Tagged Athletics and Sports

Challenge No. 7: Try a New Sport or Craft

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Slacklining is like tightrope walking, but the rope isn’t as tight.

Slacklining is like tightrope walking, but the rope isn’t as tight.Credit Brian Lee for The New York Times

Challenge No. 7: Try a new sport or craft.

When we mix things up a bit, we give ourselves memorable moments — and make summer stand out more in our minds. This week, why not do something entirely new? The challenge: Learn a new sport or craft, and revel in using your hands and body in a new way.

Learning something new, whether it’s physical or mental, seems to be good for our brains, especially as we age. Research suggests that learning a new physical skill in adulthood, like a new sport, may lead to an increase in the volume of gray matter in parts of our brains related to movement control. Learning a mentally challenging skill offers additional benefits: participants in a research study who learned to quilt, take digital pictures or both showed enhanced memory abilities.

And, of course, learning something new can be fun, especially when we do it with a family member or friend.

What should you try? How about paddleboarding, badminton, slacklining or surfing? Or if it’s too hot outside, keep it cool by learning to code (try a free Hour of Code) or taking a tapdance class.

Last week, we suggested letting the kids take over. Here’s what we heard:

Becca Mitchell of Branford, Conn., wrote; “Our challenge was to fill our long driveway with color! We used chalk (some soaked in water, which made the colors more vibrant) and sidewalk paint. We invited friends, neighbors and family members to stop by throughout the day.”

Emma Chen of New Jersey, who is 12, wrote: “For this, I decided to walk around town with five of my friends. Only one of us had a phone for emergency contact. We bought a bunch of stuff and I got to explore the town around my school since I just moved here!” She added: “It made me feel independent because our parents weren’t there.”

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Credit Renee Tratch

On Twitter and Instagram, we saw a post about a fishing tournament and a list of a child’s wishes including “play pickleball.” That’s a sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong and would be new for some of us — maybe it could fulfill this week’s challenge. (The list, posted by Renee Tratch of Toronto: swimming, fishing, go to beach, pick flowers, get slushies, play pickleball, bike ride, explore and play mini-golf.)

What will you try or learn this week? I’ve been carrying around the instructions and material for crocheting friendship bracelets all summer, and this is the week it happens. Tell us what you try, and how it goes, by commenting here or emailing us at wellfamily@nytimes.com before next Tuesday, Aug. 9. How did it feel to stretch your mind or body in new ways?

Be sure to sign up here for the Well Family email so you don’t miss anything.

We’ll share reader stories and post next week’s challenge — the last! — on Thursday, Aug. 11. The real goal, as always: to savor the summer all season long.

What College Sports Recruiters Can Teach Your Child

Most children who play team sports will not win a college scholarship. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn something from collegiate coaches who spend countless hours evaluating high school athletes on and off the field. As it turns out, the advice head coaches have for prospective recruits will help any student succeed, even those who don’t plan to play sports in college.

We spoke with several college coaches from a variety of sports about the qualities they look for in a student as they try to build a successful team. Here are edited excerpts of what they had to say.

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Credit Alabama Athletics

Nick Saban, head football coach at the University of Alabama

I tell my players to focus on what you have to do to succeed rather than the result itself. This is true if you want to climb Mount Everest, be the president of IBM or play for Alabama. I ask them: what are your goals, what do you hope to accomplish, and how is your behavior now helping you accomplish those goals? Whether we win or lose, there are technical aspects for every player, things that they did well and things that they did poorly. My focus is on improvement. One game doesn’t define success — it’s momentary. It’s about consistency and performance.

I always talked to my [own] kids after their games and looked for the life lessons that came from the things they did or other things that happened in the game. [As a parent] you can have these discussions or leave it to the coach. I think sometimes you need to prepare your child to respond to adversity: If I want to play more, then I need to work harder. Everyone is not entitled to an opportunity to play. That’s not the way of the world. You have to earn your way.

Think of [college] as a 40-year decision, not a four-year one. The life lessons learned at that institution will affect them forever.

