Let the work do the work.
That’s what I keep reminding myself.
I had a great first training session at a youth center in an old mill town in western Maine on Tuesday night. It began rough. Funny like a Marx Brothers movie, but rough. I walked into a gym filled with kids ages 7 to 18. Soccer balls skidded along the floor, basketballs sailed through the air, so many of them that they’d collide like atoms near the hoop, bodies in constant disordered motion. There was a little guy in his snowsuit rolling around the floor like a Roomba… nobody stepped on him, and nobody seemed to care. The noise was amazing. Perfect acoustics for chaos. I asked everybody to stop for a second, just one second, so I could be sure I was in the right place at the right time. I knew I was talking, yelling, but I couldn’t hear my own voice. It was like I was standing on a rock surrounded by Class 6 rapids. I was safe for the moment, but stuck.
The director of the center walked in, God bless her, and yelled out “Balls in.” That was it. Everybody walked over to the equipment closet and handed in the balls. She introduced me to the kids, explaining that I was there to do fitness training with them, and almost everybody high-tailed it out of the gym. Four kids stuck around. Three boys and a girl, sixth graders would be my guess. They had grown up in the town, but their parents had come from dry hot countries like Djibouti or Somalia. The air outside the gym was a balmy 18 degrees, and three or four inches of solid ice had accreted on the sidewalks, driveways, and parking lots in town. There would be no running outside for quite a while, so we’d devised an indoor circuit workout to get the kids moving.
They were game. They were athletes; soccer players, runners, jumpers. They were, however, easily distracted. I’d teach them an exercise, like mountain climbers or shoulder taps, and they’d watch for as long as they could stand it, then they’d be gone. I learned quickly to edit. I learned quickly to keep each activity short. The kids wanted to have fun, and who could blame them?
This is when I remembered to let the work do the work. I wanted to tell them explicitly that the hard-effort things they were doing were making them faster and stronger. It would strengthen their resolve. I wanted to share my core beliefs with them… that this kind of activity would help shape their lives, and make them better students, family members, and members of their community. Sitting them down for a meaningful chat was an itch I really wanted to scratch, but I’ve learned better. As long as they do the work, they’ll eventually figure all that out, and they’ll have learned it the right way: for themselves. It takes time, and we have to be patient and willing. I’ve found out (the hard way) that lectures linking sport to character seldom land the way we hope they will. The best you can hope for is a polite audience and a warm feeling of satisfaction. At worst, the audience will feel that you’ve identified shortcomings, and are there to set them straight. Good luck with that.
So, I kept my mouth shut. The workout morphed every minute into something fun and active. I don’t think we completed one single thing on my clipboard, but the kids finished 25 minutes (rather than the planned hour) sweaty and smiling. That’s a toehold, and I’ll get ‘em back next week.