Sunday, September 14, 2008

Layer 75 Sport with EQ, SQ, Maturity, Imagination and Creativity.

“I imagine that in boxing, going from the amateur ranks to live with the professionals must be a bit like leaving primary school for secondary school. Suddenly you’ve left a world where everyone is looking out for you and trying to build your confidence, and entered instead a place filled with people who exhibit a baffling and frankly scary level of evil and malice (and yes, that is just the PE teachers).” - Harry Pearson in the Guardian, writing about Amir Khan’s first-round knockout.

Now there may well be those who’s experience of PE teachers is much more positive, but the point is well made by the wonderful Harry P.

Scary levels of evil and malice are becoming normal in the everyday lives of many teenagers, both in school and out. The only question for most kids is how to defend themselves when attacked. To use a knife or not to use a knife - that is the question. Though there are those who prefer something with a longer reach, like a baseball bat or a ‘samurai’ sword.


On a much more positive note, the teenager who grabbed the news headlines last week was Theo Walcott, who played brilliantly and scored three goals against a team rated 5th in the world. But what was most impressive about Walcott was the way he spoke to the TV interviewer after the match. It was such a delight listening to a young footballer, of all people, speaking with incredible poise, maturity, intelligence and modesty. No clichés, no gobbledygook, no stumbling over words, no mangling of syntax or struggling to speak in sentences. How does he do it?

The key words, for his interview, as well as his play on the pitch, are intelligence and maturity. These are not qualities we expect of British footballers. Though they also apply to that other sporting prodigy who recently burst onto the scene from nowhere - Lewis Hamilton.

These two guys need to be case studies for every teenager who aspires to be a decent human being, and hasn’t already embarked on a lifetime of evil and malice. How did they come to be so balanced, so thoughtful, so level-headed, so inspirational in their attitudes?

It’s clearly not just the money and the professional support that’s been helpful. Every professional footballer has more money than he knows what to do with, and can afford to hire an army of life coaches, media coaches, therapists, PR consultants, etc. No, there’s an X factor, and it’s to do with intelligence and maturity.

And by ‘intelligence’ we’re not just talking IQ, though these guys probably have that in abundance too. We’re talking about high levels of spiritual intelligence, emotional intelligence and social intelligence. We need to know how they came to have such high levels, and learn lessons that can be applied to the rest of the teenage population.

They also have dedication, imagination and high degrees of creativity. Remember David Pleat’s plea for English football to focus on the need for creativity and imagination, and not just keep banging on about fitness, effort, passion, speed, stamina, etc?

It’s an interesting question whether the new England manager has shown high degrees of creativity and imagination. Surely it’s a no-brainer, totally bloody obvious in fact, that Walcott, given his talents and his speed, and given how important he’ll be in the next World Cup, should be in the team?

Likewise Rooney - the new Peter Beardsley? - able to make as well as take chances, in every sense of the word. Beardsley was another footballer who showed creative intelligence as well as skill, plus modesty and good judgment. Rooney could yet be shaping up in these departments, and given his ratio of goals to games - 1 in 3, which isn’t at all bad given the crap support he’s been given, especially as a lone ‘spearhead’ - he’s another obvious pick.

So is Joe Cole, obviously another talented youth prodigy, who, for all his ego and rashness early on, has surely shown time and again that he’s a natural goal poacher as well as a creative goal-maker, and ought to be in the team, every time.

Where Capello seems to stand out is in reaching the understanding that the team (every team) also needs a big, brave, patient, intelligent front man who can both distract the two central defenders and drag them out of position AND lay on goals for the smaller, more mobile guys who are hopefully buzzing around him. Heskey is a master of that role. I’ve also had a longstanding liking in that role for Crouch, who, for all his physical oddness, has shown himself to have great skills, intelligence, creativity and imagination. His goalscoring record is also exceptional, even if he’s scored most heavily against weak teams. The point with Crouch is that he’s also been let down by lack of proper support and suffered from role confusion.

