Cadets with lower grades improved academically if they socialized with cadets with high GPAs

Thursday, July 29th, 2021

Economists Scott Carrell and James West had noticed a pattern, a particular peer effect, at the Air Force Academy, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing explains:

Cadets with lower grades improved academically if they socialized with, and spent more time around, cadet friends with high GPAs. The high-performers rubbed off on the low-performers, dragging them upward. Having friends whose SAT scores were 100 points higher than yours led to a half-grade improvement in GPA.


Carrell and West started by identifying which of the 1,314 incoming cadets had lower SAT scores and GPAs. These were the students most at risk of dropping out. They were assigned to special squadrons with a makeup of extra numbers of high-achievers. Compared with normal squadrons, these socially engineered squadrons had a few more low-performers, many more high-performers, and — to make room — fewer middle-performers.


More of the at-risk cadets were crumbling, not fewer.


Within a test squadron, the low-performers were self-segregating into cliques, to insulate themselves from the endless ranking and comparison.


Remember those squadrons comprised of leftover middle-performers? It turned out that their academic performance dramatically surpassed expectations.


When the field is too large, and the chance to be near the top is slim, people don’t try as hard.

Progressive activists have found a cause even more unpopular than “Defund the police”

Wednesday, July 7th, 2021

Progressive activists have found a cause even more unpopular than Defund the police, David Frum notes, and are pushing it with even greater vigor:

Eighty-three percent of American adults believe that testing is appropriate to determine whether students may enroll in special or honors programs, according to one of the country’s longest-running continuous polls of attitudes toward education.

Yet across the U.S., blue-state educational authorities have turned hostile to academic testing in almost all of its forms. In recent months, honors programs have been eliminated in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Seattle. On Long Island, New York, and in Pennsylvania and Virginia, curricula are being rethought to eliminate tracking that separates more- and less-adept student populations. New York City’s specialist public high schools are under fierce pressure to revise or eliminate academic standards for admission. Boston’s exam schools will apply different admissions standards in different zip codes. San Francisco’s famous Lowell High School has switched from academically selective admission to a lottery system. At least a thousand colleges and universities have halted use of the SAT, either permanently or as an experiment. But the experiments are rapidly hardening into permanent changes, notably at the University of California, but also in Washington State and Colorado. SAT subject tests have been junked altogether.

Special programs don’t poll as well when the questions stipulate that many Black and Hispanic students would not qualify for admittance. But the programs’ numbers rebound if respondents are assured that students will have equal access to test prep. The New York Post reported earlier this year on an education-reform organization’s findings that almost 80 percent of New Yorkers would want to preserve selective testing at the city’s elite high schools if it were combined with free access to test-preparation coaching for disadvantaged groups.


The supervisors who led the effort to end academically selective admissions at Lowell now face not only a recall campaign, but also a lawsuit from groups including the Asian American Legal Foundation. Accusations of bigotry have flowed both ways. In March, supporters of the old admissions system surfaced tweets by one of the school’s pro-lottery supervisors that accused Asian Americans of anti-Blackness. Black students at Lowell complain of racist incidents; an Asian American Lowell alum told of being bullied at another, less selective high school.

People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers

Saturday, July 3rd, 2021

A second-edition of Why Don’t Students Like School has just been published, and it stands the test of time, Robert Pondiscio says:

My 2009 copy of Why Don’t Students Like School by Dan Willingham is among the most dog-eared and annotated books I own. Along with E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit (2006) and Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (2010), I’m hard-pressed to think of another book in the last twenty years that had a greater impact on my teaching, thinking, or writing about education.


Willingham set out to put between two covers a set of enduring principles from cognitive science (“People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers”; “factual knowledge precedes skill”; “proficiency requires practice,” et al.) that can reliably inform and shape classroom practice — a rich vein of ore that Willingham began to mine in his “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” columns for The American Educator starting nearly twenty years ago.

I mentioned the book 11 years ago, when Bryan Caplan was annoyed that it didn’t answer the question in its title.

Here are its nine principles:

  1. People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.
  2. Factual knowledge precedes skill.
  3. Memory is the residue of thought.
  4. We understand new things in the context of things we already know.
  5. Proficiency requires practice.
  6. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.
  7. Children are more alike than different in terms of learning.
  8. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.
  9. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.

