Walter Gretzky tells the story of when his 7 year old son, Wayne, used to sit in front of the TV and watch hockey with a pen and paper, mapping the trajectory of the puck, trying to find the points at which the puck ended up the most. This is just one of many stories that Walter Gretzky and sports journalists have used to embolden the mythology of “the great one”; a story of magical ability, something beyond teachable skill, something more in the range of an innate, god given gift. Joe O’Connor, the journalist whose recent writings recapped the above story from Walter Gretzky, did so in an article about ‘physical literacy’.
In short, physical literacy is an idea that, as we need to teach any other kind of skill, like math, or writing, physical movement needs to be taught as well. The intention is that teaching physical movement will strengthen children’s’ curiosity and positive outlook on activity throughout their lives and in turn, have positive effects on things like, mood, confidence, intellect, etc.. O’Connor, in his article in The National Post, says – “The altruistic intent here is to benefit our kids. But best intentions are blind to a few fundamental truths: not everyone is good at or interested in sports. Some kids would rather sit and read a book than throw a bean bag and that’s ok, while others are simply born with a good set of hands.” He believes that talent is god given, and that we already “coach our children to death in reading, writing and arithmetic …” and so trying to teach our kids movement from an early age is simply, fear-driven over parenting.
I wholeheartedly disagree. Joe O’Connor is right in that not everyone is good at, or interested in sports, but they could be. Having certain physical assets can predispose you to being particularly good at a certain activity: like having long fingers and being able to play jazz guitar. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be an amazing guitar player with short fingers, or even less fingers, look at Django Reinhardt! Talent is earned not bred. It is cultivated rather than magically existing. Without question, it is perfectly fine for someone to not be interested in sports, or some other activity, but they definitely won’t even want to try it if we go around telling them that they have to be born with natural ability otherwise they will never be good at it.
Michael Jordan wasn’t a natural basketball player. He was cut from his high school varsity team, he wasn’t recruited from his preferred college and he was picked 3rd in the NBA draft. In hindsight, this all seems so unlikely. But the only reason he got better after he got cut from the team, was hard work; mental fortitude and physical practice. The work ethic and coaching that got him on the team back in high school, and able to play college level ball was something that stuck with him his whole career, and it’s what made him the legendary player that he was. He knew that he loved basketball, that all the hard work was worth it in order to have a chance to play it professionally. He loved the sport so much it took him 3 times at retirement for it to stick!
In her book, Mindset, Carol S. Dweck, writes of dozens of such examples, in sports, learning, coaching, parenting, relationships, where cultivating certain ways of thinking allows for individuals to achieve what no one would have ever expected. Her studies and anecdotes shed light on the myth that talent is born rather than learned. Mindset is a powerful tool, Dr. Franz Alexander, one of the founders of psychosomatic medicine and psychoanalytic criminology once stated “The fact that the mind rules the body is, in spite of its neglect from biology and medicine, the most fundamental fact that we know about the process of life.”
I came across an example in the paper the other day of just how adaptive and powerful the mind can be. I read a story about khalid Sheikh Mohammed, confessed mastermind behind the 911 attack. After being captured he had been kept in a secret CIA prison in Romania, where he was tortured through water boarding (183 times) sleep deprivation (180 hours) and other such atrocities. After he confessed to the attacks and other offenses, and as time passed and the torture subsided he asked his jailers for a strange request; he asked if he could design a vacuum cleaner. Using schematics from the internet, he began to design what most would think to be as one of the more boring household appliances. His captors saw this as a way to keep him sane and useful for possible court hearings or future questioning. The more important and surprising part is that this was Mohammed’s idea. He sought out an activity that required focus, skill, and brought about pleasure by returning to his education in engineering. Apparently he is a very smart man, a creative thinker and a particularly good engineer. By doing this – designing a vacuum – he chose to take his mind off his present scenario and previous torture by focusing on something he enjoyed doing, something that took patients and focus. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure that I would be capable of holding on to my sanity after being subjected to such cruelty, especially in the face of unending despair.
