Learning Perseverance Through Perspiration
As any teacher who has assigned group work will attest, clear instructions and outcomes, assigned roles and tasks, and accountability are all necessary to ensure a successful activity. Even with these structures in place, there will be the inevitable student who throws up his hands in frustration and surrenders. What element drives one student to persist and another to forfeit?
Yogi Berra reportedly said that baseball was 90% mental and the other half was physical. While we often think physical activities are just physical activities, we don’t give enough consideration to the degree that mental fortitude contributes to success in sports. It is the same mental resilience, I believe, that determines success in the classroom and beyond.
In schools, where weary students attend class after class, engage in marathon study sessions, work on lengthy projects and challenging assessments, and where tests and grades generate anxiety, are we providing students with the support and guidance to develop their 90% mental?
From 2007 to 2014, I spent seven years as Frankel Jewish Academy’s cross country coach. My initial impetus to coach was my desire to introduce students to an activity that had been an important part of my life. I wanted to inspire them to pursue an activity that was both physically and mentally beneficial. I believed that students would benefit from running’s meditative and rejuvenating characteristics, helping them process challenges after a difficult day. I ran with the students during practice, often running up ahead to monitor the stronger runners, and doubling back to check on and encourage the weaker ones.
I emphasized to students that while running is a physical activity, the heart and spirit of a runner is just as important. I knew this to be true from the distance races I had run. I described to students how all runners, especially those new to the sport, often engage in a battle with themselves. On hot days, when feeling tired and drained, stopping and walking is so appealing while continuing and finishing the race entails mobilizing the spirit and mind. To put it another way, the only difference between the runner who walks and the runner who continues is determination. This is especially true of a sport where there is no game involving objects and goals. The competition happens within the individual to achieve one's personal best, and in the pure guts and glory of expending one's last ounce of energy to overtake a competitor. It is a competition of will and determination stripped away of all the dressing, fanfare and formality of many other sports.
I found that students who were diligent in school tended to persevere on the cross-country course. They exhibited dedication to the team and dedication to practice. They worked hard with the understanding that hard work is not always fun but it yields positive results and personal achievement.
In my coaching, I observed the attitude of successful runners and worked to build the determination of those who were less ambitious. Determination, hard work and perseverance are all necessary attributes to engage in authentic learning experiences. Experimentation, inquiry and problem solving all require diligence and persistence. As students saw their race times improve, as they experienced the association between their hard work and resolve, they learned something about themselves they had not consciously known before. They discovered they can, if only they would muster that 90%.