This post is a digression from a different one I was already mentally composing. Last night I saw a Frontline (old I think, I need to research it before writing my post, any show with people using Blackberries has to be old). I was thinking about some of the ideas presented there. Now that I have this blog no one reads and can pontificate about anything without fear of being told how stupid I am, I was going to present you, dear missing reader, with my thoughts on the digression subject, with the original post idea TBA.
The show starts with the narrator and writer walking through some urban environment doing the lead-in to their piece. Of course for those of us who spent many years in that environment the buildings were instantly recognizable, the campus of the university on the Charles that goes by its initials (Cambridge-side that is, I forgot BU). Naturally in a show about technology and its effects on people where else would they start except the ‘Tute.
The students are obviously much younger than me but otherwise resembled almost completely me and my fellows of my generation, a little geeky, a lot cocky, loving to talk to people who were actually recording their thoughts, thoroughly in the latest trends (at least of technology, hence why the show has to be old due to Blackberries instead of iPhones) and hot to brag about it.
This got me thinking about one of my favorite memories, about sports, and the broader observation I made about it, later written about by someone smarter and definitely better writer (at least self-promoter than me), Malcolm Gladwell. Someone got me his book, Outliers, that had a topic which particularly resonated with me (and ties to this post). IIRC, he talks about the unlikely statistical distribution of birth months of NHL hockey players, and again, IIRC, unusually large number in last quarter of the calendar year. His proposed explanation was that kids who were slightly too young to start school with most of their peers would then start school next year and be significantly older than the average kid starting in that class. And at a young age, even a bit older means significantly bigger, stronger, and probably coordinated. So when these “older” kids starting playing hockey with their “younger” peers naturally they were, on average, a bit better. Being a bit better gets you noticed, gets coaches (for whom, even at that age winning is everything) more interersted in you, and probably more ice time, and on top of all that lots of positive reinforcement. It becomes an advantage that continues to work for you. Each year as all the players get better you get better faster and it’s a positive feedback loop being better gets you more attention, coaching, ice time, rewards of more scoring, etc. And this advantages persists and so these players will be disproportionately represented in the NHL, not because of astrology, but merely the pure luck situation that got them more attention.
Gladwell’s discussion is better than my summary, go read it, but it did represent an idea I’d already had, generalizing from a single anecdotal case (me, of course). That is, if you don’t get a head start, in normal life, you’ll never get another chance and will never get on a team, no matter how much your body may develop as you grow to even give you an advantage over the early starters. That initial disadvantage stays with you forever, unless something unusual happens.
When I was freshman at M.I.T. there was an event before classes started called the Activities Midway. This was where all the clubs and, for this post, all the sports had little booths and you went around to sign up for extra-circular activities. Now, of course, to get into M.I.T. you had lots of activities in high school, just to put on your application (unless you were really really smart and already candidate for Nobel Prize at age 11, then you could be pure nerd, but otherwise for us ordinary smart kids we also had to be “well-rounded”). So, of course, you figure you do the same thing in college (so you can get in grad school) as you did in high school. [Note: I probably met Larry Summers, since I’d done debate in high school and wanted to continue, but there was some total asshole at the debate booth (the way Summers is usually described), so I’ll assume that was him, my little bit of name-dropping.]
I wasn’t finding many activities of interest (despite not being able to sing anyway I found Gilbert and Sullivan Society most peculiar) when suddenly a humongous hand completely enveloped my shoulder. Startled, I turned around to see a giant behind me. Now I’m not small, 6’1″ at that time, but this guy was huge, and in great shape. He said, “Have you been over to the crew booth?” Now I didn’t even know what crew was, but daunted by his presence I promptly said, “No, sir, but I’m heading that way now.”
So that’s how I ended up signing up for crew without a clue what it meant. A couple of days later I found myself standing on a boat dock (in the wonderful old boathouse, not the current one) with a bunch of other lost freshmen. The coach asked if anyone had rowed before. Given M.I.T. does get some preppies, a few hands went up. The rest of us were total crew virgins. Then the coach asked if any of us had played some varsity team sport before. Again, a few hands went up. So it turns out that probably 90% of us had never done a competitive sport or even been on a sports team. Now I’m sure this is the usual statistical distribution, for M.I.T. (Harvard had an experienced first boat on their first day of practice, they beat us by 2.5 minutes in the fall, only 10 seconds in the spring) which is why the giant guy used his intimidating size to herd hundreds of us to that boat dock: the odds of any of us actually learning how to row and then be even vaguely good enough to be competitive was very low, so they had to start with a huge mob of unlikely candidates to eventually end up with 8. Not exactly the way, I suspect, that the first day of football and University of Nebraska started, with highly recruited scholarship players with more years of experience than IQ (I shouldn’t say that, much to its credit UNL actually emphasizes scholastics, my anesthesiologist was both captain of the team and top scholastic in NCAA, much to my happiness. So we’ll say Ohio State instead). [Actually that is another tie-in and could be a digression, but again much to its credit UNL actually allows walk-ons, and some of those walk-ons have become the legends of the team; given the thrust of this post, obviously I hold that in high regard, given the unlikely a chance.]
