‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint’ – and other life lessons we teach our kids

My dad used to say this to me when I was growing up and now I am saying it to my own children.  Well, to be honest, just to my eldest.  My youngest (four years old) would end up asking “what’s a marathon? and why am I not allowed to sprint?”.  All in good time.

My eldest however has just turned seven and with his rising age come rising expectations: sports… spellings… scores…  During the inevitable trials and tribulations I’ve come back to this well-trodden  phrase.  Throughout the years, this philosophy has led me to knuckle-down to revision, persevere and ultimately keep going when I hit ‘the wall’ during actual marathons.  You know good advice when the metaphorical becomes literal.

There’s so much written these days about the importance of a ‘growth’ over an ‘achievement’ mindset. About how eating one or two marshmallows (in Mischel’s famous test) predicts not only educational, but life outcomes – that these words of wisdom from my dad keep ringing in my ears.  Whilst I like a bit of armchair psychology, I am also cynical about how the principles touted in books actually work in the real world; as well as skeptical about my ability to apply them…

For example, my eldest recently attended a sports tournament where he lost every match (eight – ouch!…).  Given his age and relative inexperience, it was prime territory for the immortal line: “you can’t do better that your best”; also how it’s “a marathon, not a sprint”.  It also got me wondering whether my natural aversion to competition (reinforced by this ‘growth mindset’ trend) means that I am not instilling enough will to win.  That’s right: dammed if I do; dammed if I don’t.

There’s another of my dad’s phrases that he used when explaining his approach to a game of draughts: “I always play to win” (no allowances made).  This initially jarred a bit – it had all the hallmarks of David and Goliath.  However, I’m also conscious of how “that’s life” and how being challenged can help to raise our game – if of course our spirit isn’t crushed in the process.

Perhaps I’m inadvertently encouraging my kids to be good losers. To not aspire high enough.  To combat this, I offered a ‘win bonus’ on another sporting occasion.  Whilst there were no ‘wins’ as such, I paid out on account of his effort alone: “you’re a winner in my book!”.  As someone who prides myself in being consistent, I know I fell off the wagon by a long-shot.

As for my foibles, I think they began during a bout of competitive swimming at an early age – the thought of that starting gun still gives me the heebie-jeebies.  Maybe I could swim (and indeed win), but that’s only half the story – I just wasn’t cut out for it.  But I guess I need to be careful that I don’t assume the same for my sons.  Conscious of gender-stereotypes, I can’t help but notice that a competitive streak seems part-and-parcel of being a boy – and that they also seem to enjoy it.  With this in mind, I want to ensure that I let my son be ‘him’ and not a projected view of me (and my memory of that starting gun).

Ironically, my son is very competitive when it comes to swimming.  When watching him, another of my dad’s phrases comes to mind: “paddle your own canoe” when I see him spending more time looking at where his competitor is, than on what he’s doing.  You could say that translates to life: put your energies into what you are doing, not what others are and success will come.

Taking it as an extreme, a competitive-mindset seems too binary, too “win / lose” and a fast-track to disappointment – but I’m also aware that you need a bit to be motivated at all.  Andy Murray apparently was a bad loser as a child and look at him now.  Although I don’t necessarily aspire for my kids to be double-Olympians.  For me, true ‘happiness and contentment’ would be goals worth winning.

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