At this point the obsession with ‘formations’ needs to be ditched. Talking about formations is what pundits love to do, because it fills up time and column inches. But it’s crap, and has been since it got started in the 50’s and 60’s: 3-2-5, 4-2-4, 4-3-3, etc. That stuff makes for static thinking and static play on the pitch, and any game that’s played at high speed cannot, by definition, be static. Imagination, creativity and the element of surprise, all other things being equal, win the game every time.

The Dutch showed this decades ago, and ‘total football’ was nothing more than getting rid of stupid ideas about fixed formations, though having talented and creative players clearly helped.
The current England team arguably need only two conventional midfield players - guys who can hold the ball, switch the direction of play and screen the defence. People like Gerrard, Lampard and Hargreaves can do that stuff, and are also capable of springing forward and scoring goals.

The thing that wins games is having a scary attack, and getting those scary guys as near as possible to the opposition goal as often as possible. Sure, Walcott, Cole and Rooney can chase back and support the midfield with marking and harassment, but their main instinct has to be to get up the field, into the box and along the wings. And be able to shoot and score, which they obviously can.

As for the defence - what’s the point of keeping 4 guys back when most of the time you’re pinning the opposition back in their half or in midfield? I guess we’re stuck with Ferdinand and Terry - but Cole as well? Brown, I have to admit has improved markedly, and is now showing that he can break forward as well as Micah Richards does, who I reckon is a very talented player that has done very well for England.

Ashley Cole used to be capable of making speedy, timely and skillful forward breaks, but he’s become erratic and considerably slower in thought and action, probably because he’s distracted and under-motivated a lot of the time. I’d drop him for good.

Against poor to average teams Richards and Brown should position themselves mainly in midfield with a brief to stay there as much as possible, and get down the wings as much as possible. I might even tell Gerrard he has to play that role - a kind of penetrative fullback cum wingback with a brief to attack but also defend soundly when the other team come forward.

So - in terms of a ‘formation’ I’d suggest a fluid 2-4-3-1 or 2-4-4, with only the two centre backs seen as out and out defenders, plus the goalie, obviously, but let’s not go there.


Lack of SQ and EQ has also been vary apparent in places like Newcastle recently. This was very well remarked on in Louise Taylor’s recent column in The Guardian.

“Only connect. EM Forster used this phrase as an epigraph to Howards End and it is a theme that also runs through another of his fabulous novels, A Passage to India. Reporting on the muddle, mistrust and multiple fractures in communications at Newcastle United last week the thought struck me that had those books been made compulsory reading on Tyneside, and at West Ham too, Kevin Keegan and Alan Curbishley might not have tendered their resignations.”

“Unfortunately, though, in an era when clubs spend thousands on communications departments, their ego-laden, money and point-scoring obsessed senior employees frequently prove spectacularly bad at connecting with each other.”

“If a list of compulsory reading for 21st-century football men had been placed on club desks everyone might have realised that the subplots of Forster's books centre on the way unpleasantness inevitably flows from a failure to compromise.”

“As Mark Bright admitted when launching a scheme to encourage football fans to read, fiction really can prompt lateral thinking. "Reading helps you see the bigger picture," insisted Bright. "If I was still a player I'd take an hour out of each day and get myself to the library." What a Wise idea.”

Very well said, Louise.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Layer 74 Be Strong, Education and Affluenza

The peace of the riverside café was broken by a sudden outburst over in the corner.

“Be strong”, is what she kept saying to her pathetic little scrap of a 5 year old, as he wept and moaned, needing her comfort and attention. Her friend and her friend’s little daughter looked on, somewhat bemused, somewhat embarrassed. The child was an obvious poser, an attention-seeker. His reaction to something quite minor was clearly borderline hysterical.

Most parents would have said either ‘calm down’ or ‘be quiet’, but this lispy blond mum in a pink sweater and blue jeans kept saying, as she put her arm around him and patted his little blond head, “Be strong”.