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Credit Washington and Lee University

Gene McCabe, head coach of men’s lacrosse at Washington and Lee University

We all think our kids are the greatest but what is the reality? If your child is talented and loves it, be sure to provide them with competitive opportunities to grow their game and to gain exposure but keep it in perspective.

Candidly, I worry about the money that is spent today on competitive youth sports. While families do need to engage in the process and attend tournaments and showcases, they do not need to do it all the time, nor should they take out a second mortgage on the house to pay for it.

I always find it interesting to get a voicemail from a parent saying that their son is so busy that he can’t call me himself. Until that kid picks up the phone, I assume they are not interested. When you see a kid who has taken ownership of the process, it tells you that, by and large, they will take ownership of other things in their lives, too.

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Credit Clemson Athletics

Audra Smith, head coach of women’s basketball at Clemson University

The kind of athlete I’m looking for is one who can handle adversity. Today, a lot of parents walk around with a safety net so their children won’t get hurt or disappointed — but I want a tough player who understands that when I push them it’s not personal, it’s because I know they have the ability to be better. We need to help our children develop a little toughness so that when they experience toughness down the road, they don’t shut down or shatter emotionally.

Parents should look for a good youth coach who demands the best of their kids but is not over the top.  Find a coach who fits your child’s personality and who you feel comfortable with as a parent. So when your child says the coach is being tough, you can back up that coach and agree that maybe your child isn’t playing up to his or her potential. That’s what I tell my own daughter when she’s disappointed after a game. Parents need to uphold a coach’s authority, not undermine it.

There are kids I don’t recruit because I see their social media. When I see an inappropriate [post], like provocative pictures or inappropriate language, it’s a red flag. It not only tells me about the player, it also tells me that their parents are obviously not aware of what’s going on in their teen’s world, and I don’t feel like I’m going to have that backing from a parent if I have an issue with that child.

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Credit StanfordPhoto.com

Jeremy Gunn, head coach of men’s soccer at Stanford University

The biggest asset I look for on the field, past athleticism and skill, is intrinsic drive. The most successful student athletes that I have coached are the ones that, first minute or last minute, winning or losing, hot day or cold day, cup final or “easier game,” show the same type of attitude. If somebody has that drive and work ethic, they will continuously grow and develop. As a coach you are not really recruiting the student athlete for today, you are recruiting who they are going to become and who you think they can be.

Everybody has moments when they’re upset and not happy with an outcome. As a parent you can either join in the complaining process or sensibly say to your kids, “What do you think you can do about it? Or what can you do next time?” When a child complains about their coach, you can either join in with the process or you can say, “Have you spoken to your coach about this?” to help guide them to take control of their situation.

Being successful requires the same traits no matter what you do. If somebody is a good student, they have already shown perseverance and a desire to succeed. That means they’ve already learned certain skills that are going to make them a good athlete for us. I talk to our student athletes about Dr. Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mind-set, and explain that those are the types of people who are the foundations of our program. People who have been extremely successful have often been reinforced with the fixed idea that they are good and they are special. Then when they move up the levels, I think a great university can sometimes take a huge sledgehammer and smash their ego to smithereens. Now they are no longer top of the heap. They are no longer the superstar athlete. Based on the fixed reinforcement they’ve had their whole life, it logically follows that they are now bad and they are no good. So by educating people that it is a continuous journey, they’re able to handle the situation in a more positive manner.

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Credit Gil Talbot

Lisa Miller, head coach of women’s lacrosse at Harvard University

We look for athletes who are also serious students, ones who are challenging themselves in the classroom by taking tough courses and doing well in them.

With travel leagues, parents should ask themselves: What will my child be missing by not playing for our town’s team or for their high school? While the players on travel teams are all close in age, in high school a freshman may be playing with a senior and vice versa. Kids learn social skills when they have to play with people of different ages and levels. Upperclassmen are learning to be leaders, and freshmen are learning to be part of a team’s culture. These are skills that kids need to play at the college level and later on in the workplace.

