Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How not to ruin a prodigy

Today's Wall Street Journal profiles Todd Schmitz, the coach of champion (and likely Olympics-bound) swimmer Missy Franklin. Franklin, 17, stepped into Schmitz's program at age 7. The curious thing about their relationship is that Schmitz's program isn't one of the elite Olympic feeder swimming programs. Indeed, the youth club Franklin swims with doesn't even have its own pool. Schmitz rents space in various Denver pools and lugs equipment like his digital clock around in his truck.

As the article notes, Franklin's parents know they could put their daughter in a different program. But as her father says, "Why would we?... We have a kid who is happy and who keeps swimming faster."

Schmitz's methods are a bit unconventional -- but the deeper one reads into the profile, the clearer it because that the bit about having "a kid who is happy" is very important. Franklin trains hard, but takes the weekends off. Schmitz monitors his swimmers for burn out, and if they're tired, he'll launch a game of water polo. Drills turn into play -- "A lot of this is about simply playing around in the water," Schmitz told the WSJ. He cross trains the kids on dry land which, among other things, helps avoid injury. All told, Franklin probably swims about half the yardage of elite college swimmers. But it seems to be enough. Franklin is the world champion in the 200-meter backstroke, and will be a swimmer to watch in London this summer.

Reading the article, I was reminded of the parallels -- and things that should be parallels -- between athletic prodigies and profoundly gifted young people whose main talents lie in other fields. In athletics, we naturally see the role of a coach. Practice tends to be supervised, with a coach offering immediate feedback. Ideally, for a young talent in other fields, much of practice time would feature coaching too. Here's what needs work. Here's how you improve. Proper practice is a skill that many people never learn -- it doesn't necessarily come naturally, as anyone who's listened to a kid bang out a song on the piano knows. Math can be practiced. Writing can be practiced -- with a good coach offering immediate feedback on drafts so one can learn how to improve.

But there's also the broader question of how to nurture talent without leading to a prodigy flaming out. Here, I think Schmitz is on to something. Getting to be world-class in any field takes a ton of work and practice. But if it isn't fun, then it's hard to stick with a rigorous practice schedule year after year after year. Kids often have lots of interests, even if they appear to have prodigious talent in one. While Missy Franklin clearly enjoyed swimming from an early age, the article notes that at age 7, she was a bit reluctant, sitting out some sprints. A coach who insisted on making her swim when she didn't want to might have squelched the joy that these days has her getting faster and faster. How to nurture that joy is a question that all adults who work with talented young people need to ask.


Sally Lyon said...

Always enjoy your articles. Your last sentence which addresses how to nurture joy is a question all adults who... need to ask played a more conflicted debate because of another article I recently read. It adds a layer of scientific/medical information in helping parents know/address nurturing their child. In 2054 if one believes the article it will be much easier for parents to get suitable answers how to nuture/support aptitudes/increase motivations via medical science. Gee maybe kids are going to come with instructions:-)

Anonymous said...

I was just searching the internet to find answers to the very same question. I have a school aged boy who likes reading but always seems to prefer something else (math, sports, etc.). I was very impressed/happy one day when he wanted to take to school the book I had been reading to him (because it is beyond his grade level (though he loves it)) to read on his own. I then made the huge mistake later that evening of drilling him on the what he'd read, because I was worried that he had been simply decoding and because I doubted if he truly understood all the content. He has barely taken the initiative to read that book on his own since. Lesson learned. I wish I could go back and redo that day...because it doesn't take much to destroy a kid's motivation and confidence!

Dr. Ellen Cavanaugh, Grow a Generation said...

I'm working on a blog article on the parenting the musically gifted and ran into many of the same questions. What the article reminded me of, thought, was Larry Cohen's Playful Parenting - that all relationships that find intense striving, conflict, and goals require an element of playfulness, giggles and games to be atmospheres where children thrive. It is a lesson I find harder to implement as my child goes into adolescence.

Anonymous said...

I think some kids are especially susceptible to loss of joy when we impose our will. One of mine is that way and it's a challenge to parent. She is an athlete as well as a gifted kid, and she actually makes more progress both academically and athletically if she sets her own goals and then has parent support to reach them. Try explaining that to people who have teaching down to a science and know what they are doing.
I've given up because the feedback is usually along the lines of "you are letting your child rule you".