Junk science, self esteem myth, and coaching: While We’re Waiting

Science has had a rough 2017. From Cleveland Cavaliers’ star Kyrie Irving being a possible Flat Earth Truther to Climate Change Deniers and Alarmists both gaining stronger footholds to complete breakdowns in the Publish or Die world of Academia being brought to light as Fake News is put under a microscope.

One of the long-established bastians of junk science is that of magazine cover stories. The internet allows many of these to become memes to be passed along fervently. Time Magazine being one organization quite willing to make catastrophic headlines regardless of what the study they are publishing might actually state. Take for instance, this recent article and accompanying headline that has been passed around in many forms this week.

Eating French fries is linked to a higher risk of death! The death rate might be twice as high if you eat fried potato products twice a week! Except, TIME decided to bury the portion that states “For now, the link is merely an association, and more research with larger groups of people is needed to investigate the link before saying that overeating fries causes an increased risk of death.”

The study was published at the American Journal of Clinical Nurtition. The idea that increasing fat and salt consumption could lead to a higher mortality rate makes sense from an intuitive aspect, but there are a ton of variables involved here. Interested to see if they had factored in exercise levels, overall nutritional aspects of the subject diets, and more, I clicked through the links. I was instead met with Osteoarthritis Initiative (OAI): A Knee Health Study.

If you happened to have hovered over that link, then you might notice it is for the Clinical Trials government site that was mandated research to be registered by the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2005 that has been a complete and total failure in practice. Politicized studies, changing expected outcome hypothesis after research, and many other unethical practices have continued as well as the entire structure of the act being ignored by many. In fact, only 5% of studies were found to have met the three main conditions of registration. Without such, it is impossible to have trusted findings as the Society for Scholarly Publishing notes “Worryingly, any breach of these standards could potentially mean that the results reported have either consciously (spin, bias, revisionism) or unconsciously (through a lack of methodological rigorousness) been manipulated to highlight (or hide) select findings.”

Of course, bad science ending in political policy is nothing new. The entire participation trophy generation was built upon the lies of such twisted studies. The Guardian was the latest to recap the 1980s California craze that wound up influencing billions of dollars of education funds over the last 40 years. Much like the “French Fries are bad for you” study, the hypothesis started with something you believe or want to be true. In this case, that students perform better when they have a higher self esteem and are met with only positive experiences. If lower grades are lowering esteem, then they should be inflated so more people get good grades. If not getting a medal or winning a trophy makes one feel bad, then everyone should get one. On the extreme, some schools refuse to utilize negative wording or punishments for fear of bruising any child’s delicate ego.

In the US, between the late 60s and 2004, the proportion of first year university students claiming an A average in high school rose from 18% to 48%, despite the fact that SAT scores had actually fallen. None of this, says Keith Campbell, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and expert on narcissism, serves our youngsters well. “Burning yourself on a stove is really useful in telling you where you stand,” he says, “but we live in a world of trophies for everyone. Fourteenth place ribbon. I am not making this stuff up. My daughter got one.”

John Vasconcellos was the man behind this movement. He believed in it so thoroughly that he was able to convince the California legislature to fund a three-year research project to prove that higher self esteem could be a social vaccine capable of lowering unemployment, educational failure, child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and gang warfare. The media and fellow politicians were skeptical of the entire idea, but he found that the constituents wanted it to be true, which was enough for him. When the report came out, the cultivated response to the national media demonstrated the correlation was a success.

Everything hinged on Dr Neil Smelser, an emeritus professor of sociology who had coordinated the work, leading a team who reviewed all the existing research on self-esteem. And the news was good: four months later, in January, the task force issued a newsletter: “In the words of Smelser, ‘The correlational findings are very positive and compelling.’”

The headlines quickly piled up: Self-Esteem Panel Finally Being Taken Seriously; Commission On Self-Esteem Finally Getting Some Respect. The state governor sent the professors’ research to his fellow governors, saying, “I’m convinced that these studies lay the foundation for a new day in American problem solving.