I have never, ever, heard a parent speak like this to a child. Strong? What’s that about? What strength? What kind of message is that? He's a pathetic, weak, small child!

Now in terms of Transactional Analysis, “Be Strong” is one of the 5 controlling “scripts” that bedevil and subvert people’s lives - people who then spend years acting according to the command of some distant voice they heard long ago, following an instruction that they continue to try to carry out for the rest of their lives. To their own considerable cost.

The others are:

Be Perfect
Hurry Up
Please Me
Try Hard

I’ve had many a chat with people - adults and children - whom I’ve worked with, trying to persuade them to slow down, please themselves, stop trying to be so bloody perfect, to work less hard and allow themselves to show some element of what they would see as weakness.

It’s important to recognise that we have these scripts located within ourselves, unconsciously driving and directing our lives, and to understand the harm we do to ourselves when we live according to their internalised dictats. We should also understand what we need to do in order to liberate ourselves from them, for our own sakes, as soon as we can.

It’s often helpful to assume we’ve adopted and internalised two or three of them, unbeknownst to ourselves, and try to assess which ones. We can then get to work on getting rid of them.

Which does NOT mean that we should NEVER try hard, hurry up, be strong, please others, or aspire to doing something perfectly, even if BEING perfect seems pretty unreasonable.

There’s nothing wrong with trying hard when we want to achieve something for ourselves, but there’s a lot wrong with forever aiming to show other people how incredibly industrious, tireless, determined and aspirational we think we should be.

Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with hurrying up when something’s important to YOU, but everything wrong with living life at a relentlessly frantic pace, and aiming to always keep pace with someone else’s expectations.

It’s good to want to please someone when the urge comes from within yourself, but very bad to be forever trying to impress and please others in order to gain their approval, receive rewards, etc. It’s also bad to expect other people to always be aiming to please YOU.

To be forever thinking you should be perfect (in your eyes and other people's), and always be ‘strong’ (i.e. not weak; completely self-sufficient), can only lead to a life of dissatisfaction and probably mental and emotional illness. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve ourselves in various ways, or that we shouldn’t do our best to overcome weaknesses of various sorts. It’s the absolutes that are the killers.

All of this is an argument for balance and integration, for inclusion of positive and negative, which we all contain - of yin and yang, as eastern philosophy would have it.

These are interesting fields for further study - Transactional Analysis and eastern philosophy. Useful starting points might be Zen, Taoism and Confucianism.

But why were these kids in the café not in school, anyway? The whole city was supposed to have started the Autumn term. Ah yes, of course - but not the private schools, which clearly these two kids would have attended. Be stwong darling - it’s almost time for school to begin. And what an awful lot he’s already learned from his sweet, devoted mother.



In Oliver James’s excellent book he describes the phenomenon of Affluenza - its causes, symptoms and antidotes. For various reasons this isn't the right place to detail what these are, but halfway through the book he has a chapter called “Meet Your Children’s Needs [Not Those of Little Adults]”, and another called “Educate Your Children [Don’t Brainwash Them]”.

Surprisingly he doesn’t mention Transactional Analysis, but he does describe very well the millions of children who desperately strive to Be Perfect, and then become depressed, disillusioned and stressed when they don’t get 100% and straight A’s in exams.

They’ve adopted their parents’ values and scripts, but very often also the norms and values of over-aspirational and competitive peer groups, especially the girls.

“The scientific evidence shows that the methods employed for the transmission of values from parent to child . . . are a prescription for Affluenza. Parents do it in two main ways. A controlling pattern uses rewards, threats, deadlines and hectoring words, pressuring them to think, feel and behave in conformity with parental dictates. Love is conditional upon achievement of goals laid down by the parent - there is no love for the child who does not achieve them. By contrast, supportive care takes the child’s perspective, minimizing pressure and encouraging the child to find out for itself what it wants: self-determination by the child is valued.”

