Friday, February 17, 2017

What do People living in Blue Zones, Egyptian Squash Players, Kenyan Runners, and Dominican Baseball Players Tell Us about Youth Development?

Don Siegel

The title of this post certainly suggests some strange relationships. Yet, when we attempt to answer the age-old question about how and why we become what we are the age-old adage Tell Me with Whom You Walk and I Will Tell You Who You Are[1] says a lot. This simple theme, and it’s many variations, can even tell us how long we will live, whether we will be a world class runner, an elite squash player, or, even, a major-league baseball player. Certainly, this does not exhaust the possibilities, but illustrates that in virtually any area, knowing with whom a youth associates, tells us a lot about who he is, and who he is becoming. This is so because youth tend to acquire the attitudes, knowledge, skills, habits and lifestyles of the groups to which they belong. Hang out with those having healthy behaviors, and one begins to acquire such behaviors. Join a gang that engages in illegal activities, and pursuing such activities becomes natural to you. Go around with kids valuing education, and you begin to work harder at school. Swimming downstream is a lot easier than swimming upstream. Several illustrations of this phenomenon follow and makes us wonder about how this morphing effect might be leveraged for our work in youth development.

Blue Zones

If you want to live longer, try residing in a Blue Zone. These are locales around the world where people normally live into their 90s and 100s. Dan Buettner has identified seven such regions in the world.[2] Not surprisingly, people in these zones tend to have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, and dementia. Rather than having to think about and plan deliberately about lifestyle practices and choices, as we do in the chaos of modern life, folks living in Blue Zones simply engage in normal activities typical of their community. These also happen to promote health and longevity. The profile includes: engaging in regular and moderate physical activity; having a purpose in life; experiencing lower stress; moderating caloric intake; consuming more of a plant-based diet; drinking moderate amounts of alcohol– especially wine; engaging in spiritual/religious activity; being part of active family life; and connecting to one’s community. Although the impact of any of these factors in promoting longevity may be difficult to isolate, what seems clear is that just living as others in their community do, promotes general well-being. A great deal of forethought or will-power is not necessary. It’s just the way people live their lives in these places. Being part of the social fabric is all that is necessary.

Kenyan Runners, Egyptian Squash Players, and Dominican Baseball Players

Can the morphing effect - normal daily activities observation apply to other human activities? That is, how apt is the adage Tell Me with Whom You Walk and I Will Tell You Who You Are in explaining the development of expertise?  The answer seems to be that just as Blue Zones promote longevity, other locales where people excel at different things have cultures that promote excellence in specific activities. Ultimately, what we see emerging from such locales is that the most accomplished in the group become world-class performers.

Perhaps, the best example of this is Kenyans as distance runners. Since Kip Keino’s gold medal performance in the 1500 meters at the 1968 Olympics, Kenyan middle and long-distance runners have played a dominant role in international events. For the past forty years, this East African country of about 45 million is producing a disproportional number of world-class middle and long distance runners? But even more remarkable is that most of these runners come from the Kalenjin Tribe, a small minority of about 5 million within the country. Why are Kalenjin’s so good as middle and long-distance runners?

While researchers have been trying to answer this question for some time, it seems to come down to an array of factors that entail culture, geography, lifestyle and body type. These elements seem to fit together seamlessly, producing marvelously primed runners. As pointed out by David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene[3], Kalenjin runners have very long legs, thin ankles and calves, less mass for their height, and shorter torsos, all of which, makes them more bird-like, and more suited to distance running. Geographically, the Kalenjin, come from the Great Rift Valley, a relatively flat locale, found at an elevation of about 7000 feet. Combined, the terrain and altitude provides ideal conditions for training runners. Additionally, numerous observers have described a lifestyle where children run, often barefoot, all the time, including trips to school, home for lunch, back to school, and home again.[4] As well, the Kalenjin are taught to be mentally tough by the various rituals in which they are expected to partake as they pass into adulthood. Many believe that such experiences develop the capacity to endure physical discomfort, which is also a critical element of middle-distance and long-distance running. Finally, job opportunities are few for Kalenjin’s. They can engage in subsistence farming, or use running, with its rewards, as a way out of poverty. Like other poor kids in many parts of the world they work extraordinarily hard in their training, which by world standards is quite primitive.[5] Taken as an aggregate, one can begin to understand, that being a Kalenjin, growing up in the Great Rift Valley, is like being in a runner’s Blue Zone. There is little question that training is rigorous and that those who reach world-class performance levels deserve great credit. Yet, the conditions that support such achievement seem to be a part of daily life. Those who excel on the world stage come out of this population, and are simply those persons who are on the top end of this distribution. Lifestyle, culture, and environment are the driving forces of running excellence. 

