Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘athlete’

The Expense of Early Sport Specialization

My role in the horse world to date has been little more than loyal supporter. This includes my posts as head cheerleader, financier, and klutzy outsider comic relief (for example, I always seem to be over- or under-dressed). My ROI is measured in the smiles on my girls’ faces over the years. They have seemed to truly enjoy the process, the journey, sometimes with little regard to the outcome or the score.

Everything about the horse world is expensive. Really expensive, actually. There are lots of expensive sports out there to be sure. Golf, tennis, and hockey come quickly to mind. All have in common expensive equipment, coaching, and venues, even at the lowest levels of participation. Most other sports only become expensive when you add in the effects of higher level competition with the new burdens of professional coaching and travel. Think AAU anything, gymnastics or swimming.

One thing that sets the horse world apart is the Sugar Daddy or Sugar Momma, a usually over-monied individual whose sole role is to write checks. Big checks. Lots and lots of checks. Most whom I’ve met don’t really seem to enjoy hanging around horses, actually. Kinda like someone who owns a big boat but gets seasick in the bathtub. The other essential difference between a Sugar Daddy/Momma and a “Little League Parent” is that the Sugar Daddy/Momma doesn’t care a lick about the outcome of the event.

In a funny, very roundabout way this makes me think about youth sports, high school sports, and the behavior of parents in that world. Unlike the Sugar Daddy/Momma the youth sports parent is highly invested in outcomes, not only game by game but also in terms of reaching the next level. As in that level to which the ridiculously large percentage of participants never get. You probably think this is about going pro, about making a living at your sport. Nope. That number is so tiny and has been parsed so many times and so many ways that it’s not worth spending the electrons thinking about how few college athletes or minor leaguers make it to The Show. I’m not even talking about getting a scholarship to play a D1 sport.

What I’m thinking about is some fascinating facts about how few high school athletes go on to play a sport at any level in college.

Seriously, the numbers are comically low. Cut and past this for a look: http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/estimated-probability-competing-college-athletics. For boys, only lacrosse and hockey are above 10%. More boys go on to swim in college (7.1%) than play football (6.8%). The statistics are similar for girls led by Ice hockey (24%), lacrosse (12.9%), and field hockey (10.1%); all other sports are in the low to mid-single digits. I don’t know about you, but with all of the teams sponsored by Division 3 colleges out there, along with the dearth of multi-sport athletes taking up more than one slot, these figures are really shockingly low.

How, then, can we justify the expense of early sport specialization, both in real financial terms, and in terms of the epidemic of injuries suffered through over-use and under-preparation?

On my most recent foray into the horse world I met a  youngster who plays on a volleyball team that uses CrossFit to enhance their fitness.  She no longer does her first-love sport, tumbling, because of a repetitive use stress fracture in her back suffered before she started to play other sports. All tumbling all the time wrecked her. How many young arms must we scar with a Tommy John “autograph” prior to obtaining a driver’s license before we suggest adding in a little winter reprieve from pitching? Isn’t it just a bit disheartening to think that the ACL tear rate in young female soccer players is higher than the overall NCAA participation rate for girls who played that sport in high school? Mind you, these are TOTAL participation rates, not the percentages of kids who got a scholarship to play D1. The list goes on and on.

Says here that the kids would be far better off playing more sports with their buddies in their hometown schools, both physically and mentally, than they are now joining elite travel programs and chasing after such a small number of slots at the next level. Probably have a better relationship with Mom and Dad, too. For sure Mom and Dad are likely to be better behaved. Throw in a little bit of fitness training that emphasizes proper mechanics in functional movements and maybe we can start a trend.

No Sugar Daddies or Mommas necessary, either.

Reflections of an Aging Athlete

Old. Yup. “The Heir” turns 26 today. “Lovely Daughter” is 24 and my doppelgänger “Lil’bingo” is 22. My body is screaming from yesterday’s CrossFit WOD–I ran a mile. I’m answering emails and questions from CrossFit friends about CF in the “Master’s” category. I am closer to 55 than 54, closer in age to my cataract patients than my school-age patients. My Dad had a quadruple bypass at 54. Old.

