Wednesday, November 30, 2011

more on barefoot running

hmmmmmmmmmmmmm...seems like barefoot running is becoming a real hot topic controversy. judging on the number of hits my posts on it have gotten, it seems like there's a lot of people trying to learn more. and judging from the number of posts i see on other blogs and discussion groups, it seems like there's a lot of different perspectives on it.

i've stated my position on barefoot running in the following previous posts:
i haven't changed my position. i think barefoot running is perfectly fine and a beneficial part of any training regimen, but it needs to be exercised with some discretion in terms of understanding its purpose and a runner's personal context.

i do, however, want to point people to some recent discussions that i think support my position. there's been a series on the Science of Sport (which i highly recommend for athletes among you who are interested in sports science) both providing more scientific insight regarding barefoot running and clarifying the various perspectives in the debate over barefoot running.

i'll list them here in chronological order of which they appeared:
i think these speak for themselves, and so i won't summarize them here.  but if you read them--especially the last one--you'll see that the bloggers at Science of Sport hold positions consistent with mine.  they assert that barefoot running is a skill that has to be acquired, and that you have to exercise some discretion in making the transition to barefoot running, particularly in terms of how it applies to you individually.

like i said, barefoot running is entirely good nor entirely bad.  in other words, you can't assign some normative status to it in terms of whether it intrinsically is something appropriate or inappropriate. to borrow the terminology from the above links, it's something that carries risks and rewards, and the nature of those risks and rewards have to be managed relative to how you use barefoot running and to what you are as a runner.  different people have to deal with it differently.

i consider these materials informative.  hopefully you'll find them as useful as i did.  cheers!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

thoughts re 100 up running

there's been some recent flurry in the running and triathlon communities regarding "100-up" running that i wanted to comment on.

for those of you who don't know, the recent discussion was spurred by a recent article in the New York Times that touted the rediscovery of a "lost" form of running originating in the 1800s that promises injury-free, energy efficient, and fast running--at least to a greater degree than without it.  the article was written by Christopher McDougall (who gained fame with his book, Born to Run, arguing that humans evolved to be among the most adept running species on the planet).

you can reference the New York Times article at the following (for your convenience, i'm also including the full text of the article, with its attendant graphic, at the end of this post):
i also recommend that you see the New York Times video that accompanied the article:

judging from the discussions about the 100-up that i've come across in chat rooms, discussion boards, and response articles in running and triathlon sites, you'd think that humanity had unearthed the holy grail and that the messiah had returned to provide us all with salvation. from what i've seen, there's been wholesale explosions of unconditional enthusiasm with an ardor reflecting utter ecstasy.  it's like the whole world has been living in total ignorance, and now has discovered the secret of limitless power, eternal life, and universal orgasm.

as for me, i'm not so sure. in fact, i'm a little skeptical.  the superlatives and verbiage being dedicated to 100-up running just seem to be a little overwrought.  if anything, it just seems like melodrama.  either that, or the sports community just jumped the shark.

it's not that i disagree with anything being taught in 100-up running.  in fact, i agree with all of it.  what i do disagree with, however, is that it's some lost secret of arcane magic buried for eons only now being rediscovered to save the world.

from my perspective, everything that i've seen being taught by 100-up running are lessons that i and every other distance runner i know who's ever received coaching has been taught.

you can see what i mean by comparing the above video with the following selection of videos from various schools of thought regarding running:

pose running:

chi running:

natural running:

lauren fleshman running drill:
to me, all of these schools of thought--including 100-up running--all share the same principles:
  • run upright
  • maintain good posture
  • keep the head erect, with the eyes looking forward
  • hold neutral hips
  • hold a neutral arch in the back
  • minimize vertical movement during each stride
  • run with midfoot strike (i.e., have the midfoot of the stepping leg strike the ground first)
you can see these principles being stressed in all the videos. and the running form being shown in all of them are almost or entirely identical.

which is why i'm scratching my head over the surge in interest over 100-up.  i don't think it's anything new.  it's just the same principles that have been around in the running sports world being taught a different way, and hence not some lost secret being rediscovered.  i am mystified why it's being accepted or touted as anything otherwise.

the only thing i can think of is that it's being hyped as a lost secret to generate an air of romance to increase sales, much the same way Atlantis is cited with respect to Greece and Crete to promote tourism.  it gives people something they want to believe, and hence makes them more likely to want to hear and (more importantly) to give it a try.

and the sad thing is, what they wanted to believe has been always been around and easily available.

all they had to do was look on Youtube.

