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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

I grew up loving basketball, and Alan Seiden was the best high school basketball player I've ever seen. He was also my neighbor and a classmate at Jamaica High School in New York City. One of the most indelible memories from my youth is watching Alan hit one beautiful jump shot after another at Madison Square Garden as he helped lead our team to the city championship. The New York Times compared him favorably to the basketball legend Bob Cousy. He went on to St. John's, became one of the greatest stars in the history of that university's basketball team, and was a two time All-American. He also played briefly in the pros.

A few years later, I was shocked to bump into him as he stood on Broadway selling theater tickets. Many years after that, I heard from a friend that he was grossly overweight and living with his mom back in Queens. I read his obituary in the Times a few years ago, and a wave of sadness passed over me.

I often think about Alan, remember him shooting baskets through his garage hoop and in all his glory that night at the Garden. And I keep thinking about whether anything could have been done when he was in high school to somehow better prepare him for the inevitable fall from stardom that was to come.

The Dark Side of Hero Worship

If this were just about Alan Seiden, I wouldn't be writing this post.

But what happened to Alan has had me thinking about how we can better help prepare high school star athletes for life without stardom. High school, and in some cases college, will likely be their highest point of being center-stage stars. The fact is that few high school stars ever continue to be stars much past their early 20s. As teachers and parents, I think we can somehow do a better job preparing them for this reality and a meaningful life beyond stardom.

I think these stars often slip through our attention screen and that we sometimes unwittingly become part of the problem.

In Alan's case, there were warnings, unseen by most except close friends and teammates. Although he had a big heart, he was arrogant and used to always getting his own way. He had problems with authority. He responded poorly to criticism. He lacked some basic social skills. There is even evidence that he may have had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Not surprisingly, he was obsessed with basketball and interested in little else. What if his coach or teachers or parents had really picked up on some of those problems? They apparently didn't.

So what can we do as teachers and parents?

One starting place is to at least not be part of the problem by participating in the veneration of star athletes. I think teachers, especially those who love competitive sports, can be prone to a degree of hero worship of star athletes. I was often as mesmerized by my talented athlete kids as their peers were, and unless a star athlete acted out in class, I usually just assumed that life was good for him or her.

The last thing these students need is further bloating of their own sense of greatness. Contributing to an unrealistic sense of self-importance is likely to create real problems in adjusting to life in the real world outside stardom.

The two most obvious opportunities to provide proper mentoring come from parents and especially from coaches. I think the best coaches, those who see themselves as educators and counselors, often do this very effectively. Unfortunately, a majority of coaches see their roles only as skill teachers and motivators.

Vigilance and Tough Love

One of the best models I know for both teachers and coaches is a fictional one, although loosely based on a real coach. Eric Taylor, the football coach in the television series Friday Night Lights, played beautifully by Kyle Chandler, continually helped keep his stars balanced. Personifying "tough love," he helped counsel them, confronted arrogant, self-centered behavior, urged them to develop fully as people, not just as athletes, and carefully avoided venerating them in any way. I highly recommend watching the whole series, although "Don't Go," episode 10 from season 5, is one good prototypical one. Check out the program's web page for a full description and episode guide.

A short New York Times piece by sport psychologist Joel Fish provides some good advice for the parents of highly skilled athletes.

But one of the most perfect pieces I've come across with advice for the parents, teachers and the star athletes themselves was an article by Mike Muldoon in the Newburyport News, from Newburyport, Massachusetts, entitled "Oath for Athletes, Parents, and Coaches."

I think we also need to be aware that in today’s climate in which star athletes make millions of dollars and students see athletic stars continually demonstrating arrogance on the court and field, our challenge is even greater.

I don't know if any of us could have "saved" Alan Seiden, even knowing all of this. But, knowing what I do now, I'd have wanted to kick his butt and also help him develop some other truly meaningful avocation that could have led to his eventually "starring" in another professional field. I do know that, like Holden Caulfield, we can't help every kid from falling off a cliff. I just think we can do a better job with kids like Alan.

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Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger 2014

The film version of "Friday Night Lights" is readily available on DVD and Blu-Ray. The real life coach, Gary Gaines, played by Billy Bob Thornton, taught his players that "Football is not life. Life is what comes before and after." He did a great job of preparing his players for a life beyond stardom.

http://www.universalstudiosentertainment.com/friday-night-lights/

Carrie Schmeck's picture

I've often thought about this. Being the "star" carries much responsibility. As you pointed out, for those to whom popularity comes from on-field prowess, there is little incentive to hone social skills. There is always someone else clamoring to be near.
It's part of the answer to, "why are the mean kids the popular kids?"

Brad's picture

As one struggling with OCPD (a bit different than OCD), I am able to relate with the story described above. Sometimes when we believe that we are worthless in our youth, there is one activity in which we find meaning because we experience some success. This singular activity tends to control our lives thereafter disabling us from experiencing worth in any other life pursuit. Many of us feel this way about our religious faith struggling to find identity outside of it. Thus, while hero worship certainly applies to those who are esteemed highly on the basketball court, it can certainly also apply to those who experience meaning, purpose, and worth in other endeavors causing disequilibrium, imbalance, and myopia.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger 2014

What a thoughtful and insightful comment. I hadn't thought about that and it is right on target.

What I described in my column is, in someways, the tip of a very important iceberg. What you describe is something every teacher and parent should be aware of and be able to, at the very least, compensate for and include in their mentoring process.

Thanks again.

Mark

[quote]As one struggling with OCPD (a bit different than OCD), I am able to relate with the story described above. Sometimes when we believe that we are worthless in our youth, there is one activity in which we find meaning because we experience some success. This singular activity tends to control our lives thereafter disabling us from experiencing worth in any other life pursuit. Many of us feel this way about our religious faith struggling to find identity outside of it. Thus, while hero worship certainly applies to those who are esteemed highly on the basketball court, it can certainly also apply to those who experience meaning, purpose, and worth in other endeavors causing disequilibrium, imbalance, and myopia.[/quote]

Carrie M.'s picture
Carrie M.
Middle School PE teacher in California

Great reading!!
You bring up a topic that is more true nowadays then ever before I think. I am a coach as well as a teacher and I am just amazed at the difference between kids now and when I was growing up. At least where I teach, it seems like so many students feel that everything is owed to them for their greatness. They act like they are above everyone else. Many of them are involved in sports and are constantly told by their parents that sports are going to take them far. A lot of them forget to enforce the importance of school and at least teach them to have a back up plan if their athletic dreams don't work out. As a coach, I am always stressing the importance of school and figuring out what your plan is going to be outside of sports. I also teach them to be humble in everything they do! Thank you for your post on this topic, It is nice to know others are thinking about it too!

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger 2014

Thanks Carrie, especially for what you're doing as a coach!

Up My Game's picture
Up My Game
Up My Game connects athletes and coaches.

Perhaps some of the problem as well is that we see sport - and especially elite sport - as the domain of youth and once that is done then we as athletes are done too. But we can always learn and improve and perhaps we need to reframe sport as something that is to be enjoyed throughout one's life and to do that we need to start helping athletes see themselves as they will be when they are older. I am not sure how to do this - off the top of my head, there are several different ways to go at it - but in helping young athletes to realize they will be older some day - and that it is not necessarily a bad thing because they can continue to enjoy playing and improving at what they love - then perhaps that could help these athletes like Alan Seiden to not burn pout so abruptly.

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