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  • Writer's pictureGreg Graber

Growth Through Adversity (like MJ)

Like most of America, I have been watching ESPN's ten-part documentary on The Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, The Last Dance. I have been enjoying it quite a bit. Initially, I was drawn to watch it for several reasons. First and foremost, I have always been a big fan of Coach Phil Jackson. Years ago, his book, Sacred Hoops, piqued my interest about his successful approach integrating elements of Zen Buddhism and Native American spiritual teachings into his coaching delivery. Shortly thereafter, I became fascinated with George Mumford's work with the team on mindfulness and mediation. Mumford's work was groundbreaking, and it had a profound impact on me. It continues to inspire me, as I frequently lead mindfulness trainings with college teams and pro athletes. (Note: Mumford's book, The Mindful Athlete, is a must read if you are into this kind of stuff.)

I have always had great respect from Michael Jordan's athletic prowess, and as an mindfulness teacher, I have often used his approach to the mental side of the game to my athletes as a example of the importance of maintaining the right mindset. Something about Jordan struck me last night while I was watching that I haven't really thought much about before, his ability to grow through adversity. In my opinion, this may very well be where his greatness manifests itself most fully.

In this age of abundant educational psychology resources, we are fortunate to bear witness to great works about mental toughness concepts like grit, resilience, perseverance, growth mindset, and mental toughness. As educators and parents, we read books and watch YouTube videos by brilliant minds like Angela Duckworth, as they give us guidance on how we can strengthen our children's mindsets in these domains. In many ways, Michael Jordan serves as the embodiment of these attributes. We can use him as an example to our children (even the ones who aren't into sports!) that growth is often found through adversity.

Jordan, arguably the greatest athlete of all-time, came from humble beginnings, and his rise to the top is illustrated by a series of events in which he displayed incredible intestinal fortitude to use adversity as fuel for growth. Most of us have heard the story about him being cut from his high school varsity basketball team his sophmore year. Instead of quitting the game, like many would have done in his shoes, he used the experience to get better. "I think that not making the varsity team drove me to really work at my game, and also taught me that if you set goals, and work hard to achieve them- the hard work can be pay off," he said.

Much credit should go to Jordan's mother, Delores. During the pivotal time of him not making the varsity team, she encouraged him to work harder and get better, so he could make the varsity team the following year. He took her advice, and it paid off. As parents and/or adults working with children, we can use Delores Jordan as an example on how to teach the important lesson of working towards "growth through adversity" to the kids in our lives. It is difficult to see our children experience failure in painful situations. Sometimes we fail to realize that often out of these struggles impactful learning takes place. It would have been easy for Delores to tell Michael to find another sport or hobby when he complained that he was cut from the team because he wasn't tall enough. Instead, she was unwavering in her encouragement to him, and implored him to work hard. "You have it in your heart. The tallness is within you. You can be as tall as you want in your thinking," she said.

There is no doubt that Delores Jordan's confidence in young Michael shaped his attitude towards working through difficult situations throughout his life. This was illustrated on numerous occasions during his playing career. One such example took place during his second season with Bulls, when he broke his foot and was sidelined for the majority for the season. What did he do? He rehabbed is foot and came back stronger than ever. Another example is when he was becoming frustrated with the Bulls' inability to beat the Detroit Pistons and advance in the playoffs on several occasions. Never one for the weight room, Jordan decided that to have a chance to compete with the Pistons' rugged physicality , he would need to hit the weights during the off-season. So what did he do? He hired master trainer Tim Grover and got much stronger due to their brutal daily training sessions. As a result, Jordan and his Bulls teammates weren't pushed around that next season by the Pistons. In fact, true to Jordan's plan, Bulls knocked the Pistons out of the playoffs.

I know what you are probably thinking. "Great story. That's Michael Jordan, but what about my kid?"

When I served as a middle school principal, typically the "first time middle school parents" were the most nervous, which was understandable to me, since their "babies" were leaving elementary school and venturing into the developmental chaos known as middle school. While we made it clear that one of the primary objectives for our middle school was letting the students build their sense of independence, many struggled with letting their kids do things on their own, especially if it meant they could possibly "fail" at something. We tried to flip their script on the meaning of failure to them. At the beginning of every school year, I would send them a letter on this subject. Below is an excerpt:

Let your children fail. This is the time they grow wings. Please stand

back and watch them learn to fly. Sometimes they will fall, but they can and will try again. Your child will be challenged. Our students may struggle every now and then, however, we will always be here to help them get back off the ground and soar again. We like to say that there are no true failures, only lessons learned.

Children need guidance and support. With that said, there's a slippery slope between helping them and enabling them to the point of learned helplessness. We should encourage them to bounce back when they experience setbacks. It is also important for us to realize that it is OK for us to let them quit something when all of their efforts have been exhausted and the goal is impossible and out of their reach. As we all know, it is not always about winning or losing. It is about learning and growing from the effort.

Sometimes we want something for the children in our lives more than they want it for themselves. We need to make sure we are not living vicariously through our kids. There is no doubt that when Delores Jordan encouraged Michael to stick with basketball, she knew how important it was to him. Furthermore, she knew it was his dream, not hers.

Parents, coaches, and teachers need to instill confidence in the children they work with by encouraging them to take risks. We also need to keep in mind that they will not succeed in everything they attempt, and this is fine. As Jordan says, adversity is often the road to growth, "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life."

Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, the current Head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School, will begin his tenure as the school's Director of SEL & Mindfulness in June. His website is

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