The Once and Future Way to Run
By Christopher McDougall
New York Times
November 2, 2011

When you’re stalking barefoot runners, camouflage helps. “Some of them get kind of prancy when they notice you filming,” Peter Larson says. “They put on this notion of what they think barefoot running should be. It looks weird.” Larson, an evolutionary biologist at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire who has been on the barefoot beat for two years now, is also a stickler about his timing. “You don’t want to catch them too early in a run, when they’re cold, or too late, when they’re tired.”

If everything comes together just right, you’ll be exactly where Larson was one Sunday morning in September: peeking out from behind a tree on Governors Island in New York Harbor, his digital video camera nearly invisible on an ankle-high tripod, as the Second Annual New York City Barefoot Run got under way about a quarter-mile up the road. Hundreds of runners — men and women, young and old, athletic and not so much so, natives from 11 different countries — came pattering down the asphalt straight toward his viewfinder.

About half of them were actually barefoot. The rest wore Vibram FiveFingers — a rubber foot glove with no heel cushion or arch support — or Spartacus-style sandals, or other superlight “minimalist” running shoes. Larson surreptitiously recorded them all, wondering how many (if any) had what he was looking for: the lost secret of perfect running.

It’s what Alberto Salazar, for a while the world’s dominant marathoner and now the coach of some of America’s top distance runners, describes in mythical-questing terms as the “one best way” — not the fastest, necessarily, but the best: an injury-proof, evolution-tested way to place one foot on the ground and pick it up before the other comes down. Left, right, repeat; that’s all running really is, a movement so natural that babies learn it the first time they rise to their feet. Yet sometime between childhood and adulthood — and between the dawn of our species and today — most of us lose the knack.

We were once the greatest endurance runners on earth. We didn’t have fangs, claws, strength or speed, but the springiness of our legs and our unrivaled ability to cool our bodies by sweating rather than panting enabled humans to chase prey until it dropped from heat exhaustion. Some speculate that collaboration on such hunts led to language, then shared technology. Running arguably made us the masters of the world.
So how did one of our greatest strengths become such a liability? “The data suggests up to 79 percent of all runners are injured every year,” says Stephen Messier, the director of the J. B. Snow Biomechanics Laboratory at Wake Forest University. “What’s more, those figures have been consistent since the 1970s.” Messier is currently 11 months into a study for the U.S. Army and estimates that 40 percent of his 200 subjects will be hurt within a year. “It’s become a serious public health crisis.”

Nothing seems able to check it: not cross-training, not stretching, not $400 custom-molded orthotics, not even softer surfaces. And those special running shoes everyone thinks he needs? In 40 years, no study has ever shown that they do anything to reduce injuries. On the contrary, the U.S. Army’s Public Health Command concluded in a report in 2010, drawing on three large-scale studies of thousands of military personnel, that using shoes tailored to individual foot shapes had “little influence on injuries.”

Two years ago, in my book, “Born to Run,” I suggested we don’t need smarter shoes; we need smarter feet. I’d gone into Mexico’s Copper Canyon to learn from the Tarahumara Indians, who tackle 100-mile races well into their geriatric years. I was a broken-down, middle-aged, ex-runner when I arrived. Nine months later, I was transformed. After getting rid of my cushioned shoes and adopting the Tarahumaras’ whisper-soft stride, I was able to join them for a 50-mile race through the canyons. I haven’t lost a day of running to injury since.

“Barefoot-style” shoes are now a $1.7 billion industry. But simply putting something different on your feet doesn’t make you a gliding Tarahumara. The “one best way” isn’t about footwear. It’s about form. Learn to run gently, and you can wear anything. Fail to do so, and no shoe — or lack of shoe — will make a difference.

That’s what Peter Larson discovered when he reviewed his footage after the New York City Barefoot Run. “It amazed me how many people in FiveFingers were still landing on their heels,” he says. They wanted to land lightly on their forefeet, or they wouldn’t be in FiveFingers, but there was a disconnect between their intentions and their actual movements. “Once we develop motor patterns, they’re very difficult to unlearn,” Larson explains. “Especially if you’re not sure what it’s supposed to feel like.”

The only way to halt the running-injury epidemic, it seems, is to find a simple, foolproof method to relearn what the Tarahumara never forgot. A one best way to the one best way.

Earlier this year, I may have found it. I was leafing through the back of an out-of-print book, a collection of runners’ biographies called “The Five Kings of Distance,” when I came across a three-page essay from 1908 titled “W. G. George’s Own Account From the 100-Up Exercise.” According to legend, this single drill turned a 16-year-old with almost no running experience into the foremost racer of his day.

I read George’s words: “By its constant practice and regular use alone, I have myself established many records on the running path and won more amateur track-championships than any other individual.” And it was safe, George said: the 100-Up is “incapable of harm when practiced discreetly.”

Could it be that simple? That day, I began experimenting on myself.

When I called Mark Cucuzzella to tell him about my find, he cut me off midsentence. “When can you get down here?” he demanded.

