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March 05, 2018

Grit and Grace

Fostering Community

We had a good giggle in Chapel last week, watching a video of the Czech Olympic skier Ester Ledecka’s gold medal-winning race. The look of absolute incredulity and mild confusion on her face when she saw her winning time appear on the clock was something to behold. No one was more shocked by her victory than Ester, except perhaps the presumed medal winners who were waiting patiently at the bottom of the hill for what they assumed would be a perfunctory run down the super-G course by a “no chance” competitor. Even NBC preemptively cut away to figure skating and erroneously announced Austrian, Anna Veith the winner. In fairness to the unbelievers, Ester was ranked 26th coming into the race – a race she completed on borrowed skis, courtesy of American, Michaela Schiffrin.

It wasn’t Ester we focused on, however, in our time together. It was Lindsay Vonn, who until Ester’s remarkable run, sat poised to take the bronze medal – not that third place was where she wanted to end up, mind you. You see, Vonn entered the Olympics widely regarded as the best female skier of all time, having earned 81 World Cup victories. She was heavily favoured to win the gold in Pyeongchang. So while bronze was not what she wanted, not even medalling was unthinkable, particularly given her disqualification in the women’s slalom after she skied off course. But that’s what happened. Following Ester’s remarkable run, Vonn ended in fourth place.

What happened to Lindsay on social media was the main focus of our discussion. Following a very public loss in the women’s alpine, Vonn was gracious in defeat. The prolific Twitter user sent a number of missives out to her fans after the race. “Frustrating to be so close to the podium and to have made such a big mistake…but that’s ski racing,” and, “I’m proud of the way I skied and how I attacked the course. I gave it my all and came up short. That’s life.” She demonstrated what we talk about often with our girls. She demonstrated grit and grace.

The Twitter universe, as we have come to realize, is rife with bad behaviour, and the response that Lindsay received following her loss showed this in full force. Donald Trump fans, still angered by previous comments Lindsay had made that were critical of the President, lashed out with vitriolic fervor. The comments, threats and insults hurled at her were truly awful.

So how did Lindsay respond? Did she meet fire with fire and Tweet back a storm of counter insults? No. She stayed above the fray, tweeting, “Not everyone has to like me but my family loves me and I sleep well at night,” and, “I work hard and try to be the best person I can be. If they don’t like me…their loss I guess….Thank you for the support,” and, “Tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to become better. Goodnight.”

Despite spending years battling the snow, Lindsay Vonn is no precious snowflake – or to quote psychologist Howard Schwartz, she is free from a “pristine self.” She’s tough, resilient, and able to handle even the vilest of insults. Far from feeling victimized or persecuted, she understands that the world she inhabits will not always provide her with positive feedback and notes of encouragement.

In his book, Political Correctness and the Destruction of Social Order: Chronicling the Rise of the Pristine Self (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Schwartz describes a new generation of students who possess what he calls a “pristine self”, a trait that instils in them the belief that they should be “touched by nothing but love.” The product of well-meaning, but overly protective parents who try to create environments free of stress, disagreement, and any form of injustice – perceived or real – these students seem to be less resilient, more sensitive to feedback, and more conflict averse than the generation of students that came before them.

According to Schwartz, these students “…experience the entire world as a form of bullying. The helicopter parent protects the children from real dangers but also fantasy dangers. These precious snowflakes are the children of political correctness, their parents and schools lead them to believe that the world is perfectly moralistic — they don’t live in the real world, it is a fantasy.” Everything uncomfortable is seen as an offense, and during periods of development when uncomfortable interactions happen every day – think adolescence – these students can become offended and hurt by much of what’s happening to them and around them. Careless words are interpreted as intentional bullying, a bad grade is personalized, and a stern correction by the teacher feels akin to abuse.

So how do we help children bounce back from disappointment? How do we help them tolerate discomfort? How do we open them up to feedback that may be critical? Let’s think more about Lindsay Vonn and her ability to handle both defeat on the ski slopes and a fierce assault by Twitter trolls. What qualities allowed her to handle discomfort of that magnitude? Dr. Daniel Brown, a sports scientist at the University of Portsmouth, identified factors, both internal and external, that help teach athletes not only to succeed but also to thrive. Qualities such as optimism, focus, self-awareness, flexibility, and adaptability are just a few of the key ingredients that differentiate a naturally talented athlete who never makes it from an athlete who rises to the very top of her sport. And thinking more broadly about succeeding in any arena, these are traits that can help everyone learn to thrive.

Good schools talk about these things a lot. We promote risk-taking and the development of a growth mindset. We encourage parents to step back and allow their child to manage problems with increasing independence. We support students through setbacks and hope they see failure as an opportunity to grow. And sometimes we’re all on the same page. But sometimes not.

Lest I sound like a broken record, I want to thank those parents who either naturally and easily or with great difficulty and deliberation allow their daughter to experience and work through the discomfort necessary for resilience and grit to grow. To those parents who may be struggling with their own discomfort, I ask the following of you: Please believe in your daughter’s ability to handle upset; Trust that the more she sits with discomfort, the easier it becomes to manage; Know that the message she will take away when you let her struggle isn’t that you don’t care, but that you believe she’s tough enough and strong enough to handle it. I suspect you’ll find she truly is.


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