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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘football’

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.

The Big East Without Football: An Update

This post was originally written 3/10 13. Fascinating how this has turned out.

“Yesterday’s Providence College/UConn game marked the effective end of the Big East Conference. What brought about its demise? Success. Money. The promise of more money. And a profound lack of historical perspective on the part of schools like UConn that have failed to remember from whence they came, and how they’ve come to their present state.

Once upon a time UConn was a sleepy little state college lying in a sleepy little cowtown in Nowhere, CT. UConn had no athletic history to speak of; it played its games against the likes of UVM, UNH, URI. UMass and UMaine. Heck, the athletics in that group couldn’t even sustain football across the board–UVM dropped the sport in 1974. Not a lot has changed at the other schools. The campuses have grown a bit, enrollment has expanded a bit, but the athletic programs maintain their status as a pleasant diversion accompanying the educational process.

But UConn? Noooo, not UConn. You see Dave Gavitt invited UConn to join the Big East Conference in 1974 and the world tilted. Millions and millions of dollars have poured into Storrs and the campus is virtually unrecognizable to graduates of my era. Enrollment, building, and the endowment have soared. UConn is now a “football school” and it departs the Big East, leaving the largely Catholic “basketball schools” behind as it chases ever more wealth. Success has been found.

End of story, right? Little school makes big time. All is right in the world. Right? Hmmm…I dunno. You see, it’s basketball that has driven this success, and it was basketball that created the Big East. It was basketball and the Big East that made Storrs big enough to find on the map. Basketball, and a bunch of originally like-minded “Basketball Schools” that brought measures of success and wealth to every school in the conference, albeit not equally.

What’s been lost? Tradition. History. The “kindredship” of a group of schools that were of a different ilk, or more accurately different ilks when we compare them with “Football Schools”. The Big East was a kind of special, the first grouping of schools assembled in the pursuit of athletics based NOT on football. There’s a certain absence of something like gratitude in the dissolution of the Big East in the pursuit of football riches. It feels almost like UConn has lost its institutional sense of its own identity.

Will UConn find those riches as it chases wealth for wealth’s sake, forsaking history, tradition, and a sense of who and what it has been? Tune in, I guess. There will be lessons to be learned by other institutions that have grown and become successful within an ecosystem of like-minded institutions with a common tradition and history. Are the presumably greater riches to be found in leaving behind the history, tradition, and culture greater than the wealth to be found in the history, tradition and culture?

Tune in.”

 

Lo and behold things haven’t turned out all that well for the schools that chased the football dollars. No sign of UConn in this year’s March Madness. Ditto Syracuse. Look carefully, though, and you’ll find defending champion Villanova along with tiny littles Seton Hall and Providence.

At least for now the score reads History/Tradition/Culture 1, football riches 0.

Sunday musings 11/8/15

Sunday musings…

1) Chignon. American Pharoah. Still.

2) Kindness. “The world breeds monsters, but kindness grows just as wild.” –Mary Karr

3) Varied. It’s quite amazing to me, after all these years, that there still exists such a misunderstanding about the difference between variability, randomness, and frequency when it comes to CrossFit WOD programming. People both laud and criticize a program for having too little or too much of any of the three. Worse than that, all too typically an evaluation of one particular program usually follows at most a week or two of evaluation and inspection.

Look for instance at CrossFit.com. For 15+ years now we have before us the sine qua non of CrossFit programming, a bright shining beacon to constantly varied functional movement. Major exercises come up regularly, but they are presented in a dizzying array of formats. Peripheral, ancillary movements come up in general programming seldom, if at all. There is a form and there is a pattern here: 3 on/1 off, with variability in load, duration, and complexity. There is a style here: for example, mono-structural strength is presented as a stand alone WOD. After as little as a month of study you should be well aware of what type of CrossFit programming will be found here.

So, too, should it be at a CrossFit Affiliate. Constantly varied should be just that, but programming in this manner does not preclude the inclusion of a “bias” in the training. Whether it be strength, endurance, or competency in gymnastic maneuvers, it is perfectly OK to express this sort of tendency. Indeed, it may be a way for an Affiliate to differentiate itself in the ever-crowded space the commercial version of CrossFit has become.

