Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Awesome 8 Year Old

I have never met a coach who didn’t want all their athletes to be the best they can be.

I have never met a parent who didn’t want their child to be the best they can be.

So why do we have so many conflicts between coaches and parents? The simple answer is that each sees a different path.

Let’s take the case of the unusually advanced 8 year old whose parents want their child to swim with the next group of 9-12’s. “After all,” the mom says, “my son is faster than half of the kids in the next group.” (And she is correct.)

Why wouldn’t the coach give a wholehearted “Yes,” and say, “I’ll move him up right away. In fact, I believe he can make the send off intervals that the 11-12’s are making so I’ll put him there. In a year he may be ready for the senior team.”

Why not?

Because every good coach sees the importance of long term progressive development and views their young swimmers as long term endeavors. Coaches should take a patient and a progressive approach to the development of their young swimmers. Coaches want swimmers in the program through their teen years and into their 20’s when they are physically mature and have the greatest potential for life changing participation.

Ask an adult who dropped out of swimming by age 12 or 13 what they remember from the sport and chances are, they remember very little. Now ask an adult who swam through college what they remember and chances are they will tell you it was one of the most important life changing experiences of their life.

So how do we keep a swimmer in the sport that long?

Many parents also will echo the importance of long term development. However, they just want to speed it up. There is a sometimes verbalized refrain, “The better he is now, then the better he will be in the future.”

This is not true in most cases. Parents who are otherwise well-meaning, sometimes push their budding stars to excel too early at almost any cost. And that cost is frequently failing to finish the long term.

Parents should take note: A 2001 study by the National Alliance for Youth Sports found that 70 percent of American kids who sign up for sports quit by the time they were 13. The reason? They said it wasn't fun anymore.

A study done by the ASCA staff years ago and repeated several times since shows that only 17 to 20% of the aged 9-10 swimmers ranked in the top 16 are still swimming at the national level 5 years later. USA Swimming also did a study using the all time Top 100 list and found that only 11% of the top ranked 10 and unders are still ranked as 17-18 year olds.

What is the primary reason we lose swimmers? The number one reason according to a survey done a few years ago is simply that swimming stopped being fun.

And what are the elements of fun? Friends, caring coaches, and absence of undue pressure from mom and dad to achieve their goals for the child.

When we move an 8 and under to an older age group we…:

…take them away from their friends. (“Friends” is the number one reason why young swimmers stay on the team in the first place.)

…take away their opportunity to be the leader of their peers. Good coaches build core groups of swimmers around leaders and move those core groups up through the program very nearly together.

…take the edge off of that wonderful, playful, crazy style of an 8 year old – because now, they are with older swimmers who usually do not share the same traits as an 8 year old.

…place tremendous pressure on the swimmer because now it’s not about having fun and being with friends, now it is about the serious business of work and achieving the goals mom and dad are setting for the child.

…change the progression and move the swimmer to a program which they may not be able to handle physically, developmentally, or mentally. Dryland training for an 8 and under is vastly different than for an 11-12 year old. The amount of fundamental kicking is less for an older age group swimmer. The amount of stroke work is also less for an older age group swimmer. Skip a proper progression of these and you risk developing an incomplete athlete.

…provide less time for games and relays.

…ignore the fact that the 8 year old may be better than the other 8 and unders because he is simply older biologically and developmentally than his peers and in all likelihood his peers will catch up to him at some point and many will pass on by. When that happens it is very difficult for the swimmer to understand why they aren’t so “good” anymore and lose interest in the sport.

…identify the 8 year old as a “talent” with tremendous pressure to live up to it. Some parents even identify their young swimmers as “our talented little butterflyer” or backstroker or breaststroker, etc. The problem is, as swimmers grow and body proportions change, they frequently lose their ability to be very good in one specific stroke. If their identity is attached to a stroke and they lose their stroke, then they lose their identity. Good coaches don’t create specialized age group swimmers and try very hard to create well rounded IM swimmers. When parents push a certain stroke upon a child, it adds to the stress.

