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Lessons In Play

More and more, I find myself using sports analogies with my students. Some of the most desirable traits in a student can be seen every day on the playing fields outside my classroom window.

Here are just a few of the good habits students can pick up on the court, field, turf or ice:

Optimism. I can’t imagine hearing a player say before heading out onto the court that he knew he was going to lose, was horrible or couldn’t do it. The power of “psyching out” yourself or the competition is a given in the sports world. You do it to the opponent, never to yourself, because mental state matters and can affect the outcome of the game. And yet every day I hear students say, “I can’t write,” “I stink at math” or the ubiquitous “I’m a bad test-taker.” If I were a coach I’d make them drop and do 20. Positivity matters. Will everyone be brilliant at everything? Of course not. But they’ll never know until they try and believe.

Hard work. My students laugh when I pose a scenario in which a kid jogs out onto the lacrosse field, new gear in hand, and demands a starting spot on the varsity team. The very idea is ridiculous. And yet how many students attempt to dash off a paper the night before it’s due? Great achievements and successes require work. Students need to practice their writing, math, science and music just as much as they need to run drills, study the playbook and shoot the ball in the basket time and time again. After all, there’s pleasure in hard work. If something comes easily, it doesn’t have as much worth.

Teamwork. On a good team, every member has a specific job to do that is critical to the success of all. Watching a great team at work is like poetry: every line flows, the rhythms are smooth, the turns are exciting and every word pulls its weight. Yet students can be a bit selfish when they sit at their desks. If one kid is moody or disruptive, it throws the whole class off. Conversely, it’s an amazing thing to be in a room where the silence buzzes with firing synapses and skating pencils. Everyone benefits.

Awareness. Put yourself in the mind of a field hockey player racing with her ball down the field. She’s tuned into the state of the field—whether it’s dry, muddy or bumpy. She’s conscious of the location of her teammates. She weighs her choices: when to dribble, drive, push, pass or shoot. She’s also aware of her body, and how well it’s working that day. She can hold that much in her mind because she’s so practiced it has become second nature. Her school subjects demand her attention and consciousness just as much. The more she practices, the less overwhelming they’ll be.

Improvisation. Athletes run drills and study plays so that they can anticipate any shift in the game and have a solution. But so have members of the opposing team. The best athletes know how to evade that unexpected block, sprint on the rainy field, and wow even when the coach places them in a new position. Students need this, too, when they hit an obstacle in their work: a particularly challenging geometry proof, a stubborn conjugation that refuses to get memorized, a sentence that resists being read, or even the unfamiliarity of a substitute teacher. The more students can go with the flow, or even create their own flow, the better.

Perseverance. These attributes only work if they’re tested. When a soccer player sprints toward the goal in the rain and skids on the ground, he falls. I’ve seen it tens of times. But I’ve never seen a player just sit there; instead, he gets to his feet and keeps moving. Yet so often a student bumps up against an obstacle—like a bad grade—and stops trying trying. My dad and I used to downhill ski. One day, I remember rushing to him, proudly exclaiming: “I didn’t fall!” My dad explained something I never forgot: to fall is to risk something. If you never fall, you’re playing it safe. Kids should take more risks in the classroom than anywhere else because that’s when the learning happens. And, happily, it’s generally free of the physical harm that can come to them on the playing field.

Successful students have these qualities already. They believe they’re capable. They take pleasure in the hard-to-get achievement. They recognize they are critical members of a working community. They are mindful. They are flexible. And they don’t give up. Ever. So check out a few games this season and begin a conversation about what we can learn from what’s happening out on that field. Encourage the scholar to take a page from the athlete’s playbook.      

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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