Of course the attrition rate was high, esp. as it got colder and colder and one learned how much fun it was to row on the Charles that, despite its horrible pollution in those days, could actually freeze if it got cold enough. Anyway, for some reason I did persist, and while never in the first boat, I won some races (my first was a real joy) and got to have the feeling of what it’s like to be part of a team. Crew is interesting, because of course each rower is competing with every other rower to get a seat in the first boat, but once in the boat (any of the three) it is essential to work together in a way few other sports require (there are no stars in crew, if somehow you could pull harder, you upset the balance of the shell, plus cause it to turn and the cox has to compensate with the rudder and you lose fractions of seconds). That, “we’re all in this together” idea existing in parallel to “I’m gonna beat you for your seat” idea is amazing, to balance those, yet that’s what competitive sports teaches above and beyond a game, and for me that was novel.
Now actually I might have been better at crew had I ever played sports before and understood something. Getting to know the coach matters. It’s not just sucking up (although some tried that and I thought they was assholes) it’s that there were about 30 guys all trying to improve and some detailed and patient feedback from a coach could give you a small edge. I never knew that. So I never asked the coach how I was doing (as others did), I need went to him after practice and say, “can you help me with …”, I actually never even had much social contact at all. Coaches were just somebody who told you what to do, made decisions about which seat you’d have, and otherwise were irrelevant, certainly not someone who was trying to help you (or at least me, the good rowers got all the attention, as per Gladwell)
So I made it all the way to my senior year without ever having been in a race in the first boat. I was actually bigger and stronger than most of my peers (amazing, given what I look like now, this was lightweight crew where the weight limit tended to impose a size limit, but back then when I made weight I looked like some death march survivor, probably had an unbelievably low body fat, but had long limbs which are good for crew, assuming you’re not an uncoordinated klutz, which I sorta was, as “grace” was definitely not one of my strong points). Anyway, I later learned, given that one of the ideas about sports at M.I.T. is participation (forgotten anywhere else when winning is everything) coaches were somewhat oriented toward giving the worse rowers a chance to at least once compete in the first boat race.
So in my senior year the coach actually sought me out. Now, having all of a sudden the coach wanting to talk to me and work with me one-on-one, instead of seeing it as an opportunity, it was actually scary to me. No “adult” ever did this, at least in my 20 years of life. So the coach told me that he never understood why I hadn’t been in first boat given some objective advantages I had, so he’d gone and looked at some of the films and he realized that he’d dismissed me because in the few seconds he watched me row (versus the minutes he spent on the “stars”) he saw me hunch my shoulders and he thought that was bad form. So he showed me what I meant (duh, you mean there is actually some technique to this, not just pull as hard as you can) and I sorta got it. Then he worked with me individually in the training tank. But having someone, for the first time in my life, try to tell me how to position my body, esp. while in motion, was totally alien. I didn’t get it and the result was I kept hunching my back and the result of that was I didn’t get a shot in the first boat and the result of that was, after probably a quarter million oar strokes, I quit just weeks before the final rowing season.
It wasn’t until after it was too late that I realized what skill I was really missing was not the rowing, but the ability to receive coaching and learn from it. This attempt of a coach to help me was literally the first time in my life where this had happened so it was even more novel than crew itself. And so I let an one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities slip by.
I also ended up playing inter-mural hockey. Now if I was bad at crew I was abysmal at hockey. I barely could skate. Like everything else I did in my life I started too late. My early life was in Texas, while occasionally cold enough definitely not a place where people skate. So it wasn’t until we moved to Montana and as a teenager where my mother badgered me into trying ice skating. Now while hockey was uncommon in Montana, skating was a pleasant way to make it through the cold winters. The city had a berm around a soccer field in a public park and just flooded it with water and now a crude ice rink. Kids, of course, learned how to skate when they were five and it was easy (many years later in Boston I was skating on a lake and saw this tiny kid, completely bundled up, with a full size hockey stick, desperately trying to play with us – he probably made the NHL because he started when he was 4). Anyway as the usual self-conscious teenager, plus rather pain averse, I tried to skate, fell on my ass over and over again, occasionally to giggles at my amusing lack of coordination, and left and hung up my skates. Of course my mother forced (or cajoled me with rewards) to go back and try again, but at most I managed to learn to stay on two feet for about 10 seconds.
