My older son is a swimmer, and as I sit at at a regional swim meet, I'm struck by how important resilience is in sport. My son has been swimming since he was about six, and he's always been quite good (if I do say so myself). We've stuck with swimming because it was a sport that he did well with, for he seems to do better with individual sports than team ones. We've encouraged him to swim through thick and thin because we see that when he's successful, he feels good about himself and learns to set and meet goals. Both of these results are important to us as his parents because we know the effects will stick with him for a lifetime.
Yet, not all of his peers in swimming seem to be in it for the long haul. Many of the boys who have swum with him over the years are beginning to burn out and quit the sport. Some of these kids were amazing swimmers, blowing away the competition (including my son!) in both summer and year-round meets. When people watched them swim, they would be impressed by their swimming talent. But as these kids have aged, they have slowly faded from the scene for a variety of reasons. Some fade because they become involved in other sports (swimming is not the "cool" sport where we live that football is, imagine that). Others, though, have faded because their early talent for the sport is not as impressive as it was. Other kids, who have stuck it out and trained through the years, are catching up, at times matching or beating the young phenoms. Instead of taking that new competition as motivation to get better, these kids are breaking. They avoid big meets and cut back on their training. Whispers among parents at the meets and practices suggest that the kids are either disappointments to their parents or causes of concern as the kids battle depression or act defiantly due to their frustration over not being the best anymore.
These young swimmers are caught up in our culture's worship of talent. While we in the US say we value hard work, what we adore is talent, especially precocious talent. We love the kid who wins the piano competition at age five. We are amazed by the baby who reads or does math before kindergarten. Prodigies get to appear on the Today Show and have one million hits on YouTube. We have built a culture of fame for prodigies, but what happens when their peers catch up with their talent? Has the prodigy, who never had to work hard to be successful, learned the value of hard work? Will they push themselves in order to be better? Or will they give up because they are no longer as good as they were? Unfortunately, I'm seeing too many phenom swimmers giving up, burning out, and fading away.
I hope I'm teaching my son that he needs to be in it for the long haul. He's a pretty good swimmer now, but he's not the best of the bunch. With each year, though, he gets a little better, a little stronger, and a little more savvy in competition. At this rate, he'll hit his peak in late high school or perhaps early in college. He has potential to be a collegiate swimmer, and perhaps qualify to try out for the Olympics if he wants. But that potential does not depend on how talented he is today. It depends on how hard he works between now and then. To me, if he learns that hard work will get him from here to his dreams, then I've done a good job as a parent, whether he actually gets to swim in college or the Olympics or not.
My favorite Aesop's fable is "The Tortoise and the Hare." The talented Rabbit, so sure of his physical superiority in a race, fails to work hard and even slacks off, leaving room for the slower, but persistent Tortoise to beat him. I'm glad that "slow and steady wins the race." That way, more of us have the hope of winning, if we just stick to it. Resilience wins, every time.