Feed the Animals

In her latest blog post, Stanford University researcher (and author of Mindsets) Carol Dweck argues against the current trend in US education of emphasizing testing in schools. The result, she claims, “sends the message that intellectual abilities are fixed and that the purpose of school is to measure them. Students come to see school as the place to look smart and, above all, not look dumb–not a place to create and learn.” A similar phenomenon can be found in youth sports.

The sports analogue to school testing is, of course, competition. Competition can be a great deal of fun, highly instructive, and an important part of the training process. It can also, however–much like testing–become counterproductive if it is over-utilized.

Increasingly, the pattern in youth sports has been to greatly intensify the emphasis on competition.* Children are competing more often and at younger ages. Though not as severe as the problems in youth baseball or soccer, in fencing there are competitions being held for 7 and 8 year olds. There are 9 year olds flying across the country to compete against each other. In a sport in which peak performance is generally reached when an athlete is well into his 20s or 30s, this approach is concerning.

The goal of sports instruction for children needs to be instructiontheir education and development–not assessment. Children, particularly very young children, gain very little from competing. As much as one might wish otherwise, there is no way to determine whether a young child will be a champion adult athlete, and an intense competition schedule does not increase a child’s chances of future success.**

The downside for the child in an environment overemphasizing competition can be great. He is at a greater risk of burnout, his learning is more likely to be “corrupted” (learning what he needs to win against other children, rather than the skills he will need to be successful when he’s older), and perhaps worst of all he risks developing what Dweck terms a “fixed mindset”–believing his abilities are fixed rather than learning that his success is a matter of sustained effort even after experiencing failure. An athlete with a fixed mindset will avoid challenges in order not to look incapable–an approach which is directly contradictory to what is necessary for high level learning and achievement.

Coaches and parents should aspire to create an environment where the focus is on teaching the children not just the sport, but the idea that learning is an ongoing process and the act of engaging in learning (through the work and practice they put in) is more important than immediate results. Children who understand that will learn far more and be far more resilient when they experience failure. And, of course, they will be much more likely later on to be successful in sport (and everything else) when an increased competition schedule becomes more appropriate.

As Dweck notes in her blog, recounting the words of an educator from India who was comparing US and Indian educational policy: “Here, when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don’t weigh the elephant.”

Children are a lot like wild animals, of course. Our focus needs to be on feeding them because their weights are always changing.

* See Mark Hyman’s Until It Hurts and Richard Gindburg et al’s Whose Game Is It, Anyway?

** See the work of Tudor Bompa, especially his Childhood to Champion Athlete