions after digesting "The Prince's Gambit:" I wonder how Carlsen's success impacted his peers and siblings.  In my research I saw how other parents and children often responded when there was a particularly talented and successful peer in the same activity-- they gave up and dropped out.  It appears the same thing happened around Magnus: "Soon after Carlsen began instruction... other kids stopped playing chess with him on the board in the school library. 'It very quickly became pointless,' he said."  Once he started beating his older sister, Ellen, she apparently quit playing as well.

It can be especially difficult on siblings when one is extremely talented.  Max writes that the whole family (both parents and both sisters) took a year off from work and school to drive around Europe while Magnus played in tournaments.  I would love to know what that experience was like for the Carlsen sisters and if they have found areas which they love as much as their brother loves chess, and where they can also excel.  There may not be a "Princess' Gambit," but I'm guessing with the talent and sound parenting described in the New Yorker piece, the Carlsen sisters are doing well-- I certainly hope they are!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My NCAA Bracket Thoughts (Well, sort of)

If our president can take time to think about the men's NCAA basketball tournament, so can I...

Well, honestly, I only sort of think about it.  Beyond rooting for Harvard, which didn't work out so well, I can't claim to watch much, or be anywhere close to an expert on, college hoops. But I have been thinking about several NCAA sports stories lately.  Here's my round-up of the college sports issues that are on my mind.

1) Harvard basketball-  We were oh-so-close to the dance. It was heartbreaking to watch The Crimson lose in the final 3 seconds on Saturday-- and to my other alma mater, Princeton! I've always preferred crimson to orange (orange is just not in my color family), plus my paycheck comes from Cambridge. But both teams shared the Ivy League title this year, capping off an historic season for Harvard.  The magic didn't continue; but, who knows, maybe someday we'll see two Ivy teams together in the tournament for the first time?  Unfortunately, in the end, Harvard didn't help its case that it should have gotten a bid, performing poorly in the NIT tournament last night (the first time they'd ever been invited). So, I must say, "Go Tigers!, on Thursday.  Obama didn't pick you (despite the First Lady's ['85] urging, I'm sure), and you're considered serious underdogs, but draw strength remembering your upset in 1996-- wonderfully chronicled in Time this week. But, with all the key Crimson players returning next year, along with what is supposed to be a fantastic recruiting class, I hope we'll find ourselves rooting instead for the Crimson in March 2012, ending the 68-year tournament-appearance drought.

2) NCAA female vs. male basketballers' graduation rates-Well, the women win the battle, at least when it comes to performance in the classroom. A recent study out of University of Central Florida found that the schools representing the women's teams in this year's NCAA tournament graduate more team members than the men do. There are a lot of factors here-- race, level of competitiveness, women's documented superior classroom performance in other realms-- but as the men get all the attention, it's worth noting that more of the female scholar-athletes are living up to both parts of their hyphenated designation.

3) Stanford's "easy class list"- Then again, as this USA Today article suggests, both male and female scholar-athletes sometimes get some academic breaks in college. Apparently Stanford, until very recently, maintained a list of "easy" classes that it gave to athletes. The university explains that the courses were scheduled at convenient times for athletes, in between practices.  But, with names like "Social Dances of North America," I'm guessing more was going on than scheduling. Alas, is it really surprising that courses from my discipline of sociology made the cut? If you're interested in reading more about different academic standards and performances for collegiate athletes, I recommend reading Shulman and Bowen's extremely detailed (though now slightly dated) and informative The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. Can any of my Cardinal readers confirm the existence of this "easy" class list (one ESPN commentator, and a former softball player at Stanford had this to say)? I'm not sure there's anything terribly wrong with it, especially if it would be offered to any student (even a non-athlete) who asked for it. What do others think?

On a final note, to sooth myself after the Harvard-Princeton game in New Haven on Saturday, I decided it was time to finally watch a documentary I'd been meaning to screen-- Harvard Beats Yale 29-29I'd heard and read lots of great things about it, so I went in expecting a lot and I was definitely disappointed. The story is naturally full of drama (even if there is no suspense, given that you know the outcome based on the infamous title), but I didn't think it was produced well. I also would have loved to have seen all the former players get together for a reunion. Certainly the most entertaining, and despicable, character is Mike Bouscaren (you can read a bit about him in this Newsweek review), a Yalie who deliberately tried to physically injure players, taking one out of the game-- though his memory is a bit faulty (turns out that injured player [Hornblower] is the father of a classmate who lived in my freshman year entryway).  I haven't yet read the book version, but suspect that might be better. In any case, it is fun to see all the connections to famous people through the players in this game (Tommy Lee Jones was an All-Ivy player on the team who roomed with Al Gore, another Yalie roomed with George W. Bush, another dated Maryl Streep, and the Yale quarterback Brian Dowling was the inspiration for B.D. in the comic Doonesbury) and to hear more about life on campus in the 1960s.

