One of the nice/strange things about my job is that it strongly resembles being a parachute jumper. You drop out of the sky into interesting places, where you meet people, explore, and look for patterns.
In the past two weeks, I’ve had in-depth conversations about performance with two professional sports teams, two schools (one inner city, one private), one special-forces unit, and one huge multinational business.
Here’s the weird part: in a profound way, they’ve all been the same conversation.
They’re all obsessed with that elusive, magical quality we call character. Grit. Resilience. Reliability. Ownership. Because, as the work of Paul Tough, Angela Duckworth, and others have shown, character supports performance the same way a concrete foundation supports a house.
So it’s with a sense of karmic happiness that I bumped into this remarkable story about a high-school football team in Ohio that was struggling with precisely the same issues, and which found a straightforward solution that’s worth sharing.
Actually “struggling” is putting it kindly. Until a few years ago, Bedford High’s team was terrible. The team was in shambles. No discipline. No identity. How bad was it? The coach, Sean Williams, says that when a Bedford player scored, his teammates on the sidelines would yell and complain because they should have been the ones who scored.
Then, two years ago, Coach Williams made an innovative move that surprised everyone.
He brought in a character coach.
Like many useful innovations, this one feels completely revolutionary and forehead-slappingly obvious at the same time. The thinking goes something like: we have a strength coach and an offensive-line coach – so why in the world shouldn’t we have a coach to focus on the most important element of all?
So Bedford did. Two times a week, led by a 31-year-old entrepreneur/coach named Keith Tousley, the team started gathering in sessions that were part motivational seminar, part group therapy. From the article:
On Monday, to accompany his talk, Tousley gave players a worksheet titled “How we WILL BEAT Kent Roosevelt.” Every player sat quietly and filled in blanks as he spoke. The worksheet had nothing to do with X’s and O’s. Among the sentences players completed were:
“Find ____ in what you are doing.”
“Stay _____ .”
“Compete for something ____ than yourself.”
One of the benefits of this approach stems from the fact that character is contagious. A Bedford player named Tyvis Powell was one of the first to get on board with the new program, and now, according to Williams, “all these guys are mini-Tyvises.“ Another benefit is that improvements in character tend to cascade into every other area of the team and individual success — classroom, family, and beyond.
So, did the experiment work? Let’s just say this year’s team is 9-1, and playing tonight in the state playoffs.
The real question is, is this a model that could be adopted in schools, businesses, teams? What are the challenges/opportunities involved with establishing “character” as a distinct quality to be improved? What do you think?
UPDATE: Bedford won 21-14, advancing to the state semifinal.
The determination is awesome.
But what really matters is stopping, thinking, and changing strategy.
Meet Amira Willighagen. She’s 9 years old, from Holland, and she sings really, really well.
The best part? Amira has never had a single lesson. Raised in a musical family (dad’s an organist; mom plays flute, brother violin), she learned by watching YouTube videos of great opera singers.
Here’s the interesting thing: when you start to look around, it turns out that there are more than a few Amiras out there. Like these kids. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one.
In fact, they’re everywhere. Kids on skateboards are doing tricks that no one has ever done. Skinny teenage violinists and pianists are playing concertos that were previously considered playable only by world-class masters. There’s no way to precisely measure it, but indications are clear: we seem to be experiencing an epidemic of prodigies.
The question is, why? Is it better teachers? More nurturing parents? More global competition? More motivated learners?
My answer: all of the above. But one factor might be bigger than all of them: YouTube.
Because YouTube is perfectly aligned with the way the human brain was designed to acquire skill. Namely:
- 1) You stare at someone doing something amazing
- 2) You love it so much that you can’t stop thinking about it
- 3) You try it, reaching for a target
- 4) You compare your result to the target
- 5) You reach again. And again. And again. (Repeat.)
We instinctively think of being self taught as a drawback — but as Amira and the other prodigies show, it’s actually an advantage. With YouTube, she has opportunity to stare at what she loves. To study top-quality talent, to model her technique on proven methods. To listen deeply. To reach for a target, over and over — her brain getting faster and more accurate with each reach. And above all, to have ownership over the process.
Quick thought experiment: imagine if, instead of spending enraptured hours singing along to YouTube videos, Amira was informed by her parents that she would be driven to weekly lessons, where she would practice scales and do vocal exercises with some teacher she’d never met. Can you feel the buzzkill?
Not all of us can be prodigies. But there are a few takeaways from their learning process that can apply to everyone.
