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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on USYouthSoccer.org every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 

 

For All the Right Reasons

Susan Boyd

Lionel Messi returned last week to playing soccer after a torn muscle sidelined him for two months. This was his third injury of the season and fifth in 2013. At just 26 years old, Messi has suffered through several torn muscles and hamstring injuries. Nevertheless, his accolades continue to pile up. This year, he became the first player to score four hat tricks in the Champions League, and he has scored 24 hat tricks in his career. He has scored the most away goals in league history. He may be the best player ever, and he will certainly be in the top 10 no matter when his career ends. He plays for FC Barcelona, but he is Argentinian and led the Argentine national team to an Olympic gold in 2008. His list of individual honors totals 101 between 2005 and the present, meaning he averaged 14.5 awards a year. That list doesn’t include 28 team league victories in La Liga, the Olympics, Copa America, Copa del Rey, UEFA Champions League, and several others. His contributions to his teams in particular and the popularity of soccer in general can be measured both in boosting fan interest and the incumbent financial benefits for his clubs and opposing clubs. Barcelona’s investment in the player (as legend has it, sealed with a contract written hastily on a napkin) when he was just 13 has been repaid a hundred-fold.             

So how did he come to play for Barcelona as a youth player? Messi had been clearly identified as one of the best youth players in Argentina by age 8. Argentina’s powerhouse club River Plata took an interest in him. However, it soon became obvious that Messi was lagging behind his peers in growth and size. While soccer definitely offers opportunities for smaller players, clubs often shy away from them. When he was diagnosed at age 11 with growth hormone deficiency, his parents made the decision to embark on nightly hormone injections. The therapy soon strapped the family financially. They asked River Plata to take on the expense as part of their investment should they sign Messi as a youth player, but the club refused. Through relatives in Spain, the family made overtures to teams there, and FC Barcelona agreed to take the young player on and pay for his hormone treatment. Even with the growth hormones, Messi grew to just 5-foot-6, not necessarily small for a professional soccer player, but certainly smaller than most. Nevertheless, he proved to be a tenacious and skilled striker. What plagued him were injuries.              

Weak muscles and thin bones are common in children diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency, so in general the treatment improves both muscular and skeletal conditions. The treatment stimulates the liver to release a second hormone called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Together, growth hormone and IGF-1 tell the bones, muscle and tissue to grow by adding more cells. This results in bones that are strong and long and can increase a player’s size up to 2-3 inches a year until the end of puberty. The known adverse effects are a possible increased risk to develop diabetes, stimulating already existing cancers to grow dangerously, and to expedite colon-rectal cancer later in life. Studies on what happens to rapidly growing muscles and bone growth plates have not established a link with serious injuries. In fact, without the treatment children can suffer with thin, weak bones as they move into adulthood. Because levels of human growth hormone fade as we grow older (because we are done growing!), some people believe that increasing the levels in adulthood can delay the aging process. Despite no proof, many adults use it for that purpose, while other adults use the hormones to help muscle development and definition. These are not approved uses.              

Overall, Messi just seems to be prone to injury. But those injuries, while keeping him sidelined for a period of time, heal, and he comes back with the same skills and power he had before the injury. The question is will those injuries eventually catch up to him. At 26, he has the injury history of older players with a longer playing career than he has had. In 2013, he suffered through five injuries of which four related to his hamstring. His latest injury was a torn muscle.           

My youngest son always measured in the lower 5 percent on the growth charts, but he eventually grew to be as tall as Messi without the addition of growth hormone therapy. My husband was 4-foot-8 when he entered high school and grew two inches after we got married. His short stature kept him from playing the high school sport he most wanted to play, baseball, but he found a niche in wrestling, although each year he had to change weight classes as he slowly grew. Robbie is adopted, so he didn’t get his abbreviated height from our genes, and his half-brother is 6-foot-3, so genetically tall growth was possible. They both had the same birth mother who was only 5-foot-3. We never even considered having Robbie tested for growth hormone deficiency, and I suspect he never had the condition. But as parents we often need to consider the issue when faced with an athletic child who doesn’t seem to be sprouting. In this age of hormone abuse by athletes, growth hormone therapy for children falls in a completely different realm of empowerment. On the other hand, parents must be cautious about wanting to improve their child’s chances of competing in sports at the teen years and beyond by subjecting them to a treatment they may not need. The condition should be carefully tested for and evaluated by an endocrinologist since the child must endure daily shots for possibly as long as four years.              

