Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Learning to be Mentally Tough

Where do kids learn to be mentally tough and resilient today? Have "helicopter parents" crippled the ability of their children to cope with adversity and to rebound from failures and disappointments?

To be mentally tough is to resist the urge to give up in the face of failure, to maintain focus and determination in pursuit of one’s goals, and to emerge from adversity even stronger than before.

This is the opening paragraph from Annie Murphy Paul's TIME Ideas article Can You Instill Mental Toughness?Read more here.

Long ago, when I was coaching football in Virginia, one of my fellow coaches talked often about how his high school coach had preached mental toughness to him and his teammates. He told a story about being caught up in whitewater. Remembering the lessons his coach had taught him about staying mentally tough and not giving up probably saved his life.

Optimistic thinking is one of the keys to being mentally tough, seeing failure as temporary and changeable. Being mentally tough is undermined by feelings that failures are permanent and beyond one's control.

A situation in which I sometimes saw this demonstrated would occur in the many summer basketball camps I worked when I was younger. Often, a girl who suffered a serious injury would be experiencing her first real physical damage. Consequently, because she hadn't yet learned that as bad as it might feel now, it could be fixed and would pass in time, she would see this as a permanent, irreversible catastrophe and react in proportion to this perception. 

I have seen many students who similarly lack the mental qualities to deal with their lack of academic success, and they see their struggles as catastrophic, unchangeable, and beyond their ability to manage or correct them. Sometimes kids experienced their first failures and feelings of "not knowing what's going on" in the algebra and geometry courses I taught. They had sailed through school with little or no difficulty up that point. Then, they had to learn how to cope with frustration and confusion more than with math.

As teachers, we need to work with kids to instill those qualities that will enable them to be mentally tough. We need to help them see that mistakes are normal, that they can learn from their setbacks, that they are temporary and fixable.

But, this won't happen if we fixate on right or wrong answers and not on the process. We should encourage students to learn how to review and analyze their procedure, finding and fixing the flaws. Teach kids that mistakes are not irreversible disasters.

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