At I write this, the 2018 Olympics In Pyeongchang are coming to a close. It’s been an exhilarating few weeks, full of many lessons for all of us. While watching the events unfold, I was often dumbstruck by the enormous talent, passion, beauty, and drama of the Olympics. And yet, I was even more enchanted by the stories behind the scenes -- stories and lessons learned from our world’s exceptionally gifted athletes, lessons that can serve our gifted students well.
Persistence: Above all, it is apparent that Olympians and their coaches understand the work of Carol Dweck (the “mindset” maven), Angela Duckworth (the “grit” guru), and Malcolm Gladwell (10,000 hours of practice to mastery). While winning is, for most, the ultimate end goal, coaches and athletes stressed persistence, the idea of embracing the “not yet,” and the importance of celebrating the immense time and effort that it takes to achieve pinnacle performance. In the words of the winner of the men’s single luge, Chris Mazder, “this win was 16 years in the making; don’t ever give up.”
Disciplined attention to detail: Additionally, the United States four man skeleton team explained the drudgery -- and precision -- and attention to detail -- and analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of ideas and practice that can accompany years of preparing for competition. (I was particularly fascinated with the explanation of “dry load” timed practices, and how exquisitely honed this process is...I thought you just jumped in and ducked.)
High expectations and grace under pressure: The high pressure women’s singles ice skating competition provided many lessons as well. As the world watched, Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, both fiercely competitive and exquisitely talented, battled for the gold medal. The world, watching with HIGH expectations, witnessed the glory of winning, and the agony and heartbreak of defeat, and experienced grace under pressure from both skaters. What a marvelous lesson for our highly competitive gifted students (and sometimes their parents). And what a way to learn to live with being imperfect!
Competing for the joy of it: It gave me great joy to watch the Jamaican bobsleigh teams compete again, with the Jamaican women’s team competing for the very first time. The Jamaican men’s team first gained fame in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and was immortalized in the film Cool Runnings. The joy, the team spirit, and the dedication of this year’s teams to an alien, cold-weather sport was refreshing. They reminded me of the importance of getting out of our comfort zones and experiencing all that the world has to offer us.
Succumbing to the joy: Gifts and talents are just that -- “gifts” and “talents” -- and to make it all worthwhile, there must be joy. Watching the figure skating exhibition gala filled me with joy. It was heartwarming to see the pressure off of the skaters, and the camaraderie and sheer playfulness joy. They were simply doing what they love to do, and enjoying the company of talented others.
Being magnanimous: The tie between the Canadian team and the German team in the men’s luge got me thinking about being magnanimous. There are many ways to win, and there are many winners in our world. Celebrating genuinely with each other, and being happy for each others’ fortunes brings us happiness as well.
Finding calm in the eye of the storm: Finally, though many, many other lessons can be learned from the 2018 Olympics and Olympians, I was totally intrigued by the psychological aspects of competition, that ineffable melding of body, mind, and spirit that allows an athlete the ability to get “inside their bubble,” and be immune to the pressure. (I especially pondered this as I watched Evgenia Medvedeva pace, listening to her music, waiting to skate last, knowing the stakes.) How do athletes do it? How can we help students learn to find “their bubble”? And then I found this article, Neurologists Explain How Olympic Athletes’ Brains Help Them Pull off Those McTwists and Triple Lutzes, which explains the neuromuscular hyperabilities of athletes, and then attempts to explain the ability to perform under intense pressure. “Essentially,” quoting Christopher Fetsch, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, “what sets Olympic athletes apart is not their bodies so much as their brains’ speed and flexibility in taking sensory information and translating it into muscle movements...In our day-to-day lives, we make countless small unconscious decisions like this. In the Olympics...the stakes are much higher, the world is watching, but the process going on in the brain is very similar. In these athletes, it has been honed to perfection to perform a certain skill.”
In his research, Vikram Chib, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins, adds that, “athletes who can keep their minds off the possibility of losing are those more likely to perform well -- and win.”
And, finally, Jam Ghajar, director of the Stanford Concussion and Brain Performance Center, adds, “A major part of brain performance is getting enough sleep.” Indeed!
Mind, body, and spirit -- the profile of an Olympian, and lessons from the 2018 Olympics. What does this all mean for our gifted kids?
As always, I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for this foray into using other perspectives to helping us understand giftedness.
Past President, WATG
Gifted in Perspective
A column designed to link the gifted perspective to other perspectives, and to make you think.