I enjoyed some of the comments on Caplan’s post

Boonton notes that people pretend that the students are the customers, or the parents are, but it’s really the taxpayers, who are paying to lock up troublesome kids. I don’t dispute this, but I must say that it’s an inefficient way to address the problem:

If schools aim to imprison students for the good of their true customers, the taxpayers, may I note that one attracts more flies with honey. New York spends $17,000 per student. An annual pass at Walt Disney World costs around $600.

Students at high-achieving schools exhibit much higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse

Sunday, June 20th, 2021

Students at high-achieving schools exhibit much higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse than those at lower achieving schools:

In the 1990s, [Suniya] Luthar was studying the effects of poverty on the mental health of teenagers. In research with inner-city youth from families well below the poverty level, she found high levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Then one of her graduate students challenged her by suggesting that these problems might not be limited to children in poverty, so she began conducting similar research with teens in affluent suburban areas. Remarkably, she found that levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse (including alcohol and hard drugs) were even higher among these presumably “privileged” young people than they were among the teens in poverty (Luthar & Latendresse, 2005).

In subsequent research, Luthar and her colleagues found that the most significant variable in predicting such problems is not family wealth per se but attendance at a high-achieving school (HAS). They found that the suffering among students at HASs is not limited to those from wealthy families (Ebbert et al., 2019). Students from families of more modest means at such schools also suffer. What matters is the degree to which the young people feel their self-worth depends on high academic achievement and success at the extracurricular activities, such as varsity sports, promoted and valued by the school.

In one study, encompassing nine high achieving schools, some private and some public, they found rates of clinically significant levels of anxiety and depression that were six to seven times the national average for people in that age range (Luthar, Kumar & Zillmer, 2020). They also found that the cause of these problems, for students at HASs, was very different from that for students in poverty. While students in poverty struggle for physical safety and survival, HAS students suffer from intense, unrelenting pressure to achieve (Luthar, Kumar & Zillmer, 2020).

Longitudinal research has revealed that the harmful effects of attending a high-achieving high school continue well beyond graduation. One study showed that rates of clinically significant alcohol and drug dependence, among graduates of HASs, were two to three times as high as the national average throughout college and for at least several years beyond (Luthar, Small, & Ciciolla, 2018). One very long-term study, begun in the 1960s, revealed that graduates of highly selective high schools were performing more poorly, at follow-ups 11 years and 50 years later, than were graduates of unselective schools matched for socioeconomic background of their family of origin (Gölner et al, 2018). Those who had gone to unselective high schools were not only psychologically healthier but were making more money and were more likely to be in high-status jobs than were those who had gone to selective schools.

The real currency of the professional elite

Sunday, June 13th, 2021

The Class Ceiling combines an analysis of earnings data from the large-scale Labour Force Survey with findings from the Great British Class Survey (an online questionnaire hosted on the BBC website in 2011) to explain why it pays to be privileged:

In the case of the creative industries, being told that their employment practices are classist, racist and sexist would irritate and anger most senior staff, even when they implicitly accept the reality. Take their case study of one of the major TV companies, which they disguise as “6TV”, who, in the words of one self-employed — and underemployed — working-class actor, are “all these middle-class people making…working-class programme[s]”.

The creative industries’ diversity problem is obvious from the outset. It is partly about behaviour, an easy switch between the demotic and more rarefied. Senior commissioners at 6TV can put their boxfresh trainers up on the desk and swear freely, but only because they know how to do it at the right time and in the “right” context.

Friedman and Laurison’s interviews illustrate the power of “studied informality” — essentially the way in which working class ways of being have been ruthlessly appropriated by the upper middle-class as a way to make money and cachet from authenticity. 6TV’s commissioners pride themselves on programming that connects with “real people”, living “real lives” in “real places”. At the company’s gladiatorial commissioning meetings, where programme ideas get thrashed out, the most coveted skill is a kind of highbrow banter. You can proclaim, as one commissioner does, that “We’re talking about TV…it’s not Hegel!”, but you still have to know who Hegel is and to know how to get a laugh out of bringing up his name.

