'In Search of [Sports] Greatness': Raising Today's Youth Within Structure and Specialization vs. Encouraging 'Out of the Box' Play and Thinking

Gladiator Maximus: Are you not entertained?!
Gladiator Maximus: "Are you not entertained?!"

I just watched another fascinating documentary (‘In Search of Greatness’, written/produced/directed by Gabe Polsky), but this time it was about something I have almost zero interest or knowledge in – sports. But as with many documentaries I’ve watched, because it was just so well written and produced, I learned some things and was genuinely riveted. So, in my infinite knowledge (not! I may even deserve the title of ‘the least knowledgeable person about sports that you have ever met’), I thought I would pass on a little of what I learned. I decided not to write anything about my opinions, or give any context here – the words are self-explanatory...

"Top athletes, including Michael Jordan, Pele, Jerry Rice and Wayen Gretzky, explore the importance of nature versus nurture in determining athletic ability."

What makes people successful? What is a marker, an indicator, of future success, of potential which turns into greatness? How does ‘out of the box thinking’ begin, or grow into something of such great value? Or, to rephrase as the inverse, what factors detract from this, what actions inhibit this potential?

Structure & Known Formulas vs. Creativity & 'Out of the Box' Thinking:

A: Structure, falling into place and into pre-set, clearly-defined roles, “playing too much of a team game. That is not the way for kids to play sports when they are young. A big part of it is giving people the freedom to try, and fail, and make mistakes when they are younger. None of those kids made the national [hockey] team. We’ve lost our creativity and imagination that we used to have in the 1960s/70s/80s. If you take 10 kids to a pond today, and said to them, ‘Alright, go play’ they’d say, ‘Well, what do we do?’ because they’re all so structured now, and so analytical now. There’s so much competition now in sports, and so much money involved in the sporting world now that parents of 8/9/10 yr old kids are putting them in home school, and then [specific sports] academies. They all have that dream of their child making it, and making all this money.” - Wayne Gretsky, Canadian hockey champion

‘When it comes to coaching and teaching, and this pressure for comformity, there’s this assumption that there is a formula you can follow, and if you just get the formula right, if it’s a great formula, you will be great. The system itself is based on confirmity, compliance, and standardtization. But if we know anything about people, they are diverse, creative, and want fulfillment, not drudgery, and not a kind of dreary, repetitive sort of existence. So if you promote conformity, don’t be surprised if that’s what you get. [Insert Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ song here] It’s much more often the case that the people who achieve real #greatness just don’t fit the formula at all. In fact, they break the mould, they do something completely different, and that’s true in all areas.” - Sir Ken Robinson

“There’s a great study of the German soccer team who just won the World Cup, looking at the development path of the guys who made the national team, and the guys who were one rung below that. The only big difference that they could come up with was that the guys who made the national team had a lot more time in unstructured, small-sided play when they were young, where the field might just be an alley, that wasn’t normal proportions, and continued into unstructured play into Pros.” You also actually see this in chess. If kids study, too rigidly, certain types of openings, they literally become stuck in a certain pattern of playing and hit a plateau and never get better. They have to be given a certain amount of unstructured time to create and define themselves.” - David Epstein, Author, ‘The Sports Gene’

“There are now forces which push parents into having their children specializing as early as possible, whereas in reality, the development of successful athletes is that they sample a bunch of different sports early on, and only later do they specialize.” - David Epstein, Author, ‘The Sports Gene’

“We were much freer to come and go than kids are today. There was much more free time in school than there is now. On average, kids today in America have less unstructured time than the average high-security prison. They want the best for them, but it manifests in this over-management of them, always trying to tell them the best way to do things, and it can’t work that way. Ironically, while parents think they are affording their child the best opportunities, the best start they can, but they are, in effect, just over-scheduling them. They become ‘social secretaries’ for their kids... driving them here and there, all in the belief that they are giving them the best possible start, but often what kids actually need is just time, time to hang out.” - Sir Ken Robinson

"People have immense, deep talents that are often overlooked by the systems that are designed to educate them or take care of them. Like the earth’s natural resources, they are much deeper than we realize. There are multivarious factors on whether or not people achieve what they achieve. The ones we know about are the ones whose talents came to fruition because the conditions proved to be favourable for them, but how many other people could achieve things if the conditions were right? We are not robots. We are driven by feelings and inspiration and a sense of possbility. Creativity is the essence of humanity. It’s not an incidental part of being human. It’s distincitively human." - Sir Ken Robinson

A Preoccupation With Stats and Data Tracking:

"I love data, data analysis and sports analytics, but I think there are cases in which we become too slavish to it. And so there’s this desire to validate everything by data, and it’s backwards. It’s making something important because we can measure it, not measuring it because it’s important. If the stats come to dominate your judgement, than you’re not showing any judgement at all." - David Epstein, Author, ‘The Sports Gene’

The Power of Passion & Persistence:

"One of the world’s experts on prodigies is Ellen Winter from Boston College, calls this ‘A Rage to Master’. She says there are two qualities of true prodies: a rage to master a certain domain, and an ability to learn quickly in the domain. When these two things come together, then you have somebody who can change their field." - David Epstein, Author, ‘The Sports Gene’

"Great pianists, their fingers are not born 10x faster than everybody else’s. They’re economizing their movement, and they’re going to the next place that they know they need to go before they’ve even finished the first movement. That’s a figment of true expertise – they’re seeing what’s going to happen before it happens. They have to. They have the ability to pick-up on what looks like disparate pieces of information and to quickly draw information from them." - David Epstein, Author, ‘The Sports Gene’

"Achievements in the external world are only made possibe by achievements first in the internal world." - Sir Ken Robinson

Stars Emerge, But Also, the Whole Is Greater Than the One:

"If a coach sees himself as a drill seargeant whose job is just to make sure you hit your mark and do nothing else then it will stifle the air of collaboration that all the great teams demonstrate." - Sir Ken Robinson

We Know What the Goal Is, But What Is the Cost?

Greatness at any moral or ethical cost?
Greatness at any moral or ethical cost?

"If the ultimate of professional sports is just to become number one, at whatever price you pay to get there, then you begin to wonder whether the whole spiritual basis of these guys is being hollowed out of people winning a game that people are losing interest in." - Sir Ken Robinson

And Finally...

“All inventive and creative people, they’re not hung up on fixed defintions of what any form of life or reality may be.” - Alan Watts, Philospher

"This I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world." - John Steinbeck

Video Clips Here: In Search of Greatness, youtube

'In Search of [Sports] Greatness': Raising Today's Youth Within Structure and Specialization vs. Encouraging 'Out of the Box' Play and Thinking
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  • Well first and foremost I would say, Sir Ken Robinson is a fantastic speaker and I highly recommend watching his TED talks, they are both fascinating and entertaining.

    As for the argument presented, I have to say I think structure and specialization is absolutely important. . . until its not. You have to learn some basics before you can go off and explore, but I think that both are equally important. Now I have always been more towards creative and exploration then structure (My art teacher I think loved and hated me because of this. She would give us instructions, I would then promptly ignore them and do something different (had to do a still life painting of just a collection of items on a desk (vases and such) but I wanted to do it differently, so instead of putting them front and center I decided to place them squarely on the side leaving the center of the canvas blank (a big no no in art. They are emphatic about putting the focus on the center but I wanted to see what happened when you didn't, so I tried to have it draw the eyes to the sides of the canvas instead of the middle. So again, not exactly a "structure and in the box" kind of guy)), so keep that in mind.

    If you take art for example, you can see where going either direction is a negative. When you get people not acting within a structure you get modern art. Modern art is awful, so awful in fact that their have been cases of the displays being thrown out because cleaning crews presumed they where trash. Another artist went into a museum and set down a pair of glasses. People just assumed it was another art piece. Basically without structure their where no rules, no guidelines and no purpose or meaning behind what was done.

    Now take the inverse, what happens when you do not allow any outside the box thinking? Well you don't evolve the art, you don't get cubism or surrealism or anything else for that matter, you get still lifes and portraits and nothing interesting nothing unique nothing designe to evoke feelings or thoughts. Its also a pointless endeavor.

    So I think this is true with society. If we take the sociological approach to this you have social taboos and customs and traditions. If we remove them (as we have been) with no regard to what purpose they serve i. e. sacrifice structure and specialization for creativity and freedom, we see a rapid decline in happiness, in the well being of people and eventually societal collapse (because no one pays attention to history so they don't realize we have done this "song and dance" many times before).
    Like 1 Person
    Is this still revelant?
    • However, if you look at certain ideas/traditions they do serve a purpose but those purposes may be improved upon. We can take for example, miasma theory. Before germ theory we had miasma theory, that is the idea that "bad air" caused disease. Now at first look this seems like a bad idea from our perspective but it does make a kind of sense. Rot is caused by bacteria, molds, and funguses all of which have the potential to harm and or kill us and cause disease. Many toxic gases have a smell to them (chlorine for instance) and they can poison us if we breath them in. So from a logical perspective this does make a kind of sense and those who believed it where more likely to survive then some one who didn't. So in this case traditional ideas and structures where absolutely beneficial.

      However we then discovered germ theory which worked BETTER. This was due to out of the box thinking and ignoring those rules that came before. it also allowed us to save billions of peoples lives once we figured this out. So was tradition/structure and conventional thinking truly the enemy here? Well not really, but the refusal to evolve and adapt most definitely was and is. So its important to recognize that structure and specialization most definitely have a place, they exist for a reason, and we should respect that, again, until we shouldn't.

