'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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