So, what is the connection. When my fraternity wanted to compete in inter-mural hockey they didn’t quite have enough players, so even a warm body was better than nothing. Since I was rowing crew at least I was in good physical shape despite my total lack of even knowing how to skate, much less having ever held a hockey stick. But one thing crew had taught, that I hadn’t know before, was practice. Fortunately hockey is played with pads, and those plus my conditioning made falls less painful, and even though you’re not supposed to, a stick also stops a few falls, so now I could at least get from one end of the rink to the other. Plus hockey is remarkably intense and even just trying to play keeps your attention of even thinking about falling. But I could neither turn nor stop. I watched others and translated my physics classes into realization that skate blades would have to be approximately perpendicular to my velocity vector in order to exert any acceleration vector. Somewhere I forgot the idea that center of mass must be the point this vector passes through. So putting a skate down sideways to my coasting motion led to quick fall. My sense of my body (where my weight was, what my motion was, what to do to change motion), having been totally nonathletic, was zilch. But then one day in practice in my desperate attempt to actually make a shot on goal I ignored my brain and somehow body figured out, LEAN into the skates, i.e. you have to drive that velocity vector through your center of mass into the ice, and, I stopped (well, sorta) and of course then whiffed on the shot. Once I realized I could learn how to stop my skating definitely improved to the point where I had a role on my team as the “bruiser”. I was still so incompetent at skating I could charge a rival player, go out of control (hands and arms waving everywhere), clobber him (easy since that’s where my size and conditioning helped) and not get called for a penalty. Well, it was one role (I only scored one goal, once the other team didn’t show up and there was not really a forfeit so we had to beat them. The best player on my team decided I should get a goal and so say, “don’t blow this one”).
The point of this long digression is that sports require different thinking than other stuff. And learning that different way of thinking is very helpful in the rest of your life. I tried downhill skiing in my freshman and it was awful and I hated it. I reluctantly tried again at about 45 and it was amazing, having learned something about: a) how to control my body doing sports, but, b) much more important, how to listen to some coaching and do what you’re told, I managed to not only survive but actually have some fun. Why did it take me that long to learn this and what might have been different if I’d learned it at 5 or 6.
So that’s where this post comes full circle, at long last. Maybe for some kids sports is obvious, but I think for most it’s not, esp. if your parents/family never did sports. You don’t actually realize you need to be taught to do the right things, to get feedback and apply it. As a kid in Texas I tried to play baseball and football like every other kid (other than being rich or incredibly handsome, sports is your only way to be somebody in school in Texas). Of course I hadn’t the foggiest clue of how to play baseball or football. I got a first baseman’s mitt because I thought it looked cool, even though as a klutz the coaches, when they let me play at all, would obviously stick me in right field (I was actually caught a fly ball and was so excited I just ran around holding it, not realizing the runners were free to go and ignoring all the people yelling at me to throw the ball into the infield, that’s how much I knew about baseball). In football, on the offensive line with the only instruction, don’t let the other kid get past you. Needless to say I was a total flop. And that’s where the connection to Gladwell came in. Even though I started at the earliest age you were allowed in Texas, other kids already knew how to play (dads, big brothers, hired tutors for the rich ones) and I was clueless. So it took coaches about 10 seconds to figure that out and in Texas, even for 6YOs, even back then, winning was everything, and teaching a klutzy kid how to play and be part of a team wasn’t even on their agenda.
So I thank M.I.T. for giving me a second chance. M.I.T. is rarely at top levels of competition but even had they been the idea of participation was still among their priorities. IIRC only CalTech (another nerd central) had higher percentage of students in sports than M.I.T. Now had I gone to University of Nebraska I would have never gotten near a sports team, because winning was everything and they are pretty good at winning, and the kids who already knew how to play would have clobbered me and the coaches would have ignored me. But at M.I.T. I at least got to play two sports, be on a team and learn to deal with teammates, have some wins, and find out the more important stuff about teamwork, camaraderie, fun (and a few injuries), and most of all, how to learn from others, especially the coaches, even if they don’t pay any attention to you.
I often think about people who are disadvantaged at an early age and thus just fall further and further behind. This is what the Repugs miss. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is a fine idea, except that it leaves a lot of otherwise capable people behind. I was lucky to be born with a few skills, but unlucky enough to be very undeveloped in other skills (and still am). I got multiple second chances in life, where I’d already fallen behind and faced almost impossible barriers to catch up, unless someone gave me a helping hand. Sometimes the helping hand was just a dose of confidence, sometimes an opportunity (too many of which I ignored), sometimes some coaching. Maybe those of us who miss those things therefore appreciate them more than the “self-made” man who got all these breaks and doesn’t have the insight to recognize it or the humility to admit it. And those who don’t get the breaks, well, I know they exist. As much as winning is everything does have its place participation is also a vital goal. So some of these “successful” (and incredibly greedy and selfish “leaders”) should ask not how much have they stolen for themselves, but how much have they held out a hand to help someone who has fallen behind to catch up.