Some people have accused FC Barcelona and Messi’s parents of attempting to create a “super-athlete” by having Messi treated. Since none of us are privy to his medical records, we can only hope that the treatment was appropriately prescribed for an actual condition. However, I do know of parents who have consulted doctors that they hoped would agree to the treatment, even using some bullying techniques to ensure it for their child. The thin line between necessary treatment and desired treatment can easily be crossed by zealous parents and coaches, especially when a child shows promise in a sport. Treatment for growth issues can be and has been done with anabolic steroids, a serious and potentially dangerous decision for any child. In addition, insulin has also been used to stimulate growth. With some diligent doctor hopping, parents can always find someone to prescribe questionable treatments. Therefore, it’s important to keep things in perspective. If a child is growing slowly, like my husband, and an endocrinologist says her growth is normal, no parent is doing their child a favor by insisting that something be done to speed up or augment that growth. Even though slow growth can prevent some kids from participating in certain sports, we sometimes just have to accept that our child isn’t going to be that athlete we had hoped for. The world is made up of so many other wonderful professions and skills, we can’t just fixate on sports.            

While medical solutions can be drastic steps which most of us wouldn’t even contemplate unless clearly indicated, we can consider other ways to boost our child’s abilities.  Good nutrition would be an admirable option to help our child achieve his optimal performance, but again we have to avoid zealousness that leads us to rely heavily on supplements and vitamin regimens that haven’t been proven to be either beneficial or even safe. No one regulates these supplements. In April, the FDA issued a warning that several nutritional supplements contained dimethylamylamine or DMAA, which is a stimulant and causes rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure and even heart attacks. You can actually overdose on vitamins and minerals, especially since so many foods are now enhanced with things like calcium and vitamin C.  You may take a safe dose of a vitamin in the morning, but because your cereal, juices, yogurts, and other foods have boosted their vitamin and mineral content, you could be giving yourself or your child toxic levels of these. Even more worrisome is how some supplements can interact with prescription drugs in a dangerous way. “All natural” isn’t always “all safe;” arsenic and digitalis are also natural products. We can also provide extra condition training for our children. Again we need to be cautious. Training should be age appropriate for the musculo-skeletal developmental level of the child and shouldn’t be over-strenuous. Muscles, tendons, and ligaments need time to relax after any workout. Keeping them in a constant state of exercise can cause tremendous and, on occasion, irreparable damage, certainly not the result anyone is looking for. Find an educated and credentialed trainer, not just someone at the gym with a great physique and a loud voice. Be watchful for signs of stress on joints, muscles and tendons. Always have a medical physical before augmenting any sport activity and get your physician’s approval for the program you’ve selected for your child.

While Messi adds to his string of honors, he also adds to his hamstring problems. Most likely his growth hormone treatment helped to make him taller, but more importantly improved his bone and muscle strength. Without the treatment, he might well have already had a career-ending injury. For some children, medicine can promise a stronger body and a healthier life. As parents, if we suspect some insufficiency in our child’s well-being, we need to seek out the best medical, nutritional, and physical help we can find.  What we shouldn’t do is pin our hopes for a superior athletic child on any treatment. Instead we should simply be looking to improve the child’s health. Messi was an amazing player before his treatments, and for all we know may have been just as amazing without the treatments. The problem is there is no way of knowing unless we can borrow Mr. Peabody’s Way Back machine and replay history without growth hormones. Therefore, we must pursue what is right for our child based solely on sound medical reasons and advice, not on our dreams of her becoming a stronger competitor. Messi may eventually be completely incapacitated by his injuries, but he was given an opportunity to overcome a serious medical condition and, for whatever period of time, shine.

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No Strings Attached

Susan Boyd

There’s a sweet, unexpected moment in the film "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." The scene doesn’t move the plot ahead. The characters’ decision to take part in the scene reveals something about their characters, the actual scene itself doesn’t. It’s one of those instances that might easily have ended up on the cutting room floor. However, for a beautiful two minutes the scene plays out, and as a soccer mom, it touched me deeply.
               
