The recreational sports we teach at camp include sailing, water skiing, rock climbing, and many more fun outdoor sports. But these are not the most important skills campers learn. We view the recreational skills we instruct as a means to a much loftier goal – teaching campers important life lessons like overcoming failure, keeping a positive outlook, and persevering and practicing hard in order to acquire new skills.
As parents, I think we often get caught up in our children’s physical or academic achievements rather than focusing on the more important, over-arching character development that is simultaneously occurring while our kids work through day to day challenges and attempt new skills.
Over my past 29 years working at camp, I’ve taught a lot of kids to water ski. In fact, my first job here was as a water skiing instructor. Even now, my favorite summer moments are when campers get up on water skis for the first time. What I love most about teaching water skiing are the life skills I see campers learn through their water skiing experiences.
I see a lot of similarities between lessons learned while attempting to water ski for the first time and qualities needed to overcome adversity and succeed in life.
If you’ve never tried water skiing, you might not know that it is not an easy sport to learn. Most kids (and adults) do not master it on their first try. A common beginner error is trying to stand up too fast, rather than letting the boat pull you out of the water. This leads to a forward fall, also known as a “face plant.” A significant amount of water flushes into the nasal cavity, which is not a pleasant feeling.
In addition to water up the nose, water skiing also entails some awkward floating in the water with large wood planks attached to the feet. So, it’s understandable why many people give up on water skiing quickly and don’t ever get to the point of enjoying it. But those who stick with it despite failure often learn to love water skiing.
Lesson 2: Attitude Affects Everything
I see such differences in the attitudes of campers (and adults) in how they approach water skiing (and maybe life). After careful analysis, I classify beginning skiers into four personality types:
- The kids who are athletically inclined and seem to be good at everything who often get up on water skis on their first try. Usually these kids are confident and don’t hesitate to jump in the water and go. Water skiing doesn’t test their grit, but hopefully there are other camp activities that do.
- The kids who, despite lots of encouragement and the enticement of a special water skiing patch, won’t give it a try. Whether they just don’t like trying something new, are more comfortable sticking to what they know, or are scared of failure, it’s hard to assess. But they just won’t budge, and they won’t try water skiing.
- The kids who are hesitant but willing to give waterskiing a try. After failing one or two times, they want to get out of the water immediately. They complain that they’re too cold, too wet, or their arms hurt. Or, the water up their nose is just too much for them. They speak negatively about themselves and the situation. While we want to encourage kids to try things and persevere here at camp, we don’t want them to feel forced, so we let them get out of the water if they don’t want to keep trying.
- And, finally, the gritty kids: The ones for whom waterskiing doesn’t not come easily but who have a positive, determined nature and will keep on trying over and over and over (and over and over) again. These are the kids who stay positive and determined despite repeated falls. They are willing to celebrate small victories. This is a rare group and the most rewarding to work with. These are the kids with serious grit.
Lesson 3: Growth & Accomplishment Take Effort (Life requires Grit!)
Water skiing is a sport that’s not fun at first for most people. In fact, it takes most people a lot of practice and effort to get to the point where water skiing becomes really fun. Most people don’t get there, because they give up too early. But those who do keep trying often get a great reward.
Last week I had the pleasure of teaching an amazing, gritty, category 4-attitude kid to waterski. Keaton, a five-year veteran camper, had never gotten up on water skis over his years at camp, but he decided that this was the year. He approached water skiing with an optimistic, determined attitude.
I was in the lake with Keaton, helping him get into the correct starting position, and every word that came out of his mouth was positive. When I told him what he did correctly during his last try, even though he hadn’t stayed up, he beamed. His talk to me and to himself was positive, even after he fell. Over and over again. He even smiled after a face plant.
After about 20 minutes and seven tries, it was time to let someone else have a turn. Keaton had almost gotten up a few times, and one time was up briefly before he accidentally bent his arms and fell. He was even positive about giving someone else a turn and returning to the boat.
After the rest of the campers had taken their turns, I asked Keaton if he would give it one more try, using a new technique. Even though he was still wet and a bit cold from his last try, he immediately agreed to jump back in the lake and try yet again. This time, using a special device called an Aqua Buddy, Keaton got up! He skied for a long way, and he beamed with excitement.
Keaton did not get up on his first try on skis. Nor did he get up on the second, third, fourth, or fifth try. In fact, I think we were in the double digits of tries when he finally got up for a significant amount of time. But he kept a smile on his face and was determined to get up, and he succeeded.
And he skied again the next day. He’s going to keep practicing his new skill.
We’ve learned about growth vs. fixed mindsets, and Keaton demonstrated a growth mindset. Instead of telling himself he just “wasn’t a water skier” (a fixed mindset statement) because he hadn’t gotten up on water skis in the past, Keaton worked hard and learned the important lesson that if he puts his mind to something and doesn’t give up despite repeated failures, he can succeed.
I’m proud of Keaton, and I know that the grit he demonstrated will serve him well far beyond our camp lake. And I also know that the life lessons he and our other campers learn while on a tow rope behind a boat are much more important than the skill of water skiing itself.
Before I started working at camp, I wanted to be a teacher, because I wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives. But after my first summer teaching kids to water ski at camp, I realized that what I really like teaching kids is about life. And the emotional, social, and character development that we teach here at camp through our recreational activities are skills that make a life-changing impact.
Book Review: How Children Succeed (Sunshine Parenting)