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.