In other words, the authors highlight the multiplying effects of factors that privilege the already privileged. It’s not just that having rich parents makes your upbringing well resourced, which in turn makes you less risk-averse, secure in the knowledge that you have money to fall back on. It means being used to dinner settings with more than one fork. It means going to schools where the stock in trade is the cultivation not of passionate argument but of dispassionate debating skills — because none of it really matters, does it Boris? Wordplay, wit, highbrow references, and above all, the display of lightly worn intelligence deployed to raise a knowing chuckle, are the real currency of the professional elite.

They’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organization that has to deal with everyday realities

Saturday, June 12th, 2021

R.R. Reno is not inclined to hire graduates from America’s elite universities:

A decade ago I relished the opportunity to employ talented graduates of Princeton, Yale, Harvard and the rest. Today? Not so much.

As a graduate of Haverford College, a fancy school outside Philadelphia, I took interest in the campus uproar there last fall. It concerned “antiblackness” and the “erasure of marginalized voices.” A student strike culminated in an all-college Zoom meeting for undergraduates. The college president and other administrators promised to “listen.” During the meeting, many students displayed a stunning combination of thin-skinned narcissism and naked aggression. The college administrators responded with self-abasing apologies.

Haverford is a progressive hothouse. If students can be traumatized by “insensitivity” on that leafy campus, then they’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organization that has to deal with everyday realities. And in any event, I don’t want to hire someone who makes inflammatory accusations at the drop of a hat.

Student activists don’t represent the majority of students. But I find myself wondering about the silent acquiescence of most students. They allow themselves to be cowed by charges of racism and other sins. I sympathize. The atmosphere of intimidation in elite higher education is intense. But I don’t want to hire a person well-practiced in remaining silent when it costs something to speak up.

The work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams

Tuesday, June 8th, 2021

A few days ago, on the way home from school, Paul Graham’s nine-year-old son told him he couldn’t wait to get home to write more of the story he was working on:

This made me as happy as anything I’ve heard him say — not just because he was excited about his story, but because he’d discovered this way of working. Working on a project of your own is as different from ordinary work as skating is from walking. It’s more fun, but also much more productive.


You have moments of happiness when things work out, but they don’t last long, because then you’re on to the next problem. So why do it at all? Because to the kind of people who like working this way, nothing else feels as right. You feel as if you’re an animal in its natural habitat, doing what you were meant to do — not always happy, maybe, but awake and alive.


Instead of telling kids that their treehouses could be on the path to the work they do as adults, we tell them the path goes through school. And unfortunately schoolwork tends be very different from working on projects of one’s own. It’s usually neither a project, nor one’s own.


It’s a bit sad to think of all the high school kids turning their backs on building treehouses and sitting in class dutifully learning about Darwin or Newton to pass some exam, when the work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams.


When I was picking startups for Y Combinator, I didn’t care about applicants’ grades. But if they’d worked on projects of their own, I wanted to hear all about those.

Some kids can color in the lines and others can’t

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

Born in 1981, Freddie deBoer is an English Ph.D., Nick Gillespie notes, and the author of The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice:

He is also a third-generation Marxist who believes that individuals are innately different from one another (probably due to inherited differences in intelligence and physical capacity) and that many of his fellow Bernie Sanders-loving, progressive inhabitants of Brooklyn are hurting the poor when they insist that all K-12 students take college prep classes and have access to higher education. “Education is not a weapon against inequality; it is an engine of inequality,” he writes, sounding like Dirty Jobs‘ Mike Rowe when it comes to promoting well-paying but low-status trade jobs. What deBoer calls “the cult of smart” — the valorization of test-taking and a belief that all of us are blank slates who can be remediated through the right sort of instruction and environment — not only marginalizes the poor and “untalented,” it ultimately blames them for their own condition.

Freddie deBoer gives his own brief primer on the text:

The Cult of Smart is not buttressed by evidence; in fact it is often directly contradicted by evidence. The idea that education is the key to a better economic future for individuals and our country has been promoted by every president going back at least as far as Reagan. Educational achievement has expanded at essentially every level, with better than 90% of American adults now holding a high school diploma, more than 35% now holding bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees exploding, with the number of people holding such degrees increasing by more than 100 people per 100,000 people in less than 25 years. And yet in the last 25 years while we were becoming a vastly more educated nation, working age poverty (the metric of relevance here) barely changed and income inequality rose dramatically. The troubling separation between productivity and real wages continued. The failure of rapidly-rising college participation rates to reduce poverty or inequality in the way typically argued reflect broader dynamics, or so the book argues: college creates inequality rather than reduces it, and if everyone got a college degree (as the policy apparatus often pushes for), the financial value of a college degree would fall to zero. What’s more, America has always sucked at international educational comparisons, including during the periods of our greatest scientific, economic, and military dominance, undermining the basic claim that we need to succeed in school to succeed in general.

