Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Exceptional Student/Athletes! How do They do it?

How does a high school student train twenty hours a week in a sport, travel ten to eleven weekends a year to competitions, maintain a 4.0 GPA with honors classes, and become valedictorian of her class? I’m not sure, but I’ve seen it happen several times. Those of you reading this blog, I’m sure, are aware of the incredible children we see in sports. I am constantly amazed by the maturity of children and particularly teenagers who are involved in gymnastics.

How do they do it? What motivates them? Have they learned something we can teach all children to help them be more successful? Are these student/athletes pre-disposed at birth to have this kind of maturity and success or are their extraordinary accomplishments due to skills and knowledge learned from parents, teachers, coaches and mentors? If these are learned skills, what can we do to teach them to the masses? Which skills are most important?

Looking at the three valedictorians and the several near valedictorians I’ve had on my team recently, I see some commonalities. Of course, time management is near the top of the list of skills and habits. It is the web that holds the big picture together. Each of these girls are “ahead of the game” in self-discipline, something you would expect. Obviously, they have above average intelligence. They all sacrificed some social time, but not their social life. They are goal-oriented and seem to have a clear picture of what they want to do with their life earlier than most girls. They have a great sense of priority. Perhaps the one characteristic that sets them apart from most was their love of a challenge, in particular, the challenge of learning, whether gymnastics, calculus, anatomy or all of these. The knowledge gained from an activity was a motivator, but the process of learning, the thrill of learning something new and attaining goals seemed to be what drove them to success. The world of psychology would call them task-oriented.

Task oriented people gauge their success based on effort and how much they improve their skills or increase their knowledge. Winning and social acceptance are less motivating than learning from the process of performing the task, including their mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, task oriented people are competitive. Competition motivates them because it is a learning experience and a chance for social interaction. But, finishing in first place and gaining social recognition is not the driving force behind their participation. I believe this plays a key role in their stability, and therefore, their perseverance as students and athletes. People who are primarily motivated by winning and gaining social recognition (things that boost their ego) are more likely to ride a roller coaster of emotions causing them to enjoy activities less and drop out earlier than task oriented individuals. A person or team can not win all the time. Social recognition is fleeting and not guaranteed even if you are winning. I would almost argue that a person who wins most competitions may pay a social price due to jealousy.

So, is there something we can do, as coaches and parents to develop these traits, habits, skills and desires in our athletes and children? Yes!

We should focus on the process of learning more than the outcome, set goals based on this principle and teach our children to determine success based on those goals. Outcome goals are also necessary, but should be tied closely to the process goals. These outcome goals should be a tool to measure if the process is working the way we want it to. We should consistently reward effort and improvement rather than the final score. Effort and improvement are largely controlled by the athlete, but the final score is affected by many variables outside the athlete’s control. We should create an environment where mistakes are considered part of the learning process and will not be punished.

Why should we want our children to be task oriented? They will enjoy participation more. They will persevere in activities. Their determination of success will be largely under their own control, making the path to a successful future more clear. They will experience the thrill of learning and will be motivated by effort and improvement. Hard work, self-motivation, self-discipline, fun and more enjoyable participation all seem to follow the task oriented person.

But, what about those things that boost our ego, do we have to ignore them? Like most things in life, being at the extreme is not good. So, my answer to this question is, no. Don’t ignore the scores or the social recognition, just keep them in perspective and don’t allow them to dominate your child or athletes desire for participation and for learning.

These super student/athletes love to learn, whether in sports or academics. Much of that is innate, but it can be enhanced by the motivational environment they are exposed to. As parents and coaches, we influence that environment.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

First, Do No Harm

As a young coach I made a mistake that taught me a lesson I remember to this day.  I had been coaching a young boy in a recreational gymnastics class for a number of weeks.  He was working hard, I was working hard, but he just wasn't picking up any new skills.  One day in a moment of frustration I made a comment under my breath about his inability to learn.  My stupidity immediately hit me like a ton of bricks.  I spun around, and was thankful to see that no one had heard what I said.  My feeling of relief was tremendous and equalled the disappointment in myself.  What if he had heard me?  I would have never forgotten the harm I caused that child (I haven't forgotten the incident even though there was no harm done).  What if any of the other boys had heard me?  After all, I was a role model for the group. 