“Here” is Two Rivers Treads, a “natural” shoe store sandwiched between Maria’s Taqueria and German Street Coffee & Candlery in Shepherdstown, W.Va., which, against all odds, Cucuzzella has turned into possibly the country’s top learning center for the reinvention of running.

“What if people found out running can be totally fun no matter what kind of injuries they’ve had?” Cucuzzella said when I visited him last summer. “What if they could see — ” he jerked a thumb back toward his chest — “Exhibit A?”

Cucuzzella is a physician, a professor at West Virginia University’s Department of Family Medicine and an Air Force Reserve flight surgeon. Despite the demands of family life and multiple jobs, he still managed enough early-morning miles in his early 30s to routinely run marathons at a 5:30-per-mile pace. But he constantly battled injuries; at age 34, severe degenerative arthritis led to foot surgery. If he continued to run, his surgeon warned, the arthritis and pain would return.

Cucuzzella was despondent, until he began to wonder if there was some kind of furtive, Ninja way to run, as if you were sneaking up on someone. Cucuzzella threw himself into research and came across the work of, among others, Nicholas Romanov, a sports scientist in the former Soviet Union who developed a running technique he called the Pose Method. Romanov essentially had three rules: no cushioned shoes, no pushing off from the toes and, most of all, no landing on the heel.

Once Cucuzzella got used to this new style, it felt suspiciously easy, more like playful bouncing than serious running. As a test, he entered the Marine Corps Marathon. Six months after being told he should never run again, he finished in 2:28, just four minutes off his personal best.

“It was the beginning of a new life,” Cucuzzella told me. “I couldn’t believe that after a medical education and 20 years of running, so much of what I’d been taught about the body was being turned on its head.” Two weeks before turning 40, he won the Air Force Marathon and has since completed five other marathons under 2:35. Shortly before his 45th birthday this past September, he beat men half his age to win the Air Force Marathon again. He was running more on less training than 10 years before, but “felt fantastic.”

When he tried to spread the word, however, he encountered resistance. At a Runner’s World forum I attended before the Boston Marathon in April 2010, he told the story of how he bounced back from a lifetime of injuries by learning to run barefoot and relying on his legs’ natural shock absorption. Martyn Shorten, the former director of the Nike Sports Research Lab who now conducts tests on shoes up for review in Runner’s World, followed him to the microphone. “A physician talking about biomechanics — I guess I should talk about how to perform an appendectomy,” Shorten said. He then challenged Cucuzzella’s belief that cushioned shoes do more harm than good.

No matter. Cucuzzella went home and began hosting his own conferences. Peter Larson traveled from New Hampshire for Cucuzzella’s first gathering on a snowy weekend this past January. “I was a bit curious about how many people might show up to such an event in rural West Virginia,” Larson says. “Were the panelists going to outnumber the audience?” In fact, more than 150 attendees crowded right up to the dais.

Since then, West Virginia has become a destination for a growing number of those who are serious about the grass-roots reinvention of running. Galahad Clark, a seventh-generation shoemaker who created the Vivobarefoot line, flew in from London with the British running coach Lee Saxby for a one-day meeting with Cucuzzella. International researchers like Craig Richards, from Australia, and Hiro Tanaka, chairman of Exercise Physiology at the University of Fukuoka, have also visited, as well as scientists from a dozen different American states.

“He has turned a small town in an obese state into a running-crazed bastion of health,” Larson says. “Mark’s effort in transforming Shepherdstown is a testament to what a single person can accomplish.”

Not that he has everything figured out. I was at one of Cucuzzella’s free barefoot running clinics in May when he confronted his big problem: how do you actually teach this stuff? He had about 60 of us practicing drills on a grassy playground. “Now to run,” he said, “just bend forward from the ankles.” We all looked down at our ankles.

“No, no,” Cucuzzella said. “Posture, remember? Keep your heads up.”

We lifted our heads, and most of us then forgot to lean from the ankles. At that moment, a young girl flashed past us on her way to the monkey bars. Her back was straight, her head was high and her bare feet skittered along right under her hips.

“You mean like — ” someone said, pointing after the girl.

“Right,” Cucuzzella said. “Just watch her.”

So what ruined running for the rest of us who aren’t Tarahumara or 10 years old?

Back in the ’60s, Americans “ran way more and way faster in the thinnest little shoes, and we never got hurt,” Amby Burfoot, a longtime Runner’s World editor and former Boston Marathon champion, said during a talk before the Lehigh Valley Half-Marathon I attended last year. “I never even remember talking about injuries back then,” Burfoot said. “So you’ve got to wonder what’s changed.”