The Cult of Smart is self-serving. If we get rid of the influence of environment and assorted, we’ll be left with a system that prizes… what the people advocating for that system think makes them look best. All of those think tankers and politicos and journalists and “consultants” that push education as our great economic sorting system are themselves people who flourished in education. In many ways these people seem unwilling to think deeper than “this worked for me, so it can work for everyone.”


First, and simply, different people are better or worse at educational tasks of all stripes. Some kids can color in the lines and others can’t; some kids learn the alphabet faster than others; some kids crunch through equations more accurately; some score in the 25th percentile on their state standardized tests and some in the 75th percentile. Nothing controversial there, and nothing contrary to a purely environmental vision of what produces educational outcomes. But it’s important to remember that we have never observed educational equality of outcomes, whatever that could mean, in any context.

The second observation is vital, blatantly obvious to most career educators, and conveniently ignored in a great deal of our educational debates. As I argue in the book, people tend to think that what we care about in education is absolute learning — can a kid who could not do long division/recite the state capitols/tie his shoes do so now? But in fact what we are more concerned with is relative learning — are the bronze reading group kids catching up to the gold group/is the racial achievement gap closing/what percentile did you score in on the SAT? People constantly complain about poor scores on standardized tests without knowing the slightest thing about the content of those tests. That would make little sense if they were primarily concerned with absolute learning, with content. Instead, they care about how different groups perform relative to each other, and about the relative performance of their own child to his or her peers. And what you find, again and again, is that academic performance relative to peers is remarkably static. That is, kids tend to sort themselves into a given ability band early in their academic life and they tend to stay there.

“Tend” is an important word; there are plenty of exceptions. Individual students exceed their previous academic standing (or fall back in the pack) fairly often. But at scale, from the point of view of the system, it’s remarkable how static relative educational position is. There are tests you can give to very young children that predict how well they’ll do in kindergarten. The grades students achieve in the earliest grades tend to produce performance distributions that persist all the way through their academic lives. Indeed, data gathered the summer after kindergarten provides useful predictive information about how students will perform in college. Third grade reading group (age 8/9), by itself, is a strong predictor of how a student will perform by the end of high school (age 17/18). SAT results don’t just give us quite accurate information about how well test takers will perform in their first year of college. They give us useful predictive information about whether test takers will ever hold a patent or write a bestselling book. Kids sort themselves into an educational hierarchy and they mostly don’t move. That this is not the first thing mentioned in every educational discussion is a function of the fact that it is not polite.

Ice Novice to Winter Olympian in 14 Months

Friday, May 21st, 2021

In August 2004, the Australian Institute for Sport, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), had a year and a half to try to qualify a woman for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, in the sport of skeleton:

The Aussie scientists had never even seen the sport, but they had learned that the beginning sprint accounts for about half of the variation in total race time. So they announced a nationwide call for women who could fit snugly on a tiny sled and who could sprint.


The women came from track, gymnastics, water skiing, and surf lifesaving, a popular sport in Australia that mixes open-water rowing and kayaking, surf paddling, swimming, and footraces in the sand. Not one woman had heard of skeleton, much less tried it.

Five of the ten spots were filled solely based on the 30-meter sprint, the other five by consensus of the scientists and AIS coaches, based on how well the athletes did in a dry land test during which they had to jump on a sled fitted with wheels.


Within three slides, the newbies were recording the fastest runs in Australian history, faster than the previous national record holder, who had had years of training. “That first week on the track, it was all over,” says Gulbin. “The writing was on the wall.”


Ten weeks after she first set foot on ice, Melissa Hoar bested about half the field at the world under-twenty-three skeleton championships. (She won the title in her next try.) And beach sprinter Michelle Steele made it all the way to the Winter Olympics in Italy.

The AIS titled their paper on the project “Ice Novice to Winter Olympian in 14 Months.”

