Time Out: August 20, 2008

“Your son will never be able to focus on anything,” a teacher once advised Debbie Phelps during a parent/teacher conference. Phelps and her record-setting Olympic son still laugh about a middle schoolteacher who stated with assurance that Michael would never be a success.
By now you would almost have to be living in a cave to have missed the Michael Phelps Olympics phenomenon. The international media has covered Phelps and his heroic Olympic feats from every angle. 6-feet, 4 inches. 79-inch wingspan, 12,000-calorie-a-day diet, five-hour daily practices, 14 gold medals — eight in a single year. In fact, Phelps has earned four more Olympic gold medals that any other Olympian in the history of the games.
To better appreciate the 23-year-old swimmers prowess, consider the fact that Phelps has earned more gold medals than the combined totals of 187 different countries from around the globe.
Thinking about Phelps and the Olympics there are so many angles one can pursue to shape together a column. Yet, somehow the educator in me keeps returning to the Olympic hero’s early years and the adults who viewed Michael through lenses that only saw what he could not do rather than recognized what was possible. What lessons can we take from Michael’s story?
First, and most important, don’t judge people by what they can’t accomplish. Recognize their talents and strengths and move forward from there. If your patience holds steady even the most difficult child can eventually find their way.
Michael Phelps suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. ADHD impaired Michael’s early progress in school. Admittedly, according to his Mom, Michael was a handful during his formative years. Debbie Phelps reports that in school Michael simply couldn’t sit still, he never closed his mouth, asked nearly a zillion questions a day, he couldn’t keep his hands to himself, he giggled and laughed excessively and nudged and poked other kids for attention, and was always jumping, literally and figuratively, from one place or activity to another.
With Michael’s profile, it’s easy to see why the future Olympic star drove his teachers batty. Even so, great teachers are those who can see the whole child. Teachers who can consistently look past what a youngster struggles to do and recognize the individual brilliance and competencies each child brings to the forefront, are educators who make a difference. When a collective group of teachers share this skill and work in the same building, send your child to that school.
Every child needs one adult role model they can count on to help guide the way. Research on troubled children at risk of dropping out of school identifies the importance a single caring adult can play in helping youngsters stay the course. Often that adult is a difference maker.
In many respects, elementary school was a nightmare for Michael Phelps. Michael was different. Michael was distracting. Michael was bullied. Things began to change when his mom signed Michael up on a swimming team. Michael responded positively to the regimented nature of swimming preparation. The time management involved and sequential nature of swimming practices and techniques tempered the effects of his ADHD.
Almost immediately, Phelps bonded with the team’s coach, Bob Bowman. With his parents divorced and his dad playing almost no role in his life, Bowman became the important male role model Michael needed. He prospered. Within time, a boy who couldn’t sit still in school would sit for hours at a swim meet waiting for his five minutes of race time in the water.
Successful people set goals and doggedly pursue them. Coach Bowman recognized Michael’s immense potential. In his mind’s eye Bowman looked forward and projected his positive image to Michael. When his protégée was 11 Bowman told Michael’s mom that by the year 2000 he looked for her son to be in the Olympic trials, by 2004 to make the Olympics team, and by 2008 to be setting world records. Debbie Phelps cut Bowman off reminding him that Michael was only 11, a student in middle school. But, Bowman’s vision was fixed and, in time, he supported that mental picture with extended, regimented practice plans.
Reaching success is hard work. Persistent, sustained effort over time is an important prerequisite to excellence in any field. And, attaining success demands sacrifice. In Michael’s case, by the age of 12, he followed a daily, strenuous practice regiment. In the water by 6:30 a.m. every morning, Michael spent 90 minutes of morning practice before school. After school, Phelps was at it again, this time spending from two to three hours at swimming practice.
And, achieving at Phelps level demands delayed gratification. Don’t be deceived, Phelps follows a practice plan that is simply not fun. “I doubt he’s having a whole lot of fun other than touching the wall and winning,” explained Yahoo Sports swimming analyst Matt Biondi in an on-line interview. Biondi emphasized that sacrifices in preparation Michael has made over many years are now transforming his life, making available opportunities and experiences the vast majority of people can barely imagine. Delayed gratification is one ticket to success.
Of course, you can make a solid argument that I’m overstating the case. I could go in the water for five hours a day, and I’d never win an Olympic gold medal. That’s a fact, but, who knows, maybe I’d place at a Senior Event in the Empire State Games. For certain, I’d vastly improve my cardiovascular and overall conditioning and probably be rewarded with heaps of confidence and self-esteem. Not everybody can win a gold medal at the Olympics, but we each have the capacity for vast improvement.
The summer of 2008 will always be about Michael Phelps. The positive energy and single mindedness he displayed in Beijing captured the imagination of the world and provided a boost to us all. Still, I find myself going full circle and wondering, “When does who a child is become more important than who society expects him or her to be?”