Prodigies are always a hot topic, and with the publication of Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree, they have been back in the news. While prodigies tend to come from fields where it is not necessary to go through physical maturation first (like music, math, chess, etc.), that is beginning to change as some parents push their kids to become pint-sized phenoms at younger and younger ages. With the development of the Internet and many more organized competitions in a variety of fields it's become easier to develop skill and talent in a variety of fields and activities.
Running is one such area. Unlike baseball and football, which require specialized skills (although, as I wrote about last month, even football is seeing young stars in areas like quarterback), kids learn to start running shortly after they learn to walk. Three female running prodigies have recently made headlines.
1) Mary Cain-While she might not seem like a true prodigy given that she is 16, Cain is a prodigy when it comes to (middle- and long-distance) running-- a sport where women often do not peak until their 20s and even 30s. Cain is setting records (she set the American high school record in the 1500m at the World Junior Championships) and she is already so good that she caught the eye of legendary running coach Alberto Salazar, who is coaching her long-distance (pun intended). Cain is so good that she stopped running for her high school team and is now running as an independent-- though she is careful to preserve her NCAA eligibility.
2) Katylynn and Heather Welsch- The Welsch sisters likely aspire to be a runner like Cain someday. Today the girls inspire strong feelings-- sometimes admiration and awe, but more often concern and consternation. At only 12 and 10 they often compete in 13-mile trail runs and even in marathons. Their father coaches them in running and biking and pushes them to run faster than some men. The long NYT feature on them raised some question marks as it describes tears, injuries, and a high-level of parental involvement. While it's true that it's difficult to say what is best for a child, and I wouldn't presume to do so, I will hazard a guess that 4-6 years from now these girls won't be competing the way Cain does. Burnout and/or the puberty monster (hopefully they will hit puberty at a normal rate) will likely strike. Extreme, young athletes like the Welsch girls raise questions about how young is too young for little bodies.
We also made sure to get a training "run" in beforehand to see if he could actually do the full distance. While slightly tongue-in-cheek, you can definitely get a sense of the fun chaos in our house-- and our different parenting styles-- from this video.
So how did the actual race go? Before the race started Carston was very interested in the race official, as you can see.
You may have noticed that according to his bib he was number 1. No, he wasn't the first one to sign up-- every child is given the number 1. Even among the youngest kids I find this (as someone who studies kids and competition) slightly ridiculous. In a race it is very clear-- even to a three-year-old-- who finished first, second, third, etc. In other competitions like chess and dance it's less obvious so I can understand other choices, but not so in running.
In any case, we held the Little Man back until the final heat in the 4 and under set (there were four, from what I could tell). He obviously got off to a pretty slow start. Here he is on the race course.
After getting a lift to the finish line (distracted by the cold and crowd he lost focus, unlike in his training video), he ended strong-- but only barely before the 5-6 age division started.
At the finish line every child got a medal. As I discovered while research Playing to Win, younger kids are quite taken with participation awards. But once they hit first grade or so they become much savvier. For this reason I'm sure that the 8-12 year-olds in particular would have much preferred an actual trophy if they won. In any case, I'm sure that someday Carston will appreciate his first medal that is just about his current length! In the interest of full disclosure, which gives you some real insight into how I feel about this medal, when his relatives said, "Oh, look what you won!" I replied, "Well, he didn't really win it, but I guess he earned it."
After the Kids' K, I bundled the Little Man up so John could push him in the five-mile race. John was actually the first person to finish the race while pushing a running stroller, so there's hope for Carston's competitive juices yet-- if only he'd been awake to see the big finish. By mile 2 Carston was out cold and he slept right on through the finish line and the walk back to our car.
Running is a great activity for kids. It burns off energy and can promote overall health. But like most things, when taken to an extreme it can be a negative experience. I don't envision Carstonr unning endurance races at age 10, but it'd be great if he was setting records at 16...
In any case I'm guessing even next year at 22 months he won't be very competitive at the Feaster Five. But I'm sure he'll enter, if only to get another shirt like this one.
We're in the midst of multiple football seasons-- Pop Warner, high school, college, and pros-- and, like anything, we have some good and some bad stories.
The bad stories focus on injuries and over-involved adults. Massachusetts and New England are no strangers to crazy youth sports parents and physical altercations (as I wrote about in last month's Boston Magazine). While hockey parents were named the whackiest, football parents came in a close second. Given that, it's no surprise that MA youth football season has been making headlines-- both in the region and nationally. Following a September game between two Central Massachusetts teams which resulted in five preteen players sustaining concussions, adult coaches and officials were suspended and banned for allowing aggressive play to go on for so long. In general the reaction has been negative mainly because of the new culture surrounding football in general with regard to head injuries, especially when it comes to the youth game.