Other, less well known, variations of this theme exist in other sports. Why are Egyptians dominating in squash, and Dominicans in baseball? Having a specific body type would seem to be less of a factor in differentiating world class performers in these sports. Acquiring advanced levels of knowledge, skill, and mental toughness would seem to be the key factors. Several analyses, aligned with the normal daily activitiesway of life hypothesis explain why and how these countries are producing world-class performers.

Today Egypt appears to be dominating the world squash scene, having three of the top five ranked professional men’s players, winning seven out of the past 12 World Opens, and winning the last three men’s intercollegiate championships.[6] Although, the country has a rich tradition of playing the sport from their British Colonial days, it was not until the 1980s that Egyptians started to emerge on the world scene. This was because talented players were unable to tour internationally prior to then because of political turmoil, and were, thus, forced to stay home, training and competing at various clubs in Cairo. An unintended consequence of this was that younger developing players could observe what elite players did, to train as they trained, and to compete with and against them. Consequently, a culture of growing-up and playing the sport at Cairo clubs emerged. As travel opportunities became possible again in the 1980s, the best of these club youths began appearing in and winning prestigious national and international events.

A variation on this theme is also found in explaining why a small country like the Dominican Republic produces so many professional baseball players. During the 1980s major league baseball teams began investing in building an infrastructure for the game there. Today, all 30 teams have facilities. Their intent, just as with their extensive farm system, was to cultivate talent.[7] Coupled with an economy in which over one third of residents live in poverty, baseball prowess took on great importance. With few other options, playing professional baseball became a goal for large numbers of Dominican youth. From a young age kids in flip-flops swing sticks at bottle caps aspiring to move up to training academies where older youth sleep, eat, and live baseball.[8] From some descriptions, the player development academies are like factories that churn out baseball players, many of whom are major league prospects. Last season, a bit over 10% of players in major league baseball came from the Dominican Republic[9]. In a land with meager opportunities and the popularity of the sport, kids, in large numbers, follow the path of living the sport by putting in hours acquiring knowledge and skill at the game, often at the expense of pursuing education in other areas.  


From these observations one can begin to understand why groups of people tend to take on certain characteristics, whether these are connected to health and longevity or athletic prowess. What we learn from such examples is that culture and environment play a powerful role in shaping a population, and the world-class exemplars who emerge from growing-up in such an ecosystem. While we might be distracted by focusing our attention on the most extraordinary individuals arising from a group, it is really the population distribution, as a whole, that gives us a window into understanding how lifestyle and culture are the basis for excellence, wherever we may find it.

New research from Chetty and Hendren[10][11] finds that these same sorts of effects also impacts intergenerational mobility. Specifically, they show that children from low income families living in low income communities who move at birth to a wealthier county[12] have 10% higher incomes as adults. They assert that the effects of living in a wealthier community are cumulative and include such things as access to better schools, being part of and around more stable families, living in safer neighborhoods, connecting with broader sources of social capital, and aspiring to and attending college. Chetty and Hendren’s work also shows a dose-effect relationship in that the more years a child coming from a poor family lives in a wealthier community, the greater the benefits. Taken as an aggregate, this is another example, of how powerful environment, culture and lifestyle is in shaping lives.

From a youth development perspective, the message that we should take from these observations is that children, adolescence, and adults readily take on the properties of the groups with which they are affiliated. Whether we are focusing on health behaviors, athletic prowess, or economic mobility, where one lives and who one associates with on a day to day basis shapes who we are. My conclusion is that cultural and environmental effects are the most potent factor in how we acquire attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors. Consequently, those of us involved with youth development should understand that our day to day activities and interactions are as powerful in shaping our kids, as are the activities we plan and implement. As Esmeralda Santiago prophetically asserted Tell Me with Whom You Walk and I Will Tell You Who You Are.

[2] Sardinia and Acciaroli, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Oland-Smalamd-Skane, Sweden
[3] Epstein, D. J. (2013). The sports gene: Inside the science of extraordinary athletic performance. New York: Current
[10] Chetty, R., & Hendren, N. (2016). The impacts of neighborhoods on intergenerational mobility I: Childhood exposure effects. (Working Paper No. 23001). Cambridge, MA 02138: National Bureau of Economic Research.
[11] Chetty, R., & Hendren, N. (2016). The impacts of neighborhoods on intergenerational mobility II: Childhood exposure effects. ( No. 23002). Cambridge, MA 02138: National Bureau of Economic Research.
[12] 1 standard deviation wealthier community

Friday, January 13, 2017

How to Get Good at Something: Deliberate Practice is a Good Start, But...

