Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Nature Versus Nurture

Hat tip to J.K. for these two items.

First, this article on Barry James Sanders, 14 year old star high school running back and son of NFL Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders. Excerpt:

"There are a lot of similarities especially in the way they cut," [BJS's High School Football Coach Andy] Bogert said. "Some of the plays - you could probably superimpose them running together, and they'd look really similar."

Those similarities are inherited rather than learned.

Barry Sanders says he has focused on being a father instead of a coach to his son. He views Sanders hanging out with good peers and continuing to avoid negative influences as a far more important goal.

"I can't think of anything I've given him advice on as far as (playing) ball," Sanders said.

"There's going to be a lot of advice he's going to need, and probably the thing that he'll need the least help with will be football.

Here's a clip of Barry James Sanders breaking one the way his Dad used to:

Next we have this article on Moshe Kai Cavalin, an 11 year old who just graduated college with a degree in astrophysics. Are his smarts inherited, as the author of the previous article writes Barry James Sanders's running back skills are? Young Moshe (pictured below) demurs:

"I don't consider myself a genius because there are 6.5 billion people in this world and each one is smart in his or her own way," Cavalin told Wood TV.


Cavalin's parents avoid calling their son a genius. They say he's just an average kid who enjoys studying as much as he likes playing soccer, watching Jackie Chan movies, and collecting toy cars and baseball caps with tiger emblems on them. He was born during the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese zodiac.

Cavalin has a general idea what his IQ is, but doesn't like to discuss it. He says other students can achieve his success if they study hard and stay focused on their work.

As J.K. facetiously noted in the comment thread of a previous post, both boys clearly have a lot of grit.


JK said...

It is ironic that the Sanders family has a more realistic explanation of their boy's ability than the high IQ Cavalin family. (However Barry Sanders himself also happens to seem smarter than the typical football player for what it's worth - he is well-spoken, owns a bank, etc...and it's not named "The Barry Sanders Bank")
But maybe it is good for Moshe to not think of himself as a genius, so he continues to work productively. There are enough Allen Iverson's of intelligence who arrogantly think they are too naturally gifted to have to contribute their talents to society with practice and hard work. As a Philly sports fan I disliked Iverson for that reason and I have no problem extending those sendiments toward geniuses who spend their days making crossword puzzles and other nonproductive endeavors. Moshe seems to be grounded and on the right track to contribute great things.

Even the title of this post is ironic because 'grit' itself probably falls into the 'nature' category to some extent, like every other human behavior. Although because it is a simple behavior, with practice you can consciously override your non-gritty biological signals telling you to give up. The ability to mentally model and modify much of our behavior is a large part of what separates from other species, after all. That aside, I'd still suspect that two naturally gritty people would have naturally grittier kids. (I'm starting to hate that word!)

But some extreme levels of talent and abilities you just can't push yourself to reach. When I was 14 I was tripping over my shoes. No amount of training could have turned me into Barry Sanders Jr. And while I did very well academically compared to the average, there's no way you could have taught me astrophysics that young either. I was too busy fishing at a creek, getting into fights with neighborhood toughs, building unworkable contraptions, and other normal childhood activities.

DaveinHackensack said...

Moshe's parents are probably the sort of cosmopolitan elites who would have inculcated their kid with the idea of egalitarianism even if he weren't a super genius. Then again, as smart as he is, he's probably figured out already the extent to which that isn't true, and realizes there's no benefit to him rubbing in his intellectual superiority.

What I find more interesting is that Moshe's parents sent him to non-prestigious college, but that was a brilliant decision on their part (and not the first time I've read of parents of prodigies doing this). Paying for an education at an Ivy League school is really paying for two things: a signal that tells everyone you're smart (Moshe doesn't need this) and forging connections with other students who are headed for success (Moshe is too young for this).

Re Barry Sanders, I agree that he seems smarter than average. That he owned a bank was a little of a surprise. He also always seemed emotionally grounded.

In general though, RB is one of those positions where it must be difficult to coach, because there's so much instant improvisation involved (for the good ones). That part of the clip where Barry Jr. is about to be sandwiched between the defender that penetrated the backfield and the DB who came up on run support -- I don't remember seeing any drills that prepare an RB for that sort of thing. That's just chops. It reminds me of a great moment in one of his father's later seasons -- I think it was in a game against the Jets. A DB got into a break down stance, ready to tackle Barry, and Barry gave him a subtle feint to his right and then darted left; the DB had already committed to the feint, couldn't regain his balance, and just fell to the side like a statue.

JK said...

That reminds me, my lack of instant improv ability was the biggest thing that kept me from being a very good basketball player. To be really good you have to be able to make unique feints and other moves on the fly. I would always have to plan my moves out ahead of time in practice and if something didn't go right, usually I'd pass the ball. The natural ballblayers didn't have to do this- they just made up all their moves on the fly. And they were much better moves than my rehearsed ones.

Also, I read in another article that Moshe does plan to attend an Ivy, when he gets older. I don't know how much older though. Apparently he has athletic talents as well, he is a highly accomplished martial artist for his age.

DaveinHackensack said...

"Apparently he has athletic talents as well, he is a highly accomplished martial artist for his age."

It will be interesting to see if he decides to take BrainQUICKEN, as some Chinese Kickboxing champs apparently have.

JK said...

If they can get him to endorse a product like brainQUICKEN that would be quite the marketing coup. "All it takes is hard work and brainQUICKEN and you can turn your son into Moshe Cavalin, child phenomenon!"
Moshe could be a millionaire before he is 13.

Anonymous said...

I'm coming a bit late, but let me set you straight. I've worked closely with Moshe and his family and here's what I can tell you.

His parents aren't any sort of cosmopolitan elite. They aren't high IQ either. They are actually two people without jobs and without friends, who spend 24 hours a day pushing their son to do things. It is extremely oppresive. I never got any impression that Moshe actually likes studying these things. I had extensive contact with him and not once did he ever have a question of his own, about anything.

For the benefit of those who don't know, getting a science degree in a community college -- and even many universities -- is nothing but rote memorization. Moshe is very good at this; he can work with the formulas just fine as long as it's mechanical steps.

However, as is to be expected for a child of his age, he has no real understanding of what's going on. Whenever any original thought is required, he is lost. (I realize that for most people math doesn't HAVE a degree of "real understanding", but it's there and it's actually the important part of it.)

This is not a criticism of Moshe; he is only 12 years old. Generations of educators have constructed reasonably precise maps of how and when children develop certain mental abilities, and he is way way below what is required for the kind of work they are making him do. It boils down to biology and it cannot be helped. It's like expecting a 12 year old to bench press 200 pounds.

Coming back to his parents: neither of them has any real idea of what a higher education is. As far as I could make out, both of them think that a college degree or PhD consists of memorizing more and more things. His father actually bragged that he was taught in the same way by HIS father, and "it works". Of course this is ridiculous coming from someone without any sort of career, who barely knows elementary math today.

So I guess the bottom line is: you should hold off passing so much judgement (positive or negative) on a piece of sensationalist news.