Lessons learned from Michael Phelps

The Olympic Games have been nothing short of amazing displays by amazing athletes. Phelps certainly has claimed his spot at the front of the class with his amazing swims over the first 8 nights of these games. Watching others go through the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” (Thanks Jim! Rest in peace!) is as real as it gets and it has kept me thinking about lessons learned, not only from Michael Phelps, but other great athletes in these games. As we approach the start of school, it is time for music educators to get back out their “coaching hats”, and get ready our students ready for a 9 month decathlon.

First of all, these athletes took the time necessary to focus on ONE thing and become great. There are wonderful students in our classrooms and ensembles who seek recognition in many areas – there always will be. They make positive contributions musically and socially to our organizations – they always will. But lest we forget, there is that small percentage who is on the cusp of doing something great. We need to focus the energies and talents of those students like a Coach does and help them understand their potential and the path to take to realize it. Every student is different, every situation is unique, and each coach has their own perspective. So where do we start?

I spoke with my marching band over the summer about five aspects of a musical experience needed to make it meaningful (These are taken from Reimer’s A Philosophy of Music Education: Advancing the Vision – thanks Dr. Dorfman!). They need to understand trust – each member of our group has to depend on someone else who is depending on them. They need competence – achieving it means that work needs to be done. They need cooperation – both between members of the group, but with the materials (the music, the instrument, the sonic image of the composer). They need respect – grant others a sense of worth as part of a shared enterprise). They need courage – the risk of being open to the unexpected, the not yet known, and willing to be wrong as much as they are right. I agree with Dr. Reimer that these make more ethical people from our teaching, but it also lends itself to making student musicians who make great musical and social decisions. Phelps trust in his relay teammates was rewarded – Men’s & women’s track and field relay teams fell apart. How hard Nastia and Shawn worked for those moments – and cooperation with their coach, the apparatus, and allowing their body to perform what was created in a visual image by the mind. All of those athletes had courage – even when that meant a slight bump on the hurdle cost Lolo Jones everything she still had the courage to speak about what happened. The “Redeem” Team has been a wonderful example of respect in their support of the other athletes – a lot of that comes from the top down, and I love Coach K. (I highly recommend his book, Leading with the Heart).

But that is not all. There is one component I would add that they NEED to see from us – and that is passion for what we do, the art we create, interpret, and teach. Do you really believe there was no passion in the overtime between the US and Brazil in Soccer? Or between Japan and USA in Women’s softball? Passion reigned supreme when those events ended. But passion should fill our hearts as educators and we should not be afraid to show it in a rehearsal or in a concert. How much better will students react when they see someone excited and energized about what they do? Never forget why you became a musician – it was a love affair with sound (this great advice was shared with me by Francis McBeth some years ago). They need it as much as the five qualities named by Dr. Reimer.

In some cases, these athletes have spent a lifetime training for 10 seconds of glory. One match. Just under 51 seconds of the most exciting swimming final ever. But they prepare with a mindset to give their personal best each time – the process of their preparation is to be the best in the world. Our students are a little different and sometimes are far from that standard, but it doesn’t mean we should give up because it is never going to be attainable. Their coaches have taken TIME to teach them – they set them on a path towards excellence, they inspired them to believe in themselves, they put them through a process so that no matter if there were three people who finished ahead of them they know that they have given their best.

Maybe a concert doesn’t need to be an hour long – maybe it only needs to be 40 minutes of greatness instead of 60 minutes of better than average. Time is the biggest pressure we have day to day within our teaching schedules – ask anybody they will agree, maybe not on a Presidential choice, but on instructional time? Pshh, that is a no-brainer. When is the last time you heard anyone say “I wish I didn’t have as much time to teach my students?” These athletes continue to prove that the quality of the experience is more important than the quantity of experiences. Perhaps our instruction should reflect more of that commitment to raising the quality, and doing it in what little quantity we sometimes have.

We (as educators) are not in the business of working with professional musicians – but that doesn’t mean we should be lacking a professional attitude. Some of them are amatures, some slightly better, some that are exceptional – but they are all still kids. Kids who need role models committed to trusting, competence, cooperation, respect, courage, and passion. Role models who teach them because they love what it is that they do for all the right reasons. And before some of you take fingers to keyboard and call me out, yes those paychecks do help don’t they? But explain to me why I feel like a million bucks at the end of the Pines of Rome – for me that is one of those right reasons.

We want our students to make the right decisions as people and musicians. Let us lead them as their coaches in making our choices ones that inspire, challenge, and mold them into student musicians who seek to continually improve themselves. My opening ceremony for the year is now concluded , the torch is lit, and it is officially time to teach!

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  1. Travis,

    You’re passion is evident! Best wishes on an amazing year!

  2. Word! Let the games begin.


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