Australia, a world sports powerhouse, has thrived off talent identification and “talent transfer,” the switching of athletes between sports. In 1994, as part of the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the country launched its National Talent Search program. Children ages fourteen to sixteen were examined in school for body size and tested for general athleticism. Australia, home to 19.1 million people at the time, won 58 medals in Sydney. That’s 3.03 medals for every million citizens, nearly ten times the relative haul of the United States, which took home 0.33 medals per million Americans.

Graf was at the top of every single test

Monday, May 17th, 2021

Psychologist Wolfgang Schneider had no idea in 1978, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), that he was being handed the study sample of a lifetime when the German Tennis Federation helped him recruit 106 of the top eight-to-twelve-year-old tennis players in the country:

Of 106 kids, 98 ultimately made it to the professional level, 10 rose to the top 100 players in the world, and a few climbed all the way to the top 10.


When the researchers eventually fit their data to the actual rankings of the players later on, the children’s tennis-specific skill scores predicted 60 to 70 percent of the variance in their eventual adult tennis ranking.


The tests of general athleticism — for example, a thirty-meter sprint and start-and-stop agility drills — influenced which children would acquire the tennis-specific skills most rapidly.


“We called Steffi Graf the perfect tennis talent,” Schneider says. “She outperformed the others in tennis-specific skills and basic motor skills, and we also predicted from her lung capacity that she could have ended up as the European champion in the 1500-meters.”

Graf was at the top of every single test, from measures of her competitive desire to her ability to sustain concentration to her running speed. Years later, when Graf was the best tennis player in the world, she would train for endurance alongside Germany’s Olympic track runners.


The future pros not only tend to practice more, but they take responsibility for practicing better.


“What we see in the shuttle sprints,” Elferink-Gemser says, “is that the ones signing a professional contract later are the ones that are on average 0.2 seconds faster when they are younger, at the age of twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. They are always on a group average about 0.2 seconds faster than the ones who end up on the amateur level. That really gives some indication that it is important to be fast. You need a minimum speed. If you’re really slow, then you cannot catch up, and speed is really hard for them to train.”


“We’ve tested over ten thousand boys,” he says, “and I’ve never seen a boy who was slow become fast.”

The players were literally off the charts

Thursday, May 13th, 2021

Louis J. Rosenbaum had been the team ophthalmologist for the Phoenix Cardinals football team, but in 1992, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), he was brought in to work with the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, and he met with an unexpected problem:

The players were literally off the charts.


The trouble was that Rosenbaum used commercially available Landolt ring charts, which tested visual acuity down to 20/15. Nearly every player maxed out the test.

Landolt Ring Chart

When Tommy Lasorda asked him to predict which minor leaguer would thrive in the major league, he didn’t have the players’ baseball statistics, but he did have the vision testing data from his other tests:

He chose a minor league first baseman with outstanding scores. The player was Eric Karros, a mere sixth-round pick in the 1988 draft. By ’92, though, Karros was starting at first base for the Dodgers and won the National League Rookie of the Year award. It was his first of thirteen full seasons as a major leaguer.

The following spring, Rosenbaum returned to Dodgertown with a custom-made visual acuity test that went down to 20/8. Given the size and shape of particular photoreceptor cells, or cones, in the eye, 20/8 is around the theoretical limit of human visual acuity.


This time, the player whose vision tests stood out to Rosenbaum was Mike Piazza, a lightly regarded catcher.

Piazza had been picked by the Dodgers five years earlier in the sixty-second round of the draft, the 1,390th player taken overall, and only because Piazza’s father was a childhood friend of Lasorda’s. Nonetheless, Piazza would make good on Rosenbaum’s prediction. He won the National League Rookie of the Year in 1993 and went on to become the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history.

Over four years of testing, and 387 minor and major league players, Rosenbaum and his team found an average visual acuity around 20/13.


Major league position players had an average right eye visual acuity of 20/11 and an average left eye visual acuity of 20/12. In the test of fine depth perception, 58 percent of the baseball players scored “superior,” compared with 18 percent of a control population. In tests of contrast sensitivity, the pro players scored better than collegiate baseball players had in previous research, and collegiate players scored better than young people in the general population.

In each eye test, pro baseball players were better than nonathletes, and major league players were better than minor league players.

