October 3, 2006

If "Mainstream" Educators Trained Olympic Athletes (A Peek Into the Future)

This is hysterical.

Richard P. Phelps

[Summer, 2002] After the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the U.S. Olympic Committee met for its annual retreat to learn the latest findings from advanced research in education, and to determine if some of the new, groundbreaking ideas, developed in the country's most prestigious education schools, might be appropriate to their own training needs.

The retreat agenda was developed by the leadership of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), with input from leading education researchers and theorists in the faculties of the country's leading universities. As a group, they had published hundreds of books, thousands of articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, and given thousands of paper presentations at research conferences all over the world. The retreat team also included most of the staff from the prestigious, federally-funded Center for Research on Essential Skiing and Skating Techniques (CRESST), based at UCLA, and the National Research Council's Board on Athletics and Measurement.

The particular theme chosen for the retreat was speed skating performance management and measurement. The AERA instructors argued that traditional methods amounted to an artificial training of speed skaters, one distanced from the experience of the skaters and the knowledge base of the trainers. Natural, genuine training had been supplanted by activities whose sole purpose was to reduce the times of speed skaters in particular races. That led to "drill and kill" training techniques, not appropriate to the development of the "whole athlete." Scarce training dollars had been diverted away from such high quality training needs as better skates, higher pay for trainers, and nicer ice rinks in favor of skating drills of limited training value. Skaters were even being made to skate in conditions strikingly similar to actual races, which was far removed from a natural and authentic way of skating.

These endless, mind-numbing practices only served to narrow the training, take time away from genuine, authentic training in real skating, and reduce race times at the expense of deep, long-term skating understanding. In traditional training, too much time was spent focused on a narrow set of activities, such as leg strokes, rounding curves, arm movements, and endurance training. Not enough time was devoted to more substantive training, with a focus on rich and creative training techniques that allow the whole skater to emerge with critical skating skills responsive to a wide variety of challenges that may face them in the future. If skating skills are to endure, they must flower naturally from each skater's own well of experience and understanding. Each skater must construct his or her own, unique skating skills.

The CRESST researchers conducted a study in which they attempted to determine if traditional speed skating training did anything other than reduce speed skating times. In other words, they wanted to see if the results of traditional speed skating training were "generalizable" outside the narrow field of speed skating to other, related fields, such as figure skating. They found that after a year of traditional speed skating training, which substantially reduced speed skating times, the same skaters had become no better at figure skating. They attributed this lack of generalizability to the phenomena of "teaching to the race" and "narrowing the training."

Moreover, the AERA team argued that an over-reliance on improving race times caused a severe decline in training quality particularly for those skaters with the greatest training needs. The one-size-fits-all training approach was alien to these skaters, and far removed from their experience and culture.

The Olympic Committee already felt extremely sensitive to problems of fairness and equity in skating. The popular, independent watchdog group, the National Center for Fair and Open Skating (FairSkate), had issued a scathing report, quoted widely in the press and given full-feature treatment in "skating's newspaper of record," Skating Week, showing the U.S. Olympic Committee to be biased in favor of skaters from the Upper Midwest and New England.

At the end, the Olympic Committee left very impressed with the ideas of the education researchers, their focus on a rich and creative training program, and their incorporation of newly emerging research findings and innovative training techniques in their proposals for a new speed skating training program. After receiving a $50 million dollar grant from the federal government and a matching amount from the Ford Foundation, the Committee decided to award a contract to the AERA to train the U.S. Olympic Speed Skating team for the 2006 Winter Olympics.

The AERA team made several innovations to the training program, including:

  • Instituting a 2-year classroom-based accreditation program for skaters in training methodology at several education schools, where potential team members would learn the higher-order, critical thinking skills that would help them to more profoundly understand the process of skating itself. The goal was to free them from the straightjacket of unthinking automatons, who skate without a conceptual construct of the nature of skating itself.

  • Ending participation in most competitive speed skating events, because competition sucked away the natural enjoyment available only from a reliance on intrinsic motivators alone.

  • Diversifying the membership of the team so that it would look more like the real America. More members from the southern half and the western half of the United States, and the outlying territories, were included.

