Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Social Benefits of JUGHEADS Membership, Part 1

Having touched on the body & brain boons of juggling, I’ll wrap up this fall series with the social benefits of Jughead membership. This vast topic warrants two parts: our co-ed age range & special events; then Juggle Jam & leadership development next month.

Compared with the more tangible benefits of athletics & academics, the social benefits of being a Jughead member are intangible—but arguably far more lasting.  Consider: in what other setting can both boys and girls in a 10-year age range work (and/or serve) side-by-side in a structured, shared activity that is both adult-led and student-led, and invites maximum member input? Smaller schools/church youth groups have some age crossover, and some sports or productions can be team-led, but ours is a unique combination of demographics through a shared (and unique) culture with common technical and performance goals.

When I started out coaching through the Wise Guys childcare program, the jugglers had a special identity because their skills at our weekly club were carried over to free time, overnights, and gigs. As we developed, spun off, and expanded to 12th grade, the company’s social culture took on a life of its own. For instance, girls and women represent a small minority of jugglers worldwide, but we’ve enjoyed a vibrant percentage of girls in our history, including many serving as student leaders, captains, award-winners, and grads. Beyond a mere bragging right, our balanced co-ed culture makes for a more enriching environment and a place for healthy, platonic friendships. Theatre & music groups do offer such co-ed experiences, but usually only for a season (such as a play) and in a limited age range (e.g., two to four years).

All of our special events were grassroots from the start. In 1995, I took just two kids to MONDO. In 1996, our first IJA Team had 13 kids in 5th-7th grade, and Jingle Jam was a multi-night, club-specific event in the Arneberg home with 10-30 kids at a time. To this day, special events allow for joyful gatherings that transcend the setting of each weekly club, and Jingle Jam and our festival trips are among many Jugheads’ most cherished experiences in all of childhood, let alone in their juggling-specific identities.

Whether in snack-time conversations, playing dodge ball at Jingle Jam, or attending a winter festival with us, may the Jugheads treasure their social connections here and know that being a Jughead—and a Jughead parent or coach— is a blessing from above (James 1:17).

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Cognitive Benefits of Juggling

Continuing my fall series on the benefits of juggling (see last month, “The Case for Juggling as a Sport”), this art and sport develops more than the body: juggling is also a boon to the brain.

On 10/11/09, none other than Oxford University published a study which found that in addition to the grey matter of the brain growing as a result of juggling, the white matter is affected as well. According to the article, “white matter...(conducts) electrical signals” that “connect different parts of the brain together, while the grey matter is where the processing and computation in the brain is done.” The Oxford study had 12 young adults juggling 30 minutes a day for six weeks. While the students had varying degrees of success as jugglers, “all showed changes in white matter...suggesting that this was down to the time spent training and practising rather than the level of skill attained.” Did you read that? It’s not how well one can juggle, it’s the very act of learning and practicing that is a brain booster!

While my career with youth through juggling has been based exclusively here in Edina, Dave Finnigan (jugglingforsuccess.com) traveled the country and taught juggling at more than 2,000 elementary and middle schools from 1976-2005. He had an interesting quote in an article on educationworld.com: “While they’re learning to juggle, they’re using the left side of the brain; when they’re juggling, they’re using the right side. After they’ve been juggling for a while, both sides of the brain are active.”

From my own non-scientific anecdotal observations from 20+ years of coaching (and talking with parents), juggling directly benefits academic abilities in math, reading, spelling, and concentration (e.g., homework focus). It has been an effective therapeutic tool to help learning and behavioral disabilities, including dyslexia, vision issues, ADD, and ADHD. Furthermore, juggling is a great study break tool and stress reliever, since it keeps the brain active within the guise of a fun diversion from studying for hours on end!

So, far from being only a physical challenge or a social benefit (more on the latter next month), juggling is often a key to a student’s better grades, sharper thinking skills, and even bigger brains.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Case for Juggling as a Sport

This month continues a fall series of columns on the benefits of juggling. Perhaps the most disputed claim among non-jugglers regarding juggling’s many benefits is that it actually is a sport. Since virtually every hobby or passion that people choose to pursue have accompanying strong opinions, allow me to briefly flesh out why I hold to the claim that juggling indeed is a sport and should be honored (or at least acknowledged) as such.