- 1) Staring at great performers is underrated. You could argue that it’s the most important thing a learner can do. Why not give learners regular opportunity to stare/mimic the best in the world? Why not mix age groups, so that younger kids get the chance to watch better performers?
- 2) Coaches are overrated in the early days. Those days are the time when someone’s identity gets connected to the skill — where they learn to derive real personal pleasure from executing the skill. That’s the time for parents to take a step back, be supportive, and refrain from getting overinvolved.
- 3) Ownership is everything. Because at bottom, developing a talent isn’t about parents or coaching or school — it’s about creating and sustaining the love that fuels the hard, fulfilling work of getting better.
A while back, I wrote about an absolutely tremendous letter which a Little League baseball coach and former major leaguer named Mike Matheny sent to the parents of his players. Since Matheny is now coaching the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox, I thought I’d observe the occasion by reposting a few key passages of what’s become known as the Matheny Manifesto. (For more, I recommend you check out the whole thing here.)
I always said that the only team that I would coach would be a team of orphans, and now here we are. The reason for me saying this is that I have found the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents. I think that it is best to nip this in the bud right off the bat. I think the concept that I am asking all of you to grab is that this experience is ALL about the boys. If there is anything about it that includes you, we need to make a change of plans. My main goals are as follows:
(1) to teach these young men how to play the game of baseball the right way,
(2) to be a positive impact on them as young men, and
(3) do all of this with class.
We may not win every game, but we will be the classiest coaches, players, and parents in every game we play. The boys are going to play with a respect for their teammates, opposition, and the umpires no matter what.
Once again, this is ALL about the boys. I believe that a little league parent feels that they must participate with loud cheering and “Come on, let’s go, you can do it”, which just adds more pressure to the kids. I will be putting plenty of pressure on these boys to play the game the right way with class, and respect, and they will put too much pressure on themselves and each other already. You as parents need to be the silent, constant, source of support.
I am a firm believer that this game is more mental than physical, and the mental may be more difficult, but can be taught and can be learned by a 10 and 11 year old. If it sounds like I am going to be demanding of these boys, you are exactly right. I am definitely demanding their attention, and the other thing that I am going to require is effort. Their attitude, their concentration, and their effort are the things that they can control. If they give me these things every time they show up, they will have a great experience.
I need all of you to know that we are most likely going to lose many games this year. The main reason is that we need to find out how we measure up with the local talent pool. The only way to do this is to play against some of the best teams. I am convinced that if the boys put their work in at home, and give me their best effort, that we will be able to play with just about any team.
Isn’t that great? And is it any coincidence that Matheny has gone on to succeed at the highest level?
I think it goes to underline a simple truth: great coaches are first and foremost great communicators. They’re not like heroic ship captains, always knowing where to steer. They’re more like radio stations, adept at sending the right signal at the right time to enable people to steer themselves.
PS- GO CARDS!!
About a mile from where I live, there’s a soccer field. If you were to pass by, you would see elementary-school teams practicing in the traditional way. Coaches set out orange cones, and kids form lines and wait their turn to participate in various drills.
If you saw them, you might think: Seems like a lot of kids are just standing around.
A few blocks away stands a high school. If you were to pass by, you would see a math class. The class operates in the traditional way: students sit silently in their seats as the teacher gives her lecture.
If you saw them, you might think: Seems like a lot of students are zoning out.
You might think those thoughts. But you wouldn’t have a way to objectively measure the effectiveness of their learning. You wouldn’t have a yardstick.
And you should.
If science has taught us anything over the past few years, it’s that all learning spaces are not created equal. High-quality methods of practice are efficient, because they are aligned with the ways our brains actually improve. Ineffective methods are inefficient, because they are aligned with tradition, or emotion, or the teacher’s ego, or what looks good.
There are an infinite number of ways to screw up a learning session. But high-quality practice sessions share a few basic characteristics. Which means that it should be possible to create a simple metric to measure practice effectiveness. And since that yardstick doesn’t seem to exist, I thought I’d take a crack at creating one.
Please say hello to the Skill-ometer, an attempt at measuring practice effectiveness by measuring seven key elements.
Here’s how it works: Score your practice session by responding to each of the following statements on a scale of 1-5: 1=strongly disagree; 2= disagree; 3=neutral; 4=agree; 5= strongly agree
- Intensity: We gave 100 percent effort and attention.
- Engagement: We were emotionally immersed in the tasks we took on. We knew what we had to do, and it felt like a game.