To play at an elite level, you’re going to have to play at the club level. But you don’t have to be on the road every weekend so that you’re missing family vacations, not forming friendships with the kids in the neighborhood or giving up a chance to play another sport.

Ninety percent of our athletes played multiple sports in high school. Multi-sport play reduces overuse injuries and exercises different muscles — but there’s also a learning benefit. You might be the star lacrosse player but when it comes to basketball, you may be on the bench for most of the game. It’s a good learning experience for a kid to have to sit on the bench. It puts them in another person’s shoes and teaches them empathy, which will make them a better leader and teammate.

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Credit Columbia Athletics/Mike McLaughlin

Tracey Bartholomew, head coach of women’s soccer at Columbia University

I think one of the things that kids don’t handle well is constructive criticism. They don’t know how to process it when they’re hearing things that aren’t praiseworthy all the time. You want parents to be encouraging, but also not afraid to give constructive criticism. A coachable kid who can handle constructive criticism — that goes a long way.

As children get older, it’s important to teach them how to self-reflect. Instead of giving your opinion right away, ask them what they thought about the game. If they’re too hard on themselves, stop them and say, here are two or three things you did well and here’s the thing you’ll need to work on for next time. Help them learn to process it.

We vet players by talking to their club coaches. I want to know: Is this the kid who after practice is by themselves, wearing their headphones, walking quickly off the field? Or is this the kid who picks up the cones and the pinnies and helps out? I want the kid who picks up the cones, who has that awareness of other people. In developing a team, I look for people who are not selfish. I honestly would take A- or B+ level talent but A+ characteristics because those people tend to rise when things get harder.


Lisa Heffernan is the author of three business books and writes about parenting in the high school and college years at Grown and Flown. You can find her on Facebook.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace is a freelance writer based in New York and the mother of three children. You can follow her on Twitter @Wallacejennieb.

Who You Calling Cheerleader?

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One recent Saturday on Staten Island, Brooke Winkler surveyed the pack of teenage girls before her with an expression of barely suppressed fury. Just 20 minutes before the start of its game against Morrisania Educational Campus, from the Bronx, the Susan E. Wagner High School stunt team was fumbling its way through practice. The girls’ landings teetered, their timing lagged and one flier couldn’t seem to maintain her balance. And then there was the matter of congeniality.

“I need you all to smile!” barked Ms. Winkler, 27, a team coach and a math teacher at Wagner. “You look like you want to die out there!”

The girls had every reason to smile. The Wagner Falcons of Staten Island are the reigning city champions of stunt, an increasingly popular variant of cheerleading that focuses on its technical and athletic components. Introduced by the Public Schools Athletic League in 2014, stunt is less rah-rah and more basket tosses.

With a 9-1 record this season, the Falcons are tied for second place heading into the playoffs in early June, where seven other teams will compete for the title. Yet even as the Falcons perfect their form with daily two-hour practices and a pair of games each weekend, their most trying contest revolves around legitimacy.

“When we walk through the hallways, people always tease us that stunt isn’t a real sport,” said Crystal Knapp, 16, a sophomore on the team. “But look at us — we’re athletes. We work hard.”

High school wiseguys are hardly their only detractors. In spring 2014, the N.C.A.A. Committee on Women’s Athletics denied stunt a bid for consideration as an “emerging sport.” Around the same time, competitive cheer, not to be confused with stunt, was deemed an “official high school sport” by the State Board of Regents.

Although stunt has yet to receive the same status, a committee met last month to evaluate its potential for the 2017-18 season, said Todd Nelson, assistant director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. And when the stunt program began in New York City two years ago, it gained more traction.

The program has grown to approximately 470 participants playing on 33 teams, from 120 participants in 2014, said Donald Douglas, the Public Schools Athletic League’s executive director.

Stunt competitions unfold with no less seriousness than high school basketball games. Teams perform identical predetermined routines, “so you can see who’s more perfect,” Ms. Winkler said. The arrangement is meant to enable more objective scoring, but it carries the daunting consequence of exposing any minute flaw.

