Pondering the Olympics Yet Again…

5 Aug

Every time the Olympics come around (winter or summer) I am thrown into contemplation about the difference in cultural acceptance between finding and nurturing children whose innate attributes show them to be potential athletic superstars, and finding and nurturing children whose innate attributes show them to be potential superstars of the mind.  The whole world seems to understand and accept the need for these physically adept kids to have unusual coaching, to be withdrawn from “normal expectations of childhood activities” in order to focus on and develop their gifts, and to find some way to support their passions.  Everybody seems clear that you have to “set the bar high” to encourage growth and improved performance, and that the child himself or herself needs real inner drive and passion to flourish in such a work-focused atmosphere.

This is not, of course, to say that the path from discovery to Olympic superstardom (or otherwise) is easy, for kids or coaches or parents.  There are emotional prices to be paid all the way around.  When we watch a youngster (or occasionally an adult) devastated at getting a silver (only second in the world?) as if they have failed, a twinge of annoyance may accompany the compassion.  But we understand the cultural pressure to be “the best,” and its emotional effect.  And we celebrate the moments when an excited newcomer says what a thrill it is to be at the Olympics at all, or a driven competitor dances with real joy at winning a bronze.

With every Olympics, as I listen to the stories about how these young or adult athletes are models for younger kids, who watch their heroes breathlessly, imagining their own future possibilities, developing their own passions and sense of personal power, I long for that same story to be told for and about our brilliant kids.  NBC focused a moment last night on two kids from North Carolina (the state I live in) who traveled all the way to London to watch Michael Phelps go for more gold.  The story celebrated the effect of role-modeling.  And I got a little wistful.

But this year, fresh from the week of our most recent Camp Yunasa, I find myself processing this all a little differently.  Yunasa is the Lakota word for balance, and we created the camp for highly to profoundly gifted kids in a quite purposeful way to focus on “wholeness.”  There is a spiritual focus that pays attention not just to the unusual gifts these kids bring into their lives, but also to the meaning they can find in being and developing who they are.

photo by Nicholas Farrell

Like most camps, Yunasa wants the kids to have fun, and like most camps specifically for gifted kids, one of the most important things campers get out of it is the opportunity to hang out with their “tribe,” to make friends with kids who get them, enjoy many of the same things, laugh (amazingly enough!) at their jokes. Yunasa is known for group hugs! 

photo by Nicholas Farrell

But we structure the experience carefully around five attributes of individual life: mind, body, spirit, emotions and social self and ask the kids to consider the need to give some attention to all of these.

My own hope is that our campers–particularly those who come back year after year–will become mindful of the meaning of their own gifts and passions, resilient in the face of the world’s lack of understanding, and resistant to a cultural message that defines the value of a human life in terms of competition and winning.

The contrast with the Olympics could not be clearer to me this year.  The absolute focus on competing and winning is inevitable in these games.  Add the national pride issue–which country wins the most medals–and for the first time I’m feeling also a little grateful that the spirit of the Olympics is not readily transferrable to nurturing our brightest minds.

Ideally, in service to the competition, individual passion and effort and skill are celebrated in these games.  And teamwork, too.  What I would love to see is the best of the spirit of discovering gifts, nurturing passion, effort, skill and cooperation that is exhibited in the training of Olympic champions provided also for young unusual minds–along with real celebration of those gifts!  But I would also want for our mermaids/cheetahs a focus on the importance of the whole self and the meaning of that self in the tapestry of life.

22 Responses to “Pondering the Olympics Yet Again…”

  1. innreach August 5, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

    Hi Steph Leslie here.. I know you’ve been away, but if you would like to include a blog post or even this one in the International Week of the Gifted Blogtour that is starting this evening, thatwould be great… no pressure if you don’t want to at all.. just saw this in my email box and thought I’d ask… teehee.. ;-D

    • Stef August 7, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

      Thanks for the invitation, Leslie. Just not a great time to add to my list of things to write. Given the international reality of the Olympics and the international focus of the week of the gifted, this blog post might connect, you’re welcome to share it there if you can and you’d like.

      • innreach August 7, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

        Sorry steph, I just caught this now…. been run ragged with this… fingers sharing blogposts and what not.. Very grateful for the permission to use this.. it will be lovely to include… and we will share.. ;-D

  2. a parent August 5, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

    I can see what you are saying and you echo a general opinion about sports vs intellectual pursuits. I used to feel the same way. But not I have a child who is pegged for an Olympic future and who is also intellectually very gifted. I have to say that, at least where I come from, the experience of both is surprisingly different from how you describe. In my child’s sport, the focus is definitely on having fun, socialising with other children, and broadening your experience of life by making sure you still get good grades and do other sports. My child actually finds this difficult, because as a highly-focussed person they want to take a more aggressive and business-minded approach to their sport. But that doesn’t start coming into the equation until they are much older. Everyone is highly aware of burnout in sporting children. I understand in some countries, and in some sports (eg gymnastics) it is different, but here the aspect of competition is mainly about getting together with friends to tussle with each other, improve together, and have a great time.