For starters, any common definitions of “sport” can easily be applied to juggling, such as “a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other” (Merriam-Webster) and “an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature” (Dictionary.com). Secondary definitions are even more broad: “a physical activity (such as hunting, fishing, running, swimming, etc.) that is done for enjoyment” (M.-W.) and “diversion; recreation; pleasant pastime” (Dictionary.com). And for what it’s worth, consider excerpts from Wikipedia’s rather extensive definition of “sport(s)”: “competitive physical activities...casual or organized participation...physical ability and skills...either in teams or as individuals.”

In none of these definitions does a “sport” need qualification by the MSHSL, NCAA, NFL, or USOC, to name just a few acronyms of athletic governing bodies. Juggling has benefited them nonetheless: athletes from Edina High School to the Dallas Cowboys to legendary U.S. Olympic hockey goalie Jim Craig have learned to juggle to improve focus, balance, peripheral vision, and reflexes for their respective sports. Admittedly, juggling isn’t as formally and/or frequently organized as many other sports, but the IJA Games & Joggling Championships and WJF annual competitions (aired on ESPN) have gained mainstream credibility in the past 25 years. For our part, JH has treated juggling as a sport (in addition to a performance art) since Day One.

Here are additional reasons from our own JH traditions to give legitimate athletic status to juggling. Juggling is (or can be): individual or team; objectively measured (e.g., through our system of standards); often purely athletic (e.g., numbers juggling and daily group warm-ups); and a boon to hand-eye coordination for daily life and...other sports. Juggling offers constant physical challenge, frequent casual competition (Combat, Endurances, Trick-Offs), and yes, even formal recognition, such as Ultimate Club lettering, EYJA-sponsored pin awards, our annual organized Standard Testing, and our often grueling all-club fall Endurance Contests for every club level with 4 or 5 balls, 4 or 5 rings, and 5 clubs.

If ever I were to write a book on JH, a whole chapter could be devoted to this topic—not to sound self-justified, but to exonerate the many children, youth, and adults who have chosen juggling as one of their primary athletic pastimes. I’ll focus on the cognitive and social benefits of juggling over the next two newsletters. For now, the reader can know that we do treat juggling as a sport here, but beyond that, it offers more variety and more long-term participation than many other physical pursuits. Whether for a year or a lifetime, happy juggling, you athletes!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Juggling: A Conduit for Character-Building

One of the most oft-repeated phrases I use in meetings, interviews, and in writing regarding this juggling company and my own career path is that juggling is just an excuse to work with kids. Due to the long-term, developmental, and relational aspects of this work, such a philosophy is meted out on a daily basis. After all, even from the kids’ perspective, the vast majority wouldn’t bother returning year after year were it not for the friendships and life lessons they’ve gained here on a regular basis!

Having said that, juggling itself (like virtually every other worthwhile endeavor, whether hobby or profession) does have some inherently beneficial qualities and rewards. Over 20 years of coaching, I’ve directly observed, heard from parents, and read research about juggling’s physical benefits: improved hand-eye coordination (notable for athletes such as goalies, golfers and other precision sports); better reaction time and peripheral vision (making for better drivers and general physical awareness); and even arm strength and cardio for the most driven jugglers (have you ever seen the amount of sweat by hard-working Jugheads at summer camps?). Then there are the cognitive benefits: improved math scores, reading ability, concentration, focus, and even the literal growth of the brain’s grey matter. Finally, the social benefits: goal-setting, self-confidence, performing ability, leadership skills, risk-taking, permission to fail, and more relaxed, personable interactions between boys & girls, 3rd graders and seniors.

Even with all these researched and time-tested values of juggling (physical, cognitive, social), it still all boils down to character. I’ve seen countless instances of kids earning international, regional, local, and company-specific recognition, and nearly every one of those kids will testify that more important than records, standards, rank and fame is the value of strong personal character.

Juggling in general, and Jughead membership specifically, has many benefits; the unseen benefits are the most lasting. Whether here for one year or 10, the mission is that each Jughead will walk away better people for being here, with juggling as the conduit and the means toward that noble end.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Performer, Pastor, or ‘Preneur?

This school-year-ending column is a reflection on the 20th anniversary of JUGHEADS Youth Juggling Co., LLC, and how my career came to a critical crossroads in 1994. I hope it serves as a life lesson that any interests and talents in life, however seemingly insignificant or transient, can work together for our good if we have eyes to see!

