Through a cosmic alignment of some sort, I got a chance to get to the YMCA all by myself for the first time this week since…I can’t remember. I think maybe before two of my three kids were born. But anyway, I got to do this TWICE. While I was there, I got to witness a very unusual and inspiring display occurring in the gym above and around which I was walking.
At one end of the gym, a father was working with his ten-year-old (or so) daughter on shooting a basketball. It was clearly a long-standing routine, progressing with few words and practiced efficiency. The daughter would move to any number of shooting positions anywhere from a few feet from the basket to the edge of the three-point line. Her father would pass the ball out to her, she would set, shoot, and wait for the next pass. Over and over, probably twenty times at each location. Rather than aim for the basket directly, this girl had been taught to always use the backboard target, which she did, putting in shot after shot with the banking efficiency of some billiards player named after a state. From nowhere on the court did she average less than an 80% accuracy, even when her father added the additional difficulty of distraction, waving his arms in front of her in a mock blocking attempt.
On the other side of the court, a teenaged girl in a sports chair was also hard at work. As opposed to the ten-year-old’s stationary shooting, this girl was taking passes from her assistant (who might have been a father, coach, or physical therapist for all I knew, although I preferred to think father) while on the go, shooting as well while in motion. Starting from half-court, she’d blaze in, take a pass, cruise by the basket, and land a perfect layup in just under three seconds. She’d alter her incoming trajectory, passing under at different angles, but put down shot after shot. As I watched, I even came to realize that a large part of what she was practicing was the transition between receiving the pass and switching to a shooting grip. I surmised that she could probably have flown through even faster, but that this transition was the limiting factor, and as much the focus of her workout as anything.
Shortly after that pair departed, another pair took up their spot on the court. It seemed to be a married couple in their younger 30s. Her height, in excess of six feet, hinted toward what would soon become apparent, that she had been a basketball player either in high school or college, and retained much of her ability. She and her man played some one-on-one. The guy looked like the typical I see at pick-up basketball there, an enthusiast who relies primarily on shoulder driving toward the basket or just putting up a shot and hoping for the best. The sort that routinely insists that him and any four guys from the gym could beat the Lynx or the U.Conn women’s squad in a game.
They played a game to ten, which she won without him ever getting to take a shot. Her strategy was simple: guard the ball, move to one of her three favorite shooting spots, turn, and shoot. Muscle memory took over from there. In the second game, he got to shoot because he got to start with the ball. He lumbered in and launched the ball, which clanked off the rim and she expertly rebounded. Because she never cut him any slack, she destroyed him three games straight (which is a large part of why I think they were married, and not dating. I still see far too many women taking it down a notch when goofing around in the gym with guys they’re dating because they want the boy to like them). He made, I think, one basket, a lucky lob from the starting point outside the three-point line.
What struck me as I watched these three athletes was not the relationships they had with the men in their lives, as I would like to believe I could be just as supportive, but just how much dedication they were showing in regards to practicing, improving, and ultimately (more so in the third case) reaping the benefits of their hard work. Perhaps more than anything else that I admire about most exceptional achievers is that aspect of dedication and hard work, in addition to whatever level of talent that they may have.
I say that primarily because it’s a quality I feel I greatly lack. Let me explain…
At those things that I do, for the most part it comes naturally to me and always has. I was reading by age 3 and writing by age 5. I didn’t have to work at those. I had musical aptitude enough to glide along through piano lessons and trombone lessons with enough ease that I considered going into Music Ed in college. Which lasted about three months when I realized how hard I was going to have to work and switched to English. Math, physics, chemistry — easy. Biology and geography, (for me) not easy. Or perhaps I should say, not as easy. Like I had to pay attention in class. So I avoided those classes. Even cooking just sort of clicked with me. I’m extremely lucky. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had to work especially hard at anything, and those things that challenged me, I regularly quit. Make of it all what you will.
But I see this in my oldest daughter, about to become eight. She has a lot of interests, and a lot of gifts. The problem is, however, that if she isn’t great at it right off the bat, she’s not interested any more. It’s like she’s on a search to find out what she’s a prodigy at. She’s shown interest in basketball and tennis, but isn’t interested in making any concessions towards practicing with the realization that she will have to learn and get better at these things before she would be considered “good.” She has some perfectionist tendencies, but they aren’t coupled always with the corresponding desire to keep hammering away at something until it’s perfect. Her response is more often to just crumple her work up and throw it in the trash, literally or figuratively.
So how do I, who followed the paths of my brain’s least resistance, work to instill the quality of perseverance in my children? In a way, I already am failing to model it because I’m throwing up my arms on the internet instead of chipping away with perseverance myself to get the kids doing over and over until it starts to click. I don’t want to simply hope that my kids find something that they enjoy so much that doing it all the time doesn’t seem like work, which is of course the dream, but few people get there. I’m one of the lucky ones.
So give me what you got, Internet. I’m willing to keep at it to find a solution. At least until I give up.