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