But just as we have become more concerned over the safety of youth football players, we also have seen a rise in the number of pint-sized football phenoms. An article in the October 15th issue of The New Yorker by Ben McGrath, "Head Start: Steve Clarkson grooms future quarterbacks for the pros," sheds light on private coaching for young quarterbacks, which can start as soon as kids hit double digits. It's not surprising that organizations like Clarkson's Dreammaker Academy exist, given society's penchant for rewarding precocity and athletic achievement. What is surprising about the article is the extent to which some parents will go to get their children in with Clarkson and college coaches-- like holding their sons back a year in middle school (different from academic redshirting in kindergarten), paying thousands of dollars for an hour session, or changing schools (sometimes mid-year, sometimes across state lines, and sometimes inventing a new school from scratch). McGrath rightly points out that it has taken a surprisingly long time to cultivate football prodigies (partly because size is so important, but unclear until kids get older), but given the intricacy behind the quarterback position it makes sense that this would be the first one to see the youngest of the pint-sized football phenoms.
Even though I hope my own son won't be a pint-sized football phenom someday-- primarily because of concerns about head injuries (and I'm not the only mom who thinks this!)-- I would be thrilled if he displayed the type of character these pint-sized football phenoms have shown this fall. Yes, these are the good stories and you may need a tissue after you read them.
1) Heartwarming story about a senior football star in Ohio, Michael Ferns, who intentionally went out of bounds so that a freshman, Logan Thompson, could score. Why? Thompson's father had just passed away from a stroke two days before. Special moment in video and pictures can be seen here.
2) Great story about a NJ kicker, Anthony Starego, who helped his team win recently. What's special about his story is that he has pretty severe autism. I also love that his team has fully accepted him and they make sure that no one bullies him. Just hope that all of the people discussed in this story are safe after Hurricane Sandy.
3) But the best story in my opinion is about Carson Jones and Chy Johnson. Chy has a brain disorder and had been severely bullied. Her mom spoke to Jones, the star quarterback of an undefeated high school team in AZ. Jones and his teammates took Chy under their wings and had her sit with them at lunch. Everyday. I first read about this on the 27th in New York Daily News. I was not at all surprised to see that ESPN picked up the story a few days later. Rick Reilly's story about Chy and her boys moved me even more deeply-- though didn't mention if the team was still undefeated. No matter what the outcome of their season is, this are remarkable young men. I dare you to read about them and not tear up a bit.
While Carston likely won't be on any undefeated football teams, I hope he is an honorable man like Carson Jones. I hope he appreciates people's differences-- the good and the bad-- and can root for others. He attended his first football game this weekend (Harvard vs. Columbia, and he cheered the Crimson on to victory). Even fans can be pint-sized phenoms.
They golf, they swim, they dive, and they play soccer. This month's edition of pint-sized phenoms features some amazing young women performing some incredible feats.
1) The youngest of the bunch is 10-year-old Aisha Saini. While on family vacation in Spain, the Scottish girl played in a soccer tournament. Turns out some scouts from the famed Italian football club AC Milan were there and they were so impressed by her they invited her to play in a tournament. As if that's not impressive enough, turns out she is the first girl to ever receive this honor.
2) Annaleise Carr also recently became a first-- she became the youngest swimmer to ever swim across Lake Ontario (that's 31.6 miles!). At only 14, she completed the feat in 27 hours and she stayed in the water the whole time. Her swim raised over $80,000 for a childhood cancer center.
3) Fifteen-year-old Lydia Ko has quickly become the most talked-about pint-sized phenom since Lexi Thompson. Which makes sense since Ko broke Thompson's record; she is now the youngest champion at an LPGA tournament.
4) The elder stateswoman of this group-- though only 16-- Gracia Leydon-Mahoney recently won the AT&T National Diving Championship. She won the springboard competition but also did well diving from the platform.
These young women remind us that you don't have to participate in the most popular sports to succeed-- and you can win big at a young age these days.
In the past week the Olympics have brought us pint-sized phenoms like Gabby Douglas (and her hair), Missy Franklin, and Katie Ledecky. But even in the midst of the Olympic Games it's important to remember that pint-sized achievers come in a variety of forms.
Sure, a lot of them are athletes. Some excel in Olympic sports that receive less attention than the events dominating primetime (tape-delayed) broadcasts. For instance, I found this piece on five- and six-year-olds competing in triathlons in the Boston area quite interesting. Others excel in sports not currently included in the Olympic games, like golf. Based on yesterday's New York Times article about 10-year-old golfer Latanna Stone (the youngest woman to ever play in the United States Women's Amateur golf tournaments) I'm sure her family would be pushing for her to compete in the Olympics at some point.
Athletes are great, and definitely deserve recognition, but we should also remember kids who love music, art, and even business.
I was moved by this recent story of a 7-year0ld drum "prodigy," Jaxon Smith, who amazingly was only one pound when he was born:
I'm not sure Juilliard would let him in, but it is clear that Juilliard is interested in developing more international young musical talent. I found it fascinating that they will be opening a new campus in China.
I wonder if Horton and Gevinson will blog about Doss, or if they use her products? Or if they plan to but any pint-sized phenom artwork? At the very least I hope the British Horton has taken a blogging break to enjoy the London Olympics, whether she roots for other pint-sized phenom athletes or not.