Signals v causes in youth sports

A Facebook friend liked this article about youth sports and what parents should say to kids when they play. I found that article, the article it references and the discussion in the comments interesting — especially because I’ve been coaching a youth sports team for a few years.

I find the youth sports scene interesting for a number of reasons. One reason is that cause and effect of success and failure is hard to determine, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. The articles above are good examples.

They say college athletes said their parents just told them that they like watching them play. 

Is that a signal or a cause? The articles make it sound like a cause.

But, it’s likely that most college athletes were excelling in their sport from an early age due to natural physical advantages, above average interest in learning the sport, some competitive grit and/or environmental factors that may have provided them with multiple times more exposure to the sport than the average kid.

It’s easier to say “I just like to watch you play” to someone who is in the top 5% of their age group than to somebody who is in the middle or bottom.

Also, I’m sure many parents whose kids didn’t make a college or high school team said that, too. I’d guess that for every set of parents of a college athlete who said that, there are ten sets of parents of non-college athletes who said the same. Why didn’t it work for them?

My parents usually said something like that. They’d usually ask if I had fun and tried my best. I didn’t play high school or college athletics. And, I’m doing okay. As near as I can tell, I’m doing about as okay as many who did play high school and college sports.

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More Signals v Causes

I came across a couple good examples of confusing signals and causes this week.

1. Does language cause culture? In this case, do languages that “grammatically associate the future and the present, foster future-oriented behavior”? More likely: Language is shaped by culture. Cultures that save for the future evolve words that convey that part of their culture.

2. Does consumption of processed meats shorten life?  More likely: Folks who eat things that have been considered bad for you for the last 50 years also have other unhealthy behaviors that may contribute to shorten lives.

Thanks to the What We Think and Why blog for republishing my earlier Signal v Causes post.

More examples of signals rather than causes

Being a homeowner makes one responsible.  More likely: Responsible people become homeowners.

Going to preschool improves ones chances of success. More likely: Having parents that do a lot of things, including sending kids to preschool, improves ones chances of success.

A college degree increases your earnings. More likely: Ambitious folks find ways to make more money. I’ve heard of studies that look at non-college graduates that have similar ambition and work ethic as college graduates that show that they have about the same earnings as college graduates.

Countries with government health care have better health, as measured by life expectancy and infant mortality, than the U.S. More likely: Other factors like health habits, diet choices, demographics, lifestyle choices and differences in the way these health stats are tracked from country to country have bigger impact than whether the health care system is provided by government or not.

Can you think of any?

Lost in translation

Seth Godin on signals vs. causes. When we simplify the complex world around us, it is easy to mistake a signal for a cause. As Seth G. writes:

People who order wine with dinner might be bigger tippers, but persuading someone to order a bottle probably won’t change the way he tips.

Yet, so much of what we are told to do is based on things like teaching servers how to sell a bottle of wine because folks who order wine are bigger tippers. The world is complex. Sometimes we lose things in translation when trying to understand it.

Here’s another nice example from Godin’s post:

…it turns out that people who eat before bed are believed to gain more weight than those that don’t.

More likely…The kind of person who makes a habit out of eating when bored (just before bed) might very well be the kind of person that has to wrestle with weight.