The point is this: it is pointless to make a statement about a particular version of CrossFit without examining it over many weeks. Once examined it is quite reasonable to state that the style of programming does not suit you, or does not fit your needs, but it is equally unreasonable to smear that programming because it does not match your personal desire regarding frequency or style. For example I find no use for WODs dedicated to movements seen in Strongman competitions, and yet you’ll not find me speaking poorly of either this type of programming or gyms that have this bias.

Heaven knows there are so many CF gyms in most locales that you should be able to find pretty much anything you need. If not, there’s always a return to our roots, a return to the days of the garage gym. You could do much worse than following Coach’s programming on CrossFit.com in your own little cave. Just remember, the proof of any program, at least a CrossFit program, is not in the process but in the results.

You can’t fake increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.

4) Veteran’s Day. What do we owe the men and women who served our country? I guess more specifically, what do we owe those who served in a capacity in which their lives were threatened? This is a question that has meaning both as a society of citizens and also as a nation of individuals.

We will celebrate Veteran’s Day on Wednesday. I like to think that in my little corner of the world Clan bingo expresses a collective thanks in all walks of our lives. More importantly, though, is the fact that we all acknowledge that each of our service men and women had a uniquely personal experience, and we try very hard to respect that when we engage them as Veterans.

Perhaps it’s generational on the part of either the Vets or in general, but there is certainly a very different ethos surrounding each of the wars or conflicts they survived. This may say more about us, we who did not see conflict, than it does about them. My exposure as a physician to WWII, Korean, Viet Nam, and now Iraq/Afghanistan/Kuwait literally seems like 4 wholly different experiences. My reaction is simple and straightforward: I make no assumptions, and I offer goodwill and kindness.

One of my football coaches broke down and sobbed over what he’d seen and done in Viet Nam, and my Dad wouldn’t touch a gun, categorically refusing to speak about Korea. No matter. I, we, are indebted to both, and all who came before and after them. We are a stronger, richer society because men and women like them stepped forward and stood tall.

Happy Veteran’s Day to each of you who served, here chez CrossFit. Happy Veteran’s Day Cat. I owe you a call. Happy Veteran’s Day Pop. I owe you everything.

I’ll see you next week…

bingo

Sunday musings 8/30/15

Sunday musings…

1) Summer rain. Out my back window I look our upon two guys riding jet skis in the rain.

They might get wet.

2) PC. My alma mater, in what seems to be a trend, is calling the students beginning their college journey “First Years” instead of “Freshmen”. WTF.

I am now officially part of a small but hopefully growing rebellion against ludicrous speech.

3) Easy. Easy? No, it isn’t easy. It’s never easy. Simple, perhaps, but never easy.

Trust me.

4) Victory. “You know, in the old, old days there was no World Series, no real championship. For most teams, the idea of winning was finished by July. So what was there to care about? Each series, each game. Day by day. The rest of it, the big dream [of victory] was not their business. It’s a better way to live.” -Cubs fan.

A number of folks in the CrossFit community have recently weighed in with thoughts on the essential tension between training and competing. Some have a standing of sorts, and others just have a keyboard. It’s a topic I’ve pondered and one I’ve certainly discussed, here and elsewhere.

As is so often the case I’ve struggled to find a fitting vocabulary, one with terms that more adequately express both the issue and my viewpoint. Freddy Comacho, Master’s athlete and OG with chops, recently offered his take and in so doing shared with all of us a very nice diad: training v. testing. My anonymous Cubs fan above (a vet, incidentally), adds a little poetry to Freddy’s prose.

One of Coach’s many strokes of brilliance is the concept of measurement. You know, observable, measurable, repeatable. We measure our results pretty much every day. For most of us, indeed for most of the rest of the exercise and athletic world, measurement is the stuff of competition. We keep score so that we can declare a winner. Winning begets a champion.

Herein lies a fundamental misunderstanding of Coach’s creation: measurement in itself does not necessarily denote competition. At least not one in which we make a conscious decision to push on to some sort of concrete thing we might call “ultimate victory”. The training/testing conceptualization is very helpful.

If I give you notice that you will participate in a task, one in which all of the variables are known to you beforehand, a reasonable person will go about preparing for that task by mastering the specific skills necessary (practice), and acquiring capacity in the specific areas of fitness required to express those skills (training). A very nice example of a program set up to accomplish this is CrossFit Football. All of the domains in the competition are known beforehand, and the fitness program is targeted at those to the effective exclusion of others. A classic marathon program is another very good example.

