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Coach Schools MG on How to Buck the System

By Malcolm Gladwell, 09/02/22, 10:15AM EDT


One of the most interesting responses I got to my two-part bulletin series on fixing high school sports was from a writer named Linda Flanagan. In the course of disagreeing (gently) with some of my arguments, she mentioned that she was about to come out with a book about what’s wrong with high school sports and how to fix it. Well, now it's out!

Flanagan’s book is called Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania are Ruining Kids’ Sports—and Why It Matters. I read it this past weekend, and I think it’s a profoundly important book. Every parent needs to read it. So I asked Flanagan if she would answer a few questions for Oh, MG, and she graciously said yes.


Linda Flanagan has written for a number of magazines, including The Atlantic, and—as her book reveals—she’s also a wise and seasoned cross-country coach. Most importantly, she is a very good runner (much faster than me)—which means I’m inclined to defer to her on all matters. Anyway, you can buy her book here.


Oh, MG readers—meet Linda Flanagan!


MG: Take Back the Game reads like a (semi) angry manifesto over what has happened to youth sports in recent decades. Can you describe what led to your radicalization on this question? Was there a moment when you finally realized—“This is nuts!”


LF: There wasn’t one single incident that tipped me over the edge. But having been a believer in the give-it-time approach to athletic development, I was disturbed after having my own kids at how immediately parents rushed in to sign them up for organized sports. It all felt premature and unrelated to the child/toddler’s interest (and maybe more about how bored we all were at home).


I suppose I grew radicalized when I started coaching, and experienced firsthand how obsessive and warped it had become—and how overly invested parents were in their kids’ athletic success. What especially irked me was how some adults looked at running as a means for their child to attain another, more important, end: to make them faster on the lacrosse field, or give them an edge in admissions to Wake Forest. The joy and heartache and richness of devotion to a sport had nothing to do with it.


I also had a hard time squaring their obsessiveness with my own parents’ realistic and moderate approach to sports. My parents suffered no delusions about any of my siblings or me doing anything athletically beyond playing for enjoyment and health, which they both modeled.


MG: Can you talk more about your sports experience growing up and how it compares to the experience of your own kids? How much has changed in that single generation?


LF: The way I played sports differed wildly from how my kids were expected to engage with them. Most important, my sports were local, cheap, and devoid of excessive parental interference. Apart from the occasional tennis lesson, and three days of tennis camp during one teenage summer, I played only on a town softball league and then for my middle and high schools. There were no clubs or travel teams that I was aware of, and I doubt my parents would have signed onto them if there were.


I didn’t take up my most serious sport, running, until high school, and only then on my own time. To say my parents were uninvolved would be a gross understatement. Running was alien to them, and though they weren’t so clueless as to ask, “How long was that marathon?” they had no understanding of it. This suited me fine, as I was free to chart my own course with the sport.


With my own kids—and all my contemporaries will speak to this—the soccer and T-ball and basketball leagues began no later than age five. In the book, I explain how my husband Bob and I cajoled our uninspired daughter, who really just wanted to engage with her collection of carved animals, to the soccer field for Saturday games. She hated it (but less than she did dance, in which she’d retreat to the floor of the studio in her pink tutu and curl into a fetal ball). We didn’t push it any longer. Forcing a five-year-old to “play” a sport ran counter to our belief that there’s no better way to kill an interest in athletics than by mandating participation.


But our youngest son loved all sports, so we signed him up for anything he wanted to join: soccer, basketball, and baseball. By 3rd grade, all his peers joined a travel soccer club, which we dumbly went along with. He also played for a “select” baseball and basketball team made up of kids in town, starting around 5th grade and continuing through middle school—both run by the same man, a devoted father—and then played for his high-school teams. He had a three-week tenure with an AAU basketball team (short for “Amateur Athletic Union”) in high school, too, but we called off that nonsense when we realized, all of us, that it was pointless and absurd.


The pressure on parents to join club or travel teams for kids has grown dramatically even since my kids were young. In my community, the town’s “elite” soccer club offers “Pre-Academy (U5)” programs for kids, run by “professional soccer trainers from USA Soccer.” They also offer “Junior Pre-Academy (U4)” sessions for parents who want to give their kids a head start. In case you’re unfamiliar, the “U” stands for “under”: these programs are for three- and four-year-olds!