Bob Anderson knows at least one thing changed, because he watched it happen. As a high-school senior in 1966, he started Distance Running News, a twice-yearly magazine whose growth was so great that Anderson dropped out of college four years later to publish it full time as Runner’s World. Around then, another fledgling operation called Blue Ribbon Sports was pioneering cushioned running shoes; it became Nike. Together, the magazine and its biggest advertiser rode the running boom — until Anderson decided to see whether the shoes really worked.

“Some consumer advocate needed to test this stuff,” Anderson told me. He hired Peter Cavanagh, of the Penn State University biomechanics lab, to stress-test new products mechanically. “We tore the shoes apart,” Anderson says. He then graded shoes on a scale from zero to five stars and listed them from worst to first.

When a few of Nike’s shoes didn’t fare so well in the 1981 reviews, the company pulled its $1 million advertising contract with Runner’s World. Nike already had started its own magazine, Running, which would publish shoe reviews and commission star writers like Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson.

“Nike would never advertise with me again,” Anderson says. “That hurt us bad.” In 1985, Anderson sold Runner’s World to Rodale, which, he says, promptly abolished his grading system. Today, every shoe in Runner’s World is effectively “recommended” for one kind of runner or another. David Willey, the magazine’s current editor, says that it only tests shoes that “are worth our while.” After Nike closed its magazine, it took its advertising back to Runner’s World. (Megan Saalfeld, a Nike spokeswoman, says she was unable to find someone to comment about this episode.)

“It’s a grading system where you can only get an A,” says Anderson, who went on to become the founder and chief executive of Ujena Swimwear.

Just as the shoe reviews were changing, so were the shoes: fear, the greatest of marketing tools, entered the game. Instead of being sold as performance accessories, running shoes were rebranded as safety items, like bike helmets and smoke alarms. Consumers were told they’d get hurt, perhaps for life, if they didn’t buy the “right” shoes. It was an audacious move that flew in the face of several biological truths: humans had thrived as running animals for two million years without corrective shoes, and asphalt was no harder than the traditional hunting terrains of the African savanna.

In 1985, Benno Nigg, founder and currently co-director of the University of Calgary’s Human Performance Lab, floated the notion that impact and rear-foot motion (called pronation) were dangerous. His work helped spur an arms race of experimental technology to counter those risks with plush heels and wedged shoes. Running magazines spread the new gospel. To this day, Runner’s World tells beginners that their first workout should be opening their wallets: “Go to a specialty running store . . . you’ll leave with a comfortable pair of shoes that will have you running pain- and injury-free.”

Nigg now believes mistakes were made. “Initial results were often overinterpreted and were partly responsible for a few ‘blunders’ in sport-shoe construction,” he said in a speech to the International Society of Biomechanics in 2005. The belief in the need for cushioning and pronation control, he told me, was, in retrospect, “completely wrong thinking.” His stance was seconded in June 2010, when The British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that a study of 105 women enrolled in a 13-week half-marathon training program found that every single runner who was given motion-control shoes to control excess foot pronation was injured. “You don’t need any protection at all except for cold and, like, gravel,” Nigg now says.

Of course, the only way to know what shoes have done to runners would be to travel back to a time when no one ever wore them. So that’s what one anthropologist has effectively done. In 2009, Daniel Lieberman, chairman of Harvard’s human evolutionary biology department, located a school in Kenya where no one wore shoes. Lieberman noticed something unusual: while most runners in shoes come down hard on their heels, these barefoot Kenyans tended to land softly on the balls of their feet.

Back at the lab, Lieberman found that barefoot runners land with almost zero initial impact shock.

Heel-strikers, by comparison, collide with the ground with a force equal to as much as three times their body weight. “Most people today think barefoot running is dangerous and hurts, but actually you can run barefoot on the world’s hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort and pain.”

Lieberman, who is 47 and a six-time marathoner, was so impressed by the results of his research that he began running barefoot himself. So has Irene Davis, director of Harvard Medical School’s Spaulding National Running Center. “I didn’t run myself for 30 years because of injuries,” Davis says. “I used to prescribe orthotics. Now, honest to God, I run 20 miles a week, and I haven’t had an injury since I started going barefoot.”

Last fall, at the end of a local 10-mile trail race, I surprised myself by finishing five minutes faster than I had four years ago, when I was in much better shape. I figured the result was a fluke — until it happened again. No special prep, awful travel schedule and yet a personal best in a six-mile race.

“I don’t get it,” I told Cucuzzella this past June when we went for a run together through the Shepherd University campus in Shepherdstown. “I’m four years older. I’m pretty sure I’m heavier. I’m not doing real workouts, just whatever I feel like each day. The only difference is I’ve been 100-Upping.”

It was five months since I discovered W.S. George’s “100-Up,” and I’d been doing the exercise regularly.

