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Lessons from the World of Sports

April 4, 2011

In Slate Magazine, Bill James asks “Why are we so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?”

The population of Topeka, Kan., today is roughly the same as the population of London in the time of Shakespeare, and the population of Kansas now is not that much lower than the population of England at that time. London at the time of Shakespeare had not only Shakespeare—whoever he was—but also Christopher Mar­lowe, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and various other men of letters who are still read today. I doubt that Topeka today has quite the same collection of distinguished writers.

Why is this?

There are two theories that present themselves. One is that the talent that assembled in Shakespeare’s London was a random cluster, an act of God to locate in this one place and time a very un­usual pile of literary talent. The other theory is that there is talent everywhere; it is merely that some societies are good at developing it and other societies not so good.

The same question could be asked of any number of areas of talent.  Bill James says that we should learn from sports.

American society could and should take lessons from the world of sports as to how to develop talent. How is it that we have become so phenomenally good, in our society, at developing athletes?

First, we give them the opportunity to compete at a young age.

Second, we recognize and identify ability at a young age.

Third, we celebrate athletes’ success constantly. We show up at their games and cheer. We give them trophies. When they get to be teenagers, if they’re still good, we put their names in the newspaper once in a while.

Fourth, we pay them for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.

The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.

If our schools practiced the same competitive spirit, rewarding of excellence, and differentiation in academics as they did in sports, there would be little concern about shortages of doctors, scientists, distinguished writers, and software developers in the next generation.  We need to develop an environment that encourages a future Thomas Edison, Emily Dickinson, or Jonas Salk, not just the next Derek Jeter, Charles Woodson, or Tigers Woods.

In Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom, Susan Winebrenner points out that athletics is a gifted program.   Exceeding outside the norm is strongly encouraged, it is often limited to only the athletically gifted, and additional assistance is given to help athletes achieve extraordinary results.  This gifted program exists at almost every school and pulls money from per-pupil funding of athletes and non-athletes alike.  If one believes in this often expensive gifted program for athletes, why shouldn’t some resources be provided to encourage gifts in educational areas?  Priorities must be re-examined.  Is it more important for our society to develop an extremely few professional athletes or a large number of doctors, automotive engineers, writers, and inventors?

Other cultures have focused on providing strong resources for pupils that are academically advanced and gifted, resulting in significant growth in their technology, medical, and educational sectors.   We have chosen to focus on athletics.  Unless we take many of the lessons learned from sports on how to encourage the gifted and talented and apply them to other areas of expertise, other countries threaten to leave us in their dust.

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