You Have to Fall 12 Times

I have long believed that sports, properly coached, are beautiful ways to teach young people precious life lessons and help them build character.
In: Column, Perseverence

June 28, 2011

Why try something new if you know you have to fail before you succeed? We were privileged to help with a teen lake outing last weekend. My job was to drag kids around the lake while avoiding spontaneous combustion. These days most kids immediately want to go tubing—a great, fun, potentially thrilling ride that takes no more skill than to clutch the handles with a death grip and squeal. I like tubing, but I love skiing.

With tubing, once a rider has climbed aboard, there is nothing to do but hang on and pray the boat driver is not a fiend—for the captain has complete control and the tubester has none. (Although my wife, Mary, is able to exert a strong influence over drivers related to her through a steady stream of commands, most including the words “slow” and “down.”)

On the other hand, water skiing and its cousins—slaloming and wakeboarding—take courage, skill, persistence, strength, and coordination. Once the sport is mastered, it is great fun to cut and jump. But, there is no guarantee of early success. In fact, as my friend James said, “You have to fall 12 times before you get up.”

In my pep talk to the kids, I implored them to try and ski because it teaches great life lessons:

  • Things worth doing in life are hard
  • Failure is an inevitable part of the learning process
  • Success hard won through grit and determination tastes sweetest

It was really exciting to see young boys and girls challenge themselves. For some, my son, Stephen, bobbed alongside, helping them put on the skis, get in position, and take the proper form. After the “hit it” command, we in the boat were treated to an entertaining variety of dismounts: face plants, side splats, backward reclines, and more. But the kids kept trying, and most got up—even if just long enough to snap a picture with high-speed film, it still counts.

We had several ski or wakeboard for the first time. I encouraged a few by saying, “You have checked off a bunch of your required 12 falls. You’ll get it next time.” Others who could ski tried something new. My diminutive daughter-in-law, Stefanie, for example, pops out of the water on two skis almost before the boat starts, so she is tackling slaloming. She and Stephen entertained the kids by double-skiing, inspiring them by showing what is possible, and teaching it is fun to spray your wife with a slalom rooster tail.

Some kids weren’t ready to try skiing. It’s tough to try something new, especially in front of friends. Charlie Brown would not ski for the first time with the little Redhead in the boat. For some, I imagine, there is a fear of failure. I know the feeling: what will people think if I can’t do it or, worse, what will I think of myself? Depending on personality type, failure is hard to overcome in varying degrees. Most of us don’t shrug it off overnight and the pain lingers. We need family, friends, mentors, and coaches to encourage and remind us that falling is not failure—everyone falls. It is only failure when we give up and quit!

I have long believed that sports, properly coached, are beautiful ways to teach young people precious life lessons and help them build character. We need to encourage our kids and grandkids to put down the remote, quit living vicariously through others, and grab life by the horns with zest and zeal; to try new things, to overcome the fear of failure—to fall 12 times and then get up!

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