Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Check for Understanding Part Two: Three Things Great Athletes Have In Common

Teaching might be my day job, but that doesn't mean a good piece of pedagogy ought to go to waste! In my last postI offered a tip for parents as educators: Checking for Understanding. In today's topic, I'm going to run a theory by you. Test it out and have fun with it. The goal is two-fold. One: check for understanding the argument that I am going to make and two: discuss. Do you agree? Why or why not? 
That's right: What we are checking for understanding is a theory—a personal belief, a truth that I have found in reading and writing about professional athletes. I think this is especially true among female basketball players. You might think that is a very specific group, but for the point of your discussion, I encourage you to test it out on other sports/among all athletes. 

The April 2016 issue of High School Today, the magazine of NFHS: National Federation of State High School Associations (for Athletics) ran a profile of University of Virginia's women's basketball coach, Tina Thompson. The article "It all started here" reports
Before she became the WNBA all-time leading scorer, and before she was the first draft pick in the history of the WNBA, and even before she starred at Inglewood (California) Morningside High School, Tina Thompson got her start in basketball on the playground of West Los Angeles. 
Thompson would join her brother, TJ, and his friends at Robertson Park for pick up games. At Morningside, Thompson played basketball alongside fellow WNBA star Lisa Leslie, and also played volleyball. During her high school career, she scored more than 1500 points and collected more than 1000 rebounds. 
Thompson and Lesley teamed up again at Southern California, where they lead the Trojans to three NCAA tournament appearances. Thompson graduated in 1997 with a degree in sociology and a minor in psychology. 
In the initial WNBA draft, Thompson was drafted first by the Houston Comets. In Houston, Thompson led the Comets to four consecutive WNBA championships from 1997 to 2000. When she retired in 2013, Thompson was the WNBA's all-time leading scorer was 7488 points. Thompson was also a member of the 2004 and 2008 gold-medal-winning US Olympic teams. 
In 2015 Thompson was hired as an assistant coach at the University of Texas.
A few important post-scripts include: In 2018, she was named head coach of the University of Virginia Cavaliers women's basketball team. She has been surpassed by Diana Taurasi as the all-time scoring leader, ranking an impressive number two and it should be noted she adds another chapter to the heroics of The Women of Troy!
Reading Thompson's brief profile was both inspiring and nearly formulaic. Seems to me that great athletes, those men and women who play in college and professionally more often than not share three things in common.

1. They grow up playing sports in an unstructured environment. The importance of free play is not to be underestimated. When kids play with other kids, in public places or on their own, over time they develop not only the skills that are necessary to succeed, but they find their own—those that are you unique to them.

In today's world, adults have orchestrated and over-organized sports so much that I wonder how fun it is for kids. I raise questions about 10 year olds traveling for club competition. It's sad that we need to remind the adults in the room to "let kids be kids." What they might not know is that is inhibits their ability to improvise, figure out the rules on their own, grow into their own understanding of the game and of competition.

2. Sibling Support. It's uncanny to me how many have a sibling, (in particular for women in basketball a brother) who they would join in pick-up games or unstructured practice. Tina Thompson, Cheryl Miller, Arike Ogunbawale, Ruth Riley and Sabrina Ionescu each credit their brothers (older and younger) as their favorite teammate. In tennis, I have wondered if you have Serena without Venus (and vice versa). In this instance, sibling rivalry is a good thing. As Cheryl Miller said about her brother Reggie "iron sharpens iron." He admits she's the best player in their family.

With female basketball players, games against or with their brother usually--not always—means they were competing against a player who has more muscle mass and weight. This can be a benefit when participating in all female competition (again, this is not ALWAYS the case but in general this is true of men vs. women. For example, most female tennis players on the tour hire a male hitting partner to help them get fitter, hitting harder, faster and stronger).

3. Great athletes play other sports. I would love to see Thompson on the volleyball court! Undoubtedly, the skills that volleyball demands—blocking, hang time, jumping and digging —must pay dividends inside the paint. 

My dad's take on this point is that professional athletes are great athletes—period. I agree and I also think that one can sharpen the saw physically and mentally by engaging in other sports. Not only does an athlete engage in different ways of competing (pace, time, mental focus) but they are exposed to other coaches—their style, philosophy and demands. Jack Swarbrick, Athletic Director at Notre Dame admitted his preference for recruiting two sport athletes. Why? "We find these men and women are usually stronger in one sport than another. They learn different roles on the team given those two paradigms." In an increased world of specialization, the case for the two-sport athlete remains viable and worth considering.

Do you understand my argument? Is it possible that all three commonalities are not necessary? Is anything missing? Discuss. Report back!

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