Mary is worried about her 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, who struggles in school. She’s often an indifferent student — her real passion is soccer.
She isn’t the best player on the team, but she loves the sport and puts huge effort into every practice. She gets along well with the rest of her team, works hard, always shows up and doesn’t give up when the going gets tough. She listens to her coach. And while she’s a strong competitor, and would love to have more time on the playing field, she doesn’t complain when it’s her turn to sit on the bench.
Yet, when it comes to reading books for English class or writing essays, it takes her forever to get started and even longer to finish. Her grades in some classes are below average, even though she is capable of more. Her parents worry that she won’t be successful in adult life because of her lackluster grades in some classes — the ones that she finds dull.
But I’m not worried. In my book, Sarah is a rock star. Good grades in high school don’t necessarily correspond with success in adult life (that doesn’t mean that it’s bad to get good grades). But playing on a team is far more similar to the demands of adult life than performing well on tests.
These days, being a winner in adulthood requires all of the same elements that go into team sports — hard work, discipline, team work, ability to take direction, desire to excel, single-minded focus and the ability to let others shine. Add a sprinkle of grit when the going gets rough, and you have a champ.
What do I think will help Sarah shine when she hits the adult stage? Her ability to encourage others and let them stand out rather than to push them aside. Today, leadership is not about being a star — it’s about encouraging and nurturing the strengths of the team. It’s about giving credit to others, rather than taking credit for yourself. It’s about being a role model that others want to emulate.
Sure, it’s nice to have talent. But natural ability can sometimes get in the way. Kids don’t have to work hard to shine. And yes, top scorers get a lot of attention and praise. But what about when she faces a task that’s a struggle and doesn’t come easily? Does she get frustrated? Is she more likely to give up quickly?
I saw this in my 20 years of aikido practice, a modern Japanese martial art. Some students had great physical talent and it was easy for them to master complex moves that required speed and agility. Many of these students gave up because they lost interest quickly, even though they enjoyed the art. They never did receive a black belt.
Team sports are not the only valuable training ground for adult life. Martial arts, scouting, chess, playing a musical instrument, art, joining a club or volunteering build the muscles that help children succeed as adults.
I know — it’s sometimes difficult to get kids engaged in an activity other than playing video games, watching television, posting on social media or YouTube browsing. Video games are designed to be highly rewarding and to suck you in. If left on their own, many kids will spend all of their free time glued to their screens. This is where parents have to push hard and insist that their youngster tries something out and sticks with it long enough to see if they develop an interest.
Kids will squawk and complain — but in the long run they will thank you for your tough love.
Paul Schoenfeld is a psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.