A training program without metrics is one that is unlikely to succeed. Measuring in training allows one to assess micro-trends of the program. One accepts discomfort in training, but at the same time one is mindful of the need to avoid true injury while doing so. Testing, on the other hand, is different. By definition testing requires the exploration of limits. The limit of strength or endurance. The point at which technique fails for whatever reason. Testing identifies the macro-trend: am I/is my program succeeding? One must necessarily push beyond discomfort, push on to some version of victory.

It’s here where the wisdom of my Cubs fan is evident. One must be ever mindful of our place in the standings. There are meaningful games to be played for all of us, even those “playing” on a team that has been mathematically eliminated by July 4th. “Each series, each game. Day by day.” This is us. For the most part we are the people Coach was thinking about when he went all mad scientist on fitness. Freddy (and Chyna) can indeed dream “the big dream”, but for the rest of us it’s really “[d]ay by day”.

We measure, as Coach has taught us, because it improves our training. We should be looking for a trend toward IWCABTMD in the measurement of our training, but in doing so we should be testing our limits, pushing to those points closer to failure, a bit more infrequently and more cautiously perhaps. We have much to gain by focusing on the daily training, caring about each at bat or each game rather than the overall standings or a championship. To be in the game, to choose to be measured, to care about each individual game no matter where you stand is a concrete victory itself.

My Cubs fan, the Iraq war vet: “It’s a better way to live.”

I’ll see you next week…

Posted by bingo at August 30, 2015 7:05 AM

Medicine is a Harsh Mistress

“You can have anything. You can’t have everything.”

A rather unlikely combination of players got me to thinking about “having it all”. You know, the perfect job, marriage, home, life. Like Streisand when she sings “Everything”, the life of “I don’t want much, I just want more”. Friday night and Saturday morning were spent in the company of 5 or 6 physicians who  can only be described as “Alpha Females”; this morning’s reading included a piece on Michigan’s football coach, Jim Harbaugh.

What do Harbaugh and my young professional colleagues have in common? Well, they are in the midst of trying to have it all. While these ridiculously successful eye surgeons are more aware of the costs of their quest than Harbaugh, when pushed they are no less apologetic, no less committed to seeing it through to its logical conclusions.

On the surface it would seem that Harbaugh is poised to live a comically outlandish exmple of a successful coaching life. A winning record at a traditionally over-run college program (Stanford) followed by a Super Bowl game in the NFL (losing to his brother’s Ravens), and now head coach at his Alma mater. It’s all so very believable if you read the article quickly, but there it is in the fine print: “…his 14 year old daughter remains in California with her mother, Harbaugh’s first wife.”

Rut roh. A little bit of Heinlein creeping in here.

Much has been written about the plight of the “successful woman”. Indeed, I’ve written on women in medicine and the fallacy of “having it all” (and been quite enthusiastically eviscerated for having done so). My female colleagues sat with me around a table and over wine we talked at length about their lives. How busy they are in their day jobs. How the added time requirements of being acknowledged super-experts in parts of our shared field add to the challenges of being mothers and wives in nearly direct proportion to the gravitas it adds to their professional stature. We were all away from home on a Friday night for a meeting Saturday morning and the privilege of flying home that afternoon.

“N”, a colleague nearly 15 years younger who is also (I hope) becoming a friend, opined that she felt like she was “half-assing” everything except our shared endeavors as subject experts. That she only felt fully successful, comfortable, and in some way validated, in the company of her expert consultant peers. The moment, shared with knowing nods by each woman present, was brief.

Personally, I am late to this consulting game, roughly at the same “level” as colleagues in their mid- to late-30′s (I am 55). Barring some unlikely stroke of good fortune (e.g. I might actually be as smart as I think I am, and someone might actually agree), I will end my career rising no higher than the middle of the pack. Why is that? Well, let’s spend a moment with Heinlein, as my wife Beth and I did when I was ~34.

Just like my very impressive young colleagues, when I was in my early 30′s I was approached to offer insight into the needs and desires of my generation of physicians. Being a male physician I acknowledged the advantage of fewer societal expectations regarding responsibilities outside my career, and the massive leg up from a spouse who left her career behind to run the domestic side of the team. Good, bad, or indifferent, what my wife and I did then was explicitly calculate the cost of that success.