I didn't sleep well for a few days.  I began to realize that success is relative to the individual and that past performance and current goals play a large role in determining success.  While success for my class 3 boys team was learning double backs off high bar, success for this boy was learning how to stand up from a forward roll without putting his hands on the floor.  I began looking forward to next weeks class.  That student deserved more from me and I wanted very badly to give him more.  When he made that roll we celebrated, just like we did for the double backs.  From that point on, he experienced success more often.  He didn't stay with gymnastics long.  It was hard for him.  But, I hope he learned something good from his time in the sport.  I know I did.

A hundred successes won't make up for one incident that does harm to a child.  I was lucky.  My mistake was only noticed by myself.  I hope others learn from my mistake and understand the first mandate of a good coach will be to do no harm.  All other goals should follow.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day & What My Parents Taught Me About Coaching

I've been educating myself as a coach for 30+ years only to find that the best things I bring to coaching I learned from my parents.  I'm always saying how my core philosophy has changed very little over the years.  I've sometimes wondered, if I'm constantly educating myself to improve my coaching skills and tools, why that core philosophy hasn't changed more.  Maybe it's because the most important lessons I try to teach in my gym are lessons I learned before deciding to become a coach, lessons learned from experiences provided by my parents while I was a child.  For example;

If you choose to do something, do it with full effort. What I heard from my parents was "if something is worth doing, it's worth doing right." When Nike came out with its "Just Do It" ad campaign, we quickly converted it to "Don't Just Do It, Do It Right" and it has become a mainstay slogan in our gym.

Unless there was an emergency, I was on time to every game and practice.  By emergency, I mean something like a car accident.

I may not get this one quite right, but it goes something like this "clean under your own doorstep before cleaning under others."  In other words, if you're going to criticize, look at yourself first.

I don't ever remember my parents yelling at an umpire, referee or official. I do remember them making a point that the parents who did were wrong in doing so.
Successful people are self-disciplined.  Do what's right because it's right.  Don't do something wrong just because you won't get caught.  It's still wrong.

My parents didn't try to coach me, unless I asked.  But, if the desire was there on my part, they made every effort possible to support my efforts, including building a pole vault box in the ground in our backyard so I could learn to pole vault.

Admit when you're wrong.

Treat people right.  I grew up in the baby-boom era and my neighborhood was full of kids.  This message was reinforced in every house on the block. 

The feeling you get from doing a good deed is reward enough.  So, do good when you can, without expecting anything in return.

If you cause someone pain, either physically or emotionally, you apologize and do everything in your power to resolve the situation.  And, you shouldn't make the same mistake again.

Hard work pays off. My Dad was a Safeway store manager and sixty hour work weeks were pretty normal. He'd cut back to thirty or forty hours if it was his vacation week (unless we could get him to go somewhere for vacation).

Success isn't based on WHAT a person does.  People with similar jobs do similar tasks.  Success comes from HOW you do those tasks and the standards you expect from yourself and others around you.

The most important coaching lesson I learned from my parents was to be a good role model.  People learn more from the way you act than from what you say.  My parents were great role models for me and my siblings and they were great role models for the kids who grew up with us. 
I no longer wonder why my core philosophy toward coaching has changed very little over the years.  Although my knowledge and skills as a coach have improved, the foundation that supports those has been in place for a long time.  That foundation was there for me irregardless of the career I chose.  My brother and sister have built careers on the same foundation.  When I strip away all the sports skills I teach and look underneath to see what I've taught my athletes that will benefit them for a lifetime, I hope to find this foundation.

National Champion!

Last Friday, Diandra Milliner became the level 10 national vault champion for the second year in a row, scoring a 9.95!!!  She added a national floor title to her resume` as well.

                  Jen Flores, Diandra Milliner and Jennifer O'bar

Diandra has been a gymnast at Folger's since she was in kindergarten and will attend Alabama University next year. Coaching an athlete from kindergarten to college is very rewarding. Jennifer O'bar who came to Folger's as a coach about the same time "D" came to us as a gymnast has been there for the whole journey and has played a big role in Diandra's success, as has Jennifer Flores who has been with us for several years now. Good Job "D" and good job coaches!!

UPDATE (4/29/2013):  Diandra won vault at the 2013 NCAA National Championships and placed second on floor.  The University of Alabama won the team titles at the 2011 and 2012 NCAA National Championships.  "D"s going to need a new jewelry case as she will now have 3 national champion rings and 6 All-American titles in her first 3 years at Alabama.