In George’s essay, he says he invented the 100-Up in 1874, when he was an 16-year-old chemist’s apprentice in England and could train only during his lunch hour. By Year 2 of his experiment, the overworked lab assistant was the fastest amateur miler in England. By Year 5, he held world records in everything from the half-mile to 10 miles.

So is it possible that a 19th-century teenager succeeded where 21st-century technology has failed?
“Absolutely, yes,” says Steve Magness, a sports scientist who works with top Olympic prospects at Nike’s elite “Oregon Project.” He was hired by Alberto Salazar to create, essentially, a squad of anti-Salazars. Despite his domination of the marathon in the ’80s, Salazar was plagued with knee and hamstring problems. He was also a heel-striker, which he has described as “having a tire with a nail in it.” Magness’s brief is to find ways to teach Nike runners to run barefoot-style and puncture-proof their legs.

“From what you’re telling me, it sounds promising,” Magness told me. “I’d love to see it in action.”

Mark Cucuzzella was just as eager. “All right,” he said in the middle of our run. “Let’s get a look at this.” I snapped a twig and dropped the halves on the ground about eight inches apart to form targets for my landings. The 100-Up consists of two parts. For the “Minor,” you stand with both feet on the targets and your arms cocked in running position. “Now raise one knee to the height of the hip,” George writes, “bring the foot back and down again to its original position, touching the line lightly with the ball of the foot, and repeat with the other leg.”

That’s all there is to it. But it’s not so easy to hit your marks 100 times in a row while maintaining balance and proper knee height. Once you can, it’s on to the Major: “The body must be balanced on the ball of the foot, the heels being clear of the ground and the head and body being tilted very slightly forward. . . . Now, spring from the toe, bringing the knee to the level of the hip. . . . Repeat with the other leg and continue raising and lowering the legs alternately. This action is exactly that of running.”

Cucuzzella didn’t like it as a teaching method — he loved it. “It makes so much physiological and anatomical sense,” he said. “The key to injury-free running is balance, elasticity, stability in midstance and cadence. You’ve got all four right there.”

Cucuzzella began trying it himself. As I watched, I recalled another lone inventor, a Czechoslovakian soldier who dreamed up a similar drill: he’d throw dirty clothes in the bathtub with soap and water, then jog on top. You can’t heel strike or overstride on slippery laundry. There’s only one way to run in a tub: the one best way.

At the 1952 Olympics, Emil Zatopek became the only runner ever to win gold medals in all three distance events: 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon, the first he ever ran. Granted, “the Human Locomotive” wasn’t a pretty sight. During his final push to the finish line, his head would loll and his arms would grab at the air “as if he’d just been stabbed through the heart,” as one sportswriter put it.

But from the waist down, Zatopek was always quick, light and springy, like a kid swooping across a playground — or like this once-arthritic physician in front of me, laughing with excitement as he hopped up and down in his bare feet in a parking lot.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

pre-emptive holiday weight loss

okay, yeah, i know, i haven't posted anything in awhile. sue me. things have been a little busy and i've been a little preoccupied. all of it career-related, and hence something that's a little high on my list of priorities. but now that it's Thanksgiving break i have a little bit of breathing room, so i figured i should post something here for all of you, since things have been feeling a little bit lonely.

i haven't completely been out of things.  i have, despite everything, managed to maintain some semblance of a workout schedule, and even generated some progressive training.  it wasn't that hard, since training is pretty much part of this lifestyle that i (and i'm sure most of you) lead.  truth be told, for me it's actually necessary, even compulsive, since it's about the one thing i have that lets me get my head straight.  if it wasn't for training, i don't know where i'd find something that lets me clear out the stress, decompress, focus, and--most importantly--make some sense of everything.

which is why i can say that even as things have gotten busier my training has actually ramped up, both in intensity and volume.

which is good, since i'm heading into the inevitable weight gain that comes with the holiday season.  and getting my weight under control now hopefully saves me some headaches post-holidays.

although, i am trying to do things a little differently this year.

my weight isn't constant. over the course of a year, it fluctuates. i've tracked it, and it actually follows a sine curve, with my weight going down during the summer and rising in the winter. which makes sense, considering that during the summers i'm more physically active and eating a diet dominated by fresh fruit and vegetables, while during the winter i'm more sedentary and eating a diet skewed toward cooked and baked goods.

usually, i treat the winter weight gain as part of the off-season, with time reserved for hibernation to let myself get some physical and mental recuperation from a season of racing.  typically, being in the U.S., i mark the start of off-season with the arrival of Halloween (October 31) and continuing through Valentine's Day (February 14), with the peak (or, depending on your point of view, the nadir) being from Thanksgiving (usually November 23-24) to Christmas (December 25) and New Year's Day (January 1).

