Teaching Love – The Critical First Phase

tumblr_inline_mr7odxBe2r1qz4rgpOn a cool and overcast Sunday afternoon in November we were up in Corinth playing a tournament. This was to be our last tournament of the season and we playing well. At that time we were not accustom to playing so late on a Sunday afternoon so there was some added pressure. Prior to our game we were taking batting practice on one of the other fields that was not in use. The kids who already hit or who were waiting to hit were shagging balls in the outfield and throwing them in. On one particular hit my son Noah made a sliding catch and jumped to his feet to celebrate. It was a great catch but you couldn’t tell by my reaction. In a not so pleasant tone I reminded him we didn’t have much time and we still had hitters to get through before our next game started so ”stop jacking around and get the ball in.” I immediately felt like a jerk and realized I screwed up. It wasn’t that I was too stern in my response, it wasn’t pleasant but it wasn’t too loud or harsh either. It was that I missed an opportunity to, in the words of Daniel Coyle, teach love.

Coyle’s book The Talent Code is one of my favorite books and one that I revisit frequently.
The book is an investigation into nine of the world’s greatest talent hot beds. Places such as Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow who, in recent history, has produced more top 20 women’s tennis players than the entire United States despite having a single indoor tennis court in a climate that is cold eight months out of the year. Curacao a tiny island in the Caribbean, a fraction of the size of Rhode Island (our smallest state), which has exploded onto the world baseball scene in recent years with frequent visits to the Little League World Series, shocking success in the World Baseball Classic (Kingdom of the Netherlands), and Major League talent such as MLB’s #1 prospect coming into the season Jurickson Profar. In his book Coyle asserts there are three crucial elements that distinguish these talent factories from the rest of the world: deep practice (deliberate practice is the more common term), ignition, and master coaching. Ignition is what I want to focus on here but I must briefly touch on deep practice so we can fully understand what makes ignition so vital.
Deep practice is a topic we could spend a lot of time on and I certainly will delve more into what exactly it is in later posts but for the purpose of this post just know that practice style is crucial. Ordinary practice where current skills are reinforced over and over again is not enough to propel an athlete to a level of unusual success. It takes a different kind of practice to force the mind and body into improvement and this kind of practice takes a tremendous amount on time, effort, energy, passion, commitment. “In a word, it requires motivational fuel.” Ignition according to Coyle is a process through which motivation is created and sustained. Ignition is to deep practice as a gas tank is to an engine. Ignition according to Coyle is “the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.

Ignition is about image and emotion. Think of image this way. When Andruw Jones got called up in the fall of 1996 and went on to homer in his first two World Series at bats, a whole island of boys in Curacao instantly imagined themselves being Andruw Jones. Some say Jones was not even the best player on the island; at the age of 15 he had to switch positions from third base to the outfield in order to get more playing time. So if this kid they knew and who was not even considered the best player could make it then so could they.  I’ll let this excerpt from the book enlighten you on the emotion part of the equation.

In the early 1980’s a University of Chicago team of researchers led by Dr. Benjamin Bloom undertook a study of 120 world-class pianists, swimmers, tennis champions, mathematicians, neurologists, and sculptors… They discovered a surprising fact: many world-class talents, particularly in piano, swimming, and tennis, start out with seemingly average teachers. (Page 172)

These people are not average teachers… they are merely disguised as average because their crucial skill does not show up on conventional measures of teaching ability. They succeed because they are tapping into a second element of talent code: ignition. They are creating and sustaining motivation; they are teaching love. As Bloom’s study summed up, “The effect of this first phase of learning seemed to be to get the learner involved, captivated, hooked, and to get the learner to need and want more information and expertise.”

It is not easy to love playing the piano. It has lots of keys, and a child has lots of fingers, and there are an infinite number of mistakes that can be made. Yet certain teachers have the rare ability to make it desirable and fun. (Page 175)

This part of ignition is the part I am most concerned with. Baseball is a complex sport and hitting a round ball with a round bat is very challenging at any age especially at seven or eight years old. To use Coyle’s language, it’s not easy to love playing baseball and when we are too critical and harsh with our young athletes over mistakes we are severely diminishing their ability to love this difficult game. Love is where it all starts. Love is what gives them the ability to persevere through the thousands or hours of deliberate practice to get to that level of unusual success.

I apologized to Noah and told him it was a great catch but the moment had past. That was one of the many small opportunities throughout a season to nurture a passion for the sport, to teach love. If I had it to do over again I would have handled it differently. A better response in the moment would have been to celebrate with him; act as if he just hit a bomb to win the World Series. To celebrate his catch with the same excitement as Andruw Jones World Series homeruns. During the early years fun is the most important thing. It’s not the only thing, you want to be developing their skills and teaching character but in this first stage of learning it is love that matters most.