While it would seem to go without saying, the nursery school set doesn’t need instruction from professional trainers. Even more disheartening, a friend who runs a low-key lacrosse camp for children is often asked by parents if they’ve waited too long to start their kindergartener in the game.


MG: I really loved the story you told about running at Oxford University, when you were a graduate student. It made me want to enroll at Oxford and join the cross country team!


LF: Our cross country and track (known there as “athletics”) teams were entirely student-run. We had no coaches whatsoever. Typically, the captain managed the team, and everyone just went along with it. I was captain of the XC team my second year and made it up as I went along, with input from the other girls and the boys’ captain.


These teams were larger than my university teams in the United States, and quite competitive, though there wasn’t an excessive focus on winning. (The only race that mattered to anyone was our yearly match against Cambridge.) Everyone who ran was there by choice and could leave at any time. No one took attendance or kept track of anyone’s splits. We had some outsized talent, too: British marathoner Richard Nerurkar, who finished 5th at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, ran for Oxford when I was there, and was just one of the lads on the team.


What struck me then was that we runners were there because we loved the sport, not to satisfy a glowering adult or mysterious governing body.


MG: I think this is a really crucial point. It seems to me that one particularly American disease is to focus entirely on the benefits of adding resources—financial, organizational, physical—and never to think about the downside of that kind of investment. Is the most expensive meal you’ve ever eaten also the best meal you’ve ever eaten? I doubt it. Sometimes adding money has unintended consequences. (This reminds me of a brilliant piece you wrote a few years back for The Atlantic onthe problem with Title IX. But that’s a topic for another time.)


Next question! You aren’t just an athlete, you’re also a coach—and a lot of this book is about the role of coaches. Can you talk about what specific things your time as a coach taught you? Is there any way for individual coaches, by themselves, to buck the system?


LF: I learned so much as a coach, first about myself: that I have a special place in my heart for teenagers. Most were a sweet blend of innocence and worry, often obscured by posturing or insecurity, and sometimes with an overlay of pseudo-sophistication. We coaches have a privileged view of teenagers, as the neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang told me, because we are with them during their most vulnerable times.


I was surprised to realize that my girls’ success felt at least as gratifying to me as my own triumphs as a runner. There’s a downside to this, though, and it explains why coaches lash out at athletes when the team doesn’t shine. The kids’ performance can feel like a reflection of the coach and her abilities, which can make losing embarrassing. This is ego at its ugliest, and I learned as a coach to muffle my disappointment when my team had a bad day, reminding myself that they wanted to do well, too.


A day or two after a stinging loss, I’d call them together and start by asking them what they thought went wrong, and what they believed we needed to do differently, if anything. This was our team, and ourperformance, so we had to work together to make improvements. And if the coach is the team’s leader, he should be willing to step up and admit that maybe he made some mistakes, too.


My coaching methods evolved over the years to reflect this more democratic approach. Issuing proclamations from on high will get you compliance, and perhaps some short-term success, but it won’t make them embrace the sport for its own sake. My goal was to make them lifelong runners, not retirees from the sport at 18. Invite them in!

What else did I learn?

That the old trope about “kids these days” being lazy, spoiled, and soft is dead wrong, at least in my experience.


It’s easy for coaches to forget that high school kids have more to do than just obey our instructions. The girls I coached were balancing their athletics with AP and honors classes, with choir or debate club, perhaps violin lessons, and countless other time-consuming school activities in which they were also expected to excel. Some had complicated home lives as well, with unspoken but obvious expectations that they’d be attending an elite university, and nearly all were trying to avoid the clear and present danger posed by social media.


I also learned, or at least have come to believe, that deplorable coaching behavior—humiliating children, demeaning them for making mistakes, and punishing them with exercise, for God’s sake!—continues because our culture permits a carve-out for incivility in sports.


We don’t tolerate this conduct in the classroom or the workplace, and there’s no reason to allow it on the playing fields. It persists because this is the way we’ve always done it. If we viewed coaches as educators, and coaches were trained properly in how to work with kids, adult men and women who scream at children for bobbling a ball or missing a layup would be viewed with the disdain they deserve.


