Todd Beane

The Misfits in Our Midst: How We Perpetuate Mediocrity

Todd Beane
The Misfits in Our Midst: How We Perpetuate Mediocrity

It was cold last night by Catalan standards as we took the field. As a guest trainer my assignment was to work with the “E” team – a great bunch of wonderful kids who are not on the fast track to a career in football, to put it kindly. 

I had a couple of options before me.

1. Dummy down training to match the limited skill level of the boys.

2. Ramp it up and demand more of them. 

Flashback to the 90’s
I was immediately reminded of my first day of teaching a “remedial” class at a high school many (and I mean many) years ago. Classes were divided into three levels: H (honors), R (regular) and B (basic). I took the “B” kids to the athletic track outside. I put one child on the designated starting line to race one lap around the track. I put one child 25 meters behind and I placed the school clown, a bright but rebellious boy with a significant amount of ego and testosterone, 50 meters back. I then blew the whistle to start the race. 

“This is unfair, Beane."

“I never said it was fair, just run,” I replied.

As you can imagine, the schoolyard brat dug in to make up some distance and gave it a solid effort against all odds. He was exhausted and exasperated. 

We regrouped and debriefed the “lesson” after the race. 

I explained that the first runner was an “honors” student, the second a “regular” and this “basic” class was starting 50 meters behind. Our job was NOT to maintain that gap but to close it and to shock everyone, as we would turn the corner down the final stretch toward graduation. We would need to replicate the physical effort the rebellious runner made on the track in our classroom – our sanctuary of success. I told them that “B” to me did not mean “Basic” but “Behind.” Therefore, we needed to get on with it in a serious way and the only manner to run forward was at full throttle. Reality was our starting line. 

“We do not have to work less, we have to work twice as hard so this class will have to be the most demanding of your entire schedule – more challenging, not less."

“But we have always been in Basic classes,” replied a few.

“You like it that way because you are lazy, not stupid,” I replied. “In fact, I think that you are super intelligent because you outsmarted the entire system.”

“You have had years of low expectations and are limping through the race on two healthy legs,” I continued. “No more jogging about, we are running for gold now.” 

And even more, “I am placing one of you in honors class next week.” 

Yes, you guessed it - that cool dude whose identity was attached to being the rebel against the system. He was not in “basic” class for any intelligence indicator, but instead to avoid the discipline that comes with being prepared and committed.

I told him that if he could make up 50 meters by busting his hump on the track, I would like to see him do the same in “honors” class. Needless to say he nearly soiled his shorts.

As a side note, he tried the same nonsense he always pulls in that higher-level class but his new classmates put him in check explaining that they actually respect the teacher and want to debate the issues. He shut, up, sat up, put forth his best effort and showed his true intelligence. He ran harder and he came back to me with a comment I will never forget. 

“Mr. Beane, I had no idea that a class could be like that. I have always been with the misfits* and we just sit around and do nothing. (He used a more vulgar word than “misfits” but you get the idea.) 

This boy had been living in a parallel reality in the same building. In one class intellectual curiosity, debates, and high performance with demanding expectations was the norm. In his world just down the hall, he lived in an ambience of rebellion, avoidance and low standards that he refused to meet in creative and disruptive ways. He was a nuisance and his role was to drive the expectations so low as to kill all integrity in the learning process. 

And we let him and the others do that for years. We, as educators, did that. We sold them out into a ‘basic” pasture of mediocrity or worse. 

World-class performance comes by striving for a target just out of reach, but with a vivid awareness of how the gap might be breached. Over time, through constant repetition and deep concentration, the gap will disappear, only for a new target to be created, just out of reach once again.
— Matthew Syed

Back to the Football Pitch in Spain

So you can imagine by now that last night I chose option 2. I chose to ramp it up, increase the demands and work like a dog to get these “E” players going. (Not sure, why we use the expression “work like a dog” as I know of very few employed poodles.) 

Do not get me wrong, my training objective was not to pressure boys on the “E” team to feel inadequate compared to the “A” team. My role as a coach was to maximize the joy, and maximize the learning, and maximize the potential of every player out in the cold mist last night. My role is not to delver a watered down training any more than is it to water down the energy with which they play the game.  And I would never want to water down their aspirations on or off the pitch. 

The moment we as trainers dummy down our expectations and our enthusiasm for learning is the moment we fail to honor our commitment to our players.

As we collected cones and headed to the showers one of the boys whispered to me, “That was the toughest training we have ever had.”

“And is that a good or bad thing?” I inquired.

Exhausted and smiling, he replied, “Can we do it again next week?”