Walter, a photo editor at Life magazine, had been searching for a photographer, who may or may not know what happened to a negative he supposedly sent to Walter as the cover shot for Life’s last issue. Mitty’s journey takes him to several treacherous and unusual locations. Eventually his travels extend high into the Himalayas where he makes an important and remarkable discovery. While that revelation unfolds, the camera cuts intermittently to a youth soccer game in the valley below. The audience can hear the shouts, cheers and laughter over the actors’ voices in the scene. When Walter realizes he has once again been thwarted in his quest, the characters make the decision to run down the mountainside and join the game. That carefree decision would normally have been enough for any filmmaker. It shows that in the face of adversity, Walter can still seize some joy. There would be no need to actually show the characters playing in the game. Yet, Ben Stiller, the director and star, creates a beautiful scene bathed in the warm glow of a setting sun against the wild green of tundra, the colorful clothing of the participants, the flags used to mark the goals, and the rough greys and whites of the peaks. The camera lingers on the play while exposing the joy of the game richly depicted in several vignettes.
               
These players will never play on a club team, much less a state, regional or national team. The game will never earn them a living or garner them public honors. They don’t have state-of-the-art equipment, no uniforms to distinguish their allegiances, and no crowds cheering them on. With no buildings in sight, it was obvious that these boys had gathered to play on a wild expanse of grass without expectations. The young players welcomed the strangers from the mountainside willingly and happily. This game had no other purpose than the exhilaration of play. 
               
I loved this scene because it said volumes about youth sports. In the U.S., we have ended up corrupting the original purpose of kids playing in organized sports. Rather than being about enjoying the moment, youth sports have become stepping stones to more serious, competitive levels. National sports organizations look to identify players who can function at an elite level. What parents don’t foster the hope that their child will make that cut? When our boys first started playing soccer, I was completely naïve about anything beyond the yearly sign-up for recreational soccer. The biggest stress was insuring that we registered our kids together so we could carpool to the same team and practices. All too quickly the promise of traveling teams and other elite opportunities became the focus. The fun of the sport gave way to where the sport could take our children: state teams, high school, regional teams, even national teams, and of course the strong siren song of college soccer. Clubs offer training to "get to the next level" with a not too subtle message that achieving that level should be why our children play. Parents begin to invest more and more into the possibility that their child will win the golden ticket with their help. We pay for camps, extra fitness training, top clubs, tournaments, indoor sessions and even overseas opportunities. Instead of the wild abandon of the young child gleefully running on the grass, we now have the business of soccer with all the constraints of protecting and nurturing an investment. While I don’t suggest that our children shouldn’t improve over the years and that their passions shouldn’t be fed, I do suggest that we may go overboard, forgetting that most children won’t become the elite athletes we envision. Yet we persist in making the sport more of a job than a pleasurable activity.
               
I would love for this short scene in the film to be on YouTube, and perhaps soon it will be. Even if you don’t have the time or inclination to see the entire movie, I really encourage you to watch that one particular clip. It renewed in me the deep love I have for soccer. It is a sport so universal that even in the Himalayas a group of soccer-playing Sherpas could assimilate a pair of all-American interlopers. The scene spoke to me because it revealed not only the deep joyfulness of play but the message that adventure isn’t always about extremes. We can appreciate unexceptional events as exceptional when showcased against the backdrop of a surprising location. Soccer is a language we can speak anywhere in the world and be fully understood. Soccer creates for our children a world-view activity in which they can flourish and cultivate happiness without any other expectations than having fun. I can only speculate why Stiller left this scene in his film. Mitty’s life was either primarily hum-drum or newly filled with daring and extreme adventure. Playing soccer highlighted that something ordinary can translate into a moment of abandon and ecstasy, giving his and anyone’s life the balance they are missing. It reminds us that the simplest and most commonplace of activities can bring the greatest joy, whether it be taking a walk during a fresh snowfall, roasting marshmallows on a fall evening or playing a game of soccer. If we can provide our children with the uncomplicated delicious pleasures of just experiencing a moment then we have given them the gift of happiness — no strings attached.