Wagner was forced to confront a blemish of its own in the opening routine of its game against Morrisania, when one girl stumbled out of the wobbling arms of a teammate. It proved to be Wagner’s only blunder. For the rest of the game, their tosses were precise, their tumbling synchronized and their pyramids as exquisitely constructed as any in the sands of Giza. Even as their eyes betrayed their nerves, the girls kept grins plastered across their faces.

The playlist for the contest was a collection of mostly retro techno music selected for its adherence to the sport’s eight-count rhythm and, it would seem, the ability to induce mass frenzy. At one point, a remix of “Rock and Roll All Nite” transitioned into a remix of “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” which transitioned into a remix of “You Shook Me All Night Long.” A more contemporary song that brusquely commands listeners to “Shut Up and Dance” played no fewer than two dozen times.

“I’ve learned to block out the music,” said Martyna Kulikowski, the team’s captain, “but that doesn’t mean I like it.”

With women’s sports on the rise, cheerleading has grown crowded with a variety of iterations all vying for accreditation, among them game day, spirit and stunt. Advocates hope Title IX privileges are in the future. Though the athletic league technically considers stunt a coed sport, only a few teams include boys. The Wagner team is entirely female.

“In cheer, you’re rooting for someone else, usually boys,” Ms. Kulikowski said. “In stunt, everyone else cheers for us.”

Sprawled across the stands between games, the Falcons allowed themselves a few moments to unwind, snacking on doughnuts and chatting. “Being a teenage girl is stressful, and stunt is a sort of escape for a lot of them,” Ms. Winkler said.

Wagner’s second competition of the day proceeded smoothly, as the Falcons defeated Stuyvesant High School, from Manhattan, without losing a single routine. Still, some of the team’s most ardent supporters struggled to watch the action.

“This is the hardest part of my week,” said Natasha Dunn, whose daughter Kayla is a junior on the Falcons.

Even as she kept her iPhone camera steadily trained on her daughter, Ms. Dunn winced at the sight of Kayla being tossed in the air like a mound of pizza dough. Her concerns were understandable. Nearly two-thirds of all catastrophic injuries in female youth sports occur in cheerleading, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Wagner has avoided any major disasters, but the team has not been immune to stunt’s dangers. Last season, one girl’s teeth went through her upper lip after she was elbowed in the face. Another girl broke her pinkie finger. Both were back at practice the next day.

“It’s not just bows and pompoms, these girls are tough,” Ms. Winkler said. “Stunt breaks so many gender stereotypes, and I love that.”

EMAIL: fitcity@nytimes.com

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Clumsiness as a Diagnosis

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Credit Anna Parini

Years ago, I took care of a little girl whose mother worried tremendously about her clumsiness. When she was 4 or 5, my patient was still tripping and falling more than other children her age, her mother thought. She had trouble with the clapping games in her preschool. The mother was visibly distressed when she talked about this. She told me that she herself had been “that kid,” the clumsy one, the last one chosen for every team.

For a long time, a variety of terms were used in medicine and education to describe children who struggled with coordination but had no underlying condition, terms like the ominous-sounding minimal brain dysfunction, the milder movement-skill problems, and yes, clumsy child syndrome. In 1994, these were consolidated under a single diagnosis, developmental coordination disorder, though this covers a wide range of children who may struggle with anything from handwriting to riding a bicycle.

There is always a risk when you apply a diagnosis, always a chance that it will be seen as “pathologizing” or stigmatizing children. Are kids better off thinking of themselves as just kind of awkward? Should parents shrug and say, “no one in our family is a good dancer”?

“I think there is a perception out there that children who are clumsy are just children who aren’t good at sports,” said Dr. John Cairney, a professor of family medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, which maintains a website about the disorder with useful advice for parents. It’s more important, he said, to think about “how it affects children and adults in everyday activities — tying shoelaces, using knives and forks.”