Don Siegel
Recently, I ran a module in Project Coach that entailed teaching coaches about how people get good at something. Using the framework popularized by Anders Ericsson, we discussed the essence of deliberate practice, his term for spending time advancing one’s skill on a task. As discussed in a previous blog, deliberate practice, requires someone to commit to regular practice, and to work on task elements that they find difficult in order to acquire an advanced level of skill. As conveyed, deliberate practice, takes discipline, and willingness to spend time developing skills that will ultimately result in achievement. Yet, the process itself may not be particularly pleasant, as it requires pushing oneself beyond current capabilities. As many have conveyed, most folks prefer to replicate what they do well, rather than practice what they do poorly in order to improve.
In any event, after discussing deliberate practice with a group of eight adolescent PC coaches, I challenged them to follow the tenets of it by learning to juggle 3 balls with the criterion being to do so for 10 seconds without a mishap. During the session, I demonstrated what the juggling pattern looked like, showed some videos from Youtube of individuals juggling and teaching juggling, identified where videos could be found if they wished to refer to them at home, and gave them each three tennis balls to practice. Coaches were given four weeks to meet the criterion, which was extended to six weeks, due to changes in PC programming. During the six weeks, I checked in with coaches to see how they were doing, whether they were making progress, and to encourage them to stick with it.
What Happened?
On week six we met to find out what happened. Being conscious of individual differences in learning a challenging task like juggling, I asked who in the group would like to demonstrate their newly acquired skill. One coach raised his hand and came forward with his three tennis balls and quickly demonstrated his juggling prowess by keeping the balls going for one minute. He did not know how to juggle when we started this experiment. I asked him how he had learned to juggle and he responded that he watched the videos that I had identified in the first session, and then practiced for 15 minutes at a time twice each day for the first week until he had acquired a reasonable amount of skill, and then practiced intermittently thereafter. He seemed quite delighted in meeting the challenge.
The other coaches in the group were less enthusiastic and less successful. One attempted to juggle the balls, but the balls quickly went off in different directions, while others did not even try to demonstrate, indicating that they could not juggle at all. When I asked them what happened, the most common response was that they did not have time to practice or that the task was too difficult for them. We then discussed the time issue, and it was difficult to understand how finding a few minutes to practice every day was impossible if it was a priority. The difficulty explanation also was also problematic, as the whole point of the exercise was to learn a difficult, but achievable skill, if following the principles of deliberate practice.
My Takeaway
As I contemplated what happened in this little experiment and what it teaches us I came to realize that the tenets of deliberate practice were not enough to guide most of the PCers to acquiring juggling skills. Surely, acquiring complex skills requires substantial practice over time, and the guidance of a coach who can provide feedback and direction, but as important, it requires the motivation to continue to work at it when frustrated, when not intrinsically interested in the challenge, when consumed by other responsibilities, or when just plain tired. Consequently, my takeaway and prescription for re-teaching this lesson of how people get good at things is not only to invoke the principles of deliberate practice, a pedagogical strategy, but to also identify and deploy motivational strategies that promote perseverance. My three takeaways are: 
1.     People are attracted to different tasks differently. The PCer who achieved the juggling criterion appeared intrigued by the task, and needed little prodding to start practicing as soon as he understood what was involved. On the other hand, another PCer, after seeing the task, immediately told me that she could not do that and was not good at hand-eye coordination tasks. Interestingly, both individuals did not have prior experience with juggling, but each had a different psychological starting point, and interest in pursuing the activity. I do not know why this was so, and suspect that it had something to do with prior experience with sports containing ball manipulation, but I have no definitive knowledge about this. From past observations of children being introduced to different activities, irrespective of peer, sibling, or parent interests and involvement, kids just seem to have differential intrinsic attraction for some activities. Evidently, starting-off liking and wanting to be able to do something is a much better way to enter deliberate practice than disliking the activity and feeling incapable of success and fearing failure from the outset. Consequently, how I introduced the challenge to PCers could have been better and, perhaps, more playful. Yet, individual differences are important, at least initially, in the attraction or repulsion people have for engaging in different activities.
2.     A second point, that does not come directly from this exercise, but from many stories about athletes who have achieved at high levels is the motivation and sustenance that they derived from a coach. Brutus Hamilton, a former US Olympic Track and Field coach conveyed to his athletes, irrespective of their event, that engaging in a program of self-development that was difficult and took many hours over many years was a noble endeavor, and by such pursuit was ennobling. This philosophy framed what athletes did during practice every day, which often was mundane and not appreciably interesting, but necessary for development. His athletes understood that spending hours sharpening their acceleration off the blocks, or changing the angle of release on a throw was important because development came from the array of nuanced changes that emerged from endless hours of practice over many days. To Hamilton and his athletes, it was the commitment, discipline, and improvement trajectories that, as an aggregate, made engaging in the activity, or any complex activity, meaningful and ennobling. For many, there was nothing particularly intrinsically enjoyable about the activities themselves. It was the pursuit of excellence and their association with Hamilton that provided the enduring motivation to come back each afternoon and strive for every small performance increment.
