What is the most effective way for sports to teach life lessons?
When we talk about athletics teaching life lessons and building character, we often dwell on the lessons of competition, learning to win and lose graciously. Other times, we might focus on the development of self-discipline or teamwork. In other words, we elevate the importance of the mental and emotional growth of the athlete over the building of muscle.
I began to consider a contrary view last month, while listening to a webinar offered by the counselling service at my college alma mater, “Mental Health at Middlebury for Today’s Students.” Although some of the webinar dealt with pandemic-induced stressor, it was their discussion of resilience that caught my attention: “To start, we teach our students that they will fail at some point.” An interesting dose of reality for the student who never achieved any grade less than an B+ in high school: Your work is becoming more demanding now and, if you continue to strive ambitiously, you will eventually experience disappointment and the other emotions that come with failure.
Athletes have to deal with various forms of failure, but it usually occurs when the athlete fails to achieve a desired objective: losing a game, failing to earn a starting position, or losing a personal battle. Because of the emotional pain that comes with these disappointing outcomes, the athlete, their parents or friends are tempted to create narratives that they believe will “protect” them from those negative emotions.
One frequently overlooked way that athletics can build resilience and trigger emotional growth happens alongside the building of muscle. There are diverse theories around strength training, but many programs force athletes to fail, and teach them what they what they must do to overcome that failure. Dan Riley (strength coach at Penn State, and later with the Washington NFL team) https://bleacherreport.com/articles/592500-washington-redskins-a-different-look-at-the-teams-short-comings, along with Mike Gittelson (strength coach at Michigan) popularized this approach as far back as the 1970’s.
This video by Layne Norton gives a good explanation of what muscle failure is and how it can benefit the athlete physically: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGsGeQsuhh8
How does this form of strength training contribute to the athlete’s resilience, in ways that extend to their academic and personal strivings?
1. The athlete must develop humility
2. The athlete learns that pain and failure are not to be feared or minimized, because they are necessary for growth
3. The athlete learns that, after a maximal workout ending in temporary failure, they must take a break, allowing the body the rest and nutrients it requires to rebuild itself stronger
4. The athlete learns that emphasizing short-term success by modifying form to produce more repetitions today will not pay off