Pint-Sized Phenoms: The "Prodigy" Edition

When I started this blog series I deliberately chose to name it "Pint-Sized PHENOMS" and not "Pint-Sized PRODIGIES." I think the word prodigy has so many connotations and can put undue pressure on children to meet a certain standard both now and in the future.  It is only certain fields that are amenable to creating prodigies (notably music and chess, mainly because of their rule-bound nature) and kids can excel and be phenomenal in a variety of fields, like volunteering, that don't lend themselves to a prodigy label. Plus, the label "prodigy" has an expiration date while being phenomenal at something can happen throughout the life course. This week I was reminded why I dislike the word prodigy.  Zoe Thomson has been getting a lot of Internet attention. She's an eight-year-old guitar player getting the prodigy label.

While Thomson's number o f viewers continues to increase I can't help but think about the long-term implications of being labeled a music prodigy.  For instance, people will make assumptions about her and her family's mental health and social skills.  Especially after this study was published last month in Intelligence. The study finds that prodigies are more likely to have autistic family members and it's gotten a fair amount of attention (here's the Slate article).

I don't think those findings would apply to sports prodigies though, as the focus there is more on physical prowess.  Take 12-year-old Travis Wittlake, Jr., just featured in Sports Illustrated as a "future game changer."  He's already won back-to-back national titles in all three types of wrestling.   His father is a former wrestler and a wrestling coach, so that's his family connection.  Travis has been in the spotlight since he was 7 (see video below) so let's hope he can handle the increasing pressures he'll face from his family and the public as rising national star.

Proving that being an early standout doesn't just apply to boys when it comes to strength sports, 10-year-0ld Naomi Kutin is truly amazing.  She's been breaking weight-lifting records for the past few years (while still observing the Jewish Sabbath, which is significant because she can't compete in the many competitions that are held on Saturdays).  Her family seems amazingly supportive and wise-- especially her mom, who you can see in this video below.

Note that, like Wittlake, Kutin's father is a weight-lifter, which has surely helped her technique and passion. (Personal question: I wonder how Orthodox the Kutins are given Naomi's weightlifting attire?)

Another set of religious athletes who I would consider phenoms for a different reason are the boys featured in this Time LightBox feature on the National Youth Boxing Championship held last week in Acre, Israel.

The boys, aged 9-13, were Jews and Arabs who squared off in the ring together-- fighting without incident and without politics.

The upcoming Olympics offer another opportunity for sports to transcend politics.  This week the US team was finalized and its rosters boost some pint-sized phenoms (and, yes, prodigies).  At 15 swimmer Katie Ledecky is the youngest team member. She'll be racing in the 800-meter freestyle and many would call her a prodigy.  Interestly, girls the same age, like gymnast Kyla Ross, aren't considered prodigies since their sport favors the small and young; veteran Alicia Sacramone, at 24, didn't make the five-member gymnastics squad, which is made up entirely of teenagers.  Just goes to show you can be young and phenomenal, but not a prodigy (Note: for more on Sacramone's coach, Mihai Brestyan, who'll be at the Olympics with his new 18-year-old star Aly Raisman, check out my recent piece in Boston Magazine!)

Sex, Sexual Abuse, and Sports

Given the recent, multiple sexual abuse scandals in sports (from Penn State to Syracuse, and now even the Amateur Athletic Union) it's not surprising that this past weekend two major newspapers published stories on the ways in which sports can provide a breeding ground for pedophiles (click here to read The New York Times' take, "Coaching Gives Abusers Opportunity and Trust," and here to read Minnesota's Star Tribune's, "Sports can act as cover for abusers").  Both pieces highlight that the impacts and complications for boys are different than those for girls.  The NYT explains that girls are far more likely to be abused, but it is suspected that the abuse of boys is under-reported given the hyper-masculine environment of sports and persistent fear about homosexuality. Still, sexual abuse of young girls by adult males is presumed to happen more often. While I understand the context of sports, sexuality, and sex/gender that the writers refer to, I can't help but observe that it is really the sexual abuse of boys that gets the media attention.  This has also been true over the years-- recals the Catholic Church sexual abuse cases and allegations of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts, for example.  What's especially interesting to me, in this moment, is that a similar story about sexual (and in this case, also physical) abuse in youth sports has been pretty much overlooked by the mainstream media: that is the story of Don Peters, Doug Boger,  and "women's" gymnastics.

