Friday, May 22, 2015

What really matters?

            This Saturday we wrapped up the spring soccer season with a game played in an intermittent downpour. The first quarter and the third quarter were so wet I had to repeatedly wring out my shirt. Polly’s favorite moments in the entire game were the two quarters she got to hang out with a couple other players in the cave of umbrellas we created on the sideline. Fortunately, the team played well enough to win, 5-3, and even had a couple of pretty soccer plays to boot. My favorite of the day was a perfect pass off a kick-off by Pip to the forward on the left wing. The forward was able to receive the ball in the space between the midfielders and the defense, dribble twice, and successfully pop a shot passed the goalkeeper. It was the exact play I’d been hoping we’d pull off for several weeks.
            At the end of the game, the rain backed off enough for us to comfortably hand out trophies and say a couple of quick words to wrap up a surprisingly delightful 3-5-2 season. That record doesn’t look particularly spectacular but within it was a final eight game run during which we went 3-3-2 and only felt really out of things really. When compared to the winless streak of last fall, this was a significant improvement and people seemed genuinely pleased with how their kids had improved.
            As a coach this was great to hear, but it also made me wonder which of the things we did really mattered. At one level much of the improvement came from things I had no influence over: the addition of one stronger player and the physical growth of a couple of others may have been enough to tip the balance on a couple of days. I know that the goal kicks were better. That was something we explicitly worked on and it showed during the last couple of games. I feel like we defended one on one better as well, which was also something we talked about and worked on. Beyond those two things – and some improved goalkeeping work – it’s difficult for me to pin down exactly what we did right this time around that added up to five fewer losses than last fall. (As I write this, I think now that I need to do more specifics next time around – giving players individual things to work on and progress with in addition to drilling specific situations with the team as a whole. There were too many times when kids just didn’t know what else to do with the ball than to try to run forward with it.) As a parent, I’m happy the kids had fun and found some success. As a coach, I have no idea whether I did a good job or a crappy one.
            I raise this question because it is also a fundamental question of parenting: am I do a good job or are my children’s successes largely the result of their own growth and development. At one level, there are some obvious things we do that matter – the kids have enough to eat, we make sure they get plenty of sleep each night, we make sure they do their homework and provide them with help when they need it. But after those basics, the investments are harder to directly correlate with their successes. Kids generally learn to walk and talk regardless of their parentage. In a decent school they learn to read, write, and do math as well. How much of the effort we put in matters? Where are we wasting our time? Where should we be doing more?
            For example, take Pip’s test from earlier in the year. I spent a good deal of time putting together sample questions, talking about different problems, and working out strategies with him. He ultimately scored in the 99th percentile on that test, and I felt like all the work had been justified. But perhaps he would have done that well anyway. Perhaps those kinds of questions make sense to him and he would have scored just fine without all the extra work. There’s no way to really know.
            I’m thinking about this in another way as well. With the NBA playoffs in full swing I’ve been reading a good deal about all the new analytic possibilities that come with the massive amount of data being collected during a game. Every second of action is being recorded and broken down and statistics nerds are having an orgy trying to create new and better metrics from all of this data. They are looking away from the ball to see how one player’s movement helps or harms a given possession. They are looking at defensive matchups with increasing specification. All of this calculation is giving scouts, general managers, and player evaluators a whole new perspective on the value of different players, particularly when it comes to what have previously been known as the ‘intangibles.’

            In parenting it feels like the intangibles are everything. There are a few definite metrics that we know matter – reading to a child every day for example – but just about everything else is vague. Part of this comes from the large variety of ideals about what it means to “do well.” Different goals require different strategies and different evaluations. However, another part of this comes from a general lack of context specific data. There are no SportsVU cameras tracking our parental moves and producing numbers that can be quantified and tracked (not that I’d want this). As such there’s lots of room for overconfidence and underconfidence when comes to one’s understanding of how one stacks up as a parent. And for those who are striving to be the best parents we can – however each one of us would like to define that – the absence of metrics about what really matters, the absence of direction beyond social trends, mom and pop practices, and by the gut feelings leaves a lot to be desired.

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