In “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” Heinlein’s lunar society is run as a nearly pure libertarian experiment, fueled by a single philosophy: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Your mother told you the same thing: there is a consequence to everything you do (or don’t do). What Beth and I did, what Harbaugh didn’t do and what my colleagues only later have done, is prospectively calculate the costs of success in one domain paid out from the accounts of the rest of a life’s domains. Gains in one almost always come at a cost or loss in others. Certain of the effect on our family (despite my gender-driven advantages), the costs to be paid at home, Beth and I opted to forgo the opportunity. For 10+ years the only place I went was home for dinner.

What was the cost to me for having taken myself off the consulting carousel? Who knows? I might have been a certifiable big deal in the world of my day job. For sure, the White family left a lot of money on the table. Harbaugh chose differently and left a 14 year old daughter, and all that represents, in California. My young colleagues, the Alpha Females who are quite rightfully sitting at the table of experts despite their tender years? What will be gained, and at what cost? We shall see…they shall see.

In the end, Heinlein (and your mother) continues to be right, no matter what currency we use to calculate cost: TANSTAAFL.

 

On Football

Randy texted me about the exciting finish to the ND/Stanford NCAA football game. It made me smile. Not the result, not even the topic, but the excitement. A parent is only as happy as his least happy kid, and at that moment one of my kids was very happy. Randy’s football playing days are long behind him, but the game still brings him joy.

Me? Not so much.

Oh sure, there was a time when football never seemed to be any lower on my list of wonderful things than 2 or 3. I was a medium-sized fish in a puddle as a high school football player, but I didn’t have the game out of my system when I graduated. Accepted at one Ivy League school and waitlisted at another, I turned down both because I was too small to have any chance of playing football at that level. Instead I went to a very old, very small school and played a bit all 4 years. Now done as a player I was nonetheless still enthralled by all other things football.

Many of my closest friends were met on the freshly cut football fields of my youth. Wins and losses followed on those fields, most of which I’ve long forgotten. Indeed, I’ve written before that it is only the losses I remember, especially those that resulted from some personal failure in a game. A fumble, perhaps, or a blown coverage. And yet there is no escaping the fact that those countless hours at practice, in the locker room, and on the field are in large part responsible for who I am, the adult I’ve become.

It’s a powerful thing, football. Families rally around a favorite team. Lifetime friendships are renewed and strengthened through shared fanhood. Annual calendars are set only after the team’s home schedule is published. The game itself is exhilarating to both play and watch. At least, it was. I find myself finding all kinds of reasons not to watch football games now. Not consciously finding “big picture” reasons like domestic violence or performance-enhancing drugs so much as tiny reasons, like Beth wants me to tag along to the barn, or Abbie the world’s smartest (and most easily bored) dog would like an adventure kind of reasons. Football of all sorts played at any and all levels has sunken to a kind of triviality, easily trumped by a trip to the grocery store.

No one thing is responsible for this falling out of love, as it were. This fall is different from the last, and the one before only in that it is now glaringly obvious that football holds for me no essential attraction by itself. Looking back my only surprise is that it took me so long. Why didn’t I begin to turn away as my friend the ER doc buzzed through Dan’s shoulder pads with a saw in order to get him into the MRI? Or when I walked onto the field after Randy knocked himself out cold with a helmut-to helmut tackle to force a fourth down, his first concussion? I was still young, still sure that the game would bring my sons what I thought it had brought me.

I see them now, both of my boys, face down and immobile, and I shudder. I started to see them each time I saw a player go down in high school, or college, or the pros. I began to see that I valued those young men nearly as much as my own boys, and I started to notice that the game of football had become The Game. Those entrusted with The Game did not–do not–appear to share my feelings about the players.

The junior high coach carries the star running back to the bench, there to wrap the sprained ankle in the hope of returning him to the game. Junior High! In a high school freshman game, a rout, the first string defense is still on the field in the fourth quarter, the opportunity to play in a game slipping away for kids on the bench who may never get another chance, when the starting safety goes down with a severed spine on a play he should have been watching from the sideline. What was the first string learning at that point in that freshman game? Alumni and athletic directors and coaches at colleges noted for academic excellence openly opine that they cannot win without lowering the admission standards for football players, and just as openly run those kids off the team and out of their scholarships when they are no longer needed to win. The game in the NFL becomes more violent by the week, with ever more gratuitous violence magnifying the carnage wreaked upon the bodies of the players. Ex-pros roam the earth as a kind of walking dead.