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Creating the Perfect Athlete

Susan Boyd

A film maker and two doctors approached the subject of parents looking to create exceptional children through training, discipline and sheer force of desire. Beginning the discussion was Peter Berg, who directed the film "Friday Night Lights." His first topic on his sports-related documentary series "State of Play" on HBO was titled "Trophy Kids." He looked at four parents and five kids across the sports of football, basketball, golf and tennis. The one-hour program was difficult to watch, showcasing overbearing parents pressuring their kids to aspire to the highest pinnacle of their sports. What we have regarded as stereotypes of Type A parenting played out over that hour to a frightening level. A father swore unrelentingly at the referees and blamed many of his child’s basketball losses on the "95 percent of lousy officiating." The father of a 10-year-old golfer questioned officials on the legality of undue help he felt other parents were giving their children during a tournament and cursed at his daughter under his breath when she failed to make the green. She probably didn’t hear the word, but she certainly got the message through his vocalizations and body language. At one point he accused her of embarrassing him and threatened to "slap her across the face" if she didn’t do what he demanded. A football father berated his son after every game for all his failings and for not being in the coach’s face to find out why he was benched. He generated his own before-school practices for his son and then yanked him around by his gear to get him to do what he wanted. A mother felt her two tennis sons had a talent given to them by God that she had a covenant to develop. She believed they would be the best doubles players ever because they were ordained by God to prove His power.
               
What was most telling was the follow-up the filmmaker had four months after the primary filming. We learn the basketball player’s father readily admits that he could probably "have bought two Lamborghinis" based on what he spent on privately training his son. The goal was a Division I basketball scholarship, however, the offer he received was a five-year scholarship with a Division II school. The golfing daughter finally won a tournament where parents were not allowed on the course, but she still had not procured a sponsor even though players much younger already had. The football player left his father’s home in Los Angeles and moved in with his mother in Seattle because, as he said, "My dad wasn’t a dad; he was a coach." The tennis players entered high school, tried out for the team and were put on the J.V. squad. All of those footnotes highlighted that what the parents saw in their kids was rarely the reality of their talent. The basketball player was skilled at three point shots, but that alone couldn’t sustain him at the next level where defense, team work and speed on the court have equal importance. The football player was a tentative athlete at best and would probably never move beyond high school no matter how driven his father was. The young man just didn’t have the heart of an elite athlete and certainly lacked many of the necessary skills. The tennis players, despite tons of extra practice, hadn’t risen to the level of exceptional. As a golfer, the young woman in the film had determination and some apparent skills, but she was still overshadowed by players two or three years younger, which did not bode well for her future at the top level of the sport.
               
The saddest part of the documentary was the lack of evident love and pride from these parents towards their children. The golfer’s father admitted in a voice-over that he was tremendously proud of his daughter and what she had achieved thus far, but he couldn’t let her know – not until "they" had accomplished the goals necessary to put her on top – because it would undercut her development. Mom couldn’t praise her sons because their tennis skills came not from them but from God. They didn’t deserve the honor. All his father could muster toward the football player was screaming at his son that if he didn’t love him he wouldn’t care at all what he did and not demand excellence of him. Love was supposedly demonstrated through harsh, demeaning judgment because it was making his son a man. The last image of the basketball player shows his father hugging him right after his team won the state championship. In a voice over the father states how the win gave him a reason to love his son.
               
While most of us aren’t as crazed or unforgiving as these four parents who were obviously selected to make some strong points about sports direction, we all must admit that we have fallen prey to elements in the film. We may have questioned our child’s commitment to the sport, or drilled her about errors made on the field, or demanded that our sons speak up to coaches. Our desire for our kids to succeed creates blinders to how good our children really are. When we believe them to be exceptional then we find ourselves incredulous that coaches and scouts don’t see the same thing. We may compare our children to other players on the team, "You’re faster than Jody. Why don’t you show it?" or "How come you always let Sammy take the shot?" While we may profess that we are just happy that our kids are playing a sport they enjoy, we all secretly harbor the dream that our son or daughter will be on the next Olympic team. That dream can make us expect unrealistic play and outcomes. With those expectations will come criticism, as if we could mold our child into that perfect, elite prodigy that writes the next great symphony, stars on Broadway, signs a $24 million contract with the Boston Red Sox, or invents the next Apple computer. We will push, cajole, beg, demean, discipline and intervene in an attempt to insure that our child achieves at a level higher than he or she is capable of.
               