    Whereas on the intellectual side, there is a growing cultural pressure in many schools to be the best educationally. Schools compete for the best students by advertising their tally of awards. Tables of comparison are published in which the exam success of schools is compared. My child has found that, to express their competitive nature and strive for accolades, the intellectual environment of school is a better place for that than the sports field.

    I’m sorry to debate you on this, I have huge respect for your wisdom. Mainly I’m sharing this comment because I’ve been really surprised about how my experience has completely changed my own attitude. I find myself wishing that folk would understand how a child can be highly intellectual and still prefer sports to books, how the driven and focussed nature of the gifted child should be nurtured in their sports as much as it is in their education, and that sportspeople were given as much serious respect as people who make a living with their brainpower.

    • Stef August 5, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

      No debate–glad to hear your experience with the athletic side and sorry about the competition/achievement of schools in your experience. I don’t doubt either. It is more the general cultural acceptance of special gifts and coaching in athletics when it isn’t readily offered to super bright kids in most places that I find frustrating.

  3. Becca August 6, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    My son was destined for elite performance and also has a profoundly gifted mind that excelled in academics. He really struggled and stressed in his mid-teens about which path to take – loving and being successful in both areas. He graduated HS at 16 and then gave up academics to pursue his field of performance and reached an extremely high level – the bronze? He also reached the highest point in that career in his 20s. That kind of multipotentiality is great in that he had choices early on and likely could have been equally successful in either path. It is also terribly challenging to reach one’s heights so young and then have to create an entirely different pathway and begin a new career. If he should elect at some point to attend college for the first time in his 30s after a career that allowed him to travel and receive applause around the world, that would be its own challenge. Many of these Olympic athletes will also face similar decisions. Some try to find entirely new ways to define themselves and new fields in which to find success while others will live in the past. A very few may be able to find ways to extend their performance through middle age and beyond. It is a life few can imagine.

    • Stef August 7, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

      Thanks for sharing, Becca! Your post reminded me of that song in the musical, “A Chorus Line,” about kissing the day good-bye when one has reached the point that dance can no longer be one’s sole focus. But I also think of Albert Schweitzer, needing to choose between music and medicine, and deciding to give one part of his life over to music and then switch to giving the rest of his life to medicine (even as he maintained his love of music). Multi-potentiality has many complexities.

      But the challenge of re-inventing a life will be more and more with us as the world of work transforms itself faster and faster. The husband of a dear friend was one of a group of brilliant computer geeks whose mental health was sacrificed at the point where the massive computers gave way to the tiny with the invention of the tiny printed circuit. Many of them could not make the mental change required.

      They say old age isn’t for sissies. I’d say life itself isn’t for sissies! But the challenge can also be exhilarating! Perspective is all…

      • Stef August 7, 2012 at 11:22 pm #

        Just after I mentioned the song that was going through my head from A Chorus Line, I learned that Marvin Hamlisch, its composer, has died. So sad. And so much lovely music to remember him by…he was a prodigy, age 7 when he was admitted to Julliard.

  4. Rick Ackerly August 7, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    excellence vs greatness.
    Stef,
    It’s nice how you use the Olympics as a foil for other ways children can develop intellectually and discover other gifts. Your camp is terrific the way it helps children discover their uniqueness—their whole selves.
    Applying this concept to academic environments, maybe it’s time to make a distinction: excellence vs. greatness.
    Most schools are still in the traditional mode of trying to bring out the best in children through competition—toward valedictorian, awards, Ivy colleges, etc. There are some schools that—more like your camp want each child to discover their own intellectual greatness. My dream would be that someday—in schools, though not in sports—we completely drop the pyramid model and replace the word excellence with greatness.
    PS—a footnote on greatness in sports. I was an athlete in tough team sports. I don’t look back on the games we won. What I remember is moments of greatness on the field and on the ice where everything came together for me. As I try to empathize with Gabby—for me it would be that great performance on the uneven bars, or something like that.

    • Stef August 7, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

      Thank you for this word focus, Rick. Greatness comes in many forms.

      As evolution is discovering that cooperation is a deeper level of pattern in the universe than competition, so might we discover that as well. Our differences are necessary, as our very body cells should teach us. Imagine blood cells competing with brain cells because they don’t get the bigger picture of the body’s need for diverstiy!

  5. innreach August 8, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

    Thank you Steph for allowing your blog to be part of the International Week of the Gifted.. #IWG12.. so many folk have enjoyed reading it!! Honoured to connect with you.. !!

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