Monday, July 04, 2011
What parent hasn't looked at his or her kid and wondered, "Does my child have the stuff of a champion?" Then we all answer "Probably" and strive for the best. Defining a world class athlete can't be done with a simple formula or a few lines in a manual. While athleticism plays a significant role, it's not enough. A world-class athlete needs more. Yet those additional attributes can be elusive and may be predetermined and unteachable, which doesn't keep us from trying to mold our children into the model. When my boys were little, they devoured biographies of great athletes such as Pele, Jackie Robinson, and Michael Jordan. Comparing their own experiences to those of their idols and trying to figure out how they could climb into that stratosphere of achievement. Except for a few homilies about hard work and believing in themselves, they didn't make any life-changing discoveries.
With the Women's World Cup underway in Germany, the US Women have issued a "Handbook" that includes stories about what they felt helped foster and develop their soccer careers. Most of these women had surprisingly regular childhood soccer experiences. They detailed dads who set up goals in the backyard, moms who drove players two hours each way to ODP and club practices, strong coaches and playing high school soccer. In more than one case the women reinforced the idea that soccer needed to be fun. While all these anecdotes help humanize those who can seem like superwomen, they don't reveal a magic ticket to the top. However, one player came close. Jill Loyden went to see the first-ever Olympic gold medal game for women's soccer in Atlanta which the U.S. won. She stated that "Ever since then, it became a dream and a mission to become part of the US Women's National Team".
I really liked that distinction. We often hear players talking about their dreams, but calling her primary dream a mission points out how big a role drive and passion play in success. I've learned a lot about missions in the past ten years watching my boys and their soccer teammates develop. I've seen excellent players fall by the wayside because they didn't possess the serious passion necessary to make it through the really tough work, disappointments, and injuries. I watched players get by-passed because they divided their interests and ended up being masters of none. I've watched my own sons struggle with crossroads when it came to their passion for the sport and the sacrifices necessary to move forward. It's easy to sacrifice when you're succeeding, but the higher a player climbs the more serious the competition and the frustrations become. Plenty of great athletes don't become professional because ultimately they place their priorities elsewhere. So no matter how seriously they trained, no matter how advanced they became, no matter how much they succeeded, at some point the trade-off between the hard work and the reward shifted to other interests such as professions, businesses, or education. Their mission no longer was sports.
The concept of an unteachable mental edge hit home last week. Watching my granddaughter do a figure eight on the pool deck as she marched out to jump off the edge, thought better of it, turned and retreated to the stairs, I was struck with the importance of mental drive. Nothing at the pool enticed her to overcome her fear of leaping into the water – not sharing the experience with her friends, not keeping up with her sister, not taunts from kids in the pool, and not the promise of an orange sucker from her swimming instructor. Her mind would not allow her to jump. The same holds true for other youth athletes. Some players have no hesitancy about making tackles or hip-checking a player out of her path. Other players hold back, some out of fear, some out of disinterest, and some out of stubbornness. We parents can't manufacture the passion kids need to overcome mental obstacles. But we find it difficult to refrain from trying. Whatever that intangible mental edge might be, we will cajole, encourage, bribe, push, beg, and maneuver to get our kids to seize and use that edge.
I can't describe how much I wanted to just shout at Megan, "Jump already!" She had approached the edge of the pool at least three dozen times, announced she was going to jump, looked down, and then retreated. There was no impediment but her own mindset. She could stand where she was jumping, kids in swimming diapers were jumping, and the stairs were right there. Yet I also knew that until she made her own decision to jump she wouldn't develop the self-confidence necessary to master the next challenge in her life. I had to remind myself that she was the one swimming. My ability to swim, my parenting (grand-parenting) skills, and the future of competitive diving were not the issues here. Maybe she'll jump tomorrow; maybe she'll jump next summer. Her mental edge, her passion, will manifest itself at some point, but probably not for swimming or soccer or gymnastics. She may not have athletic dreams or she may have lots of athletic dreams. But hopefully she will find a single mission that will drive her life and help her overcome the tough roadblocks ahead. All I can do is provide as many opportunities as possible for her to explore.