One of the doctors joining in on this discussion is Drew Pinsky, an internist who is also an addiction specialist. He has coined the phrase, "narcissistic parenting" to encapsulate these behaviors demonstrated in "Trophy Kids." He argues that it isn’t just wanting to live vicariously through our children’s accomplishments which makes a narcissistic parent. That’s a component, but he explains that it actually stems from our unwillingness to be seen as anything less than perfect in our abilities to manufacture the ideal child. We want people to believe that we have some exceptional parenting talent which anoints us with children skilled beyond all others. This belief that as parents we are gifted in our parenting means that our children can also do no wrong, so parents make excuses for their kids and doing their work because any mistake reflects back badly on the parents. Narcissistic parents also don’t provide boundaries or consequences because perfect children don’t require these. What we end up with are parents who push their children to succeed, provide outside ancillary training to further that success, and have little tolerance for anything they perceive to be failures because that means they are failures. Worse, they don’t provide any support in the form of love and praise because they see those emotions muddying the goals.
               
Larry Lauer, PhD., is the mental skills specialist for the United States Tennis Association Player Development Program and the former Director of Coaching Education and Development in the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (ISYS) at Michigan State University. In the latter capacity, he researched tennis parents, coaching, coach education, aggression in hockey and life skills development in youth. His conclusions showed that parents don’t understand the true developmental levels of children in sports and have unrealistic ideas of what children are capable of accomplishing at various age levels. In quizzing parents he learned that few understood how both physical and mental development occurs. For example, in a roundtable discussion following the airing of "Trophy Kids," he commented on the football father constantly berating his son, "Why don’t you get it?!" The father expected that his physically developed 15-year-old son would have the adult mental development to match and should fully understand the nuanced structure of football plays and how to anticipate those plays. However, Dr. Lauer explains that for many kids mental development in a sport lags behind the physical development. As parents we can’t expect our own children’s development to match or exceed that of other kids on the team. Yet we see a player with a fully developed "soccer brain" and believe that if our child would just try harder she could be as good or better. If she doesn’t achieve at that level we internalize that failure as our own. Dr. Lauer’s research also showed that kids who get demonstrated love and praise from their parents have stronger self-images, fewer addiction problems, and succeed as measured by normal standards of success — graduating from school, getting a job, having a happy marriage, and possessing good health. He has observed few cases of parents being able to will their children into elite athletes, although we are aware of such cases: Andre Agassi, Tiger Woods, Todd Marinovich. In such cases we have also seen the players suffer through horrible personal demons. In the drive to create "test-tube athletes" something significant in the child’s development is lost: childhood.
               
Marinovich, in particular, provides a strong cautionary tale for parental manipulation. His father, a former lineman for USC and a strength and conditioning coach for the Oakland Raiders, began molding his son before he was a month old taking over his diet, fitness, education, and all life decisions. Todd trained more hours than he hit the school books and stuck to a regimented diet and curfew. By his senior year in high school he had earned multiple honors such as Parade All-American and player of the year (1987) for both Dial and the Touchdown Club. Recruited by USC to be their quarterback, he was the first freshman starting quarterback since World War II. But when he went to college he was suddenly thrust into a world where his father no longer controlled his every move and decision. He imploded into drug and alcohol use, wild parties and missing classes. By the time he was recruited into the NFL, he was an addict and far behind in his emotional and decision-making maturity. Eventually he burned out in spectacular fashion. Drafted in 1991, he was out of the NFL by 1993 due to three failed drug tests. He made several come-back attempts both with the NFL and the Canadian Football League, but couldn’t shake his demons. He was part of the round-table discussion following "Trophy Kids." When asked what he would say to the football player who after a particularly nasty fight with his father ended up on the curb crying, Todd said, "I probably wouldn’t say anything. It would be more a hug." He admitted that the lack of evident oral and physical affection from his parents, especially his father, had everything to do with his poor choices later in life. Left without any self-confidence, a sense of being loved unconditionally, and a moral compass to handle decisions and adversity, he drifted into a world where drugs filled the void.
               