I first wrote about this story in early October, long before the Sandusky news broke.  But beyond the excellent work of The Orange County Register, which continues to follow developments in the case (for instance, in the past week they reported that a convicted sex offender has regained control of a Colorado gym where he is still around young girls), other major print outlets have virtually ignored this case of abuse.  Sure, it warranted a sentences in the Times' coverage on Saturday. But that is not even close to commensurate to the coverage of male abuse victims.

Will it be the sexual abuse of boys that pushes legislators to better protect youth athletes?  If so, does this seem right to you? Do you believe boys and girls will be equally protected by whatever changes come in the aftermath of these (youth) sports sexual abuse scandals?

In the Wake of the Sandusky Scandal, A Call for Youth Coaching Certifications (from HuffPo Parents)

CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE ON THE HUFFINGTON POST PARENTS The arrest of Jerry Sandusky, a former college football coach and community volunteer who worked with children, on forty counts of child molestation of young boys has shocked and frightened many parents. As well it should.

At the end of every weekday millions of kids dash out of school and into the care of adults, like Sandusky, who are meant to teach and mentor them in sports, academics, and music. Some of these adults generously donate their time (like Scout leaders, church volunteers, tutors, and Little League coaches), while others charge a fee for their services (like dance and music teachers or coaches of travel teams/elite sports).

While they are all educating children, not all of these adults are vetted. Regulation of afterschool coaches, mentors, and volunteers is so lax, and in some cases nonexistent, that many do not ever undergo a routine background check to make sure they have never been convicted of child molestation. That means that some of the "professionals" paid to teach children in afterschool activities may have previously been convicted, charged, or accused of child molestation. Earlier this year the gymnastics community was rocked by a sexual abuse scandal when it was discovered that coach Doug Boger, who had been banned by USA Gymnastics for abusing girls in California, was still coaching young girls in a gym in Colorado Springs. States are responsible for passing laws to require background checks, and not all states have such legislation. At a minimum, all fifty states should require mandatory, national, fingerprint-based background checks of all adults who interact with children (legally defined as those 18 and under).

But is that enough? No. In addition to making sure that the basics are covered -- like those background checks regarding child molestation, and CPR certification -- parents should make sure that coaches are experts in their area, with training in both the substantive subject matter (like piano, chess, soccer, etc.) and in instruction of children. State legislation that certifies youth activity coaches and organizations would make that process easier.


Currently anyone can open a dance studio or a music school and no one could stop them from charging fees for services. Essentially no formal certification procedures exist to make sure that the tap teacher, the oboe instructor, or the lacrosse coach who you write a check to each month is qualified to instruct your child in tap, the oboe, or lacrosse. Imagine if we ran schools this way.

Since 2005 I have studied the organization of children's competitive afterschool activities both as a graduate student at Princeton University and as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. When I was studying competitive youth soccer I interviewed one business owner who proudly told me that because he is from Latin America parents assume he is good at soccer. In fact, he is a terrible player. Instead of playing up soccer skills, he plays up his accent which he claimed parents responded to well.

This may seem obvious, but when it comes to kids' activities, these issues are often happily ignored; parents don't want to offend a coach and risk precious playing time or attention for their child by asking questions. But given the number of injuries currently observed in children's activities, from broken bones to concussions to serious knee injuries, like ACL tears, this needs to change for the safety of those children. Coaches need to be properly trained to train young bodies, and minds, in a safe way. As more and more kids participate in these activities in an increasingly competitive way, more serious injuries will result.

