I decided to take a break from finishing a book project on parenting youth athletes to escape to the sanctuary of 24 Fitness. There were a series of patrons in front using their cellphones. I heard "pig iron" transactions conducted in the locker room and critical gossip from weekend warriors on the cardio equipment.
One resourceful athlete figured out a way to maintain a discussion while showering. Very few people were focusing on the joys of a Saturday in the gym, they were ensconced in their "communication cocoons." A technological advance designed to bring the world closer actually served to isolate users from any meaningful personal interaction.
I had been writing on the importance of young athletes focusing on the guidance provided by coaches and realized that the technological revolution actually has a stultifying effect on focus. I grew up in a world of black-and-white television and rotary phones. My friends and I thought it was a thrilling activity to walk out of the house in the morning, play sports all day with our friends and not returning until our mothers called us for dinner. At the risk of sounding like my parents, complaining about "walking to school in a snowstorm," I wonder about the effect that social media has on our children and their attention span.
They grow up surrounded by sensory stimulation. Big screen HD television with surround-sound overwhelms the central nervous system. I watched my middle boy wear earphones while playing combat video games, hooked up with other players around the world. At my daughter's 11th slumber birthday party, all 10 girls had cellphones. They spent the night texting each other in the same room.
They downloaded all the hottest musical hits. It is hard to go through a meal with them without their thumbs engaging in nonstop texting. I was terrified that my daughter had a thumb disease that produced perpetual motion. The production values on television allow rapid bursts of stimuli.
And then there is the computer screen and the ubiquitous Facebook, nonstop communication. Video games and computer games allow immersions in alternative worlds. I used to fight my brothers for the right to be the first to read the Times sports section in the morning, my kids don't go near a daily newspaper, all information flows from the computer and cellphone. The USA Today, "McNewspaper," was first to realize how short attention span and concentration had become. Little did they know that the newspaper would become passe, the Internet eclipsed it.
This generation believes they can control all sensory stimulation. The remote control, computer mouse, video game console and cellphone afford the ability to take content in minuscule bites that require only mili-second focus. Bored by the five seconds of content emanating from one of the platforms? Change it and change it again.
They can multi-task with a variety of these devices operating simultaneously. Anyone read a book lately? It actually requires more than a minute of focus. The net effect of all this sound and stimuli flowing through young minds is to destroy attention span and concentration.
Contemporary coaches face real challenges in attempting to promote the basic concept of sport. Sports teaches discipline, postponing current self-indulgence to achieve long-term benefit, working in harmony and symmetry with a team. How does a coach address a team of youth athletes so conditioned to ignore the reality in front of them? It will require an understanding of the new reality of information and entertainment input to figure out the most effective methods of conveying information.
None of this is meant to minimize or denigrate the achievements of a substantial number of youth athletes who display focus, courage and character development on a daily basis. Talented coaches have always been able to communicate and motivate. Most athletes are engaged and getting the benefits of sports. But there are new challenges.
Anyone out there still reading this....
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.