“The child does not realise the demand [i.e. the ‘script’] has been introjected because the process by which the parental dictate has become the child’s compulsion has been going on from before it had words with which to question or analyse it.”

“Supportive nurture has a completely different outcome. In place of pressure, there has been affection and encouragement for what the child wants, and into its own chosen mix the child has welcomed some of what the parent wants. For self-regulation, it has ‘identified’ with them, rather than introjected - made an active choice. . . If this child is a hard worker and high achiever, it has chosen to be so of its own accord; its self-esteem does not depend upon how it is ranked against other pupils, or on living up to parents’ or teachers’ standards.”

Or living according to Government or Local Authority ‘Standards Agendas’ for that matter.

“The inner compulsion driven by introjection is absent, as is the fluctuating and fragile self-esteem, because nothing is contingent on the performance of externally provided goals. The child may be upset if it does not live up to its own standards, but at least they are its own, not someone else’s.”

“Experience will have taught them that the price of love is success, starting with school performance, and usually involving an equation between money and exam success, as in ‘work hard to be able to get a good job and earn a good salary’. The kind of parents who are controlling are . . . likely to have Virus values themselves and to seek to pass them on to their children. If the family is living in a Virus-stricken society, those values will be even more likely to be inculcated in a people-pleasing child who strives to conform to them.”

To combat all of this, James suggests the following 'vaccines':

1. Disentangle your parents’ values from your own.
2. Identify introjected values.
3. Scrutinise how you were persuaded by your parents to accede to their wishes.
4. Colonise your inherited values.

Under this 4th heading he writes:

“ Having disentangled what you really care about from what you were forced to value, you are then in a position to choose. (e.g. Realising that it’s unimportant whether you replace your car with a brand new one, or keeping the house spotlessly clean.) The key is to start work on finding out what really matters to you, not your parents [or ‘society’], and colonise for yourself.”

Chapter 8, Educate Your Children (Don’t Brainwash Them), begins with this paragraph:

“In most of the developed world today, you learn in order to earn. Especially in English-speaking nations, education has been hijacked by business. The goal is to create good little producers and consumers, whereas it should be an enquiring mind, capable of both scholarship and a playful, self-determined and emotionally productive life. The result is Virus distress.”

“Wherever you look in the English-speaking world, a new obsession with exam performance is to be seen. Compared with previous generations, schoolchildren are menaced from ever-younger ages by assessment.”

“The yoking of the wagon of education to business and to money-making, once limited to America, is now found throughout the English-speaking world. . . . The legislation for the new city academies, personally promoted by Tony Blair, effectively permits wealthy individuals to run state schools, often with strongly Selfish Capitalist values and sometimes tied to strong religious convictions. The curriculum of the State system is being increasingly divested of subjects which will not contribute to the economy . . .”

“The key message is that the purpose of education is not to find out what has intrinsic interest for you, but to work hard at school for long-term financial reward. . . . [This] is a prescription for the absence of flow during work, for low self-esteem and a host of other problems. Ironically, on top of that it is death to the capacity to think imaginatively - the foundation of our economic future if the ‘skills economy’ is as important as politicians are always telling us it is.”

By contrast Danish children are "by far the most positive about going to school, and the least likely to be in a hurry to leave".

And the reason? They don’t regard school as something that gets in the way of their “real” lives, and they don’t have teachers who pressurise them to “work hard”.

“The official rhetoric is that education is for creating good citizens rather than economic performance, very different to that of other countries.”

Certainly very different to England, where measurable test performance is all, and almost nobody has cared very much whether children become “good citizens”, whether they have high degrees of social and emotional intelligence, whether they espouse decent values that enhance everyone’s wellbeing, including their own, and whether they have any proper spiritual development or intelligence. The prevalence of teenage gangs and knife crime is an indicator of how well our schools have been developing citizenship and emotional intelligence.