Except it was all a great, big lie. They omitted the portions of the quote that noted in many other areas there was mixed or no correlation and that they had much work to do in order to determine the causes for the correlations. It turns out that Vasconcellos was in charge of allocating the budget for the University of California that completed the study, and they were willing to be complicit in ignoring the obvious over-selling of the conclusions.

“The news most consistently reported,” he read out loud, “is that the association between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant or absent.”

This was a radically different conclusion from that fed to the public. Shannahoff-Khalsa told me he was present when Vasco first saw preliminary drafts of the professors’ work. “I remember him going through them – and he looks up and says, ‘You know, if the legislature finds out what’s in these reports, they could cut the funding to the task force.’ And then all of that stuff started to get brushed under the table.”

How did they do that?

“They tried to hide it. They published a [positive] report before this one,” he said, tapping the red book, which deliberately “ignored and covered up” the science.

As a youth coach whose wife home-schools the kids, the obviousness of the lie is evident in the outcomes of the methods when directly applied. As with any good lie, there is a decent element of truth embedded in it. Children do benefit from having a deep sense of self-worth and confidence to complete tasks. There is little chance anyone is going to be able to solve a word problem or catch a football if they fear they are not capable of doing so. Understanding that they are loved and that their life has meaning and value needs to be a staple in a child’s upbringing. Coaching kids through positive messaging can help buy the utility needed for them to trust the process that they are being asked to employ as well as themselves.

However, iron sharpens iron1 and a refusal to correct is a refusal to love; love your children by disciplining them.2 The aspects of knowing their responsibilities and being pushed to achieve the highest possible peak of their capabilities is just as important. A refusal to hold your children to lofty standards is the same as stating you do not think they deserve to achieve them. There is a reason that Cleveland Indians manager, Terry Francona, got upset with the team and went on a bit of a tirade this week in an attempt to shake them from the malaise they have been in throughout the 2017 season. Positive messaging was not said to be a major component of this particular speech.

My teams have fun. We make up chants (Cha Cha, Kumbaya, Eat Mor Chikin!), do ridiculous celebrations, and enjoy the moment whether it be splashing in a puddle during a rain delay or creating games on the fly to end practice. At the end of the season, every kid gets a certificate complete with a coaches breakdown of all of the areas where they created value for the team both on the field and in the relationships, sportsmanship, and maturation they nurtured and demonstrated during the season. Every kid has value and I do what I can to help them realize it in the short time that I am blessed to be their coach.

My teams also work their fannies off. They do drills the correct way or they do them again, practices are setup to have them in constant motion, and many of the drills have a direct competitive edge to them with small punishments for mistakes or laziness (most popular being push ups, sit ups, or burpees anytime a baseball touches dirt or grass instead of a glove). There are rewards given such as special privileges, snacks, or picking a game for those who work the hardest and have the best attitudes.

Care is taken so that every kid has a chance to develop early in the season with every player having a chance at multiple spots (and in baseball, all getting a chance at infield). By the end of the season, there is a separation. Every child has a distinct and important value, but the best positions go to the best kids so that they also can achieve their highest peaks without being held back. Having value and being equal are not the same. As Dash from The Incredibles noted, “saying everyone is special means that no one is.”

I spend far too much time thinking about how to coach kids in a way that they will have an enjoyable experience, develop their skills the most, be competitive, and help be a positive influence during their life (not over-stating my worth here, I know that I am just a miniscule piece of their childhood but there’s no reason for them to hate that minute part or for it to be a negative influence to any degree). A big part of that thinking is reading up from other coaches such as Alan Jaeger, David Thorpe, and many others to obtain ideas and philosophies along with studies that have attempted to scientifically test which methods work best. There is still a ton of great science going on in the world. There just has to be great care in ensuring those studies aren’t biased or politicized or whose results aren’t just telling me what I want to hear for clicks or because the report had to be published before it was complete.

  1. Proverbs 27:17 []
  2. Proverbs 13:24 []