i don't eliminate all training during this time period, but i do definitely usually scale back the workouts or do cross-training in other sports. regardless, the effect is the same: a more sedentary lifestyle.

only thing is, the sedentary lifestyle of off-season is timed with a season accompanied by holidays that can only be described as caloric tsunamis.  at least in the U.S., Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and Valentine's Day are all occasions where everyone--including me--indulge the time-honored American affliction of engorging ourselves with all the foods we're advised to avoid: fatty meats, fatty vegetables, fatty carbohydrates, fatty desserts, fatty fat fat fat fat fat fat fat. usually with lots of salt and sugar to help it all go down.

the resulting weight gain, along with the  simultaneous loss of conditioning, means that i'm digging myself a hole every winter in terms of work that i know i'm going to have to do with the arrival of spring to get myself back into shape...and that means foreknowledge of having to go through all the suffering of climbing the mountain of training all over again.

this year, i'm doing things differently...or so i hope.

usually, i try to assuage my neurosis about weight and conditioning by engaging in bouts of binge training on every holiday, with the self-consolation that i'm burning off all the calories i ingested and restoring some of the fitness that i lost.  even though i know that this is just futility in the onslaught of food and indolence.

this year, i decided to maintain the training through October and November, with the workouts actually going on a progression into this Thanksgiving. the goal is to have some pre-emptive weight loss, with me actually over-shooting my lower weight targets.

the idea is that whatever weight i gain during December will actually serve to just bring my weight back to normal.  if not that, then at least it will be compensated by the weight i lost before.  in addition, by maintaining conditioning through November, i'm cutting short the off-season and reducing the amount of fitness i'll lose before the next season starts in March.

essentially, this means that the sine curve peak will be restricted to just 3 months (December, January, & February), producing either a lower peak (i.e., less peak in weight) or less time in sedentary mode (i.e., less wavelength above my average weight).

at least, that's the plan.

the tricky part is that the off-season is actually crucial in terms of providing your physical and mental engines time to recover, particularly on microscopic and subconscious levels--which tend to add up and affect you in ways you don't realize, and which tend to take their own pace in terms of recharging.  and so it's not something to be shortchanged, meaning that i'm playing a balancing act between what i know is some much-needed recovery versus much-concerned weight & fitness issues.

i don't know how this will turn out, since this is the first time i'm trying it and it's still ongoing.  i'll have to let you know how things go.

and oh yeah, to everyone in the U.S.: Happy Thanksgiving!  and remember: caloric tsunami!

Friday, November 04, 2011

positive coaching

there was an interesting article in the New York Times recently that i thought deserved some consideration by the larger sports community.  it deals with the need for more positive coaching--and positive attitudes--with respect to sports, particularly with young athletes.

you can refer to the article here (and if the link doesn't work, i've pasted the text at the bottom of this post):

i think this is an issue that most of us have thought about or have witnessed personally in some form, even in endurance sports (or, as the case may be, increasingly in endurance sports as they have grown in recent years).

you know the situations i'm talking about: coaches, athletes, spectators, and families exhibiting sudden cases of rage, frustration, obsession, hyper-critical demeanor rising to expressions of violence (physical or verbal) and assault (threats of violence). it happens for any number of reasons, from coaches under pressure to register wins at the expense of other lessons to spectators venting personal psychoses in other areas of their life to parents with dreams (or delusions) of athletic glory living vicariously through their children. regardless, it's bad attitude and bad behavior.

such behavior is antithetical to the notions of  "good sportsmanship," in that it runs contrary to the values of good character, including fairness, honesty, humility, courage, goodwill, respect, and above all, personal development. if anything, it's disturbing, since it is completely negative and entirely destructive, both in terms of being competitors and being human beings, not just to the individual athlete but also to the team and society in general.

given all the negative and destructive things that already exist in the world, the last thing we need is more bad attitude and bad behavior.  the world doesn't need negative and destructive; it needs positive and constructive. what the world needs is good attitude and good behavior.

which is why i found the article interesting. it presents the Positive Coaching Alliance, which is a movement to try and encourage better attitudes and better behavior with respect to sports, with the goal of focusing on the values of good sportsmanship in ways that are positive and constructive.

i checked them out, and they seem to have a really encouraging message and seem to be generating gathering momentum. you can take a look at their website for yourself:
i give them kudos for what they're doing, and i'd like to help them out by encouraging all of you to visit their website and learn more about their efforts. some of you might even feel motivated to join them and start extensions of their organization for yourself.

i think that what they're trying to do is important, since it focuses on developing a winner's attitude and winner's personality, and thereby teaching people how to create the conditions conducive to winning.

and isn't that what we're all trying to do?

