Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sportsmanship for Children

I'm teaching a lot of swim lessons right now, but my favorite is currently a group of six precocious five year-olds that just love swimming. A few of them I've been teaching for years and a few I met this week, but now that I've reached the conclusion of our first week of summer I can confidently say they all know my rules. They are, however, hyper-competitive despite their daycare preaching that they are all friends who need to help each other because their parents are hyper-competitive. They would rather race than play a game and, honestly, I respect that. Three weeks ago they asked if we could do a race and I said yes. I asked each kid if they were racing and then sent them off to swim down the pool. I was slower than them because I swam at the back with my little friends so I could maintain a headcount (even though they are all drown-proof), but when I touched the wall I heard the winner saying to the others, "I won. I'm the greatest nana" as you would if you were five. I considered this unacceptable behavior.

The next day I had a plan to change it. When they asked to do a race I said, "Sure. The rules are, though, that no matter what happens all you are aloud to say is 'Nice race. Good swimming.'" When I hit the other end I heard one of them (lets call him Benjamin) start with his victory speech and I responded, "What do we say, Benjamin?" His face was sad, but he parroted the correct response. He mumbled, "Nice race. Good swimming" It was completely disingenuous and forced, but that was fine with me.

We talk in the Like Minds Coalition, our community-building diversity and inclusion group, that you can't really change people's minds without first trying to change their behaviors. For instance, you wouldn't walk up to somebody and say, "You are really homophobic. You should stop thinking that way." It doesn't work. What you do is say, "That thing you just said sounded really homophobic even though you didn't mean it that way. You should watch out for that." People can't control what they think, but they can control how they act. Benjamin (and maybe everybody) didn't have an initial sportsmanlike reaction, but I made him do it anyway.

When we did our race this week on Monday and Tuesday I repeated the exercise of starting with the expectation of cordiality because I had a few new kids. Yesterday when I hit the wall I heard Benjamin (who always wins) lean over and say, "Nice race, Oscar. That was really fun. We are really fast swimmers," without any prompting. It made me ridiculously proud. Sportsmanship is important just so people keep playing with you. I was the one who always lost so if I can make a couple five year-olds learn how to win then I'm happy for all the children they are going to beat in the future. It's always more fun to lose to somebody who will force themselves to not gloat.

I know I'm pretty intense with the kids. Day one we swam three hundred yards (which is a lot if you are five) and practiced flip turns. Thursday this week I told them to do a drill (it was just kicking on their side so I knew they could do it) and I sent them off one by one. I did it in an order, though, so that they all ended up catching each other. That was my mistake, but I like to have everybody get a turn to go first. They ended up sprinting and entirely forgot about the drill. I noticed the head of their daycare was standing at the end of the pool observing, but in spite of her I put on my teacher voice (which is awesome) and said, "My friends that was bad. It was not good swimming.  We can have a race, but I will tell you if we are racing. You can do better so we are doing it again." The second time it was perfect. I noted that the woman in charge walked over to my boss and I thought I might be in trouble, but after the lesson my boss said, "Oh my goodness that was so fantastic. We couldn't stop laughing." My experience has been with those little kids is that wherever you set the expectation, they meet it. If you expect sportsmanship they'll give it to you. If you require them to do the drills they'll do it. So I don't mind if I'm a little more intense than my colleagues because my kids end up better swimmers and they love me anyway. I think everybody should get a job where people scream joyously when you walk into the room.