My wife and daughter accused me of cruelty to animals the other day. My crime? Putting Lil D’s favorite cat toy just out of her reach. Lil D is Ariel’s cat, with gifts and attributes matching her non-traditional upbringing at Zami. Lil D is the only cat I’ve ever seen climb ladders. She doesn’t meow; she sort of cackles. She travels in cars and thinks nothing of moving from place to place with her people, Ariel and Caity. Have litter box (AKA “the Shitdome”), will travel.
Lil D has a favorite toy. It’s a felt mouse, complete with string tail and whiskers. She will play fetch with you, dropping Mousie at your feet and then chasing it wherever your throw it. She’ll relentlessly hunt Mousie across the Seven Seas to chomp him in the neck. She is the Captain Ahab to her felt rodent’s Moby Dick.
I decided to test her powers.
First, I put Mousie in a brown paper bag. Lil D successfully made the
approach, sniffed around and extricated Mousie from the coffee-colored confines. Time for Level Three: the Princess in the Tower. I placed it high atop the foam roller, where Lil D could see but not reach him. So what happened?
D struggled. She looked up at Mousie. She tried to stretch up and reach him, no luck. She climbed a bookshelf and tried reaching through the supports. She laid down and stared. Ariel suffered. “Oh Lil D! Look at her!” My daughter was in pain, seeing her cat struggling to get what she wanted. After a few minutes, Mousie was no longer on the pedestal; Rapunzel had been freed from her tower. I asked Ariel what had happened and she said, “I couldn’t take it.”
This got me thinking about the essential interplay between coaches and parents. All teachers have to find their students’ edge, that sliver of land between what they know and what they don’t. With sports, the edge is manifest in the physical plane, where the athlete may be asked to run more than he comfortably can, or defend an opponent stronger than he is, or play in the rain or snow. As parents, we want to protect and comfort our kids ; as coaches we want to stretch them to their limits and pull them into higher levels of performance.
When you’re on the edge of your competency, you’re uncomfortable. You suffer. You doubt yourself because you see that what has worked in the past is not working now.
The challenge we face as coaches is to create scenarios where discomfort can be resolved by adapting to the challenge. We create a puzzle that the athlete can solve but only by learning something new.
I learned about this in a course called “Efficacy” – diversity training that I to took part in when I worked at Pac Bell. One of the exercises we were given was to play a ring toss game. We had the rope rings (quoits, if you will) and the wooden peg. After playing a few rounds the instructor stopped us and pointed something out: he had not told us how far away we had to stand. asked us why no one just stood over the peg and dropped the quoits on to it, thereby assuring 100% success? We looked at each other and thought. It just made sense to pick a distance where success was possible but not given. We wanted to play a game where a ringer was possible, but not assured.
And so it is with us all. Whether you call it challenge-by-choice, the “just-right challenge” or evoking Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow, people have a natural inclination to work at something difficult but attainable. We have a built-in desire to work at something hard and solve it.
I’m thinking of a chapter from Richard K. Morgan’s science fiction work, Broken Angels. In it he creates this bio-engineered tool called “nanodes” – microscopic machines that can learn. Each time they are defeated they regrow with different, hardier characteristics. These mo-fos are relentless and have no emotions. No disappointment, no frustration, no despair. All they can do is build, fail, and re-build. The nanodes were deployed by a rival and evolve into more and more aggressive forms which attack the squad several times, eventually killing two members. During the last and strongest attack by nanodes, the prtotagonists barely manage to escape.
When we subject our protegés to challenges and defeats, when we create an environment where they accept defeat as a learning opportunity and where it is normal and safe to fail, I think we design little learning machines that relentlessly evolve and overcome obstacles. In this setting I suggest that it is cruel to be kind if that means we remove the obstacles for our kids, because it is the struggle that provides them the passage to adulthood.
In closing, a song I used to play for my daughters, in the hopes that it would program to become relentlessly adaptive to setbacks: Nat Cole and George Shearing, “Pick Yourself Up”