The need for a diagnosis depends on whether the child is actually struggling. Pediatricians and pediatric neurologists do sometimes encounter parents who worry because a child isn’t gifted at sports, or at a particular sport. Not being gifted, or even good, at sports is not a diagnosis, and it’s probably more important for that child’s well-being to help parents take a new look and find the child’s real strengths and inclinations.

“Some of these kids come in referred to me, and they really look pretty normal; a lot is parental anxiety,” said Dr. Stephen Nelson, a pediatric neurologist and an associate professor of pediatrics at Tulane University, who wrote the Medscape article on developmental coordination disorder. “It’s O.K. if he doesn’t throw the ball well; he can have other skills,” Dr. Nelson said. “We don’t all have to excel at everything.”

On the other hand, a child whose fine-motor skills are far behind what is age appropriate may struggle to put on clothing, or feel bad about activities that children do for fun, like playing with Legos. And there are children whose problems go beyond just being average (or a little worse) at basic athletic skills, and those children can find themselves dreading gym class, and in some cases even being bullied.

“You have parents and teachers attempting to push them into activities, believing the problem is motivational, not neurologic or motoric,” Dr. Cairney told me. “They get bullied, called stupid or klutzy.” With a diagnosis, he said, the children’s quality of life might improve, especially if they are given good advice about how to manage the problem.

Taking the clumsy child for evaluation is all about whether the child could use some help. That may involve modifying the child’s environment: Lots of children are referred for evaluation because of dysgraphia, or terrible handwriting. Learning how to use a keyboard can make a huge difference for their school functioning.

Occupational therapy is a mainstay for these children. They have to practice the specific skills they want to improve, whether that means handwriting, tying shoelaces or using a knife and fork.

An evaluation may help tease out problems that aren’t actually coordination issues. Some children look clumsy because they’re distracted, not paying attention to the motor — or athletic — task at hand. Others may have visual impairments. Doctors worry more if a child is delayed in several realms at once; if speech, fine-motor and gross-motor are all lagging. Most concerning of all is when a child who wasn’t originally clumsy starts to lose coordination skills, or begins to walk differently. Such a child should definitely be evaluated, because something new and medically serious could be going on.

So what about my patient? Well, she illustrates another point: Developmental coordination disorder is found more often among children with other issues, like attention problems, learning issues and autism. Parents with a child who is not doing well in school and also seems uncoordinated should take the lack of coordination as a reinforcing reason to have developmental and academic testing done.

That was true with my patient; her mother was very focused on her daughter’s clumsiness, but her preschool teachers were worried that something was getting in her way in the classroom. She ended up needing some special help with reading and schoolwork as she entered school. I would probably take her mother’s concern about clumsiness more seriously sooner these days, looking at it as a clue to that larger issue.

Clumsier children may become more self-conscious about displaying their motor skills and less likely to participate in games and activities, and this may mean they get less practice. And practice does help everyone, from the naturally gifted to the rest of us.

“In general, most of this gets better with time,” Dr. Nelson said. However, he added, it’s not something that children completely outgrow; clumsy children, on the whole, tend to become clumsy adults.

With more screen time and less freedom to play outside unsupervised, there’s also a concern that many children may have a lower chance of developing and practicing many motor skills (other than swiping and clicking). “We need to do more to support children’s global motor development,” Dr. Cairney said, “not to ensure they become athletes, but to ensure they can participate in a range of activities.”

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The New Performance Enhancer in High School Sports? Nutrition

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Jordan Burg, 18, learned to make smart food choices for sports through a nutrition program at his school.

Jordan Burg, 18, learned to make smart food choices for sports through a nutrition program at his school.Credit Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Jordan Burg, 18, who plays varsity football and baseball and runs track, never used to think about what he was eating. But after he learned at school that nutrition was as important to his athletic performance as attending practice, he changed his diet.

Before, “I figured that I worked out so hard, it didn’t matter,” he said. “I ate ice cream whenever I pleased, cheese on everything and soda every day.” Now, he said, “I find myself at the salad bar having grilled chicken salads,” and on game days “I eat chicken breast and fish, and I make sure I drink as much water as possible.” He also avoids processed foods and red meat.