This isn’t to say that all kids with controlling, demanding parents will end up on drugs or homeless like Marinovich. But it does point out how damaging parental expectations can be. It is one thing to set the bar high and quite another to berate a child for not reaching the bar.  A positive example can be found in a recent viral video which shows a father in England reacting to his son finally passing math. The son had lifted his course grade from an F to a C, and the father was uncontrollably delirious, hugging his son, laughing with joy, and giving him a shower of verbal praise. The joy on the son’s face was also stunning as both enjoyed the moment of achieving "averageness." It’s a strong lesson in how we should be parenting, proud of accomplishments no matter how small without any strings attached. The father didn’t push the achievement by adding, "Now maybe you can earn a B." He let the moment be just as it was. I would love to see where that kid lands in ten years, but I’m imagining he’ll be happy and successful. Rather than demanding an A, the father simply wanted his son to pass.   As parents we should want our kids to find their own level of success without the pressure to excel. We can provide nurture as passion and talent dictate, but we need to check ourselves to be sure we aren’t misinterpreting or forcing passion and talent to serve our preconceived notions of where our children should place. Nurturing is a warm, gentle approach, not a typhoon of demands. We should educate ourselves in the milestones of athletic physical and mental development so we don’t have unrealistic expectations, and we should partner with our children, guiding them where we can and letting them lead where they should. It’s particularly important that we learn to listen. We may not end up with exceptional athletes, but we will end up with exceptionally happy children. 

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Statistically Speaking

Susan Boyd

The other day in a restaurant, I saw a man with a T-shirt that read, "Statistics mean never having to say you’re certain." Since I was a math minor in undergrad and a research assistant on a statistics textbook, the saying hit me where I used to operate. We depend on statistics to direct how we live, invest, travel, vote, buy merchandise, render a jury verdict, speed yet avoid a ticket, and so many other daily tasks and decisions. We follow polls and political predictions that always have a + or – percentage points of accuracy, then quote what we heard as gospel. As mathematically powerful as statistics sound, researchers can often develop statistical data using a very small sample, sometimes as little as 10 to 20 data points, to arrive at an earth-shattering conclusion that is supposed to be broadly interpreted across a multitude of products or people. This of course doesn’t take into account what I call "dueling statistics," which become anecdotal despite being scientifically-based. One statistician will declare that a certain public policy has an 80 percent approval rating, while another statistician will declare it only has a 46 percent approval rating. The disparity comes from how the data is gathered. Depending on the questions, participants can provide widely different results. Inquiring if you want a big box store two blocks from your house will likely result in a resounding "no" while asking do you want convenient shopping possibilities in your town is more likely to elicit a "yes." Of course, those statistics which can avoid the taint of bias and depend solely on mathematically- or scientifically-generated data, like baseball statistics or double-blind drug studies, are far more trustworthy and significant. Yet, in the end we all pick and choose the statistics we feel best suit our preconceived notions about what is actually true.
               
During Thanksgiving dinner, our conversation turned to soccer, which pretty much takes up a majority of our conversation at any time. With a goalkeeper son and a striker son, we have the field of play and opinion covered. For some reason, we started talking about penalty kicks, and I mentioned a study that said nearly 80 percent of all penalty kick shots made to the low post on the non-dominate side of the keeper succeed in scoring. This wasn’t opinion; it was factually based on a long-term and definitive collection of PK results at all levels of soccer. Nevertheless, both sons immediately disagreed with the statistical outcome. The striker said he prefers upper 90’s because he thinks keepers commit early to low kicks. The goalie said that he felt pushing off on his dominate leg to go to his non-dominate side was actually more likely to give him the strength and the distance to stop a PK attempt on that low post. In other words, they believe instinct overrides the numbers.
               
If sports teach us anything, it’s that facts can only take players and teams so far. Ask any coach who spends years cultivating a certain dribbling or batting style with players only to have some wild kid capable of streaking down the field with a sureness not born of rigid training but of instinct. How many major league hitters have settled into the batter’s box with their weight on the front leg, the bat resting on the shoulder, and/or their heads down, all the positions that statistics say won’t result in consistent hits. Yet they do it. Talk to the Boston Red Sox after the Yankees won the first three games in the 2004 American League Championship Series. Fans, sports reporters, coaches and players all knew that only twice in history had any team come back in a best of seven series down 0-3 to win the series, once in 1942 and once in 1975 — both by NHL teams. But once again, statistics didn’t dictate the outcome and Boston went on to not only win the ALCS, but the World Series. Ask Jay DeMerit about statistics. He never made any state, regional or national teams. He didn’t get any college offers, so he walked on to the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay soccer team and became a starter. Then he moved to England, painted houses and played for a local ninth tier soccer team for essentially no money. When he got noticed by Watford of the English Premier League, his soccer life took a dramatic turn. He played defense for them, made the U.S. National Team, played in a World Cup and now plays professionally for the MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps. The statistics on any player with his youth soccer history eventually achieving his adult soccer history are literally one in a 100 million. But he wasn’t interested in accepting the statistics, only pursuing his personal instinct that he could overcome the odds.
               