The only way to buck the system as a coach is to work at a school or for a league that puts child development over the win/loss record. I was fortunate to work under some broad-minded athletic directors who recognized this and who supported the coaches when the occasional parent went after us. In the absence of that kind of backing, you’ll be too demoralized to show up for practice.


MG: You're a runner. I’m a runner. Can we admit that all these problems would be solved if everyone just ran track and cross country? (Kidding!)


LF: Obviously, Malcolm, the world would be more peace-loving and respectful if everyone ran regularly. It’s the best sport on earth! And in all honesty, I do find runners generally to be thoughtful and disciplined. It’s possible that I’m biased. On the other hand, maybe they/we should shut up a bit about our training and the joys of our sport. Regrettably, no one wants to hear about our workouts.


MG: I first heard from you because you had a very thoughtful response to my proposal for Pied Piper races in high school cross country. Can you describe where you think my idea falls short?


LF: I think it falls short in a few ways. First, not everyone who joins a cross country team is eager to race. In my experience, the girls who weren’t especially competitive joined XC because they enjoyed being with friends and wanted to get a little exercise. It wasn’t about racing at all. Indeed, some would have been happier if races were off the calendar entirely. I reckon that if we’d adopted the Pied Piper solution, and the top 20 suddenly had to care about their performance, rather than simply plod along after school with pals, they’d have fled the team.


MG: You aren’t the first to bring up this point. And I’m ready to semi-concede. The team size doesn’t have to be 20! It just has to be more than five. I just think there is some psychological value in making the scoring “team” larger than just the hardest of the hardcore and the fastest of the fast.

But wait. You have more objections? Lol.


LF: Yes! The second reason has to do with the role of the coach. I believe an enthusiastic and encouraging cross-country coach can attract and build a big team of runners, especially at a large school, if he or she focuses on improvement. Then, the object is to do better against yourself rather than to make it to varsity. Of course, competitive types will want to be the fastest and make the varsity squad, but as long as most are improving, perhaps making the JV team, they’ll likely keep striving.


It’s when kids feel stagnant—when they believe there’s no chance of getting faster and moving up the ladder—that they get discouraged. If the coach has no time for them, and can’t be bothered to notice their effort, then that, too, is demoralizing.

But this is what makes running so exciting for teenagers. I used to tell my girls all the time that they didn’t know how good they could be. If they kept training, and getting faster, and moving forward—as most will do with consistent mileage and some workouts—they had no idea where they’d end up. It was the possibility of excellence that drove them to keep training.


MG: Yes. Totally agree. Changing the structure of a team sport only gets you so far. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t experiment from time to time, right?

For example, I’ve always been a huge fan of the Elam Ending in basketball. It’s a response to the fact that basketball games devolve at the end of the fourth quarter into an endless slog of fouls and time-outs. In the Elam Ending (named for the professor at Ball State who thought it up), the game clock is shut off at some point near the end of the game. And the referees set a target score for the game—typically by adding 8 points to the leading team’s tally. So if the score is 70-64, the target is 78 points, and the first team to score 78 wins.

Have you ever seen an Elam Ending? So much better than normal basketball. Does it solve all of basketball’s problems? Of course not. You still need a good coach to figure out how to exploit that new competitive environment. But I still think basketball would be greatly improved if leagues were willing to experiment more with innovations like the Elam. My Pied Piper suggestion was in the same spirit. Why not try and mix things up, and see what happens.


LF: Sorry, just thought of another caveat. Gladwell’s Law would destroy teams at small schools. It’s hard enough to get 10, 12, or even 15 kids to come out for cross country at a high school with 350 students; we’re up against soccer, volleyball, field hockey, and tennis. Gladwell’s Law would mark the demise of most smaller teams.


MG: OK. OK. I give up. :)

One last question! I have a one-year-old daughter, and, like every parent ever, I have great hopes for her athletic ability. Describe to me what you think would be the ideal sports experience for her between now and the time she graduates from college.