Jordan, a senior at the Windward School in Los Angeles, a private co-ed school for grades 7-12, said, “I am experiencing far fewer muscle cramps as well as less muscle fatigue.”

He credits this change to Windward’s heavy focus on nutrition as part of its athletic program, something that appears to be a new trend in high schools, said Molly Wong Vega, a dietitian who provides her services to three public school districts in the greater Houston area. Long a standard part of professional and college programs, the emphasis on diet is shifting to the high school level.

“Schools are starting to bring in dietitians to discuss the importance of nutrition with young athletes to complete the circle,” Ms. Wong Vega said. “Suggesting a snack of bell peppers with hummus may be a way to help increase vitamin A and C intake and give a little zinc as well,” which she says can help with muscle and tissue repair.

Ms. Wong Vega said public school districts often have tighter budgets than private schools, making it harder to hire specialists in sports nutrition. She is not employed directly by the schools but works with their athletic trainers through the Houston Methodist System, a network of hospitals. She said it took her and another dietitian a full semester to talk to all the coaching staff members and 900 athletes at just one high school.

The Chandler Unified School District in Arizona, a public district in the suburbs of Phoenix, has three dietitians on staff. One is Wesley Delbridge, also a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a trade group representing some 75,000 registered dietitians and other nutrition professionals.

“By hiring a dietitian, districts receive that extra skill set that can improve their meals and increase health,” said Mr. Delbridge, a registered dietitian who directs the district’s food and nutrition department. “I have been advocating for school nutrition departments and food service departments to hire dietitians for some time, and I’m happy to see more and more schools incorporate nutrition not only into their athletic programs but into its core programs.”

Mr. Delbridge and his team developed “peak performance packs,” boxes of food that students in the district’s high schools can buy in the cafeteria for $5. There are three choices: endurance, muscle building and rapid recovery packs, each aimed at giving student athletes solid nutritional choices for their sport.

The endurance pack, for example — for sports like soccer, cross country, track and wrestling – contains whole-grain pasta salad, fresh fruit, string cheese, vegetables, hummus and a beverage high in electrolytes, intended to help prevent cramping and muscle fatigue. The muscle-building pack contains foods that are high in lean protein, both plant- and animal-based, to encourage muscles to repair and build up again.

Sports nutritionists concede that getting kids to eat healthfully remains a struggle.

“We don’t say ‘don’t eat this, don’t eat that,’” said Kermit Cannon, who heads the Windward School’s program to incorporate healthy eating into its curriculum. “We emphasize that good nutrition, along with sleep and exercise, will not only benefit you as a student athlete, but those habits will benefit you for a lifetime.”

Tackling eating disorders is also often part of the nutrition programs, with some dietitians providing one-on-one sessions with students. Mr. Delbridge is sometimes asked by a coach or a counselor to talk with student athletes who have eating disorders, and their parents.

“We would discuss their current weight, exercise activity and intensity, and I would show them what the final amount of calories they need in a day to maintain that activity level,” Mr. Delbridge said. “This can sometimes shock the student, because it seems like a lot of calories. Then we discuss how to meet these needs with healthy choices.”

Roberta Anding, a sports dietitian at the Kinkaid School, a private school in Houston for pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, said both boys and girls can struggle with body image. “How we provide these young men and women the life skills to navigate food choices, a college cafeteria, see how alcohol plays a negative role in your performance, how to recover properly — that’s truly focusing in on wellness for life.”

Robert Bach, the principal of Stillwater Area High School in Minnesota, said for several years now, students have had access to individual sessions with a nutritionist to help them make smart food choices. “It’s about lifelong health so that our students can lead a healthy lifestyle they carry beyond their classes,” he said.

Sela Kay, a sophomore at the Windward School, said that learning about nutrition at school has made it easier for her to make healthier food choices.

“Even after I am done with organized sports someday, I want to continue leading this healthy lifestyle,” said Sela, 16, who plays varsity basketball and runs track. “I know now that will start with my food choices.”

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