How do you do this “old thing” anyway? It seems I don’t have an owner’s manual for myself, just like I didn’t have an owner’s manual for the kids. What am I to expect now? What is it that lies just ahead, and what then beyond that? Is this muscle soreness a freak thing, the anomaly, or is it a harbinger of things to come? How about fitness gains? I’m now 9 years into my CrossFit journey. How much longer can I expect to achieve PR’s? As I contemplate these questions how far forward should I allow my gaze to roam?

There are no answers to those questions, of course. Any answers only lead to the next set of the same. To look too far beyond a couple of tomorrows is as dangerous as it is to look back beyond a couple of yesterdays. Looking behind even a little bit risks the indulgence of regret, what has always seemed to me to be a sure recipe for sadness. I have written elsewhere that to go even further back, beyond Creation or the Primordial Soup or the Big Bang is an invitation to madness.

To look too far into the future is to invite desire, to risk the creation of wants that grow into something that feels like need. If or when these fail to materialize a different type of sadness arises, this one born of resentment. If one projects these too far into the future, to retirement, to rest, to redemption and beyond, the risk of madness can arise once again.

I surely do not know the answer to the question of how to age well. There is no map for the journey that lies ahead, no cosmic GPS. I have only the strategies that have served me thus far, and the hope that they will serve me yet. I have faith, and that faith allows me to resist the temptation to look either too far behind or too far ahead. Faith is the vaccine against madness.

And I am happy. I realized it once again in a phone call with a dear friend, met through Crossfit, and once again when I said goodnight to my darling Beth last night. I am happy because I have very little desire and even less regret; I want what I have and this inoculates me against both resentment and regret.

Yes, indeed, I am older, but I have at least one more today. That’s just what I wanted.

 

The Lonely Athlete

My CrossFit INTERVIEW (you can find it on CrossFit.com) starts off like this: “I was bored and lonely in the gym.” 6 years ago I discovered CrossFit and now I am no longer bored. The CrossFit mantra, constantly varied, has seen to that. But the lonely part? That’s a little more complicated.

CrossFit has a couple other mantras that apply. We seek a type of “broad, inclusive fitness” that we define as “Work Capacity Across Broad Time and Modal Domains.” To achieve this the CrossFit programming utilizes “full-body functional movements performed at relatively high intensity”, and the order in which we engage the program is “form followed by consistency, and then intensity.” Here’s the complicated part: in order to achieve “consistency” I work out in a commercial gym that is exactly 2 miles from my office and 2 miles from my home. Smack dab in the center, it’s on my way to everywhere. It’s not a CrossFit gym, so I work out alone.

I’m still lonely.

For the longest time the online CrossFit community was where I found my gym “mates”. I’d log on, post my results, and check in on everyone else. I know…I know…it’s not the same as being there with everyone, but it was close enough in the beginning, and it was enough when the early gains of the programming came so quickly and reliably. Converging trends have combined to render the cyber-gym the pale substitute it probaby always was: 6 years in the gains come more slowly and at a much greater “price” without the support of collaborators, and the denizens of the online community have emigrated to real, live CrossFit gyms.

I’m alone, again, in the gym.

What makes a successful CrossFit Affiliate gym has little to do with the stuff in the gym. It has little to do with the address, the structure, or the decor. What makes an Affiliate successful is the manner in which it combats the loneliness that exists in most commercial gyms.

Think about it. What is it like where you are working out if you, like me, are working out in a commercial gym? You’re doing CrossFit, which almost certainly means that you are doing it alone. How many other solo exercisers are faithfully there? Not many, huh? It kinda explains the whole “personal trainer” thing to me, the “training” that goes on in the commercial gym. Most “personal trainers” are simply keeping the customer company, at least the ones I observe. They combat the loneliness.

The successful athletes I see in non-CrossFit gyms work out with one or several partners. This collaboration cuts the essential loneliness in half, at least. There’s a kind of sterile safety that loneliness confers, in the gym and elsewhere. It explains, I think, the endless plateau occupied by most exercisers.

Not in a CrossFit gym, though. No, Sir. Not even in a commercial gym where two or more CrossFitters work together. The essential collaboration of spirit inherent in the CrossFit group instills a tiny dollop of courage, of fortitude, a dash of valor to the spirit that allows one to forge ahead and beyond. It’s there, beyond the boundaries of loneliness, that we succeed. It’s there, lifted by the collective spirit of the group sharing our particular type of discomfort, that we break through.