- Practicality: We practiced exactly the skill that we’ll be using later, in the same way that we’ll be using it in “game situations”
- Repetitions: We embraced the value of repetitions, especially for the most challenging skills
- Clarity: We understood the day’s goal, and where it fit in the larger picture
- Reachfulness: We were pushed to spend time on the edge of our abilities, struggling and reaching just past our current competence
- Fun: It was hard, but not miserable. There were moments of laughter and surprise.
Scoring: (Out of a maximum 35)
- 30-35: You are in the elite zone, hanging out with Peyton Manning and Yo-Yo Ma. Keep doing what you’re doing.
- 25-30: This is a B-plus. You are highly effective, with a few things to work on.
- 15-25: This is closer to a B-minus. You do a few things well, but have some clear weak spots that need addressing.
- 5-15: You need to rethink your approach and design. Start by finding those in your field who score higher and study them.
Now, this is just a rough first attempt, but it’s interesting that most of these elements are about design and communication — areas that are 1) controlled by the coach; 2) can be planned for in advance.
I think it underlines the fact that the most effective learning sessions don’t depend on what happens in the classroom or on the field, but rather on what happens in the days and hours before, when the teacher or coach is thinking, planning, and communicating.
So here’s my question: what other factors do you think should be included in this metric? What other characteristics mark your most effective learning sessions? I’d love to hear your suggestions and ideas.
But in fact, as the psychologist Carol Dweck and others have shown, this idea is mostly wrong. Motivation is largely social; fueled by our interactions with the people around us. In other words, motivation is less about what’s in your heart, and more about how you connect with your social circle.
Check out this passage from a new soccer book called Stillness and Speed, which tells a story about a promising but unproven younger player named Robin Van Persie and a veteran star named Dennis Bergkamp. It begins with Van Persie recalling an afternoon on Arsenal’s training ground.
Van Persie had finished earlier and was sitting in a Jacuzzi which happened to be by a window. Out on the field he noticed Dennis doing a complicated exercise involving shooting, and receiving and giving passes at speed. Robin decided to get out of the bath as soon as Dennis made a mistake.
“It was a 45-minute session and there wasn’t one pass Dennis gave that wasn’t perfect,” [Van Persie said.] “He did everything 100 percent, to the max, shooting as hard as possible, controlling, playing, direct passing… That was so beautiful! To me it was plainly art. My hands got all wrinkled in the bath but I just stayed there. I sat and watched and I waited, looking or one single mistake. Bu the mistake never came. And that was the answer for me.
“Watching that training session answered so many questions I had. I can pass the ball well, too. I’m a good football player as well. But this man did it so well and with such drive. He had such total focus. I found myself thinking, ‘OK, wait a minute, I can play football well enough but I’ve still got an enormous step to take to get to that level.’
And that’s when I realized, if I want to become really good, then I have to be able to do that, too. From that moment on I started doing every exercise with total commitment. With every simple passing or kicking practice, I did everything at 100 percent, just so I wouldn’t make mistakes. And when I made a mistake I was angry. Because I wanted to be like Bergkamp.”
Van Persie, of course, went on to become a huge star. It’s a familiar pattern. You start out thinking we’re pretty good. Then you have the thrilling, slightly frightening experience of seeing somebody who’s on the next level. Then, using that person as a north star, you start taking steps that direction.
From that moment on I started doing every exercise with total commitment… I wanted to be like Bergkamp.
Those moments are powerful because they’re fundamentally unpredictable. They can’t be scripted by a coach, or inspired by mere words. They’re more like social lightning bolts, high-voltage connections between people that happen when you least expect them.
That said, I think it’s possible to engineer these moments by paying attention to the design of our learning spaces. Because while these lightning bolts may be uncontrollable, the odds of them happening are increased if you follow certain rules. For example:
- 1) Design for openness. Don’t separate the stars from the rest of the group; instead, provide space for lots of mixing of various skill levels, whether it’s in the office, the classroom, or the locker room.
- 2) Build in free time. In our hyper-busy world, we tend to be allergic to unstructured time. Yet these moments — when someone sits idly by a window and stares in rapture at a brilliant performer — are exactly when this sort of connection happens. So let it.
- 3) Be quiet. So many coaches, parents and teachers feel like they need to be talking in order to motivate their learners. But it’s exactly the opposite. Words shatter the spell.
Can you imagine Van Persie’s reaction if a coach would have come over and started giving him an inspiring speech about how he should be more like the veteran star?
Uh, thanks coach — but I really gotta go.
And Van Persie would have been absolutely right. Because it’s not about the coach, the teacher, or the parent. It’s about creating a learning space that’s aligned with the way motivation really works.
