What Olympians Do that All College Students Should

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Ice hockey

Never easy

I’ve long thought athletic competition a useful analogy to academic striving; students seem to understand athletes need to practice long hours to perfect their techniques, but those same students can cloud over when being reminded they need to work long hours to learn.

To illustrate, here are a few specific things Olympians do, with notes on how each can be applied to academics:

They must face their fears; they must bounce back from injury
Olympians, and athletes in general, must cope with the possibility of falling in any way short of the goal they’ve set. Who wants to be eliminated? Who wants to work for years only to be sidelined from the game with an injury? Of course competitive athletes accept that failure is a possibility and charge ahead with confidence. Time after time we hear of Olympians who had to sit out a certain Olympics or world championship, who had surgery only months before and know they may suffer a physical limitation, and so on; yet they come back and persevere as soon as they’re healthy enough to do so. In contrast, I’ve seen so many students with potential who, unfortunately, don’t seem to have the fortitude to bounce back from a failed class, even a failed assignment, and continue on with their education. They let one low grade or one negative experience discourage them – one! Listening to the stories of some ultimately successful world-class athletes, I realize many of them have a considerable number of setbacks, failures, and injuries. Babe Ruth said “Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”

They must set personal problems aside and focus
This is closely related to the first; so many students in the community-college classes I’ve taught have had sad circumstances in life and obstacles – family-related, financial, medical, psychological. Those who really hunger for their degree – those “going for the gold” – are able to set those problems aside and focus on learning. Many times I’ve advised students who are dealing with very serious and time-consuming problems to come back to school after their crises are over. College does indeed require focus and dedication, and students have to be able to supply that when the time is right.

They must not cheat
We all know of high-profile athletes who were found to have cheated, but I don’t think many of us think this dishonesty is an admirable, or even acceptable, trait. Maybe for some athletes the specter of getting caught is the only thing that keeps them honest; but for the athletes with character, cheating is unacceptable because to do it would be utterly disgraceful. With 43% percent of undergraduate students on one large survey admitting to being academically dishonest (1), I wonder how many students think of cheating on papers and tests in the same light: that to do it is disgraceful and defeats the entire purpose of being a student. I believe some students see some of their classes as mere means to an end (diploma or degree) and thus rationalize plagiarism and academic dishonesty. But learning is and ought to be about self-improvement, and as such it is self-defeating to ingest “performance-enhancing drugs” in order to deceive oneself and everyone to whom one has lied about credentials.

They must perform under pressure
This is obvious when thinking of Olympians competing on “the world stage,” but students, in particular college students, perform under pressure as a matter of course: for instance, on exams and other time-sensitive projects; when knowing their scholarships depend on certain grades; and in some cases, when knowing their precious time is limited and must be shared with various family duties. Both athletes and students need to know themselves and know their stress-inducing triggers, and practice methods of coping with pressure.

They must take into account their “personal best” as well as their score
When I was watching ice dancing, I noticed the commentators revealing to us which scores were “personal best” marks for the couples – regardless of their standing with the others. I also recall high school track, in which the “personal best” time for a race was met with respect from any coach. So I don’t quite understand why students seem frustrated when their scores over time rise, but might not be high “A.” It is a big deal to achieve a personal best, and if, so far in the class, a score has moved from 61 to 71, that is a wonderful thing; it might not be the numbers that student was hoping for, but the important thing sometimes is that the needle – a barometer of mastery – is moving up.

They must practice and work hard
We know, we just know, that the figure skaters and skiers and hockey players we see on TV have practiced. And practiced. And practiced, in order to achieve their level of performance. Coaching and talent contribute, of course, but the “99% perspiration” element is not a new or surprising idea. So, again, when I read surveys in which students admit they aren’t giving their all to academics, aren’t taking that much time to study, I believe it should be no surprise when those same students aren’t learning very much, and also (it follows) aren’t getting very good grades. Anything worth mastering will take time and practice!

(1)    The McCabe survey summary information is found here:

Older posts on this blog inspired by the Olympics:
A Bit of Learning in Honor of the Olympics
What College Students Can Learn from Olympians

Image via Wikimedia Commons: Slovakia vs USA, men’s ice hockey, Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, credit: Atos International via Flickr.