Many coaches and parents resist formal regulation of youth coaches on two grounds. The first is that we should not live in a nanny state that tells parents what they should or should not do with their kids. But this used to be said about daycare centers. After one too many accidents and one too many child molestation cases, this changed as the need to protect children and provide parents with safe options became more important.

Others resist certification procedures because that may drive up the costs. Again, this used to be said about childcare, and while the professionalization of childcare providers has resulted in higher fees, fewer children dying or being abused makes the trade-off seem worth it.

In the end every parent will make the decision they think best for his or her child. But that decision should be based on as much trustworthy information as possible. At present parents can ask other parents about experiences with a particular youth sports coach or organization. But if states required certifications for coaches, dance studios, gyms, and the like, parents would have a more reliable source of information and trust that their children are being safely instructed by other adults.

Sadly, nail salons are better regulated and have more safety requirements than programs where children can suffer catastrophic physical and emotional injury. If some good can come of the Sandusky scandal perhaps it can be treating our children as least as well as we treat our nails.

Thoughts on Gawande and Personal Coaches: Coach, Teacher, or Babysitter? (from

If you missed Atul Gawande’s recent New Yorker piece on personal coaching, you should check it out (“Personal Best”). I think writers/academics have understood some of these ideas for some time (even tenured profs get regular feedback on their work from colleagues and in seminars, for example), but he presents a lot of interesting insights drawing on a range of examples including teacher training, Olympic-level and professional athletes, professional musicians, and physicians.

Gawande discusses a book that I have long-admired—Barbara Sand’s Teaching Geniusabout legendary Juilliard strings teacher Dorothy DeLay (who knew a thing or two about Tiger Moms long before Amy Chua ever came along).  DeLay made a living teaching young children and adolescents how to play the violin—but was she a teacher or a coach?  This question has interested me ever since I started studying children’s competitive afterschool activities. During fieldwork I witnessed a lot of role confusion between parents and the adults they pay to instruct their children in a range of activities during the afterschool hours. Are people like DeLay teachers, coaches, or babysitters?


As Gawande writes, the idea of coaching, especially in sports, is a “distinctly American development.” If you know anything about organized leisure activities and the competitive impulse in our society, this shouldn’t surprise you.  As the number of opportunities for athletic coaching has increased, so too has professionalization. But it often has not gone far enough, especially when it comes to children.

Most teachers and coaches (of children) I met think of themselves as educators. But in almost all cases they are not formally credentialed or certified as such because such programs simply don’t exist. Parents often think of these teachers/coaches as educators… when it’s convenient for them. If not, it’s easy to slip into a “babysitter” mindset, where a parent is paying someone to care for their child—hence they “work for them.”

Gawande recognizes that the coach role is tricky, explaining that: “The concept of coach is slippery. Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. They’re not your boss—in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach—but they can be bossy. They don’t even have to be good at the sport. The famous Olympic gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi couldn’t do a split if his life depended on it.”

His choice of Bela Karolyi to illustrate his point is a very timely one.  First of all, the World Championships in gymnastics start this week in Tokyo.  But, more importantly, the USAG (the governing body for gymnastics in the US) is in the midst of a coaching scandal.  Several high profile male coaches (many of whom, like Karolyi, could not do a split if their life depended on it) have been accused of sexual abuse.  The Orange County Register has written extensively on this scandal and you can read some of their coverage here and here.

The most disturbing part of the story is that while one of the male coaches has been “banned” from coaching by USAG, he is still coaching young, female gymnasts. How? Well you don’t have to be certified by the USAG to open a gym. Any of you could decide to go open a gym next week in your hometown.  There is no law or governing body to prevent you from doing so.  Sure, it may be harder to get insurance (and I believe that insurance companies are the unsung heroes in protecting kids and families from predatory afterschool activities coaches/teachers), but you could still do it.

Similarly, you could open a dance studio, start a music school, or call yourself a chess coach.  And you could charge a lot for your services and parents would come.  In addition, you could hire anyone you wanted to—even if they have been convicted of sexual abuse of minors.