Question: why do so many kids quit organized sports?
Have you checked out the numbers? No fewer than 70 percent of American kids will quit organized sports by age 13. According to my slightly-less-formal survey of parents, figures for music and dance are in the same ballpark, if not higher.
Some of this quitting is fine and good — after all, kids should try a lot of different stuff. However, I think most of us would agree that the current numbers are unhealthy, especially in sports, which (at least in the U.S.) is increasingly dominated by a travel-team culture that focuses on elite performers and ignores everyone else.
While there’s no shortage of blameworthy factors, it might be more useful to focus on the kids — specifically, on the reason most kids quit.
Here’s the thing: most kids quit because, at that moment, it feels like the logical thing to do. They take a hard look at themselves, and they measure themselves against the elite competition, and they figure (wrongly) that they have zero shot at long-term success.
So the real question isn’t about changing the entire screwed-up culture of youth talent development. Rather, it’s more about changing the way kids look at themselves. About shifting their perspective to one that’s more accurate.
With that in mind, check out this two-minute video that uses some classic Wallace and Gromit-style claymation to send a powerful message: developing your talent is far less about possessing magical genes and far more about motivation and hard work.
What I especially love about this video is the straightforwardness. It doesn’t sell kids any of the sugary Disney “just believe in yourself and you’ll succeed” syrup. It doesn’t overload them with scientific talk. It simply lays out the facts. Find something that you love and that suits you. Everyone develops at different rates. Hard work is the path forward.
My question: Why isn’t this video shown at the start of every youth sports season, at the start of every school year? I could imagine similar videos for music and dance — not to mention for math and writing.
And I wonder: does anyone know of any other similar videos and/or learning materials that would be good to share around?
Together, they’re part of a larger trend away from the traditional one-size-fits-all factory model of learning, and toward what you might call an organic-farm model: simpler, individualized, targeted programs that are more aligned with the way talents actually develop.
Here are two I especially like.
1) Bitmaker Labs in Toronto, founded in 2012, teaches software coding in the same way that the Navy SEALs teach marksmanship — as an intensive, immersive, no-holds-barred boot camp. They transform students (many with no previous technical experience) into proficient coders in the space of three months. And it works: 90 percent of Bitmaker grads have been hired by tech firms.
Bitmaker does it, in part, by reverse-engineering the educational process. Rather than taking the theory-based academic approach, founder Matt Gray and his partners asked 50 software companies what skills really mattered. Bitmaker built its curriculum around that feedback: an 80-hour prep course followed by nine weeks of project-based learning at Bitmaker’s headquarters — which, naturally, is open 24-7, the better to replicate the intensely immersive startup environment.
Here’s what one 18-year-old Bitmaker student wrote in his blog:
“The education system was designed during the Industrial Revolution to prepare students to become workers by, for example, having them follow instructions and do repetitive tasks. This resonates with my experience in college and I didn’t want to spend a big chunk of my life doing things that weren’t meaningful to me. I didn’t want to learn so I could get a diploma or a job, but so I could be empowered to affect the world in the way I want to.”
2) Joy of the People, a Minnesota youth soccer program that aims to reinvent how kids learn the game. (It’s named after the famous Brazilian player Garrincha, who was so exciting that Brazilians called him Allegria do Povo — Joy of the People).
JOTP founder Ted Koerten has a simple idea: to provide American kids with the chance to learn soccer exactly as Brazilians learn it: having lots of fun in small spaces. So he got rid of elite teams and elite travel and instead built a kid magnet: a series of small inflatable soccer fields — smaller space, smaller goals, with barriers to produce more continuous play. Younger kids are focused almost entirely on fun; older kids on more deliberate practice.
As Koerten told me in an email:
The old models tend to structure youth soccer (and all youth sports) heavy on the deliberate practice…. The dark side of the idea that players are made is that now mad scientists are all trying to make them. But our model is kid centered and understands that kids need to be kids in order to complete the hard work of adults.
Koerten is full of ideas: for instance, he has the kids play with balls that vary in size from tiny to large, and employs a tennis-ball machine to increase touches. He’s interested in cross-pollinating with newly invented sports like Puckelball. And it’s working: he’s drawing 600 kids a week.
Which brings us to the deeper question: what lessons do these organic, free-range models provide? How can they help us improve and innovate our own talent-development spaces? Here are four:
- Focus on creating rich, people-centric ecosystems. They are based on the principle that the best learning happens when humans are in intense collaboration.
- Put fun first. These aren’t solemn, self-important places — rather, they’re looser, more user-driven. Emotion is not some background factor, but a vital part of the process.