The magic of CrossFit is in the movements. The genius of CrossFit is in the programming. The soul of CrossFit is wherever two CrossFitters collaborate to break free of the lonely athlete’s safety zone.

 

The Magnificence Of The Struggle

“What counts in sports is not the victory, but the magnificence of the struggle.”

There is more than a little merit to that quote. Have you played a sport? Been on a team, or stood alone in the crucible of game day? Everything you have done to prepare, every sacrifice you have made to arrive at that moment in that place now there for the realization. The struggle is not only that which lies before you in the match, but also that which lay before that you could be here, now.

You enter the arena, perhaps filled to the rafters with spectators, just as likely empty and near silent. It matters not; your struggle has brought you here, ready for the game. It’s you vs. them, or him, or her, but it’s just as much you vs. you. Will I commit fully to the struggle? Will I do anything and everything in my power within the rules of whatever game we play to emerge victorious? Aye, and if I have done so, and if the score at the end says I’ve lost, was my struggle any less magnificent? Any less worthy? I did what I could. I did ALL that I could.

Coaches from time immemorial have preached a gospel of lessons learned on the pitch applied to a life outside the sport. You play how you practice. It’s a 60 minute game, and you’ve got to play all 60. Call your own fouls. Be both a good winner and a good loser. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. I think it’s instructive to make a tiny little change in that quote, one that might have been said by any number of non-sports sages:

“What counts in life is not the victory, but the magnificence of the struggle.”

This fits. This fits in an infinite number of ways and an infinite number of places. Why? Because life has no clock, at least not a clock that we can follow, or a clock on which we can base “game strategy”. We can’t “run out the clock”, manage the shot clock, or make it to the TV time-out. The struggle is continual, and it is endless.

Everything else fits, too. The struggles of yesterday hopefully prepare us for the struggles of today. What will we bring to today? Am I ready for the struggle today? Will I fully commit to the struggle before me today, do all that I can within the rules, all that is asked of me, expected of me, required of me? Life, unlike sport, is not a zero-sum game. I win, if one can call it that, if I’ve done my best. In life, but not necessarily sport, others may win as well, but it is not necessarily so that others must lose so that I, or you, may win.

“Struggle” is a very good word in this context. One doesn’t read “struggle” and think “easy” or “soft”. The magnificence of the struggle lies there, I think, in the inherent difficulty of the endeavor. One is struggling. It’s hard to live well. It’s hard to do the right thing because the right thing is so often the hard thing. It’s how you play the game.

Isn’t it?

The struggle is indeed magnificent when you engage in it. When you don’t turn away from the struggle because it is hard but rather embrace it in an attempt to win. That in itself is rather a victory; failure to struggle, failure to try, failure to do what must be done because it is a struggle is a loss. It takes courage to do so. It takes integrity and honor to engage the struggle when no one is watching you, you are alone, and you must make the call. On the pitch and in life.

At some point, in the game or in life, we will be called upon. Take the shot. Make the call. Hold the line. Make the save.

When the game is over, when life winds down, each of us will look back on the struggle and ask these questions. What did I bring to the struggle? Did I fully commit myself to it? Did I do all that I could within the rules, all that was asked of me, all that was required of me?

How magnificent was my struggle?

“What counts in sports is not the victory, but the magnificence of the struggle.” –Joe Paterno

 

 

The Role Of Adults In Youth Sports III: Fun

Do you remember playing sports when you were a kid? If not, if you are old like me, how about do you remember the last time you drove by a bunch of kids playing some sport or other in the absence of any adults? What I remember about both of those experiences is the sound. It’s a beautiful sound, and it cascades over any and all who are within earshot. It’s the sound of children having FUN!

Somewhere, sometime, there was a very significant change in what it meant to play a sport when you were very young. It used to be, at least when I was a kid, that sports were really just games, and the responsibility for playing a game rested with the kids who are doing the playing.  I distinctly remember neighborhood versus neighborhood baseball games, true nine on nine games played with wooden bats and a hardball, not a batting helmet or adult insight. We could play pickup basketball for literally hours any place we could find a hoop. To find this kind of scene nowadays, at least with children over the age of 10, you have to visit the bleached sand fields of South Africa or the barrios of Rio de Janeiro and watch the bearfoot urchins play their games with whatever they can find that will roll.