When did football become The Game? When did the keepers of the game become keepers of The Game? When did football players as young as high school become little more than a modern stand-in for gladiators thrown into the arena for the amusement of the many and the benefit of a tiny protected few? I’d like to think that there was such a time, an inflection point when it did change, but I fear it has been ever thus. If that is so then I, too, bear some responsibility for what The Game has become. I did not turn away, or turn my own sons away, at the time of my own dawning awareness that The Game and its keepers cared naught for our sons at all, but only for themselves and their respective place and privilege. The ends (get a bigger coaching gig, fill the coffers of alma mater, protect the TV ratings) justify ever more distasteful means (alter transcripts, bury criminal behavior, obfuscate and evade when asking for public funds).

There was a time when my own playing days were long over when I still found myself on edge as the weather chilled and the smell of cut grass filled the autumn air. It was time to get ready to play football. Those days are in my distant past, and I find that I no longer even think about watching, indeed can no longer see myself watching, except as a vehicle with which I can channel the joy of a child who loves football. This may answer “why?”: I can no longer watch a game whose keepers have lost sight of the fact that someone’s child plays in The Game.

One wonders about the parents of gladiators past, when and why they stopped watching their version of The Game.

 

UConn and the Demise of the Big East

Saturday’s Providence College/UConn game marked the effective end of the Big East Conference. What brought about its demise? Success. Money. The promise of more money. And a profound lack of historical perspective on the part of schools like UConn that have failed to remember from whence they came, and how they’ve come to their present state.

Once upon a time UConn was a sleepy little state college lying in a sleepy little cowtown in Nowhere, CT. UConn had no athletic history to speak of; it played its games against the likes of UVM, UNH, URI. UMass and UMaine. Heck, the athletics in that group couldn’t even sustain football across the board–UVM dropped the sport in 1974. Not a lot has changed at the other schools. The campuses have grown a bit, enrollment has expanded a bit, but the athletic programs maintain their status as a pleasant diversion accompanying the educational process.

But UConn? Noooo, not UConn. You see Dave Gavitt invited UConn to join the Big East Conference in 1974 and the world tilted. Millions and millions of dollars have poured into Storrs and the campus is virtually unrecognizable to graduates of my era. Enrollment, building, and the endowment have soared. UConn is now a “football school” and it departs the Big East, leaving the largely Catholic “basketball schools” behind as it chases ever more wealth. Success has been found.

End of story, right? Little school makes big time. All is right in the world. Right? Hmmm…I dunno. You see, it’s basketball that has driven this success, and it was basketball that created the Big East. It was basketball and the Big East that made Storrs big enough to find on the map. Basketball, and a bunch of originally like-minded “Basketball Schools” that brought measures of success and wealth to every school in the conference, albeit not equally.

What’s been lost? Tradition. History. The “kindredship” of a group of schools that were of a different ilk, or more accurately different ilks when we compare them with “Football Schools”. The Big East was a kind of special, the first grouping of schools assembled in the pursuit of athletics based NOT on football. There’s a certain absence of something like gratitude in the dissolution of the Big East in the pursuit of football riches. It feels almost like UConn has lost its institutional sense of its own identity.

Will UConn find those riches as it chases wealth for wealth’s sake, forsaking history, tradition, and a sense of who and what it has been? Tune in, I guess. There will be lessons to be learned by other institutions that have grown and become successful within an ecosystem of like-minded institutions with a common tradition and history. Are the presumably greater riches to be found in leaving behind the history, tradition, and culture greater than the wealth to be found in the history, tradition and culture?

Tune in, indeed.

 

 

CrossFit And The Athlete I Am Today

Crossfit. Constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. At 52 years of age I am nearly the athlete I was in my twenties. How can that be, you might ask? Well, while I am not truly as athletic as I once was, I believe that I am more FIT than I ever have been. This is allowing me to participate in athletic and other physical endeavors that I really have no business thinking about at my age. What kind of athlete might I have been if I trained in my teens and twenties the way I train in my forties?

All sports came easily to me in my youth. Blessed with the genetic gifts of eye-hand coordination, speed, and quickness there was literally no sport that I tried in which I didn’t excel. Couple this with the fact that I was a very early grower (I was the center on my Jr. High JV hoops team) and I was the classic local sports prodigy for that era. In addition to pulling me out of the deep end of the athletic gene pool my parents also provided a home environment that was bathed in competition. Heck, blood might be drawn when my siblings and I tried to make the first mark in a new jar of peanut butter! I was far from special in my family; all four White kids were All-State in something, and my brother might still be the best natural athlete I’ve ever met.