- Design for lots of mixing. People aren’t segregated into levels and classes; rather, they’re mixed together in a style that might be described as Montessori-like, which provides a rich environment for relationships and mentoring.
- Focus far less on lectures/theory, and more on doing stuff. Knowledge isn’t transferred from the top down so much as it is grown from the bottom up, through challenge, smart design, and lots of intense reps.
Do you know of any new, surprising, and/or innovative talent-development programs? I’d love to hear about them.
Which is why I love the approach of Rob Miller and Bruce E. Brown, who run a coaching outfit called Proactive Coaching LLC. In their quest to understand what makes a successful parent, Miller and Brown used a stunningly simple method: They asked kids what worked.
For three decades, Miller and Brown made a habit of asking college-age athletes about the ways their parents had made a positive or negative impact. After several hundred interviews with a wide cross-section of kids, their informal survey had two insightful discoveries.
Number one: what kids hate most, by an overwhelming margin, is the conversations during the ride home after the game. You know, that quiet, strained, slightly uncomfortable time when parents ask questions, give praise, offer critiques, and generally get involved by saying things like:
Great job today. So what happened on that play?
What did your coach tell the team after the game?
Do you think the team could have hustled more?
These types of moments, Miller and Brown point out, are well intentioned, and often contain truth, but the timing is toxic. The moments after a game are not the time for judgement or pressure and definitely not for instruction (which is the job of the coach, not the parent). In fact, many of the kids said they preferred having grandparents attend games, because they are more joyful and less pressurizing than parents.
But it’s not all bad news. Because there’s a second finding to emerge from their work, and it might be the best parenting tip I’ve ever read.
The kids reported there was one phrase spoken by parents that brought them happiness. One simple sentence that made them feel joyful, confident, and fulfilled. Just six words.
I love to watch you play.
That’s it. Six words that are the exact opposite of the uncomfortable car-ride home. Because they reframe your relationship — you stop being the watchful supervisor, and you start being a steady, supportive presence.
I love to watch you play.
A signal that sends the simplest, most powerful signal: this is about you. I am your parent, not your coach or your judge. You make me really, really happy.
I love to watch you play.
Try it out, like this parent did. I know I’m going to. Let me know how it goes.
A couple days ago I was in Canada talking with a group of Olympic coaches. Late into the night, after a Molson or two, the conversation turned to the question of performance under pressure. One coach (a former Olympic mogul skier, as it happened) put it something like this:
You’re standing on the top of the mountain at the starting gate, clock counting down. Twenty thousand people are screaming, millions more are watching on television. I don’t care how much you train. Some people can come through in that moment, and some people cannot.
In other words, is there an X factor? Do high-pressure performers – Michael Jordan, Shaun White — heck, let’s throw in Winston Churchill and Stonewall Jackson — have an uncanny natural ability to shine in crucial moments when the rest of us fall apart?
I think this is an important question, mostly because we rely on the X Factor all the time to explain success. It’s the Sasquatch of high performance — a powerful, shadowy entity that explains everything. Is it real? And if so, how do we get more of it?
Here’s what I think:
- 1. At the very top levels, studies show that clutch performers are a persuasive mirage (here and here). Performance under pressure tracks extremely closely with the rest of performance — great performers remain great, average performers remain average. After all, these people rise to the top level precisely because they have the ability to deliver under pressure. The clutchness we perceive is a function of good old luck and our intense desire to believe in it.
- 2. At lower levels (where most of us live), performing under pressure is essentially about emotional control — as Kipling put it, of keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs. And that is where intensive practice seems to make a difference (for an example, check out this article on teaching emotional control in school).
- 3. In my experience, top performers make a habit of pre-creating pressure situations in vivid detail, so that when the time comes, they’re ready.
For example, many concert musicians use performance practice. They simulate the precise conditions (same formal clothes, same chair, sometimes even the same auditorium) and run through their program exactly as if it’s opening night. Many sports teams routinely rehearse the last moments of games, piping in crowd noise, and increase tempo beyond what they might see in a game. Special Forces soldiers spend virtually all of their training inside a pre-created, live-ammo, high-pressure world — not to break them, but rather to accustom them to it.
So the question isn’t, Do you have the magical X Factor?
The question is, How do you specifically train for high-pressure moments?
That’s not to say that everyone would succeed equally — after all, luck and emotional temperament do matter. But with smart training, you can make them matter a lot less.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your stories of the ways you accomplish this kind of training in your life, or in the lives of the people you teach.