Here in America, though, it seems you can’t find any kind of game being played by kids of any age without uniforms, lined fields, and of course, adults. Think about it. When is the last time you drove by an open field and saw 10 kids chasing a soccer ball all by themselves? It couple of kids on a local tennis court whacking a ball back and forth? Or how about this one, a bunch of boys all dirty and muddy playing football without pads? Admit it… you can’t remember EVER seeing that, can you?

As long as we adults are going to be present there is one final role that we must play in youth sports: we must ensure that our children are having FUN! The younger the children involved, the higher priority this becomes. As offensive as it is to hear a parent screaming at his or her child during a high school soccer game, it’s borderline repulsive to hear the same kind of language directed at an eight-year-old.  It’s a game for heaven sakes! These kids are playing! Let’s have a little fun.

I know, I know, this is just one more example of some mamby–pamby,  soft in the middle American parent who doesn’t have the guts to push his kids to excel, right? The only problem with this, of course, is that this description couldn’t be further from the truth. I LOVE to win! I LOVED coaching when I had permission to try to win. Loved it. The whole “everyone plays the same number of minutes”, feel good, raise the self–esteem thing was really hard for me. I certainly got it, and certainly was on board when the children were really young, elementary school or junior high school, but I’m also of the mindset that it’s perfectly okay to try to win once you reach a certain age, probably high school.

But even there these are still kids, and they should still be having fun.

Let me indulge myself (as if this whole blog thing wasn’t self–indulgent enough) and share a couple of memories. There are all kinds of basketball games I remember from when I was a kid, but the one memory that came to me first while thinking about this was one of the very first practices after I made the JV basketball team in high school. We played “dribble tag”, with a towel tucked in our shorts and each of us dribbling a basketball. The object of the game was to pull your teammates towell, knocking him out of the game. Man, I just don’t remember laughing so much, or having so much fun on a basketball court before or since.

My sons each have a memory from junior high school football–the same one, actually just separated by three or four years. We live in Cleveland; in the fall it rains in Cleveland. Every year there is an opportunity for a mud practice, a session where pretty much no useful coaching is possible because it’s raining too hard and the field is too muddy. Cancel practice? Heck no! This is when the boys get to perfect their mudslides, mud dives, and mud flops. At the end of this particular session, and it happens just this way every single year, the young defensive coordinator brings the boys over to the garage and literally hoses them down with the church garden hose. He then piles them into the back of his pickup truck, refusing to allow the parents to befoul their cars with these muddy, wet, sloppy boys, and drives the kids home. The fun of this pracitce is what both of my sons remembered first.

Even playing sports in college it can be fun. I was a cornerback at Williams College. I’ve written before that I was good, but probably not nearly as good as I could have been or should have been because I didn’t work hard enough at the game. I was probably a “middle of the bell curve” defensive back for my day. When I was a junior the other starting cornerback was REALLY good. Despite that, the two of us had a rather poor week of practice one time, and the defensive coordinator, Coach Farley, gleefully pointed this out. “Ack… Look at my cornerbacks. One’s bad and the others worse!” Well, the next day every single defensive back rolled into practice with some sort of denigrating label on his helmet. Stu was “Bad”, I was “Worse”, and we were joined by our teammates “Terrible”, “Awful”, “Putrid”, etc. We got ahold of Coach Farley’s coat and taped “Tremendous” on the back. THAT was fun!

These are games, these sports. Always have been, and it’s really our responsibility to make sure that they always will be. We adults who are involved in youth sports need to make sure that our children are safe, and that they ( and we) take advantage of the life lessons that can be learned while playing sports. We must also accept the responsibility to make playing sports  fun. (If you want a great example of how to make fitness fun take a walk over to www.crossfitkids.com sometime. These folks make WORKING OUT again, fun.)

I think there’s a role for adults in youth sports, I really do. I’m convinced that the role has expanded too much, and the fact that most of us have never seen children playing sports without uniforms, or officials, or coaches is the most damning testimony to this fact. If we are going to be involved it is our responsibility to fully accept our three roles. Keep our children safe. Teach them through the vehicle of sports.

Help them have fun!