Clearly, coaches can be transformative to athletes. Their technical knowledge can be used to guide athletes along the path from novice to expert, but equally important is the power of the relationships they form with them. When such a connection is made between coach and athlete, motivational issues, such as I observed in my juggling challenge, become a non-issue. Athletes may go to unusual extremes to please their coach, and in turn, coaches will do whatever is necessary to help their athletes fulfill their potential. 
3.     A third perspective, that also does not come directly from this exercise, but from other observations about individual achievement and deliberate practice, whether it is called such, is the importance of the community in which one spends hours developing expertise. As the saying goes it is much easier to swim downstream than upstream, meaning that when everyone around you values the same activities and goals, and attempts to behave in accordance with them, it is much easier to jump on the bandwagon and move in the same direction. We see this in athletic families with father and sons/daughters such as Archie Manning and his sons Peyton and Eli, Joe Jellybean Bryant and son Koby Bryant, Ken Griffey Sr. and son Ken Griffey Jr., Muhammad Ali and daughter Laila Ali, and Nate Williams and daughter Natalie Williams  One can look at the long list of father and son combinations in the NBA here or father and daughter pairs in the WNBA here. Such examples provide support for fathers cultivating the skills, behaviors, and attitudes of their sons and daughters from an early age.
On another tack, we also see coaches shaping environments in which athletes grow and thrive in a very deliberate fashion. One well known example of this is when Vince Lombardi was hired as head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 1959. In 1958 the Packers had a record of 1-10-1. Given such a record, they were considered the doormat of the NFL. One of his first declarations to the ownership and team was that losing was going to be a thing of the past. He asserted, as would be expected from a deliberate practice adherent that: The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand. He also conveyed to the players he had inherited, including five future Hall of Famers, that There are trains, planes, and buses leaving here every day, and if you don’t produce for me, you’re going to find yourself on one of them. In 1959, the Packers were 7-5, and subsequently went on to win five NFL Championships in Lombardi’s seven seasons with Green Bay.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden provides another example of a coach shaping the environment within which his athletes pursued excellence. While not as overtly authoritarian as Lombardi, he too was uncompromising with regard to what he expected of his players. Various observers reported that Wooden was as detail oriented about showing his players how to put on their socks and sneakers (to avoid blisters), as he was about teaching his famed zone press. He also developed and taught to his players what became known as the pyramid of success. This represented a model for achievement that ultimately produced competitive greatness. Basketball technique, tactics, and physical conditioning were embedded within a framework of developing character attributes such as industriousness, enthusiasm, self-control, alertness, and team spirit. He deeply believed in this framework, and created an environment in which the pyramid was operationalized every day. The year prior to Wooden’s arrival at UCLA the team was a mediocre 12-13, but by the time Wooden retired, UCLA had won 10 NCAA Championships over a twelve-year period!
While my juggling exercise may seem somewhat simplistic, it does open the door to asking the important question about why some people succeed at challenging tasks and why others do not. What is evident to me is that developing expertise is a complicated process. It entails a combination of factors working in concert. Some of these exist within individuals, some are contained in the relationship between an athlete and her coach, and others exist in the environment in which an athlete lives, works, and plays.
While deliberate practice describes the pedagogy for developing expertise, such a pedagogy is only an abstraction, that must be embedded in a context for it to be meaningfully operationalized with fidelity. Simply explaining and urging my PCers to follow a deliberate practice process was, perhaps, one part of the puzzle, but as I have pointed out above, not sufficient. Emerging expertise also requires inspiration and guidance from coaches and teachers who are deeply committed to the success of their students. As well, being embedded in an environment in which others are committed to and working toward similar goals, using similar processes, also appears to be validated by examples in sports and business[1].
Consequently, if I wished all of the PCers in my group to acquire expertise in juggling, I realize that simply explaining the concept of deliberate practice is not enough. For a start, I would attempt to pair each person with a coach who could provide them with daily inspiration, feedback, and guidance, to practice. As well, I would have weekly sessions when PCers came together to report on and reflect on their progress and set-backs, and to promote a culture in which achieving the goal became more than simply learning to juggle, but a noble quest for self-development and mastery over all of the internal and external obstacles aligned to prohibit them from attaining what they had set-out to do. 

[1] Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap--and others don't. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.