What Kind of “12th man” Am I?

sharon-football-smallIt’s Super Bowl Sunday, and the “de boys” in the house are watching the game.  The Seahawks pull ahead and the fans at the hometown stadium wildly cheer their boys on. I am not at the stadium urging them on.  I am not even in front of the t.v. shouting and cheering.  I do not whisper one word of encouragement.

Not being a huge football fan, I soon find myself watching a movie about football instead of the big game. Arguably one of the best sports movies of all time, I decide to watch Rudy.  It’s not really a football movie though; it has football in it, but the movie is more about dreams and passion and grit.  In one reviewer’s words, this movie is about “an undersized young man who overcame major challenges to play football for the University of Notre Dame.”

Rudy is a dreamer… but one who has commitment and perseverance in the face of obstacles, disappointment and failure.  These important factors are what allow him to ultimately be victorious and realize his dream of playing football for Notre Dame.

After the movie, being the curious type that I am, I look to see what I can find out about Rudy in real life.  Turns out he spent time as an inspirational speaker, has a foundation, a website and has published at least one book.

On his website, you can find his “game plans for winning in life”: www.rudyintl.com/inspirational.cfm. He presents 10 insights for success.  One of them is to “visualize your dream and make a commitment”.  Another one is “find mentors who encourage you”.

In the movie and in reviewing his website and story, he seems to have had at least 3 key people who encouraged him and helped instill a “can do” attitude and the will to work towards his dream despite seemingly insurmountable odds. At least one of them was a teacher at the college he was at prior to getting accepted at Notre Dame.

Passion and grit are required when the going gets tough.  Persistence in the face of challenge is a key feature of grittiness. Some students bring it.  It comes naturally to them it seems. Others doubt themselves more than others and in those inevitable low times of doubt we humans tend to experience at times, it is relatively easy to give up on one’s dreams.

As I ponder the role of the encourager, and as I hear reference to the role of the 12th man, yet again in the aftermath of discussion about the big game of this past Sunday, I can’t help but think that we educators just might be some students’ 12th man in their fight to realize their dreams.

But what kind of encouragement works best?  Interestingly, Carol Dweck demonstrated in yet another set of experiments that praising children for their intelligence could make them less likely to persist in the face of challenges.

Children praised for their effort only seemed to work harder when the challenges got tougher.  Praising children for their efforts, and likely university students for that matter, might be one key to bolster grit. I suppose it does not matter the exact words we choose; we all could use a little encouragement of some sort and at most times.

If indeed the Seahawk’s deciding advantage at the game was their crowd of encouraging fans cheering them on to victory, and if a small in stature player such as Rudy could actually pull off a successful tackle in a real NCAA football game amidst shouts of “Rudy, Rudy, Rudy” (his name was chanted in the movie version of the game), maybe, just maybe whispers of encouragement in the ears of my students could be the deciding factor in their fight to realize their academic dreams.

As I ponder these thoughts I can’t help but wonder, “what kind of “12th man” am I”?

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