Antifragile children and super champions

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, November/December 2016.

Inside the former middle school turned community center in East Babylon on Long Island, aspiring basketball players train under the tutelage of Jerry Powell in a sweltering gym built decades ago. Stuffed into this small rectangular space, 30-40 players go through drills for 90 minutes at a time as parents line the sideline in folding metal chairs. 

Between sessions, a white adolescent walks unassumingly into the gym, a minority in this space. As soon as he walks onto the court, Powell begins one of his famous soliloquies, preaching as much to the parents as the other players in the gym. Powell describes the player as someone who you can take into the jungle. He characterizes most of the players as zoo animals; players who depend on others to feed and protect them because their survival instincts are deadened due to their safe, comfortable life. These are the players who do not practice unless their parents set aside a specific time and pay a coach or skills trainer to lead the player through drills. They do not go to the park to shoot; they do not walk through the snow to get to the gym. They are driven in SUVs to an appointment.

I witnessed Powell’s speech around 2005, several years before Nassim Taleb published Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012). Taleb used the same analogy. The zoo animal is fragile because it has adapted to a modern, comfortable lifestyle. It depends on others. Its existence is predictable and devoid of conflict. The zoo animal suffers from randomness and unpredictability. Meanwhile, the jungle animal is antifragile. Randomness and unpredictability make it stronger because it learns from its experiences and adapts. Periods of famine or draught increase its resilience.

In recent years, researchers have argued that our fragility – chronic diseases, chronic injuries, depression, and more – may stem from our adaptation to a modern, comfortable lifestyle. The links between a sedentary lifestyle and chronic metabolic diseases have been well-established, but the positive effects of stress are less publicized. Restricting calories, typically through intermittent fasting, has been shown to delay diseases of aging and to extend life (Haigis et al., 2006; Koubova et al., 2003). Reducing calories by 30 – 40% triggers a network of “longevity” genes that evolved to protect organisms when food is scarce (Cronise et al., 2014). Mild cold stress also has been shown to trigger these longevity genes and reduce metabolic dysfunction (Cronise et al., 2014). Man evolved to be adaptable to different environmental conditions and times of food scarcity, but our modern living situations with heated homes and plentiful calories reduce the randomness and lead to fragility.

The fragility of modern life extends beyond diet, sitting at a desk, and comfortable, climate-controlled offices and homes. In many aspects of life, our desire to make life easier, and to protect our children, may have adverse consequences. In child development, and elite sports success, stress or trauma is a necessary aspect of the developmental pathway. An aspect of eventual success is the ability to handle failure, stress, trauma, and unpredictability.

When I lived in Denmark, I marveled at the freedom afforded to the young children. Two young boys, between 9 and 11, rode their bikes or skateboards seemingly all afternoon, nearly every day. They would be in town when I walked to the store, and running around the gym when I was there for practice. They invented their own games inside the gym and out. Their playground was the entire town, and eventually, when it got dark or sometime shortly thereafter, they went home. They were more or less free to do as they pleased, as long as they arrived on time for basketball and handball practices.

Last year, two professional parents in Maryland were arrested for allowing their children, aged 6 and 10, to walk to and from a park that was a mile from their house. In the debate about free-range parenting that followed, clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Jerome Schultz wrote, “Kids can’t grow unless they are allowed (I would say encouraged) to visit what I call the frontier of their competence.” As Taleb wrote in Antifragile, “At some point, we had free-range humans and free-range children before the advent of the golden period of the soccer mom…. soccer moms try to eliminate the trial and error, the antifragility, from children’s lives.”

When children are not allowed to walk to a park to play, we have created a society of zoo animals. By limiting children and preventing them from reaching the frontier of their competence or engaging in trial and error, as did the boys in Denmark, children become dependent on others; their existence is predictable and devoid of conflict. In an era of school shootings and bullying, the lack of conflict and the predictability is reassuring to adults, but it is damaging to children.

In the biography of almost every elite athlete is a story of overcoming an obstacle, trauma, or stress. Michael Jordan famously was cut from the varsity team as a sophomore in high school; Stephen Curry was overlooked by the top college basketball programs; Tom Brady was chosen in the 6th Round of the NFL Draft. In Misty Copeland’s UnderArmor commercial, a voiceover reads a rejection letter from when she was 13 years old, and the letter explained all of her imperfections, including feet, torso length, bust, and age, that prevented her from being admitted to a ballet conservatory. In the Nine for IX Short, Rowdy Ronda Rousey, AnnMaria De Mars, the mother of former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey, said, “I think that every body who is a successful athlete has to feel like there is something missing that they want to fill.”

A recent paper on the “Rocky Road to becoming a Super Champion” found that Super Champions do not face more trauma than champions or almost champions, but they behave differently when facing the adversity (Collins et al., 2016). The Super Champions had a positive proactive coping and “learn from it” approach, which may have resulted from more facilitative styles of parenting and coaching (Collins et al., 2016). As Rousey said in her documentary, “In my family, we’re encouraged to do whatever it is that you want to do, you just have to be the best in the world at it.” That freedom coupled with high expectations and support empowers young athletes.

Rather than allowing for small traumas in the developmental period and learning from these experiences, Taleb’s soccer moms reduce the unpredictability. Every child gets a trophy for participation. Every child gets a snack after the game. Nobody goes home hungry or cold or lacking this artificial sense of self-esteem. A child’s ultimate success, not her success in an under-eight recreational league, depends on her ability to cope with and learn from failures. Taleb’s soccer moms have created fragile children who cannot handle disappointment or failure and instead look for quick fixes, make excuses, or quit. The free-range children, like the boys in Denmark, may hurt themselves and fall on their faces, but they learn from these experiences and are tougher and more resilient because of them.

When Copeland was turned down from the ballet conservatory or Curry was not recruited by the major basketball programs, they chose a positive approach. Rather than quit, they worked harder to accomplish their goals. They adapted, and the setback increased their resiliency. They were antifragile; they were jungle animals.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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