…place the child in a socially difficult situation. Chatter among swimmers between sets and before and after practice – the so called “locker room talk” -- may be very inappropriate for an 8 year old to listen to.

…change the focus of the coach as the coach now has to take special care for an under-age swimmer in the group who might not make all the intervals or understand all the instructions.

Neither parents, nor coaches, can MAKE a child be a great swimmer. We can only provide the environment with the proper emotional support (parents) and challenges (coaching) in a well crafted progressive program aimed at the long term development of the child (coaching). It looks like I have reduced the role of the parent to that of providing emotional support – correct! That’s what you can uniquely provide and that is what is most needed from you.

Next time you come to practice, bring an extra towel for your child, and bring a book for yourself. Allow your child to get lost in the fun of a practice with their buddies while you simply watch them for the sheer joy of it without worries about their swimming future… or, just get lost in your book.

Friday, May 20, 2011

FAQ’s For Parents Training and Workout

1. Sometimes my child doesn’t want to go to practice. He wants to play with his friends. Should I force him to go?

You should not force your child; you want his participation to be his decision. Reinforce the choices and decisions he has made to start his sport. For example, your son chose to go to practice on Tuesday and Thursdays, on other days he has the freedom to do other activities. As a parent, explain your expectation that he fulfill the commitment he made by joining the team. You don't want to force your child into a sport that he does not enjoy, yet you want your child to be involved in a 'lifetime sport', to learn about making and keeping a commitment and to interact with peers So, what are you to do?

Instead of allowing your child to make a daily decision about going to practice, allow him to decide whether or not he wants to participate for the season. Once the decision is made to participate, he is making a commitment to the team and needs to follow through on it by attending practice on a regular basis. A haphazard schedule is detrimental to the athlete’s overall development.

Interestingly, when asked to reflect on the role of their parents in their swimming, athletes from a recent USA Swimming World Championship team talked about being pushed to swim by their parents on a weekly basis but knowing they could quit if they stopped having fun with swimming.

2. My child has a lot of interests and activities so he only attends about half of his practices. What will happen to his competition results?

Children involved in other activities can benefit in the areas of coordination and balance, as well as improved social and intellectual development. Specialized training in one activity does not necessarily need to take place at this stage of development. Will your son’s teammate who makes all practices have better results? Probably he will because his teammate is working solely on developing one sport skills. It is up to you to explain to your child that making the choice to participate in other activities can have its consequences. Tell your son that he should not compare his results to that of his teammate, but to focus on the fact that he is benefiting from and enjoying other sports.

3. It looks like my child is having a lot of fun at practice. Shouldn’t she be working harder?

Be happy that your child is having fun! According to a recent study conducted by USA Swimming children who experience fun while participating stay in sports longer (Tuffey, Gould, & Medbery, 1998). At this stage of the game, the most important aspect of development is the mastery of skills, which means learning the proper technique. Fundamentals must be established prior to true “training” taking place. And, if she is having fun in the process of learning, she is more likely to continue to the sport.

4. It looks like all they do at practice is drills. Shouldn’t they be training more?

Your child needs to develop a solid foundation in mechanics. Drills and drill sets serve the specific purpose of teaching skills and fundamentals. Drills develop motor coordination, motor skills, and balance. In fact, your child’s coach may prescribe a particular drill, just for your child, in order to improve an aspect of her technique. In addition, she may actually be experiencing a “training” benefit from drills. Drills require concentration and aerobic energy to do them correctly.

5. My daughter’s coach sometimes makes her “sit out” for disciplinary reasons. Isn’t that a waste of her time?

The coach has set up expectations of proper behavior. Hopefully, your child is aware of the consequences of testing these boundaries. Obviously the coach is reinforcing what is expected of the children at practice. We encourage you to reinforce the coach's practice expectations by discussing your child’s behavior and the consequences of that behavior. Hopefully, this “time out” begins to reinforce self-discipline, accountability and respect for others.

