The Goat, Simone Biles, took herself off of her USA Olympic team this morning, The news swept over me in a wave of disappointment. Like so many Americans, I was looking forward to watching Simone mine for Gold and hit the jackpot. Instead of gold, I got let down. Disappointment is a part of the Olympics and of life.
While Olympic fever is hardly over 98.6 degrees this year, there are so many reasons, beyond the sports, to watch the events with your children. (In fact, there are enough benefits to watching the Olympics as a family that I suggest you throw your standard TV rules out the window.) There’s much to be learned by watching the games: exposure to different sports and their rules, learning about other cultures, and experiencing the less visible parts of competition–the tremendous preparation, the losing, the disappointment, and, yes, sometimes winning.
Let’s start here: The Olympics provide a glimpse into worlds totally different from the lives most children are leading–the experience of a competitor. While the masses tune in to witness the multitude of races and competitions, it is through the side stories about the athletes, the human interest stories, the stuff “serious sports fanatics” might tune out, from which we get an expanded picture of the athletes’ lives. The swimmer who has been in the pool 8 hours a day for the past 3 years; the gymnast who practiced every single day at 4 a.m., long before school started and long into the night after school; the archer whose fingers are bloody from practice. We see families whose entire operation centered around the athletes’ development, parents and siblings who made incredible sacrifices, like moving home base to the city of the practice center or living without one parent for months on end. And there are the families who have held countless bake sales to afford the equipment, the coaches, the travel. There are great lessons for kids in the athletes’ background stories.
More significant, however, are the character lessons, in particular the models of perseverance and grit, of sportsmanship and camaraderie. Olympic competitors are not born; they develop over years and years. And they embody persistence, dedication, and grit. For the child who never quite digs into an activity, who tries this and gives up, or does that and quickly burns out, Olympic athletes are shining examples of stick-to-it-iveness. Isn’t this a lesson that applies across the board? Whether working at a sport or acquiring any skill, it is through repeated, consistent, tremendous effort and practice that achievement might come. Olympic athletes convey that louder than any lecture by a parent or teacher.
Achievement doesn’t necessarily mean winning. Every parent wants his child to learn sportsmanship, and there’s nothing quite like the Olympics to show you how it’s done. To be standing on the pedestal, decorated in gold, silver, or bronze is obviously the goal, but the great majority of Olympic competitors don’t get there. The “agony of defeat” is just that, and the whole world gets to watch their good sportsmanship in action. You don’t see a whole lot of foot stomping, storming away, and crying by the guy who comes in fourth. Without a medal there is still tremendous achievement.
There are reminders of sportsmanship for parents, too. Even when spectators are allowed in the stadium, we don’t see the athletes’ parents in the stands having a fist fight over a linesman’s call, like in the tales of parents behaving badly in Little League or AYSO soccer. Talk about poor sportsmanship! And while some parents are feverishly encouraging their six-year-old to find his passion, to hone a skill for listing on the college application, the Olympics remind us that only three athletes actually win the medals in that event. Sometimes the sense of accomplishment or the fun of sport are good enough reasons to jump in. And there are many ways to be winners; athletics are just one tiny aspect of a whole person.
Each athlete is supported by a whole village. In past we have seen them cheering, screaming, supporting in the stands. This year we have remote shots of family, friends, neighbors crammed into the TV room. They are cheering more than ever. How moving was the scene of an entire auditorium of Alaska swimmer Lydia Jacoby’s school mates exploding at her gold medal win! The mutual support and the camaraderie certainly fuel the athletes and our hearts.
When Simone Biles pulled out, she was televised around the world, standing with her ex-team mates and proclaiming her faith in their ability to succeed without her. No pouting for The Goat. She shared her pride in her mates as well as her intention to perhaps compete in different events. Can you even imagine how disappointed she was? She was brave; she was a good sport. She had the support of her team, and they stepped up for her.
What a ripe opportunity to show and teach your kids so many important lessons. Join your child on the couch and be a student in one of the world’s great classrooms: The Summer Olympics.