LF: The toughest challenge for athletic parents is resisting the urge to get going early—to sign ’em up for Junior Pre-Academy Soccer Training at age three, T-ball tryouts at age four, basketball basics at four-and-a-half. We know how wonderful sports can be, and we’re dying to watch them delight in activities that we loved.

But hold the door, Malcolm! In a perfect world, we allow our kids to figure out what they like to do of their own accord. Then, the sport is their thing, not ours.

Here’s what I’d suggest:


  • From age one to five or six: Play with her! YOU—not some hired gun with a clipboard and a whistle. Play catch, hide-and-seek, capture the flag, tag. Introduce her to a wide array of activities. If you live in a neighborhood with other kids, invite them to play, too. Keep it fun and light. Don’t keep score.


  • Elementary school years: If she’s interested, try a few low-key local teams run by your town or YMCA. These are great not only because the games don’t devour your weekend, but also because your child will get to know kids in other parts of your community. You, too, will meet parents from other walks of life. An underappreciated benefit of playing for the town leagues is that when she gets to middle school, assuming that your community has a few elementary schools that merge in 6th or 7th grade, she’ll know more classmates from those teams when they’re all tossed together. It eases the transition to middle school.


  • Meanwhile, throughout these years, keep active yourself. Show her the joy of running (or whatever sport you play), and share why it’s important to you. Watching a sport you love together will encourage her, too. Avoid club teams entirely. They’re expensive and time-consuming and unnecessary for kids in elementary school. Keep it all fun.


  • Middle school: Ask her what she wants. Does she still like soccer? How about basketball? “It’s your call, honey, but I think you’ll be happy if you play on a school team.” She joins the soccer team in the fall, takes off in the winter to do the play, and tries lacrosse in the spring. It’s all fun, she makes friends in different spheres, and develops herself broadly.


  • High school: She plays for the freshman soccer team. She does something else entirely during the winter—music, the play, volunteering, work. In the spring, she decides to give track a go. (All those kids who’d been playing lacrosse since 2nd grade were too far ahead for her to make the team. That’s OK, because she doesn’t want to tear her ACL like the two girls from last season.)


  • She does the same sports and activities as a sophomore: soccer in the fall, theater during winter, track in the spring. She starts running of her own volition the summer after sophomore year. As a junior, she plays soccer again. She’s not the best player, but is a fabulous teammate and ally of the coach. What she likes most about soccer is the running, and she’s gotten faster from her summer training. During the winter, she doesn’t compete for her school, but runs on her own, between volunteering/working/doing the play.

  • In the spring, she starts racing the mile and loves it. The coach encourages her, makes sure she doesn’t train more than six days a week, and insists on a gradual increase in mileage and reasonable workouts. She gets faster still—now a 5:20 miler—and starts wondering what it would be like to cross the 5-minute threshold. At the end of the season, she runs more to stay fit. She also calls her soccer coach to tell him that she’s decided to run cross country as a senior.


  • As a senior, she’s new to the cross-country team, but is a dedicated and talented runner. The coach is positive and supportive and doesn’t treat her like a rented mule. She loves her new teammates and is ecstatic about running.


  • Should she try to pursue cross-country in college? Not D-I, she decides. She wants to go abroad as a junior, and major in biology; it’s hard to get to labs when you’re training 30 hours a week in college. But maybe D-III. The college she most wants to attend happens to be D1, though. Because she’s smart—she’s a Gladwell—she applies to and gets into Stanford. She gives up the idea of running for her college. At the end of her senior year of high school, she runs track again, is named captain, and gets her time down to 5:12.


  • College and beyond: She goes to Stanford in the fall and loves it! And to her delight, she’s able to keep running with one of the many club teams on campus. She also decides that she wants to play intramural ultimate frisbee, because she’s fast and it’s fun. She volunteers to coach low-income girls in a Girls on the Run program.


  • She goes to Copenhagen as a junior, majors in biology, and makes friends with a cross-section of international runners while in Denmark. She graduates with honors from Stanford. When not managing her biotech startup, she joins a competitive local running club and meets people of different backgrounds. A year after graduating, she runs 4:58 for the mile. And she still loves it.


From your lips to God’s ears! Thank you, Linda.


Readers: Once again, here’s where you can order Take Back the Game. There are a million things in there that we didn’t get to!