The first time I “peaked” as an athlete was freshman year in High School. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I would never be a better High School athlete than I was that year. I had stopped growing (I was now the point guard on the High School JV hoops team), and I continued to depend solely on my natural ability. I was still skilled, fast, and quick, but I was not terribly FIT. Under-strong. Not a ton of stamina. Typical teen diet. Add in a couple of injuries and a family move and I really didn’t return to that freshman year peak until my senior year.

My next peak as an athlete came in my sophomore year in college. As a freshman Division III tailback I did well enough, but the head coach was rather underwhelmed by my size and suggested a switch to defense. Stung, I set about proving him wrong (credit that family competitive gene) and got stronger, bigger, and tried to get faster (oops…better not get THAT much bigger). For the only time in my athletic career I trained to be a better athlete, a better football player. It helped immensely that my position coach, Dick Farley, turned out to be the best coach I ever had, and that he cared more about results than size. I started a bunch of games as a sophomore and really played rather well.

I then reverted to my tried and true, relying on whatever remained of those original genetic gifts from my parents. I never got better. Not one little bit. Given the opportunity to play tons of football over the next two years, to receive the benefit of magnificent coaching and possibly become a player to remember, I coasted. In the end I was nothing but a middle of the Bell Curve DIII cornerback, an average  Division III athlete. I wasn’t fit enough to do the work necessary to continue to get better and along the way I let both myself (and my teammates) and Coach Farley down.

If only I knew then what I know now. If only I had then what I have now. Bored and lonely in the gym, watching the ever outward creep of my waistline and the ever upward creep of my cholesterol, I stumbled upon Crossfit in the periodical Men’s Journal in December 2005. As a doctor who made it through Williams College, med school, and a residency I had long since learned that I wasn’t really THAT gifted. Hard work was now an intellectual and life habit, but until I  discovered Crossfit I had yet to do the same thing as an athlete. Whoa! This stuff turns out to be pretty powerful medicine!

“Practice and train the major lifts: deadlift, clean, squat, presses. Master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, push-ups, sit-ups. Bike, run, swim, and row hard and fast. Mix these elements in as many combinations as creativety will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts SHORT AND INTENSE. Keep food intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”–Greg Glassman.

On January 1st, 2006 I began the Zone diet and I did my first Crossfit workout, “Angie”. Crossfitters name their benchmark workouts after women. You know…like hurricanes. 100 pull-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 push-ups, and 100 air squats. For time. For, like, as fast as you can. Seriously. It took me 45 minutes to complete and it took me 45 minutes to get up off the floor. All 100 of the pull-ups were assisted and 80 of the push-ups were from my knees (word of warning: don’t call ‘em girlie push-ups. Most Crossfit women are scary fit and NEVER do push-ups from their knees).

I was hooked! My fitness went through the roof. My waist size shrank. My cholesterol plummeted. Three days on and one day off for 6 1/2 years and I am as fit as the day I graduated from med school at age 26. World class fitness based on workouts that typically last 20 minutes or less utilizing functional movements performed at high intensity. Competition? Yup. Me vs. me. Every day is a competition in which the opponent is yesterday’s version of Darrell, and victory is achieved if tomorrow’s version is just a little bit better than today’s.

So why now? Why at age 46? I confess that I just don’t know. I was certainly ready for Crossfit at 46, but I would probably have been ready for it at 36, too. I’m just very happy to have found it at all, frankly. Very happy to be more physically fit today than I was yesterday, with the hope that I will be able to continue to say that for years to come. Coach Glassman thinks most athletes can hope for 10 full years of improvement no matter when they start. Man, wouldn’t it be great if he was right and I still had a few years of getting better to look forward to!

Yet I do wonder, every now and again. I can’t help but wonder, what kind of athlete might I have been if I had Crossfit as a young man? If I could have been ready for Crossfit as a young athlete. When I had Dick Farley as a coach.

How many more peaks might I have reached?

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!

The Role Of Adults In Youth Sports II: Teach

At the news conference following a heartbreaking overtime loss, the head coach of Boise State had this to say: “one player can’t lose a football game all by himself. A player can WIN the game, but no one can lose it by themselves.” How good is that?! Seriously, after losing the opportunity to represent every underdog in the history of forever, in a football championship game for the ages, what does the coach do? He sees the situation for what it is, what it always is when you are an adult involved in youth sports; he sees this as just another “teachable moment.”

