Excellence vs. Winning

It was everywhere on Facebook yesterday. A guy named Byron Heatha teacher, natchwrote a powerful post about Simone Biles, remembering Kerri Strug’s stupendous gold-medal vault performance in 1996, landing on one foot, as the other ankle was injured: 

Yesterday I was excited to show my daughters Kerri Strug’s famous one-leg vault. It was a defining Olympic moment that I watched live as a kid, and my girls watched raptly as Strug fell, and then limped back to leap again.

But for some reason I wasn’t as inspired watching it this time. In fact, I felt a little sick. Maybe being a father and teacher has made me soft, but all I could see was how Kerri Strug looked at her coach, Bela Karolyi, with pleading, terrified eyes, while he shouted back “You can do it!” over and over again.

My daughters didn’t cheer when Strug landed her second vault. Instead they frowned in concern as she collapsed in agony and frantic tears.

“Why did she jump again if she was hurt?” one of my girls asked. I made some inane reply about the heart of a champion or Olympic spirit, but in the back of my mind a thought was festering:

*She shouldn’t have jumped again*

The more the thought echoed, the stronger my realization became. Coach Karolyi should have gotten his visibly injured athlete medical help immediately! Instead, Bela Karolyi told Strug to vault again. And he got what he wanted; a gold medal that was more important to him than his athlete’s health.

There’s more—Heath makes several points, perhaps the most important being our new national lenses on what constitutes heroism, going above and beyond—and what’s abusive. What I remember most about that incident is Karolyi scooping Strug up after her jump and carrying her off the court and up to the podium. Strug is tiny—4’8” and childlike–and the image in my brain now feels less triumphant than creepy.

I also thought of my first year as a HS band director, at band camp. We had a good group of college-age sectional coaches, including a color guard instructor who had those girls eating out of her hand–drinking milk at dinner (strengthens your bones!!), going out to the field 15 minutes ahead of the band for extra practice, pushing them even when they were pale with exhaustion, to show the band that they were trying harder than the rest.

Mid-week, she came to me and told me one of the girls was slacking off–a whiner, a baby. Saying her wrist hurt. Crying. The girl was brand new to the band–I didn’t know her at all, so I didn’t have any idea if she was, in fact, a whiner. The guard coach told the girl it was put up or shut up–if she wanted to be in the band, she had to do all the moves. Work through the pain. The other guard members, and the band, were depending on her.

I sat down with Megan at the sidelines; she was sobbing and clutching her wrist. I called her dad from the camp office—this was before cell phones– and offered to take her to the closest hospital for an X-ray. He said he would drive up and meet us there. Sure enough, her wrist was broken. Shattered, in fact.

Her dad drove to camp and picked up her things. He was furious after hearing that the coach had shamed her and made her do things that may have made the break worse.

Of course, by the time band camp was over, and we were back at school, she had quit the band and never returned.

The color guard coach was young, maybe 21 or so, and mostly doing what had been done to her in her years as a flag twirler—demanding the physical and mental effort necessary to put on a good show.

But I was the teacher, the arbitrator of pushing kids to excel vs. pressuring teenagers to ‘work through pain.’ There is a difference, and I thought I understood which was optimum for teaching and learning.

I know lots of coach types (and lots of band directors) who have adopted the blood-and-thunder school of drill, discipline and devotion. And maybe a little pain.

The question is always, I suppose, why? What’s the desired outcome?

Is it about winning? Or is it about excellence—which, as Simone Biles has amply demonstrated, does not require competition? Two different things.

We’re a winner-take-all society. But it hasn’t served us particularly well.

A Story about My Dad and My Refrigerator

There are lots of stories I could tell about my dad. Some are heroic and wonderful, others not so much.

My dad died young, at 58, of brain cancer, and one of the greatest blessings in my life was that, by the time I was 28, we had reconciled all our old grudges and battles.

Here’s one story: A few years before my dad got sick, my very young marriage had failed, and I was moving downstate to start my first teaching job. Of course, I had zero money and no car. But I did have the promise of a job in September, so Dad took a day off work, drove me three hours up to where I’d been living, then three hours back downstate to help me move my few possessions (think card table, mattress, stereo) into a teeny tiny upstairs flat in Howell.

One of those possessions–probably the most expensive thing I owned at the time– was a refrigerator.The apartment had a rickety outside staircase. After everything else had been moved up those stairs, all that was left was the fridge. We didn’t have a dolly or strong young backs available.

So my dad, using the trailer strapping, strapped the fridge to his back and carried it up those stairs, and plugged it in. It still worked. We drove home (another two-hour trip, to the west), where he sold me his car (a brown Buick LeSabre) over the kitchen table, with excellent, low-interest terms. He happily got himself a new Buick the next day.

I paid that Buick off, $50/month. And later sold the fridge, to pay my phone bill, watching the newlywed who bought it strap it to his back.

Down is better than up, when it comes to moving refrigerators. And dads are what you need, when you’re down.