Obviously statistics do hold for most cases, but that little fraction that leads to the "never having to say you’re certain" gives everyone the right to defy the statistics or ignore them. We all know the statistics that tell us flying is safer than driving, but because we drive every day without incident we come to regard driving as safer. After all, driving is grounded and flying is suspended. We may distrust the statistics to the point of never flying and only using ground transportation. John Madden, the former football coach and announcer, famously refuses to fly opting for buses, trains and cars to get him from one NFL game gig to another. He can afford the luxury of distaining statistics because he can afford drivers to transport him and has bosses who will accommodate his schedule so he can avoid flying. The rest of us have to blindly hope the statistics are true as we board the plane for that business trip to Houston.
 
We know that victories on the field can easily have nothing to do with statistics. In the NCAA College Cup this year, Virginia defeated Marquette in the third round, not necessarily remarkable until you learn that one minute into the game Virginia got a red card and played the remaining 89 minutes with a man down. Statistically, Virginia should have lost or at the very least merely been able to hold a 0-0 tie. The teams were ranked evenly — Virginia at No. 8 and Marquette at No. 9 — so, statistically, it should have been a close match when the teams were both at full complement. With a man down, any slip on the part of the defense could easily allow Marquette to score, or Virginia could opt to "pack it in" to prevent a score, but not push forward in an attempt to score itself. Virginia ignored all of that, played aggressively and won, 3-1. It played against the statistics. Consider the recent game between Auburn and Alabama. Who would think that a missed Alabama field goal in the last second of regulation would result in a return touchdown for Auburn? That victory exists in the tiniest sliver of statistical uncertainty.
               
Using our instincts, personal beliefs and natural stubbornness we’ll scoff in the face of statistics. Our own experiences create the context in which statistics play out. If we know of someone who beat certain odds, we choose to accept that experience as the guiding factor in our lives rather than cold, unforgiving data that promises an opposite result. Without our willingness to challenge statistics we might abandon hope in the face of a medical diagnosis, or capitulate when victory seems impossible, or give up on a dream despite nearly insurmountable obstacles. We take risks when statistics tell us we should play it safe. Most entrepreneurs bucked the traditionally acceptable pathway. We call it "thinking outside the box," and in many cases the "box" is statistical opposition to an idea. Since statistics are built on past data, they are always evolving as new data comes available, so even with strict scientific methods the window for an unexpected outcome may open wider.
               
Of course, some statistics are just smart to accept. We clear off soccer fields during lightning storms because there is a risk, albeit statistically small, of getting hit. The consequence of playing Russian roulette with those statistics could result in injury, death and lawsuits, so we don’t mess around with that. People with a family history of breast and colon cancer can statistically diminish their threat by discovering these cancers quickly enough for treatment through early detection. Girls who do special warm-ups focusing on their knees have fewer ACL injuries, which doesn’t mean everyone avoids them but the statistical risk drops. When a player gets a head knock, concussion protocols reduce the risk of long-term effects from the injury. We wear seatbelts, don’t light cigarettes while waiting for our gas to pump, buy life and home insurance, avoid certain foods, choose the safest neighborhoods we can afford and exercise all based on statistical evidence. Still, there is room for faith beyond statistics when we need reassurance that not all is lost. That faith makes a come-from-behind victory possible. That faith allows for a future against all odds imaginable. That faith creates hope when hope is statistically unrealistic. While we can’t discount all statistics, we can cling to that bit of truth that statistics mean never having to say we are certain of any outcome.
 
P.S. As I wrote this blog, I learned of Nelson Mandela’s death at age 95. While his death was not unanticipated, it still came as a shock knowing the world had lost a tremendous role model for forgiveness, seeking peace and the politics of inclusion. His legacy is for people of all races, religions, sexual orientation and gender because he saw people as humans not defined by superficial traits but by their character. As he wisely pointed out, "No one is born hating another person… people must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, then can learn to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." He even had advice for the young soccer players out there who struggle and want to give up. "The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." His wisdom and generosity of spirit will be missed. 

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