“This rhetoric is reflected in the [Danish] pupils’ emphasis on learning to function well as part of a group. The curriculum is crafted to encourage them to find subjects that interest them and to be pursued in ways that also achieve this. In terms of fostering intrinsic rather than Virus motivation, this ought to result in confident, creative and autonomous children.”

Isn’t it enough to make you want to weep that our children’s education isn’t being driven by the same set of values and assumptions? If not, just think how you and your family and friends would feel if it was your child who was the target and victim of teenage thugs and killers, who think that it's cool or even necessary to carry a knife, who think that it's essential to punch, kick and stab anyone who shows you 'disrespect' or dares to enter 'your' territory.

“The Danish system’s strength is in its emphasis on emotional literacy. Social skills are very valued, recognizing emotions as important.”

“The Danish approach offers an important vaccine which also serves them well economically. In this respect, like the other Scandinavian countries, they are imaginative and innovative. The grinding obsession of parents and government in [most other] developed nations with children’s exam performances is unjustified on economic grounds, and absolutely indefensible in terms of emotional wellbeing.”

“Modern education has been sold under a false prospectus containing three untruths. The first is that it will bring meritocracy, which it has not; and the pretence of it, requiring absurdly long hours devoted to passing mind-sapping, pathology-inducing exams, is hugely harmful to our children’s well-being. The second is that by enabling people to rise up the system, it will confer wellbeing, which it does not. The third is that exam results are crucial for our individual and national prosperity, and that is simply not true.”

“The truth is that in all the countries I visited, except Denmark, education is used mercilessly to put the needs of employers and economic growth ahead of those of children and emotional well-being.”

“The education systems of the English-speaking countries, which puport to be giving children opportunities to become richer than their parents, are actively hostile to the flourishing of creativity and emotional development.”

“Blair presented education as increasing ‘opportunity’ and encouraging ‘aspiration’. What is really meant by these words is ‘to make money, become as rich and famous as the folk on TV’, not to have the intrinsic satisfaction of identifying and pursuing one’s authentic interests, which is the goal of Danish education.”


My recommendation is that everyone should read this important, stimulating, original and enlightening book - available in Vermillion paperback for a mere £8.99. It’s a key sociological, psychological and philosophical text, but is also clear, engaging, and jargon-free.

As Will Self said in his review, “Oliver James is our foremost chronicler of what ails us. Affluenza should be mandatory reading for everyone, but especially those in politics, business and the media who are intent on upping our society’s dosage of toxic affluence”.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Layer 73 A Dose of Reality

There’s an excellent article in yesterday’s G2 called A Dose of Reality. Ben Goldacre writes a regular column for the Guardian called Bad Science, which is also the title of the book he’s just published.

It’s well worth going to the website to read this extract, from which I’ve extracted the following:

When people introduce pseudoscience into any explanation, it’s usually because there’s something else they’re trying desperately not to talk about. Alternative therapists, the media, and the drug industry all conspire to sell us reductionist, bio-medical explanations for problems that might more sensibly and constructively be thought of as social, political, or personal. And this medicalisation of everyday life isn’t done to us; in fact, we eat it up.

For over five years now, newspapers and television stations have tried to persuade us, with “science”, that fish-oil pills have been proven to improve children’s school performance, IQ, behaviour, attention, and more. As I have documented with almost farcical repetitiveness in this paper, these so-called “fish-oil trials” were so badly designed that they amounted to little more than a sham.

You might step away from obsessing over food just for once and look at parenting skills, teacher recruitment and retention, or social exclusion, or classroom size, or social inequality and the widening income gap. Or parenting programmes, as we said right at the beginning. In fact, Durham’s GCSE results, where the “trial” was performed, improved far more in the year before the fish-oil pills were introduced, after a huge input of extra funding and, more importantly, extra effort from local teachers and the community. But the media don’t report stories like that: because “pill solves complex social problem”, even if it’s not true, is a much better angle.