    • Another example of this is one that I read about many years ago. Basically a biologist who was an amateur astronomer and star gazer figured out a solution to a big problem astronomers where having. The problem was glare from stars, it made it harder to detect celestial bodies that might be near the star as the glare from them would hide the planet. He figured out a surprisingly easy solution to the problem, cats eyes. Namely that as a biologist he had studied animals and he knew that the shape of a cats pupil was specifically shaped to reduce glare. Upon realizing this he figured out you could either have a special shaped lens or just a cap on a telescope that would mimic it and solve the problem. A simple solution that astronomers couldn't figure out because they, do to specialization had essentially tunnel vision. They could not think in terms outside of their set parameters.
      So again, we need both the trick is figuring out when to break the rules and step outside the box and knowing when the box is their for a reason and to tread carefully. Over all though I think in our current society we need more of both sides of the coin, from a social perspective I think we need to really focus on structure, from an intellectual and educational side we should really focus on greater creativity (but challenging creativity, last thing we need is more modern art) as I think that is what really kills drive within our educational system (I couldn't stand school, they claimed I had ADD because I wasn't paying attention, meanwhile I was reading and learning every subject under the sun on my own with no issues with my attention their. In the word of Plutarch, "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.". If we take this approach to both structure and creativity I think we would be better off in general).

    • To give just one more example, going off the beaten path can lead to great discoveries, but if your lost coming across a beaten path is a god send. So each in appropriate measure and at the appropriate times.

  • Lliam
    Great MyTake, Amanda. Those observations are so true.
    There was a time when kids just played. They could organize sand lot football and baseball games. They could play basketball at the park, swim, surf, skateboard, play Frizbee, tennis, racket ball, pool, and countless other things. They could climb trees, run, roughhouse, explore and invent games. It made them well rounded but also allowed them to discover their passions and natural skills, and overcome fears.

    How many kids who are forced to play soccer or ice skating or piano ever make it to the top? They don't because it feels like work.

    I was lucky to grow up in an environment like I just described. I rode my bike two miles one way to school and rode all over town when I wasn't at school. Kids would leave the house in the morning and simply had to be home by dinner time. Nobody was monitoring them. We had fun, fun, fun and even got into mischief at times. (gasp!)
    If someone came home with a cut, scrape or even a broken bone, it was just part of being a kid. You tested your boundaries and learned from your experiences.

    I was active all the time and played all kinds of sports. I was okay at some, decent at others, and better than decent at a few.

    I asked for a guitar when I was about 11 or so. I took lessons for a few years to learn the basics. Nobody pushed me. I just had a passion for it. I was no prodigy, but by 10th grade, I was a hot lead guitarist and played and sang in several bands. As in the example you gave about the pianist, my fingers developed muscle memory. I didn't have to think about every note. I could think far ahead and my fingers were there instantly. If I made an error, I could incorporate it into what I was doing as if I had deliberately done something unique.

    The point is that nobody pushed me into it. It was just something that developed naturally because I wanted to do it. Other people discovered their own talents.

    But I agree that, in the effort to give kids the best head start possible and provide them with the best tools and resources, parents in the past few decades have inadvertently put their kids in boxes not of their choosing. And this results in mediocrity if not resentment.
    Like 1 Person
    Is this still revelant?
    • AmandaYVR

      I love reading your writing. This time it reminds me of the beautiful narration of The Wonder Years, and Joe Cocker playing softly in the background...
      You have the ability to be informative, declarative, yet also reflective, wistful, even romantic.


      One of the rare times I think somebody topped a Beatles original.

    • Lliam

      You're so kind, Amanda. Yes, I am a romantic and speak from my heart. Nostalgia is also romantic.

      I was recently invited to perform two songs by my departed friend Utah Phillips. One, called The Telling Takes Me Home, is heartbreakingly nostalgic. In his own words, Utah said he was "keeper of the long memory". He thought history was essential in understanding who we are and how we got here. Much of history gets buried by those who want to promote their own narrative.

      The other song was I Think of You. He wrote it but gave it Rosalie Sorrels to record. It is the tenderest of "missing you" type love songs. Neither of those songs are my typical genre but I can sing them very well.

      Here's a link to the lyrics for The Telling Takes Me Home. Utah could write! You can click at the bottom of the link to get an idea of the melody, but I don't sing it that way at all. I made it "wistful" and beautiful. People cried.

      Joe was one of the greats. I agree that he topped the Beatles with his version of that song. And what I wouldn't give for his backup band. haha

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What Girls & Guys Said

    Yes!!! I agree 100%. There is no creativity anymore. Everyone is stuck in the rut. I hate following the "rules" and being stuck in thing over and over again. I just want to scream. I am always the black sheep trying break everything so i can think. 😂😂
    Like 1 Person
  • Jjpayne
    This is a pretty sweet study! Adjusting learning for little ones to find the best way is always an art
    Like 1 Person
  • Exorcist_Rampage
    many people excel at sports. I think LeBron James is the best basketball player ever but many will say Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain is.
  • ImpatiensSultani
    Nice take
  • jaycebersftw
    Luka is the best NBA player