In 8th grade, my goal was to be the next Steve Cannon, a WCCO radio legend. While dabbling in sports and developing my performing skills in high school, I grew to love theatre. In college, I majored in Speech-Communication (with lots of writing), minored in Music (Singing) and Theatre (Acting) while devoting much time to the U of M Men’s Chorus and the Refreshment Committee Theatre Co., including the “Sunday Nite” Radio Variety Show. Aside from my academic and performance pursuits, I grew much through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and I went to CA for camp counseling in ‘89, packing my 20th birthday gift: Juggling for the Complete Klutz.

Upon graduation in Dec. ‘91, I couldn’t find gainful employment in radio (despite six-months’ interning at ‘CCO), so I abandoned that dream, seeking the Lord for four months until He called me to lead Edina KIDS Club/Wise Guys in May 1992. I thrived there, but I grew restless in 1994, feeling I had something else to do. I auditioned for Disney World, Forever Plaid, and Radio AAHS, not landing any role. However, I was accepted to Bethel Seminary, thinking “career ministry” may be God’s will for me. But rather than enroll that fall, I was promoted to the newly-created Wise Guys Manager position, and I started the “Clubs” program, with myself leading 4th-6th graders in the Table Tennis Club and the Juggling Club. With seminary as my fall-back and an ongoing desire for theatrical involvement, I responded to what became a growing demand for coaching juggling and directing shows. By ‘99, I spun off the Wise Guys Jugglers, re-named them the Jugheads, and the rest is history.

I neither became a full-time entertainer nor a vocational pastor, but this entrepreneurial endeavor combines several passions into a unique calling that I couldn’t have envisioned. (Consider also
Wendy’s indispensable, complementary talents which she developed long before, and along the way, of developing this business!) I “perform” every day (sometimes on stage); I “pastor” in many ways; and I trust God more than I did as a (more) clueless 25-year-old longing for new career direction. This company almost didn’t happen. Its very existence is a miracle of timing, (obscure) talents and interests, and a Great Director who works all
things together for good! (See Romans 8:28, Phil. 1:6)

Friday, May 2, 2014

Average-Age Parents

This spring, Wendy & I both turn 45. That means that we’re already halfway through our 40’s! While it wasn’t God’s will for us to have children of our own, we have vicariously experienced certain aspects of parenthood from our relationships with many nieces, nephews, Wise Guys, Jugheads, and friends’ kids over the years. With my own homespun statistics, I deem that Wendy & I are now at about the average age of a Jughead parent. Frankly, it has surprised me over the last few years that any Jughead parents are actually younger than us; as a rookie Wise Guys manager in 1992, I was even younger than all my staff! But logically, if a typical couple in our metro area started having kids in their late 20’s, and we have a mix of birth orders among our 10-year Jughead age range, the average parent here is probably about 45.

Why does this matter? Well, from my perspective, it matters because although our programming, Juggle Jam traditions, juggling techniques, and events change relatively little year to year, I change. One of my rare colleagues (who has worked career-long with youth jugglers) is Art Thomas of St. Ignatius Circus Co. in Ohio. He commented to me at a recent festival: “When we started out coaching, we were like the cool older brother. Then, we became more of a father figure. Now, in my case, I’m a grandfather figure.” His insights are appreciated, as it reminds me that our strengths and weaknesses in relating to and leading the kids change over the years. Even my own favorite relational reality and analogy, being an uncle, changes as the kids and I age.

Just like all parents (and aunts & uncles) have to go through metamorphoses in learning to care for and mentor infants, toddlers, pre-schoolers, elementary/middle/high schoolers, college-age, and adult children, I’m learning how to change while my students’ ages stay the same (while “juggling” each student’s individual changes, like a real parent). Meanwhile, if the Lord wills for Wendy and/or me to live long enough to be the age of an “average” grandparent, we hope to actively mentor, love, and be supplementary family figures to as many young(ยบ) people as possible. May all parents, kin, and mentors out there strive to not just be average, but extraordinary in the lives of the youth under our influence. No matter what our age.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Little Tests of Big Faith

One need not know me for very long to figure out a few basic things about who I am. For starters, I’m an expressive, emotional, intense, often obsessive, people-oriented man of deep Christian faith who believes that God is sovereign and I am not. How’s that for a “large talk” sentence? ;-) For me, “big faith” is a necessity.