This fish-oil story is a classic example of a phenomenon more widely described as “medicalisation”, the expansion of the biomedical remit into domains where it may not be helpful or necessary. In the past, commentators have portrayed this as something that doctors inflict on a passive and unsuspecting world, an expansion of the medical empire; in reality, it seems that these reductionist biomedical stories can appeal to us all, because complex problems often have depressingly complex causes, and the solutions can be taxing and unsatisfactory.

The pharmaceutical industry is in trouble: the golden age of medicine has creaked to a halt, the low-hanging fruit of medical research has all been harvested, and the industry is rapidly running out of new drugs. So the story of “disease mongering” goes like this: because they cannot find new treatments for the diseases we already have, the pill companies have instead had to invent new diseases for the treatments they already have.

Recent favourites include social anxiety disorder (a new use for SSRI antidepressant drugs), female sexual dysfunction (a new use for Viagra in women), the widening diagnostic boundaries of “restless leg syndrome”, and of course “night eating syndrome” (another attempt to sell SSRI medication, bordering on self-parody) to name just a few: all problems, in a very real sense, but perhaps not necessarily the stuff of pills, and perhaps not all best viewed in reductionist biomedical terms. In fact, you might consider that reframing intelligence, loss of libido, shyness and tiredness as medical pill problems is a crass, exploitative, and frankly disempowering act.

In the media coverage around the rebranding of Viagra as a treatment for women in the early noughties, and the invention of female sexual dysfunction, for example, it wasn’t just the tablets that were being sold: it was the explanation.

The solution was in a pill, but that was only half the story, and the diagnosis was almost more important: she [supposedly] had a mechanical problem. Rarely was there a mention of any other factors, that she was feeling tired from overwork, that he was exhausted from being a new father, or finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that his wife was now the milky mother of his children, and no longer the nubile sex vixen he first snogged.

This is because we don’t want to talk about these issues, any more than we want to talk about social inequality, the disintegration of local communities, the breakdown of the family, the impact of employment uncertainty, changing expectations and notions of personhood, or any of the other complex, difficult factors that play into the apparent rise of antisocial behaviour in schools.

This wishful deafness to the clamour of reality reaches its purest form in our newfound obsession with food, as if it was the most important lifestyle risk factor for ill health.

The World Health Organisation’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health reported this week, and it contained some chilling figures. Life expectancy in the poorest area of Glasgow - Calton - is 28 years less than in Lenzie, a middle-class area just eight miles away. That is a lot less life, and it isn’t just because the people in Lenzie are careful to eat goji berries for extra antioxidants, and a handful of brazil nuts every day, thus ensuring they’re not deficient in selenium, as per nutritionists’ advice.

People die at different rates because of a complex nexus of interlocking social and political issues including work life, employment status, social stability, family support, housing, smoking, drugs, and possibly diet, although the evidence on that, frankly, is pretty thin, and you certainly wouldn’t start there.

But we do, because it’s such a delicious fantasy, because it’s commodifiable and pushed by expert PR agencies. Food has become a distraction from the real causes of ill health, and also, in some respects, a manifesto of rightwing individualism. You are what you eat, and people die young because they deserve it.

Genuine public-health interventions to address the social and lifestyle causes of disease are far less lucrative, and far less of a spectacle. What glossy magazine focuses on how social inequality drives health inequality?

There is no glamour in “enabling environments” that naturally promote exercise, or urban planning measures that prioritise cyclists, pedestrians and public transport over the car. There are no votes, it seems, in reducing the ever-increasing inequality between senior executive and shop-floor pay.

We love this stuff. It isn’t done to us, we invite it, and we buy it, because we want to live in a simple universe of rules with justice, easy answers and predictable consequences. We want pills to solve complex social problems like school performance. We want berries to stop us from dying and to delineate the difference between us and the lumpen peasants around us. We want nice simple stories that make sense of the world. And if you make us think about anything else more complicated, we will open our mouths, let out a bubble or two, and float off - bored and entirely unphased - to huddle at the other end of our shiny little fishbowl eating goji berries.