Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What Olympic Gymnasts Taught Me About Teaching

The first thing you need to know about me is that I am a tomboy by nature.  More comfortable in basketball shorts and a ponytail than heels and a skirt, I have always found much of my identity in being sporty.  It should be no surprise then that I eagerly await Summer Olympic season.  My DVR can prove just how much I love watching world-class athletes battle it out on a global stage!

I have a secret though. One that my 12 year old self would cringe if she heard me admit it aloud...

My favorite event is women's gymnastics. Hands down. Sparkly leotards and all.

These young women who represent the red, white, and blue are among the most amazing, graceful, powerful beings on Earth.  Like all good Americans with a passion for watching the Olympics, I tout myself an expert judge sitting on my couch as I eat my buttered popcorn and drink Diet Coke.  After all, I've been enamored with this event since before the Magnificent Seven wowed the world in the Atlanta games in 1996.  Totally makes me an expert.

So what does that have to do with teaching?

It's no secret that the Olympics often churn out many feel-good, inspiring stories.  You know the ones. Stories of overcoming trials and tribulations.  Stories of teamwork and dedication.  Stories of never-give-up and can-do attitudes.  Stories of overcoming humble beginnings.

These stories provide us with endless examples of character-education within our classroom.  They are timeless and treasured.  Who doesn't love a good Kerri Strung flashback?

But that's not what this year's Olympic games have taught me.  Let's get back to gymnastics.

A couple of days ago I excitedly sat down to watch the team competition begin.  I won't mention the country, but let's just say this country typically performs really well in these particular events. I watched in near unbelief, a world-class athlete stumble, waiver, and even fall multiple times throughout her floor routine.  She was proceeded by a teammate who had another very unfortunate routine.  And another, and another, and another.  I found myself going through a range of emotions including happiness (improving USA's chances), shock, embarrassment, and finally sadness.  Here were these beautiful, talented young ladies who had the incredible honor of representing their country on the international stage, only to stumble and slip lower and lower on the leader boards.  In essence, they had failed to perform to the Olympic-sized standards set before them.  I found myself shaking my head and even texting a friend, "Can you believe that?"

Then I stopped and remembered.  Remembered that these young ladies are the best of the best. Those little jumps that they make look effortless, look more like a donkey dying when I try one. (True story.)

I remembered that somewhere in that country sat gymnasts who only dreamed for the chance to perform on the Olympic stage, but didn't qualify.  Somewhere there were hundreds of little girls who watched that same routine I did, bright-eyed and proud because their favorite national role model just represented the country she loves so much.  Somewhere these young women had mommas and daddies bursting with pride as they watched their child achieve a life-long dream simply by hitting the mats in Rio.  I remembered that they were just young ladies who have a career of perfecting their craft ahead of them. I remembered that most likely, they will learn from these lack-luster performances, train harder, work smarter, and return to Tokyo in 2020 better than ever.

While I was busy judging these incredible athletes, I completely forgot what I preach every single day. That sometimes the success doesn't lie within the gold medal, gold star, or grade on a report card. That often the best lessons aren't in the successes, but in the failures along the way. Or that sometimes, sometimes, success is simply stepping out into the limelight making way for the critics to have their say.  Critics like me who sometimes call the cheap shots from the ease of their comfort zone.

As we watch our students this season, let us watch with something in mind... that our critical eye sometimes misses the amazing backstory and the beauty of rising from the ashes of failure.

You see, when these athletes left the mat, I didn't see tears in their eyes. When I would have probably crumpled and died, I saw poise.  Dignity.  The look of determination.  Why? Waiting for these young ladies were their coaches.  Ready with a hug and a word of praise.  Lifting them up and cheering them on through their failure.  Will there be hard work ahead? You bet! Is it all fun and games? No way!  But failure teaches us something success sometimes misses...grit.

Let's be that coach who is ready to help our students in the worthy pursuit of something far greater than a gold medal.  Living life with passion and purpose to make their mark in their own world and beyond.


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