But, this week, I think the NCAA basketball games (for both the men and the women!) will prove to be better entertainment than Harvard Beats Yale 29-29. Go Tigers!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Preschool Olympians and Ivy Leaguers?

Two extreme parenting stories are making the rounds this week (yes, even in the midst of the horrific, and ongoing, tragedy in Japan). I see them as part of the same trend-- what do you think?

1) Yesterday The New York Daily News ran a story with the attention-getting headline: "Manhattan mom sues $19k/yr. preschool for damaging 4-year-old daughter's Ivy league chances."  The short version of the story is that mother Nicole Imprescia is suing York Avenue Preschool for not properly preparing her daughter for the ERB exam-- needed for private school admissions in New York City-- and for having two-, three-, and four-year-olds sharing the same learning space.

The article has some great quotes like, "The court papers implied the school could have damaged Lucia's chances of getting into a top college, citing an article that identifies preschools as the first step to 'the Ivy League.'" While I hate to place blame, especially on parents, I'm pretty sure Ms. Imprescia is damaging her daughter's Ivy chances far more than York Avenue Preschool ever could.  I fear Ms. Imprescia would make Tiger Mom Amy Chua look positively domesticated.

My favorite quote is the following: "Fortunately, Imprescia's lawyer said, the tot's prospects aren't doomed. 'Lucia Imprescia, for the record, will get into an Ivy League school - York Avenue Preschool notwithstanding,' said Paulose, of the firm Koehler & Isaacs. 'The child is very smart and will do well in life.'" As if getting into an Ivy League school is the only way to do well in life?! On top of that, there is no way to know if fourteen years from now little Lucia will be in a position to apply to the eight schools that make up the Ivy League... But I'm glad this lawyer can guarantee her future.

Since I read this article yesterday it has been picked up by MSNBC, so expect to be hearing more on this case.

2) MSNBC ran another attention-getting parenting story-- this one about genetic testing to determine if children have genes that predispose them to particular athletic careers. I first read about these services several years ago in Tom Farrey's wonderful book Game OnSince Farrey's coverage, as the MSNC article shows, the tests have become more sophisticated, and more US-centric.  With a simple cheek swab and swipe of the credit card, parents can know if their child is predisposed to being a sprinter or marathoner.

One father is quoted in the article explaining his ten-year-old soccer-playing daughter's response to their discussion about the testing: "She told me, 'Well, Daddy, I just have to try harder'" if the results came back negative, Marston said." The article goes on, "But even at age 10, [Elizabeth] knows it will take more than genes to reach her goal of playing in the Olympics."

Of course, simply having a form of a gene is no guarantee of future success, which is why pediatricians, like Drs. Alison Brooks and Beth Tarini writing this month in JAMA, are opposed to these types of at-home testing kits.  Children should neither be forced into a particular sport because of a genetic predisposition, nor should they be directed away from a particular activity.

What's the connection between preschool lawsuits and genetic testing for child athletes? 

More than anything both stories illustrate the extreme parental anxiety that exists today, especially in upper-middle class communities. My research on competitive afterschool activities shows how parents connect elementary school performance to preparation for the college admissions process. Ms. Imprescia's focus on the Ivy League isn't extraordinary today-- what is extraordinary is her willingness to sue because of her assumption/entitlement/fervent desire for Lucia to end up at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, or Penn.  High performance in athletics is a "way in" to these schools, and a way to earn scholarships at others, so the Marston family is also on to something.

But both stories also show parents hyper-focusing on extremely unrealistic goals for children. The likelihood of getting into Harvard, for example, is around 6% this year. Getting an NCAA scholarship? Lower. The Olympics? Lower still. You get the idea.  Setting up highly unlikely, and perhaps unrealistic, goals for children from a young age can be damaging. It can skew children's thoughts on success, and hence happiness. The reality is that even with talent and hard work luck plays a huge part in securing an Ivy League spot (speaking from experience here), getting a college athletic scholarship, or nabbing a gold medal at the Olympics in 2024.

Perhaps Ms. Imprescia has already sent away for her own genetic testing kit for little Lucia? In any event, let's hope she's also set up a therapy fund along with the college fund.