Consider this past year: Wendy underwent major heart surgery at Mayo Clinic to repair her mitral valve. My close friend and Jughead dad, Eric Rynders, died of heart failure. And my coaching staff began to downsize, with projections of me being the only after school coach next year while further empowering and training my already-strong student leadership team. In all these things, I’ve trusted God for life & death and the big picture.

However, I’d like to publicly confess that it seems more difficult for me to exercise my self-described big faith in the little tests of life. To be more specific, while I’ve learned to trust God instinctively through many major issues, it’s challenging for me to trust and thank Him through mid-year roster downturns or choreography frustrations or more readily going out of my way for a snack time conversation (e.g., while working on deadlines). I am trying to grow through the little tests of my faith, whether how I handle a child’s contrary behavior or trusting that my efforts in (or on behalf of) a child’s life will count even if he or she is only a short-term Jughead or we never see each other again after graduation.

This winter, I failed a test of childlike faith when I was dealing with a roster setback. By contrast, Job lost all 10 of his kids (to death!), along with his business and wealth (and then his health), and his response was, “The LORD has given and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21b, ESV).

I am working on “blessing the Lord” even during this busy season of ours, praying for the joy that comes after (and while) trusting Him through the little tests rather than “playing God” by presuming to be angry or despairing when my will is thwarted. Behind every high throw, record, and dance move is a company founded on God’s grace, for His glory. Big and little.

Beyond Mud Pies

Human beings are made for discovery. We are designed to explore our surroundings, how things work, and perhaps the most complicated subject of all: ourselves, including our abilities, relationships, shortcomings, and being made in God’s image. 

Regarding our pursuit of passions, consider this C.S. Lewis quote:  “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”  (The Weight of Glory, 1949)

The context of Lewis’s quote is his plea to find our infinite joy in God, but I believe it also applies to more mundane but still life-changing pursuits such as choosing to “discover ourselves” through doing hard things and investing for long-term character-building rather than the ubiquitous temptation for instant (and often destructive) self-gratification. Metaphorically speaking, don’t settle for dirt or even copper when we’re meant to go for the gold.

February is a “mud pie” month in terms of weather and the temptation to eke out an existence rather than thrive. Character is often meted out in the mundane, and discovery through discipline. Here’s to a month of rising above the mud and refining the golden opportunities to live, love and learn through daring discovery and thinking beyond ourselves.


“When we started out together, he was only my brother in name...(then) I made a connection.” That tender line was spoken by Charlie Babbitt describing a breakthrough with his brother Raymond in Rain Man (1988). We all need connections; it’s a precious reality that is part of the mortar of a well-founded life.

Most often, connections with others don’t just happen; they’re cultivated, nurtured, developed. Sure, many people with similar (or complementary) personalities and “chemistries” can hit it off right away (whether in familial, platonic, romantic, or professional relationships), but even then, I can think of no relationships in the universe that continue “connecting” by chance in the long run. Our culture foisted on us the ubiquitous myth of “quality time” in the 90’s. Although I don’t know the source, I love the rebuttal: “Love is spelled “T-I-M-E.” It takes quantity time and intentionality to connect with others.

When my friend and Jughead dad Eric Rynders died last month, my initial devastated reaction yielded to sweetness by my recollection that for about six years, Eric & I saw each other through our mundanely-scheduled event called “HubClub.” Wendy will attest that I didn’t always have the best attitude going into our monthly Sunday evening gatherings, largely because my sphere of extended family, friends, and Jugheads makes for a busy social calendar. However, I sensed that for Eric, HubClub was a peer-based oasis in an often difficult lifestyle of battling his heart condition while managing his household so that Dawn could work, the three Rynders kids could be driven in any number of directions each day, and Bea could even be homeschooled for a year. For the most part, I overcame my short-sightedness while Eric was alive, and now that he’s gone Home, I’m humbled that we were able to connect as friends in a unique way during what proved to be his last years on Earth.

When my 15-year-old nephew, Andre, died 11 years ago, it was my wake-up call to the (underestimated) effectiveness of working with youth. Eric’s death has been a wake-up call in being content with career calling (again). For every single time I struggle with my lack of juggling tricks or passing prowess that limit my ability to coach, I have to remember that there are 100 opportunities to connect with kids here—connections that may appear mundane on the surface but that can be mutually life-changing and ultimately fulfilling of the 2nd greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31)