Despite such serious concerns when it comes to coaching young kids, many resist introducing regulations.  They say that the government should stay out (which is why, I argue insurance companies have stepped in), or they worry that imposing a credentialing process will increase fees. The latter is likely true. But we don’t send our kids to unaccredited schools (or most of us don’t). Why send your child to an unaccredited teacher/coach who can charge any price he or she desires? As coaching opportunities continue to increase I think this will become more of an issue, particularly when it comes to children.

Shrinking and Pinking: "Little" League Edition

The Little League World Series is upon us. While we will have to wait until August 28th to find out who the champions of the sandlot are this summer, the qualifying games are already in full swing. But "little leaguers" have been busy all summer, participating in a variety of sporting activities around the globe. 1. Eight-year-old "Princess" Jasmine Parr faced a shrinking and pinking backlash after a June kickboxing fight against Georgina "Punchout" Barton.  The seven- and eight-year-olds duked it out in Australia, where their fight was ruled a draw.  They kicked and hit one another in front of nearly 500, some of whom gave them cash tips.  Girls and competitive activities have created quite a furor in Australia this summer (see some of my coverage of this summer's child beauty pageant conflict in Australia). What's interesting is that many of the complaints between the two activities are similar-- claims of child abuse, along with concerns about physical and emotional harm (although the immediate physical danger of potential brain injury is clearly far greater in a kickboxing match).  In both cases calls for government investigation and intervention were made; and, in both cases, the parents of the involved girls defended their decisions citing the child's enjoyment and preparation for the realities of life.

What's interesting to me is that I think there would have been an issue whether it was girls or boys participating in child beauty pageants in Australian. I'm not so sure the reaction would have been so similar if this was a bout between seven- and eight-year-old boys.  Of course, many would have been appalled, but I don't think the reaction would have been as strong as young girls fighting, because "Princess" and "Punchout" trangress gender norms in a very different way than Eden Wood (child beauty pageants can be said to over-emphasize femininity).

Australia seems to be at the forefront of confronting issues of competitive childhoods. Many Aussie parents seem to be moving in a more "American-style" direction with structured childhoods, while others resist it. Case in point: I've been fascinated for some time that Peggy Liddick was brought to Australia from the US to run their women's artistic gymnastics program (Liddick had coached World Champion and Olympian Shannon Miller, among others).  The US has famously made us of coaches from the former USSR, but now American coaches are being exported to help jumpstart aspiring programs. Will Australia tend to follow in competitive parenting traditions of the US, or establish her own patterns?

2. In an example of how even the most quotidian childhood game can turn competitive, look no further than reigning queen and king "mibsters" Bailey Narr and Brandon Matchett. After seeing their accomplishment written up in the August 8th Sports Illustrated, as part of "Faces in the Crowd," I had to look up the National Marbles Tournament. I discovered that those who are serious about competitive marbles are called "mibsters" and that these eleven- and twelve-year-old members of marbles royalty each won $2000 scholarships.  The National Marbles Tournament has been held since 1922-- a time when many other competitive children's activities also got their start (like the National Spelling Bee, for example).  Yet more evidence that the American tradition of transforming children's games into serious, money-making endeavors is nothing new.

3. It is Little League Baseball which has, arguably, most successfully transformed a youthful, summertime pastime into a highly competitive and lucrative enterprise.  The Little League World Series  (LLWS) is evidence of the spread of American-style youth competition across the globe. And it seems that the World Series does help identify future Major Leaguers. As a recent piece in the current SI Kids shows, professional athletes often get their first taste of high-stakes competition in Williamsport, including current Major Leaguers Jason Varitek (Red Sox catcher, LLWS 1984) and Colby Rasmus (Cardinals centerfielder, LLWS 1999).  Most interesting is that Chris Drury played in the 1989 LLWS-- helping lead his US championship team from Connecticut to victory.  Drury pitched and hit in the Series. Yet Drury is now a star in the NHL, playing center for the Rangers.  Drury's success just goes to show that young athletes don't have to specialize so young.  They can, and should, pursue multiple sports and activities in childhood-- including kickboxing and marbles, of course.