It’s gone so far beyond the cliché that they are life lessons to be learned by children playing sports that many of the adults who are involved in youth sports seem to have taken this for granted and just assumed that it will happen automatically. BZZZZZZT. Sorry. It doesn’t work like that. Never did. The second most important role that adults play in youth sports is to foster and facilitate learning among the children playing sports.

It’s pretty easy in the beginning. Heck, if you are coaching very little kids you actually have to teach them the rules of the game! I once tried to teach a bunch of kids in England play baseball. Piece of cake, you say. They play a game called “rounders” which is very similar to baseball, with a little bit of  Cricket mixed in.  Rounders doesn’t have foul lines, though, and English kids have no concept of what a foul ball is. I spent pretty much the entire game trying to explain why a perfectly good hit just to the right of first base didn’t count. In the beginning being an adult in youth sports is ALL about learning, ALL about teaching.

There’s a really cool phase in youth sports, whether you are a coach, booster, or simply an interested spectator, when the kids get the rules, they know how to keep score, and you are simultaneously teaching them technique and nuance while at the same time trying to win. Junior high school, Junior varsity in high school, times like this. This can be the most satisfying time to be an adult involved in sports. Somewhere in high school the “win mode” kicks in so strongly that teaching and learning can go by the boards, all teaching and learning geared toward just one measure, the one lighting up the scoreboard.

It’s not just about the game though of course. This would be a pretty trivial post if it was, eh? No, playing sports, especially team sports, leaves open all kinds of possibilities for learning. Even if you are the absolute star of a football team or basketball team or any other type of team, being part of the team means learning how to depend on your teammates. It means learning how to have other people depend on you. You have certain responsibilities, and the success of the team depends on you and everyone else doing exactly what they’ve been taught to do at exactly the right time. I’m going to my office in a very short time where I will be a member of yet another team. All of the lessons I’ve learned from all of my teams over the years come into play every time I go to the office. Same thing in the operating room this morning. Good outcomes depend on impeccable teamwork, with each team member doing exactly what he or she should be doing. Some may get more credit than others, at least publicly, but playing team sports should teach each athlete that he or she succeeds only if the team succeeds. The adults who are involved in youth sports have an obligation to teach this lesson to both the stars and the grunts.

Winning and losing are important measures, but it really DOES matter how you play the game. Did you play within the rules, even when no one could see whether or not you did? Did you cheat, break a rule that gave you or your team and advantage? Some of the individual sports are the best opportunities to learn these lessons. Have you seen those PGA commercials about the First Tee program for youngsters playing golf? Integrity and fidelity to the rules are mentioned by everyone. Adults should not only teach this but should also model these behaviors and attributes. What is your athlete learning if you use the “foot wedge” in the rough?

It’s possible to learn some very valuable lessons about how one might meet adversity in life simply by playing youth sports. How do you handle winning? Success that just can’t be hidden? Conversely, how do you handle it when life throws you an enormous curveball, and you look at terrible on a swing and a miss? Humility in victory, and grace in defeat are lessons that are there to be learned by our children playing sports. Sometimes all it takes is a gentle reminder, maybe even just setting a quiet example. There are other times when the designated adult must demonstrate a firm hand in teaching the lesson. I have visions of golf clubs helicoptering across fairways, tennis rackets splintering during fits of rage, trash talking and posturing under the basket or in the end zone. Failing to intervene and teach the PROPER lesson is nothing short of inexcusable if you are the adult present at those times.

It doesn’t sound easy, does it? I mean, that’s a lot of responsibility. It kind of sounds like… WORK! And it is, if you get right down to it. The adults who are involved in youth sports have great responsibilities, and they really have no right to expect a pass when it comes to fulfilling these responsibilities. This goes for coaches on the sidelines, officials on the field, parents in the stands, and boosters and administrators behind the scene. The opportunity to teach our children about fair play, following the rules, and being a good teammate are there for the taking. Even when it becomes time to win, as we saw in the example above with Boise State was on the verge of making history, there but for a missed 26 yard field goal, the imperative to teach our children, to foster their learning through sports, is one that we simply must seize as the adults involved in youth sports. Just like that head coach at Boise State.

They may not know it now, but every one of those Boise State football players walked off that field with a win because their coach played his role.