Falling Isn’t Failing
There’s a compelling YouTube video being passed around social media. It’s called “Pick Em Back Up,” and it was produced by Proctor and Gamble as part of their sponsorship of the upcoming winter Olympics. It’s billed as a thank you to mothers for helping pick their children up when they fell and providing the encouragement they needed to try again.
Of course the point of the video is to celebrate the mothers of Olympic athletes who not only picked their kids up, but watched them go on to make Olympic history. As beautiful and inspiring as the images of ice skaters finally completing triple axels, skiers flying past flags without crashing, and hockey players slamming pucks into goals were, I’d love to see other kinds of falls (emotional, mental and physical) that did not result in fairy tale endings.
I would love, for example, to see a video about the boy on my high school swim team with brittle diabetes. It took enormous courage, careful planning and the watchful eyes of everyone on the team to get him through his workouts. Or how about my college friend whose neck was broken by a drunk driver who ran a red light? She was paralyzed from the neck down but refused to feel sorry for herself. “The accident sucked,” she used to say, “but what am I supposed to do, give up?”
My experiences as an Olympic-swimmer-wanna-be also taught me an invaluable lesson about emotions and perception. After failing to make the trials at the age of 17 I was devastated. I dragged myself out of the water and went to see my coach. He handed me my towel and said, “I’m sorry, but in your case the problem is a matter of talent.” To say I was crushed doesn’t begin to describe what his words did to me. I left the team and didn’t set foot in a pool for almost 10 years. When I did it was to join a masters swimming program in college. When the coach of that team (who once coached the U.S. Junior Olympic team) heard my story, he had one thing to say, “bullshit.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“That’s bullshit, and if you’ll train exactly as I tell you to train I’ll prove it.”
Imagine my surprise when the workout schedule he gave me was less than 1/3 of the distance I used to log when I was 17. Even more startling was his insistence that I add light weights, meditation and rest to my program. “I’m convinced you were completely over trained,” he told me the day I broke my own personal record.
I will forever be grateful to this coach and to the five or six other teachers in my life who refused to see my falls as failures and encouraged me to keep going. One, a literature professor, flat out told me I’d make a terrible journalist. “You’ll resent the rules,” she said. “Get out there and write your own kind of quirky stuff.” At the time I was kind of insulted. Now I see she understood me better than I understood myself. Another, an art teacher, insisted I not drop his illustration class. “You’re not as good as the other kids yet,” he freely admitted, “but that’s not because you don’t have talent. It’s because you lack experience.” He gave me a B in the class by the way.
All of this is meant as a reminder to you and me both. As adults and teachers we tend to forget how important our words and actions are to kids. They watch us like hawks, live for our praise, and count on us to help them find their way in a world that isn’t very good at celebrating those who don’t win gold medals. Let’s help our kids not only recover from falls but grow into the kind of adults who are compassionate, respectful and eager to insure that those coming behind them feel like winners too.