A Bit of Learning in Honor of the Olympics

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Olympic torch

Love of sport, life, & learning

All hail the Olympics! As you watch your favorite athletes strive, consider the exciting competitions an opportune time to brush up on a little basic knowledge about countries of the world:

*Review flags of the world here, courtesy of the CIA World Factbook. The site also includes maps and “information on the history, people, government, economy, geography, communications, transportation, military, and transnational issues for 267 world entities.”

*While you’re browsing snapshots of world countries, why not virtually visit the Olympians’ homelands? Some ideas for armchair traveling are listed here.

*Talk the talk of international athletes: see here for seven good foreign language help sites.

Finally, you might stop by the official website of the Olympic Games. Go to the “Olympism” tab and scroll down to “Educators.” Although this material is prepared for grade schoolers, it’s still interesting to see the colorful e-brochure “resources” from the Olympic Museum and learn, for instance, about the history of the ancient and modern Olympic Games.

Image via mrg. bz / sideshowmom

Related on this site:
It’s always a good time to study geography.
A good place to start studying world religions.

 Related from around the web:

What College Students Can Learn from Olympians

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Lessons for every striver

During the last Olympic Games, I was struck by the televised human interest stories portraying the athletes – the stories included past victories and defeats, personal issues such as difficult family circumstances, injuries, and other various setbacks in life. These remind us the athletes are normal people with extraordinary talents and goals – and we might look to them for inspiration, no matter who we are. I’ve always found multiple parallels between sports and academics, and I think Olympians can teach college students a few lessons.

Wholehearted belief and sacrifice are important to success. Olympic champions don’t go about their conditioning, practices and competitions with half their energy. They must commit to their goals completely, body and mind. In The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale quotes a trapeze artist instructing his frightened student how to perform on the high bar: “Throw your heart over the bar, and your body will follow.” While this of course concerned physical performance, it’s true of academic endeavors as well: the first step is to want success and believe you can attain it. (Then, of course, you’ll commit long hours of work toward the goals you’ve set.)

Sometimes, unexpected circumstances derail you. Athletes regularly sustain injuries or even life circumstances that take them out of competition. These life events are disappointing and heartbreaking, and of course not limited to athletes. As a determined student, when difficulties arise, how well do you cope? In other words, what’s your character? Do you throw in the towel, or do you become even more determined to reach your goals? Do you have grit? It’s a good thing to have.

Sometimes, life isn’t fair – perhaps the best team or the best athlete makes a mistake or just doesn’t perform up to potential on a given night. The best team doesn’t always win; this is true in every area of striving and achievement.

Not everyone can win the gold. The bizarre practice of awarding every kid (or no kid) a trophy intentionally obscures the reality that in every competition, there are winners and losers. Abolishing the honor roll doesn’t change the fact that some kids are more academically talented (or work harder) than others. But to a young person brought up with these odd practices, it may be a shock to discover, perhaps in college, that gold medals are not in fact ubiquitous. Success is hard-won, and work ethic and ability, not pretend accolades, will get you there.

Even those with raw talent need support and coaching. Two points here. First, our success is rarely if ever come upon in a vacuum; we all have inspirational teachers, coaches, mentors, family members and friends who support us. It’s good to remain humble and grateful toward these folks. Second, everyone needs a coach – in other words, needs to be open to coaching and further improvement. Some confident college students resist constructive feedback from professors, saying they were “A students in high school.” Ah, but college is a different playing field altogether, even for the best high-school performers, and even the most talented need guidance. Also, in some cases, grade inflation has unfortunately warped students’ perceptions of their true performance levels.

Cheating doesn’t pay. Students and others might think they’re “getting away with” cheating for awhile, but it’s only for awhile; and consequences linger and taint. In any sport, but particularly in Olympic competitions, how shameful and sad it is when a medal must be stripped from a competitor, or when corruption is found to have infiltrated a contest. If you have no integrity, what do you have? It’s a serious question; as Cassio bemoans in Othello, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”

One must respect others – even when competing against them. This is called “good sportsmanship,” and it applies to every contest in life. Sore losers and gloating winners are embarrassments to themselves and the teams they represent. So remember, inside and outside class, to carry yourself with class.

Image via mrg.bz / mxruben

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