6. My son complains that some of the kids cheat in practice. What should I tell him?

Praise him first for completing the workout the coach offers. Remind him that he is there to improve himself and he can’t control what his teammates do. Tell him however, that his best course of action is to continue to do things right and others may actually be influenced by his good example. By committing to do his best at all times, over the long haul he will reap the benefits of his hard work.

7. My daughter just moved up to the Senior Group. Now the coach wants her to train twice a day. Is this really necessary?

Your child has established proper technique and fundamentals by progressing through the levels of the team. It is appropriate at this stage of your daughter’s career development to increase the training loads. This includes adding the two mornings per week. Although morning practices come extra early, most coaches feel that this level of commitment is necessary for your daughter to reach the next level of her career.

Training for competitive sports is demanding on young athletes. As athletes develop, they need to understand the upcoming time demands. One specific principle of training that applies is the progressive overload principle. A person must be stressed slightly more each day over time to continue to improve. In order to do that, the coach must plan additional time. The addition of morning workouts often becomes necessary for the coach to develop young athletes to their maximum potential.

8. What type of commitment is needed for higher levels of competition?

While an athlete’s performance is influenced by numerous factors, there are three that exert the greatest influence: physical, technical and mental. As athletes progress, a greater commitment, of both time and energy, is needed to enable an athlete to address all of these factors.

Additionally, the athlete is asked to take more responsibility for and ownership of his practice and competition performance. One way of doing this is by accepting responsibility for leading a lifestyle conducive to performance, i.e., proper nutrition, adequate sleep, time management and managing extra-curricular activities.

9. Is my teenager sacrificing too much to train?

What you may consider a sacrifice, such as missing a school dance, football game or simply going out with friends, your child many not consider a sacrifice at all! Instead, your child has chosen to commit to his sport. By doing so, he realizes that a certain level of training is necessary for him to achieve greater goals and does not look at these activities as missed opportunities. Keep in mind that your child realizes missing a workout is like missing sleep, it cannot be made up. If, however, your child is expressing sentiments that he is missing these chances, then it is time to re-evaluate the balance in his activities.

10. What does the coach mean when she says that my teenaged daughter controls 80% of her own training?

At this stage it is important for the athlete to take full responsibility for her sport. Your coach is just reinforcing this concept. Having a good attitude, developing proper time management, and demonstrating a strong work ethic are important both in and out of the practice and competition. What your child’s coach is referring to is what we call “hidden training factors.” She is in control of what she eats, how much sleep she gets, her practice attendance, and even her effort on practice sets. This may really add up to even more than 80%.

11. My child used to compete in all of the events, but now her coach has her focusing on only a few.

Prior to now, your child needed to acquire a wide range of skills and the aerobic development necessary to allow for this specialization. At this point in her career, her physical development allows her to train for specific events. Children at this stage have reached the physical maturity necessary to specialize in particular events for which they are best suited.

12. I notice the coach having meetings with the older athletes at the beginning of the season. What are they talking about? Is he asking for input?

Typically the coach likes to share his seasonal plan with the group prior to the start of the season, as well as reviewing the previous season’s strengths and weaknesses. This plan highlights the major competition, tapering and the overall training plan. By presenting the athletes with information, the coach is making the athlete part of the process. This meeting may also be a prelude to individual goal setting sessions and an opportunity to begin to build team unity.

13. My child was very successful as very young child. How can I help her reach the next level?

When your daughter is making the transition, she needs to realize that she is participating at a higher level. Improvements are in tenths and hundredths, rather than seconds, due to biological and physiological factors.

Throughout her career, you have been very supportive. This support is still needed but it may have to be a little different than in the past. It is a good time to discuss with your daughter what she needs from you. Do not be afraid to ask her “How can I support you in your sport?” While you are an important part of her support network, realize your daughter, at this level, should be taking on more ownership of her athletic career.