“Half the guys on the Dodgers’ major league roster were 20/10 uncorrected,” Rosenbaum says.


In the Indian study, out of 9,411 tested eyes, one single eye had 20/10 vision. In the Beijing Eye Study, only 22 out of 4,438 eyes tested at 20/17 or better.


Seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds in a Swedish study had average visual acuity around 20/16.

Ted Williams, the last man to hit .400 over a major league season, used to insist that he only saw ducks on the horizon before his hunting partners because he was “intent on seeing them.” Perhaps. But Williams’s 20/10 vision, discovered during his World War II pilot’s exam, probably didn’t hurt either.

About 2 percent of the players in the Dodgers organization dipped below 20/9, flirting with the theoretical limit of the human eye.


When Laby and Kirschen studied U.S. Olympians from the 2008 Beijing Games, they found that the softball team had an average visual acuity of 20/11, outstanding depth perception, and better contrast sensitivity than athletes from any other sport.

Olympic archers also had exceptional visual acuity — they scored similarly to the Dodgers — but not particularly good depth perception. That makes sense, Laby says, because the target is far away, but it’s also flat.

Fencers, who must make rapid use of tiny, close-range variations in distance, scored very well on depth perception.

Athletes who track flying objects at a distance — softball players and to a lesser extent soccer and volleyball players — scored well on contrast sensitivity, which is “probably set at a certain ability you’re born with,” Laby says.


In a study of catching skill among Belgian college students, some of whom had normal depth perception and others who had weak depth perception, there was little difference in catching ability at low ball speeds. But at high speeds, there was a tremendous difference in catching skill.


A clever follow-up study by an international team of scientists recruited a group of young women, all with normal visual acuity but some who had poor depth perception and others with good depth perception. Each woman had a catching pretest — in which she had to snag tennis balls shot out of a machine — followed by more than 1,400 practice catches over two weeks, and then a posttest. The women with good depth perception improved rapidly during the training, while the women with poor depth perception didn’t improve at all.


Conversely, a 2009 Emory medical school study suggested that children with poor depth perception start self-selecting out of Little League baseball and softball by age ten.

In simple tasks, practice brings people closer together

Sunday, May 9th, 2021

In 1908, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), Edward Thorndike — the father of modern educational psychology — came up with a test for whether nature or nurture dominated ability at a task:

He figured that the way to distinguish nature from nurture was to give people the same amount of practice at a certain task and to see whether they became more or less alike. If their skill levels converged, Thorndike reasoned, then the impact of practice was overwhelming any innate individual differences. If they diverged, then nature was overpowering nurture.

In one experiment, Thorndike had adults practice multiplying three-digit numbers by three-digit numbers in their heads as quickly as they could. He was astounded by their improvement.


After one hundred practice trials, many of the subjects cut their mental computation time in half.


But while Thorndike saw across-the-board improvement, he also noted what sociologists often call a “Matthew effect.”


Thorndike saw that the subjects who did well at the start of the training also improved faster as the training progressed compared with the subjects who began more slowly.

Georgia Tech psychologist Phillip Ackerman has found that, in simple tasks, practice brings people closer together, but in complex ones, it often pulls them apart.

Top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status

Wednesday, May 5th, 2021

Studies of athletes, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), find that the top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status:

According to the scientific literature, the average sport-specific practice hours to reach the international levels in basketball, field hockey, and wrestling are closer to 4,000, 4,000, and 6,000, respectively.

In a sample of Australian women competing in netball (sort of like basketball but without dribbling or backboards), arguably the best player in the world at the time, Vicki Wilson, had compiled only 600 hours of practice when she made the national team.

A study of athletes on Australia’s senior national teams found that 28 percent of them started their sport at an average age of seventeen, having previously tried on average three other sports, and debuted at the international level just four years later.

10,000 hours, plus or minus 10,000 hours

Saturday, May 1st, 2021

In The Sports Gene David Epstein tells a tale of two high jumpers.

Stefan Holm was inspired by the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which he watched on TV as a four-year-old in his native Sweden, to jump over the sofa. He broke his arm but was undeterred. When he was six, his father built a high-jump pit in their backyard out of pillows and an old mattress. He became obsessed with the sport. At 15, he won the Swedish youth championships.

