Wednesday, March 03, 2004

One of the best parts of coaching is the fascinating kids I meet (and the stories they provide me with).

For whatever reason, the soccer program in my school tends to attract kids that are really smart. I like to think the reason is that smart kids naturally gravitate toward good coaching, but I could be biased.

To use an arbitrary measure, over 90% of the kids on the two middle school soccer teams made honor or merit rolls in the year’s first marking period (during the season). Ironically, I’ve been told by several parents that their sons actually do better academically during soccer season than in the off-season.

But like I said, some of the kids are really fascinating. A lot of them have huge reservoirs of curiosity and creativity. They are fortunate that such qualities manage to survive the relentless pressure caused by society’s deification of statistics.

New York state’s educational system is run by fundamentalist believers in the God of the standardized test. The premise for this is that if it can’t be quantified, it doesn’t exist. Learning how take tests has overwhelmed the learning of content, with emphasis on critical thought and the flexible mind being relegated to Dennis Kucinich-like status. Fortunately, some kids still manage to maintain their curiosity in spite of the standardized test fetishists’ best efforts.

Such inventiveness was on display last weekend.

Although the competitive soccer season is in the fall, I run unofficial pickup sessions more or less every week between the New Year and the end of the school year. Obviously, our current sessions are indoor, in the gym. Near the ceiling, there is a long, rectangular ventilation something or other. During each of the last two weeks, balls got stuck on top of the ventilation thingie. You couldn’t try to knock the ball over the back because there was a little wall in the back (making an L shape) preventing this. I pretty much figured the balls were lost to humanity, absent janitorial intervention.

One of my kids didn’t accept this. Instead, Zack (age 13) came to the most recent session and declared that he had an invention that was going to get the balls down. It was a long rope with a golf visor tied to the end. I laughed and said, “I hope this invention doesn’t end up with me calling an ambulance for you.”

He shrugged me off and insisted it would work. “If you get both of the balls down, I’ll buy you a Gatorade,” I said, confident that my wallet wouldn’t be affected but also wanting to challenge his legendary stubborn streak.

He and another 8th grader spent 10 minutes or so vainly trying to toss the visor up to the ventilation thingie. It was too light. Both of them are in Odyssey of the Mind, a program that provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students (that emphasis on creative problem-solving is a separate program for a few rather than integrated into the general curriculum backs up my earlier assertions).

As a result, I wasn’t surprised that this failure motivated, rather than deterred, them. They then attached to the end of the rope about half a dozen little plastic discs used in soccer drills. That added enough weight. After 10 more minutes of trial and error, they were able to get the rope up on top of the ventilation system and used the visor to drag one of the balls over the edge. A few minutes later, they got the other one down.

I’m out three bucks for the Gatorades, but it was worth it just to be impressed by this manifestation of creativity and persistence.

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