Rachael Morrison, our other JO National qualifier, placed 9th on vault and 15th all around.  Way to go Rach!  This was Rachael's second trip to nationals.  She has not yet chosen a college.  Rachael has been part of the Folger's family since before kindergarten.
Rachael Morrison and Mark Folger

Jen, "Rach" and Jennifer

Photos courtesy of Mark Baldwin, 2010 Folger's New Year Invitational

Monday, May 3, 2010

Feedback in Children's Sports

Parents, coaches, teammates, officials, the crowd, and the performance itself all provide feedback during and after a child’s sports performance. The chronology of this feedback is important. Understanding where we fit in the order of feedback given to an athlete will help each of us provide the most useful information to that athlete. I’ll use gymnastics as an example. Following a performance in competition, a gymnast will get feedback in this order, or something close to it:

1. From the performance itself (a self-evaluation)
2. Crowd reaction may play a role at this point
3. From their coach or coaches
4. From their teammates
5. From the immediate environment (other coaches or gymnasts in the area)
6. From the judge (a score)
(In a women’s meet they will repeat this process 4 times, once for each event).
7. From the awards ceremony (where did they place on each event)
8. From parents, family and friends who were in attendance

Every sport has its own chronology of feedback. In some sports feedback from an official is nearly immediate, “Strike three, you’re out!” putting it in front of information from a coach or teammate. In other sports, such as gymnastics, it’s delayed. We teach our gymnasts to set their goals based on performance standards, not scores. While judges are calculating scores we have an opportunity to give feedback based on performance and goals. This puts coach feedback in the line up before judge feedback, which works great for us.

For best results, all adults involved need to understand the typical order of feedback in their child’s sport and how it affects their role in the situation. A coach or parents place in the line up will have an affect on what type of feedback they should provide. A parent shouldn’t run to the dugout to tell their child to “watch the ball ‘til it hits the bat”, and a coach shouldn’t go home for dinner with the family just to say how much he liked Johnny’s diving catch in the second inning. A tuned in coaching staff can manipulate the order to a certain degree. And they should if that’s what’s best for the athlete.

After a game, Johnny has heard from his coaches, teammates, the umpires and himself concerning his performance. He doesn’t need technical information from his parents at that moment. What he’d probably enjoy is hearing what they liked best about the game. “Nice diving catch in the second.” Not technical information, just what made his parent’s happy. It would be good for him to hear what his parents enjoyed about how others played as well, as long as it’s not a comparison to his performance.

Not only should the adults involved be aware of the order of feedback given, but they should also consider the importance the athlete gives to each piece of feedback and should have a clear understanding of their role as a feedbacker (I think I made that word up, but it seems to fit, so I’ll run with it).

Pat Summerall: “John, this team has quite a feedbacker crew.”
John Madden: “I’ll say, have you been watching that middle feedbacker. He’s over here, then he’s over there, then he’s back down here. He seems to be everywhere. That young athlete’s lucky to have someone he can trust on his side. It’s seems like the feedbacker can read his mind and knows just what to say.”
Pat: “Ya, what about that blitzing feedbacker?”

John; “He’s always first on the scene, throwing encouragement everywhere, there’s still some lying on the field, see it over there. He mixes in a little technical or tactical information, followed by some more positive comments, and WAM, you’ve got a feedback sandwich. Makes me hungry, anyone seen my turkey?”
Pat: “Later John.”

John: “oh, oh yeah. And, those outside feedbackers, they cover their territory, analyze the situation and never leave their posts unless needed.

Pat: “Don’t forget those drop-back feedbackers.”

John: “Oh, of course not. Every kid needs his drop-back feedbackers. Those who drop-back, watch the whole scene and provide unconditional, positive support. This kid’s parents are great at that.”

Everyone plays a role in the process. Coaches and parents in particular, but also officials, teammates, parents of teammates, etc. need to consider:

- Where you are in the feedback line-up.
- What are the needs of the child athlete when they reach your spot in the line-up.
- Are you the right person to fill those needs or should another “feedbacker” take that role?

With a little practice you will get very good at this quick analysis and you’ll find that you are there when you need to be, not there when you shouldn’t be and comfortable knowing your child is getting the best feedback available.