I have been physically active for as long as I can remember. Of course, the definition of being physically active a couple of weeks from becoming Medicare-eligible is a far cry from what being physically active meant 30 or 40 years ago.
As a younger man I played several team sports then, thanks to the aging process, things changed. While I continued to play some sports into my 40s, the intensity with which I competed was nowhere near where it was as a young man. Then when my skills deteriorated even further, running, bike riding, and strength training became my primary go-to activities, because they could be done at my own pace without the need to find a pick-up game full of similarly aged old guys.
As I aged, I stubbornly resisted the natural inclination of people my age to take up golf to satisfy their competitive instincts. When my peers would ask me if I had taken the game up yet, my standard reply was that I would take do so when I couldn’t do anything else.
Well, I’m there.
In my first year of retirement, I have begun to play golf with some earnest, and the lessons I have learned have been many. First of all, hitting a little white ball where you want it to go is a lot harder than it looks. I’ve also learned that a little patience goes a long way in some sports and that not every activity demands all-out intensity every second you play it. But, the most important lesson is not a new revelation, but is, rather, a reaffirmation of what I learned decades ago, that being that the “secret” to success is no secret at all. If you want to improve a skill, the best thing you can do is practice … a lot.
Over the last 12 months I have spent many hours and a good deal of money trying to improve my ability to hit a golf ball in some semblance of the direction I want it to go. When I began, I was lucky if that occurred one in 10 times. Many hours of practice, a few blisters, and many aching muscles later, I can hit it in the general direction I’m aiming more than half the time, and I have “graduated” to trying to control the distance the ball flies, which is a whole different animal.
I’m still not very good, but I am a lot better than I was a year ago, and, barring illness or death, I’m going to be better a year from now than I am today simply because I am willing to work at it.
In other words, I’ve set a goal, and I’m going to work hard to achieve it.
In today’s world of specialization, it seems that the importance of setting goals, then working hard to achieve them, is undervalued. More emphasis is often placed on factors like receiving specialized coaching, improving one’s diet, attending sport-specific camps, and using advanced technology to improve one’s ability. While those may all be important components of improving ourselves, nothing is more valuable than good old fashioned hard work, whether it’s in sports, in school, or in one’s job. Ultimately, how much effort we put into the things we do matters.
That is why I’ve always been intrigued by the number of parents who seem to operate under the illusion that sending their kids to a sports camps for one week out of a year is somehow crucial to their athletic success, because it’s not. In fact, parents who spend money on a weeklong camp for a child who doesn’t spend any time at all outside of that week working to improve his or her skills are wasting their money. It’s not the one week that is the key to success; it’s the other 51 that are more important, and the notion that hard work matters is a very simple lesson we can teach our kids.
Hopefully, young people understand that Golden State’s Steph Curry isn’t the best shooter in the world because he attended a basketball camp when he was young, or that Tiger Woods didn’t become the best golfer in the world because he enrolled in golf camps as a teenager, or that a NASA scientist didn’t achieve greatness because he or she went to a space camp for a week while in elementary school. It’s the tens of thousands of hours they spent honing their skills when no one was watching that mattered most.
As parents, one of the most important lessons we can teach our kids is that setting realistic goals, then working as hard as possible to achieve them, is the “secret” to their success.
To pretend otherwise is doing them a great disservice.
Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center in Ohio.