Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ed Lessons from Athletics

Mark McClusky started out as at Sports Illustrated as a writer, then editor. He moved to Wired, and now is the editor of, but his interest in the intersection of athletics and science has stayed with him, and so he just released a book: Faster, Higher, Stronger: How sports science is creating a new generation of superathletes-- and what we can learn from them.  The book is a highly accessible, thoroughly researched, and filled with wit and sharp-eared high quality journalism. McClusky is an enormously engaging writer. He's also one of my former students.

I don't take any credit for Mark-- there are some students who are going to excel even if they're taught by wolves-- but that connection moved me to pick up his book, where I discovered many interesting things, several of which have real implications for education. Allow me to share.


Nearly three-quarters of the best athletes in the world at the senior level weren't among the best in the world when they were younger.

Displaying skills (or the lack thereof) at a young age doesn't necessarily mean much when it comes to predicting future excellence. Oddly enough, a good predictor of future performance is being a younger sibling. There's a great deal of research to indicate that young athletes get an edge by constantly reaching just beyond their current ability (but not too far).

The beloved 10,000 hour rule? Probably bunk. The desire to start athletes young and push them hard has unfortunate consequences. 3.5 million children under fourteen are injured annually playing sports, and almost half of those injuries are from overuse. So taking young children and pushing them in hopes of forcing excellence is both unproductive and bad for the child. So maybe teaching three-year-olds to recite quadratic equations and flunking third graders who can't yet pass a standardized reading test is not such a great idea!

Blocked Practice

Coaches have often been big fans of blocked practice--training a series of discrete skills. So a basketball team might drill passing, then drill shooting foul shots, and so on, skill after skill. It makes for neat, orderly, purposeful practice sessions. But a body of research says it's not the best way to prepare a team.

McClusky notes an experiment performed by John Shea and Robyn Morgan at University of Colorado in 1979. Students were given three tasks to repeat. One group practiced in blocked and orderly manner. The other practiced in a random chaotic manner. The orderly practices were better at learning and practicing, but even after as little as ten minutes, the chaotic practices had better retention.

Richard Schmidt, an expert on motor learning, asks volleyball coaches, "Are you practicing for practice, or are you practicing for performance?" John Kessel, director of sport development of USA Volleyball, says, "Practice shouldn't look good." Studies of hammer throw practice techniques concluded that the best way to improve was to throw the hammer. Kessel also says, "The game teaches the game. "Experts have concluded that the best way to learn for performance is to do something that's a close to performance and performance conditions as possible.

We can teach writing, for instance, in a manner that is blocked and orderly and tests well-- but will that produce writers who can actually write usefully in the real world?

Sleep Is Huge

It was a small study, but a striking one. A basketball team agreed to be subjects in a sleep experiment. After being measured under their usual sleep patterns, they switched to "extra" sleep. With extra sleep, they improved 11.4% on free throws and 13.7% on three point shots.


It is no news that sports folks love to track data. But the history of data crunching in sports, particularly in the past decade or two, is instructive.

Baseball started out tracking batting averages, in no small part because they were "easy to calculate and understand." But baseball stats dorks have since found better things to measure. Basketball has been revolutionized by a cartographer who has mapped 700,000 shots taken in basketball games to come up with data pictures more rich and valuable than ever available than ever before.

One of the things that draw many to sports is that final evaluation of your performance is clear-cut-- just look at the scoreboard or the results sheet. Every day most of us go to work and do our jobs the best way we know how. But there's no immediate sense of how well we've done...

Sport has the opposite problem: the focus  on the competitive outcome can sometimes overshadow real progress and improvement.

The contrast between the mountains of data now being collected and analyzed to tell which sports figures are really excelling and the tiny little molehill of data produced by a standardized test is striking. What sports are learning to do reminds me of what classroom teachers do every day-- miles away from a standardized snapshot of one moment. It's also a reminder of how important it is to measure the right thing. Basketball is being reshaped as coaches and players learn to focus on the data that makes a difference, rather than the old data that might not have been important, but was easily measurable.

There's lots more in the book that will be interesting to coaches and athletes and anybody at all interested in sporty stuff. It's a good read, even if you're not being hugely gratified by the fact that it was written by a guy who once sat in your classroom.

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