14. I want my son to qualify for Nationals so badly, but he keeps just missing. What can I do to help?

It is important for you to acknowledge that this is your child’s goal, not yours. Your expectations may actually be putting undue pressure on his performances. There are two types of goals that athletes can set. Outcome Goals focus on the end result of performance such as “win" or "make finals.” Process Goals relate to the process of performance. Examples are “great technique" or "strong finish.”

Athletes have much more control over Process Goals. Outcome Goals are uncontrollable since they also involve the performance of other competitors. Athletes and coaches should concentrate on Process Goals since they involve aspects an athlete can control. Focusing on a time is outcome driven. Although you want what’s best for your son, encourage him to talk to his coach to clearly identify Process Goals to achieve improvement.

Monday, May 9, 2011

News for Swim Parents: The Praise Gap

Bringing Praising Strategies Used by Coaches and Parents Closer Together.

From Guy Edson, ASCA

From the point of view of many parents, coaches tend to under-praise their swimmers. One parent complained to me that their child would never rise above the level of “adequate” under my standards. This is the same parent I earlier saw heaping loads of praise on the child (a 12 year old) for having giving it a “great effort” when in fact the child had just completed a swim that was technically lacking, far off of a best time, and showed no interest in racing. Clearly there is a difference here.

Many articles cite studies that in the ideal learning environment there is a “magic ratio” of 5 praises to 1 criticism. Anecdotally I can tell you that most coaches are the complete opposite: 5 criticisms to one praise.

In good coaching those 5 “criticisms” are better labeled “critical feedback.” The role of the coach is to give critical technical feedback to the athlete – specific and objective information that helps the athlete perform better the next time. Praise is often given in levels from a simple OK (adequate) to “nice job.” Coaches are careful NOT to use words that leave little room for improvement like “awesome,” “excellent,” and “perfect.” A coach wants the athlete to feel that there is always work to do, always room for improvement. As long as feedback and praise are consistent, coaches can use the 1:5 ratio very effectively.

One of the difficulties for coaches is that we feel we are fighting against a larger cultural push of standardless self-esteem building. This is the mentality that “All efforts are good.” An article in the New York Magazine by Po Bronson cites research that says that self-esteem building by over praising can actually create underachievers. (How Not to Talk to Your Kids -- The inverse power of praise. By Po Bronson in the New York Magazine, February 2007.)

Since the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which Nathaniel Branden opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person, the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self-esteem has become a movement with broad societal effects. Anything potentially damaging to kids’ self-esteem was axed. Competitions were frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise.

Dweck and Blackwell’s work is part of a larger academic challenge to one of the self-esteem movement’s key tenets: that praise, self-esteem, and performance rise and fall together. From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything—from sex to career advancement. But results were often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards.

After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”

So, what might be good advice for parents seeking to praise and build up their children? From Bronson’s article we read:

To be effective, researchers have found, praise needs to be specific.

Sincerity of praise is also crucial.

New York University professor of psychiatry Judith Brook explains that the issue for parents is one of credibility. “Praise is important, but not vacuous praise,” she says. “It has to be based on a real thing—some skill or talent they have.” Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.

With so much overflowing love for our children (I am a parent also) why not praise all efforts, even not-so-good efforts, as a way of boosting spirits? Why must the coach bluntly say that the performance did not match up with expectations – in short, tell the swimmer it was a failure? In the article, Bronson refers to a study that helps explain the importance of recognizing failures.

But it turns out that the ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort—instead of simply giving up—is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification. Delving into this research, I learned that persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain.

“The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says [researcher Dr. Robert] Cloninger [of Washington University in St. Louis.] The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

Bronson concludes:

Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem—it robs him of the chance to make the deduction himself.

I think it is appropriate to simply ask the child how they think they did, listen to their analysis, then add a ton of love and a big hug, and let it go at that.