In any case, the power of the mind and its ability to shape your perception and existence is a powerful tool, and one that can start at an early age. As I was discussing above, physical literacy is about teaching the fundamentals of movement in a playful setting to promote an active lifestyle from an early age. But perhaps the most important part is what this ‘designed play’ is cultivating; confidence and curiosity. Some people behind the physical literacy movement believe that children will only partake in activities that they are good at, and that a certain amount of “failure” during sports or activities will create a person who is destined for a life of inactivity. As Carol Dweck demonstrates in her work, this isn’t necessarily true either, that instilling a ‘growth mindset’, where the individual understands ‘failures’ as challenges and opportunities to learn and become stronger, can and will override any instinct to give up. This is what happens in natural play, and in its absence, what could happen in ‘designed play’.
The responsibility of teaching this mindset falls in the hands of parents and teachers, and this is where certain aspects of physical literacy may come in handy. What is really important is that we stop talking about ability as something that is natural or innate rather than something acquired and practiced. The language we use as parents, teachers and coaches needs to change; praise should be earned, and it should be directed at effort rather than ability, and discipline should come with caution and reassurance. We want to ensure that even if someone fails at succeeding, that it’s okay and that they are perfectly capable of improving. Just because you have one son who has the physique of an athlete, doesn’t mean your other son, who may be smaller and weaker should not be encouraged to join and excel at sports.
Physical ability, whether you learned it as a child or not, can be acquired at any age, especially if you have the will. Will, can also be acquired at any age, it just takes some inspiration and slow, consistent tweaking of perspective. Remember the balance of Yin and Yang that I mentioned in part 1, it’s important to start small, but not too small. Think about something you want to try, like surfing, and develop a plan, a realistic one. The scenario that you develop has to be challenging but not overly so. If you want to try and surf, don’t take a trip to Hawaii to do it. Try and find somewhere close and affordable with less intense waves. Find an instructor and maybe a partner, someone of a similar skill level or someone who can maybe help teach and encourage you. Keep in mind that this is a much harder task than say, being able to skip rope. But it’s still possible, especially if it’s something you really want to be able to do. Be fierce and determined but listen and pay attention, you will feel great about the experience, even if it turns out that the activity isn’t as fun or easy as you thought it would be. And if you find that you didn’t enjoy it at all, then that is okay too, just try something else, there are so many things to do in this world besides go on facebook, twitter, pinterest or watch TV. None of these things will help you grow or make you happy; they are but fleeting blips of entertainment and distraction.
The term self-actualization may seem a bit flakey; it has had its share of adaptations since its conception by Kurt Goldstein as -‘the motive to realize one’s full potential’. But that’s all it really is; being your best self, finding happiness, and the meaning of life, or more specifically, the meaning of your life. You might find inspiration in the weaponized distractions of TV and the internet, lulling us into lackadaisical obesity, but true enjoyment requires more effort and more focus. Comedian John Mulaney says
“It is so much easier not to do things than to do them, that you would do anything is totally remarkable. Percentage wise, it is 100% easier not to do things than to do them and so much fun not to do them, especially when you were supposed to do them. In terms of instant relief, cancelling plans is like heroin, it is an amazing feeling.”
We’ve all been there and know what he means and that’s why it’s funny. But then you look at Mulaney, who has written for a number of TV shows, including SNL and is a successful stand-up comic, and you realize…he definitely spends more time doing something, and something he loves to do, than not doing it.
We can’t all be comedians, or actors or professional surfers but we can find activities, things that put us in motion that are very conducive to bringing out our potential, not just during the activity but throughout life. Why not cultivate the right mindset and physical literacy from an early age so that we have the tools to be happy and healthy for as much of our lives as possible.
Stay tuned for parts 3 – Q and A with people I know who have found their potential and meaning in life through movement.