    To many sports fans, these moves seemed unorthodox. The U.S. Olympic Committee, however, stood steadfast in its support. It argued that "all the research" in education journals supported the AERA approach. Moreover, the AERA Team's ongoing program evaluations of the innovations showed them to be hugely successful. Those evaluations found that the education-professor instructors were very satisfied with the program.

    [Winter 2006] It was, then, a more creative and diverse U.S. Olympic Speed Skating team that arrived at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Full of self-confidence about their skating abilities, they eschewed skating practice in favor of more natural and creative inquiry and discourse, getting to know the many diverse peoples and cultures in the Olympic Village, and participating in field trips to the surrounding Italian countryside and to the poor communities of factory workers in the inner suburbs of Turin. There, they participated in a protest march for higher welfare payments and more social services for illegal immigrants.

    It came as something of a surprise, later, and not least of all to the team members themselves, when the U.S. speed skating team placed 15th in the final country standings, tied with Portugal and Uruguay, but below all the other participating countries which have frozen lakes during winter time. The average times for the U.S. speed skaters were below the international averages, and rank in the country standings was the worst in the history of U.S. Olympic participation.

    Only three U.S. speed skaters' times were good enough to win medals - two bronzes and one silver. All three had grown up in other countries and emigrated to the United States as teens. The Silver medalist - who placed second in the women's 1000 meter race -- caused a bit of controversy by refusing to attend the medal ceremony. In a press release, she criticized the medal concept as "part of the marketization" of athletes. She described her silver medal as an "insult" to her natural, intrinsic desire to skate well:

    "This medal suggests to the world that I am not capable of skating well unless I am bribed. And, I want the world to know, I'm better than that."

    In response to criticism of the poor ranking of the U.S. speed skating team, the AERA training team attacked the ranking process as misleading and the structure of the events as narrow and "not authentic." A spokesperson for the training team asserted:

    "The use of a single indicator-race time--to assess speed skating skill and to make decisions about participation and medals violates the ethics of the skating profession. Race times loom so large that they overshadow consideration of other, more telling indicators of the quality of speed skating."

    The AERA issued a press release supporting that assessment, and added:

    "One shouldn't submit to the tyranny of averages. The U.S. speed skating team was diverse, reflecting the heterogeneous character of our society. Other countries have more homogeneous speed skating cultures. If you compare the performance of the top ten percent of our speed skaters to the average performance from some of these other countries, we actually do better. It proves that we can compete with the best in the world. Indeed, Dutch-American skaters tend to do better even than Dutch skaters, on average, and Norwegian-American skaters do just as well as Norwegian skaters."

    TurbineGuy said...

    Dude, they so totally ripped off my soccer coaching techniques.

    TurbineGuy said...

    Ok, so they thought of them first... great article!

    KDeRosa said...

    Great minds must think alike.

    Anonymous said...


    On a serious note, I have brought up the whole athlete enduring rigorous (and sometimes boring) training analogy vis-a-vis math teaching to no avail. Apparently these star athletes just understand the nuances of the game; the skill is a matter of luck.

    Anonymous said...

    From Wertsch, in "Adult-Child Interaction and the Roots of Metacognition":

    The child does not first master a strategy that guides action and then begin to act, but first acts and then begins to master the strategy that guides the action. . . . The child begins to regulate his or her own activity by becoming aware of what has already been going on for some time under the direction of others.

    KDeRosa said...

    The "teach understanding" and the "real world problems" myths are pervasive in math teaching.

    MikeZ said...

    Does anybody remember the character Diana Moon Glampers?

    She's the U. S. Handicapper General in Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron". He wrote that in 1961. You can find it on line - not too long.

    1citizen said...

    Indeed great minds think alike. From my humble blog (Sep 25)dedicated to cleaning up my dirty little corner of the world.


    Since facts mean nothing, my only weapon is now sarcasm and humor.



    Anonymous said...

    Very funny, 1citizen. I love the Dummies book.

    Anonymous said...

    Very funny, 1citizen. I love the Dummies book.

    Anonymous said...

    OOps, I double posted. Well, it was that funny.