The Power of Positive Coaching
By David Bornstein
New York Times
October 20, 2011

Imagine you’re coaching a big soccer game, against an undefeated team that has beaten your team in all your previous matches. Your 11-year-olds are playing well and are ahead. Then, in the closing minutes, the official makes a bad call that goes against you and, because of it, you lose. After the game, the parents of your players scream at the official. The kids are disappointed, looking up at you. What do you do?

Or you’re coaching tee-ball and one of your 5-year-old players has failed to get a hit so far. Now, he’s up again in a crucial situation and is nervous. All eyes are on him. His first swing misses high. The second misses low and knocks the ball off the tee. You call him over to offer some help. What do you say?

Or you’re a parent and your 14-year-old daughter has just come off the basketball court. In the final seconds of the game, with her team behind by a point, she was fouled and awarded two free throws. What do you say if she missed both of them and her team lost? What if she triumphed? (Tune in on Wednesday for the answers!)

Coaches can be enormously influential in the lives of children. If you ask a random group of adults to recall something of significance that happened in their fourth or fifth grade classroom, many will draw a blank. But ask about a sports memory from childhood and you’re likely to hear about a game winning hit, or a dropped pass, that, decades later, can still elicit emotion. The meaning that coaches or parents help young people derive from such moments can shape their lives.

But today’s youth coaches often struggle to provide sound, evidence-based, and age-appropriate guidance to players. Part of the problem is that of the 2.5 million American adults who serve as volunteer coaches for youth sports less than 10 percent receive any formal training. Most become coaches because their kid is on the team ― and they basically improvise. I did this in soccer and, through my over-eagerness, almost destroyed my then-6-year-old son’s delight for the game.

But a bigger problem is that youth sports has come to emulate the win-at-all-costs ethos of professional sports. While youth and professional sports look alike, adults often forget that they are fundamentally different enterprises. Professional sports is an entertainment business. Youth sports is supposed to be about education and human development.

That’s why it is so disturbing that, over the past two decades, researchers have found that poor sportsmanship and acts of aggression have become common in youth sports settings. Cheating has also become more accepted. Coaches give their stars the most play. Parents and fans boo opponents or harangue officials (mimicking professional events). They put pressure on children to perform well, with hopes for scholarships or fulfilling their own childhood dreams. Probably the most serious indictment of the system is that the vast majority of youths ― some 70 to 80 percent ― drop out of sports shortly after middle school. For many, sports become too competitive and selective. In short, they stop being fun.

What’s needed is a culture change. That’s the goal of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a modest-size organization that punches well above its weight. P.C.A. has trained 450,000 adults, mostly coaches and youth sports leaders, who reach about 4 million children and youths. The organization is working to spread the message that youth sports is about giving young athletes a positive, character-building experience ― not to become major league athletes, but to become “major league people.”

P.C.A. has conducted in-person and on-line trainings with coaches from 1,700 youth sports organizations including Little League Baseball, the American Youth Soccer Association, U.S. Lacrosse, and the Amateur Athletic Union, which has committed to put all of its 50,000 coaches through P.C.A.’s online trainings. The Dallas Independent School District, which oversees 800 youth sports coaches, has enlisted P.C.A. for trainings. “There’s been such a push from parents about winning at all costs,” explained Jeff Johnson, the district’s athletic director. “Sportsmanship sometimes goes out the window. The positive coaching has helped my coaches think about more than just winning.”

Many advocates dream of reforming youth sports, but P.C.A. is distinctive for its approach. Through its messaging, it reassures coaches that it’s O.K. to win ― that, in fact, a “relentlessly positive” coach will usually be more successful on the scoreboard. As such, P.C.A. has been able to penetrate the hard-nosed culture of competitive sports. The organization is supported by top professional coaches like Phil Jackson who led the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls to 11 National Basketball League titles, and Doc Rivers of the Boston Celtics. This gives the organization credibility. Finally, P.C.A. has artfully packaged complex psychological research into simple tools that any coach or parent can put into practice. As a father of an 8-year-old who has happily regained his love of soccer thanks to a very positive coach, I can attest to the value of its teachings. Research has found that youth attrition rates are 80 percent lower for children whose coaches practice positive coaching.

P.C.A. was founded by Jim Thompson, a teacher who previously directed the Public Management Program at Stanford Business School. Years before, Thompson had taught in a classroom with severely emotionally-disturbed students, where he became skilled at managing and motivating children. When his son turned 6 and started getting into sports, Thompson discovered parents and coaches violating all the rules he’d learned: putting pressure on children to perform, trying to give kids technical advice while they were anxious or frustrated, rewarding misbehavior by giving it extra attention, making children worry about making mistakes. He started coaching, discovered he loved it, and collected his ideas in a book: “Positive Coaching, Building Character and Self Esteem Through Sports.” (He has since authored seven others.) With the support of Stanford’s Athletic Department, he launched P.C.A. in 1998.