But Holm was just 5’11″, not 6’7″, like his idol Patrik Sjöberg. To compensate, he developed a sprinting approach and started taking off from farther and farther away from the bar.

In 1998, he won the first of eleven consecutive Swedish national championships. He trained 12 sessions per week.

Without a running start, Holm’s standing vertical jump hovered around twenty-eight inches, which is perfectly pedestrian for an athlete. But his blazing fast approach allowed him to slam down on his Achilles tendon, which would then act like a rebounding spring to propel him over the bar. When scientists examined Holm, they determined that his left Achilles tendon had hardened so much from his workout regimen that a force of 1.8 tons was needed to stretch it a single centimeter, about four times the stiffness of an average man’s Achilles, making it an unusually powerful launching mechanism.

In 2005, a year after he won the Olympic title, Holm earned a qualification of the perfect human projectile: he cleared 7’10.5″, equaling the record for the highest high-jump differential between the bar and the jumper’s own height.

In 2007 he entered the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, as the favorite, and was facing a competitor he barely knew, Donald Thomas, from the Bahamas. Thomas had just begun high jumping, in the U.S. A friend at college had dared him to high-jump a 6’6″ bar, and he did. Then he cleared 6’8″. Then he cleared 7 feet. So they told the track coach:

Two days later, in a black tank top and white Nike sneakers and shorts so baggy they blanketed the bar as he passed over it, Thomas cleared 6’8.25″ on his first attempt, qualifying for the national championships. Then he cleared 7’0.25″ for a new Lindenwood University record. And then, on the seventh high jump attempt of his life, with rigid form akin to a man riding an invisible deck chair backward through the air, Thomas cleared 7’3.25″, a Lantz Indoor Fieldhouse record. That’s when Coach Lohr forced him to stop out of concern that he might hurt himself.


In his first full season, Thomas cleared 7’7.75″ to win the NCAA indoor high jump championship.

Thomas won the 2007 world championship.

Starbucks has succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families, and communities have failed to provide

Wednesday, April 28th, 2021

Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit) how companies are teaching their employees the kind of habits they didn’t learn at home:

The training has, Travis says, changed his life. Starbucks has taught him how to live, how to focus, how to get to work on time, and how to master his emotions. Most crucially, it has taught him willpower.


For Travis and thousands of others, Starbucks — like a handful of other companies — has succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families, and communities have failed to provide. With more than 137,000 current employees and more than one million alumni, Starbucks is now, in a sense, one of the nation’s largest educators. All of those employees, in their first year alone, spent at least fifty hours in Starbucks classrooms, and dozens more at home with Starbucks’ workbooks and talking to the Starbucks mentors assigned to them.


At the core of that education is an intense focus on an all-important habit: willpower. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.


“Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not….Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”


Scientists began conducting related experiments, trying to figure out how to help kids increase their self-regulatory skills. They learned that teaching them simple tricks — such as distracting themselves by drawing a picture, or imagining a frame around the marshmallow, so it seemed more like a photo and less like a real temptation — helped them learn self-control. By the 1980s, a theory emerged that became generally accepted: Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you.”


Employees with willpower lapses, it turned out, had no difficulty doing their jobs most of the time. On the average day, a willpower-challenged worker was no different from anyone else. But sometimes, particularly when faced with unexpected stresses or uncertainties, those employees would snap and their self-control would evaporate.


The manuals taught workers how to respond to specific cues, such as a screaming customer or a long line at a cash register. Managers drilled employees, role-playing with them until the responses became automatic. The company identified specific rewards — a grateful customer, praise from a manager — that employees could look to as evidence of a job well done.


“One of the systems we use is called the LATTE method. We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred.”


There’s the What What Why system of giving criticism and the Connect, Discover, and Respond system for taking orders when things become hectic.


This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.


Starbucks isn’t the only company to use such training methods. For instance, at Deloitte Consulting, the largest tax and financial services company in the world, employees are trained in a curriculum named “Moments That Matter,” which focuses on dealing with inflection points such as when a client complains about fees, when a colleague is fired, or when a Deloitte consultant has made a mistake. For each of those moments, there are preprogrammed routines — Get Curious, Say What No One Else Will, Apply the 5/5/5 Rule — that guide employees in how they should respond.

At the Container Store, employees receive more than 185 hours of training in their first year alone.