by Beverly Shaklee

“Losing with class.” That’s how the news reporters stated the fact that George Mason University basketball team lost the game to Florida in the Final Four NCAA basketball competition. Campus for the last two weeks has been a flurry of reporters, national news coverage, pep rallies and send-offs. Our team, a Cinderella team, was one of those picked “last” to ever make the Final Four. In fact, some reporters said we “didn’t belong” in the group, at that level and among the big teams. I watched all week and wondered about the coach, the players and its effect on the university. It made me think about giftedness, competition, losing and “playing” in a place where others think you don’t belong.

I am not, by and large, a sports fan, but I can see some things to think about with our children, the students we serve and even ourselves. I wondered how we help gifted individuals “lose with class” and still think well of themselves. I wondered about our gifted children who create an internal competition we call perfectionism. I wondered about parents and how to convince our children that we are just as proud of them when they try and fail as when they try and succeed. I wondered about all the hoopla that often precedes an event, whether it’s taking an examination for college entry, or playing in a piano competition, or applying for a new job.

What I saw at GMU was a balance of academics and athletics, a focus on individual effort and positive attitude. What I saw was respect, not just for the players and coach – those in the limelight – but also for the trainers, the team physician and everyone else who was part of the team. What I saw was a spirit of fun – the “magic carpet ride,” as Coach Larranaga phrased it. I saw that this competition, as big as it was in many respects, was kept in perspective, as a part of life, not life itself. I credit the coach, although he would not accept that credit alone, with creating a team environment of positive thinking, hard work, fun and generosity of spirit. In one interview he said that he always wanted the players to remember why they started playing the game when they were young – it was to have fun.

As parents, spouses or teachers, when we think about the environments we create, what aspects do we contribute that are positive and generous in spirit? How do we maintain, in the stress of daily life, an environment that is positive, generous, fun and sustains the spirit? How do we remind our gifted children that the reason they typically like to learn is that it’s intellectual fun, or that dance is a joy in their life? What do we do when that sense of wonder and joy in learning turns to drudgery, anxiety or refusal. How do we respond when they try and “fail”? How do we counter the performance focus of classrooms and leave some space for experiments? How do we renew the spirit intellectually, physically and emotionally for ourselves and others?

There are no easy answers to these questions nor is there any “magic carpet” in gifted education. Each individual, child and parent will look for their own answers to these and many other questions. There are reminders in the daily lives of others, the stories of success and failure, in the ways in which we are the best selves we can be.

Coach Larranaga, in his first televised remarks after the game in the locker room, said to his players, “You are like my sons. I am as proud of you today in defeat as I was last week in victory.” Lamar Butler, one of his players, said, “We were the kids from the ordinary schools whose heart you couldn’t measure.” (Washington Post, 4/2/06.) At the end of the day, let’s hope that our children and those that we support will feel that way about themselves.

For more on self-esteem, perfectionism, and spirit, check out these articles in SENG’s online library:

Risk-taking and risk-making

The impact of giftedness on psychological well-being

Authentic character development

Beverly Shaklee is a Professor and Coordinator of Elementary Education at George Mason University. She is serving her second year on the SENG Board.

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