The core of P.C.A.’s approach is to train “double goal” coaches: coaches who balance the goal of winning, with the second, and more important, goal of teaching life lessons. Coaches are taught to help children focus on improving their own game, helping their teammates improve their game, and improving the game as a whole. (In life, this translates to improving yourself, being a leader who helps others flourish, and working to make society better.) P.C.A. encourages parents to let go of winning and concentrate on life lessons. “There are only two groups of people whose job is to win games,” says Thompson. “Coaches and players. Parents have a much more important job: to guide their child’s character development.”

To deliver these concepts, Thompson built up a network of 100 expert trainers and developed catchy acronyms and simplified conceptual tools. For example, sports psychologists know that athletes who focus on things they can control, as opposed to external factors, are less anxious, more confident, and consequentially, happier and better performers. Thompson wondered how to translate the ideas so they could be picked up by any coach.

He came up with the “ELM Tree of Mastery” to help coaches remember that the feedback that most helps young athletes develop their potential is not praise for good performance or criticism for bad performance. What works best is helping children understand that they control three key variables: their level of Effort, whether they Learn from experiences, and how they respond to Mistakes.

Because there are so many opportunities to fail in sports, it is a gold mine of teachable moments. “If a child misses a big play, it’s a perfect opportunity to talk about resiliency,” explains Thompson. “‘I know you’re disappointed and I feel bad for you, but the question is what are you going to do now? Are you going to hang your head? Or are you going to bounce back with renewed determination?’”

“The single most important thing we do is help coaches teach kids not to be afraid to make mistakes,” he adds.

In a fast-moving game, things happen in seconds. When a 12–year-old kid makes a mistake on an athletic field, he will immediately look over to his coach or parent. “If the coach is saying, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ it’s actually not very helpful,” notes Thompson. The key is to get rid of the mistake quickly and decisively. So P.C.A. encourages coaches to establish a “mistake ritual.” One technique, adopted by many, is teaching players to “flush” their mistakes. Using a hand gesture that mimics flushing a toilet, a coach can signal from the sideline and players can signal to each other. “So the kid looks at the coach and the coach goes: ‘Flush it.’ The teammates are saying: ‘Hey, Flush it, we’ll get it back.’ And the kid plays better. Because if you’re not beating yourself up, you can focus on the next play.” After the game, the coach can talk to the player about what happened and why.

P.C.A.’s techniques are grounded in the idea that every child has a kind of “emotional tank.” When it gets drained, it’s difficult to take on challenges or perform well. Coaches need to learn to recognize this and adjust accordingly. P.C.A. even has a “magic ratio” ― the ideal ratio of positive (i.e., tank filling) statements to criticism ― should be 5 to 1.

Focusing on filling the emotional tank is not wimpy or soft. Professional coaches, like Phil Jackson, have used it to great success. It takes effort to do well. Coaches need to observe players closely so they can offer specific and honest feedback. (Kids know false praise when they hear it.)

Nor does it mean a coach can’t have hard conversations with players. The key is not to withhold criticism, but to deliver it in a way that is helpful. If the child is angry or sulking or defensive, she’s not going to be listening very well anyway. “When you ask people to focus on mastery, it’s not soft,” notes Thompson. “And screaming at a kid is not tough. That’s just a lack of impulse control.”

Ken Eriksen, head coach for the U.S.A. Softball Women’s National Team, has incorporated another technique from P.C.A. called the “criticism sandwich.” “I love the philosophy of praise-critique-praise,” he told me, speaking by phone from the Pan American Games in Mexico. “Instead of getting into a kid: ‘Hey, What’s the matter with you? Didn’t we just go over this?’ I like to take the approach: ‘Hey, young lady, you’re doing a great job. You know on that approach to a ground ball, maybe I would use a different footwork. Other than that I cannot commend you enough on your hard work.’ It works so much better.”

“People often think that youth sports is simple, but it’s actually very complex,” observes Thompson. “The symbolism of sports is so powerful. You’ve got coaches whose identity is tied to whether their team wins or not. You’ve got parents who have all this anxiety about their kids being successful and happy, living in a culture that put so much emphasis on winning or getting into the best schools. And you’ve got the kids who are nervous, worried about establishing their own identity, who want to please their parents, and are afraid about looking bad in public.

“But because sports is so valued, we have the opportunity to change the way people relate to their kids through it. Most research indicates that people coach the way they were coached. So you now have kids who are growing up coached with this model and soon they’ll become coaches themselves, so I think the general impact on our society could be huge.”

Have you had a memorable experience with a coach that stuck with you (good or bad)? On Wednesday, I’ll respond to comments, provide some more details about P.C.A.’s techniques, and reveal how Thompson told me he would handle each of the scenarios above.