West Meets East On the Pursuit of Excellence

Full disclosure: I have not read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and it’s not on the top of my reading list. It seems shamelessly inflammatory and well marketed. Yet the fact that many reviews say that it is not a terribly reflective “memoir” leaves it low on my reading list. After reading much commentary and many reviews of the book (many great ones in The AtlanticSympathy for Tiger Moms, The Ivy Delusion, America’s Top Parent) I’m ready to add my 2 cents on parenting.

The Tiger Mom isn’t all bad… Having aspirations for one’s kids seems to be a natural parent concern, how it is carried day to day is the challenge. It is also tough to argue with parents expecting a child to practice and promoting commitment to activities. I’m not comfortable with a parent being terribly critical of one’s own child (leave it to good coaches, teachers, and the such… and support them), yet it is clear that blindly building up a child with hollow praise and unrelenting positivity is Western political correctness gone astry.

Encouraging and modeling commitment is a good thing. Supporting and expecting an athlete to practice a sporting, musical, or other extracurricular activity is a good thing.

My problem with the Tiger Mom is the ownership the parent takes and maintains over a child’s activities. True excellence and true persistence cannot occur without the athlete leading the way. When the middle school and teen aged athlete is directed by a parent where, when, and how to play I am not optimistic about one’s true athletic potential to be achieved.

Yes, you can poke and prod an athlete to pretty high levels of performance… you can poke and prod an athlete into a collegiate scholarship. Unfortunately however, once the pushing and prodding ceiling is hit, the wheels fall off in a hurry. It may be the collegiate athlete that experiences suffocating levels of performance stress or perhaps something more publicly visible such as Michelle Wie, Todd Marinovich, or Jennifer Capriati meltdowns, but it seems to come hard and fast. And the athlete seems to have few resources to handle the stress.

As frustrating as it may be to a parent, the athlete must be encouraged to have an active voice and regular choice in activities after the first decade of life has passed. This means that development may appear to move more slowly. A practice missed, a poor effort given, a  distraction from friends all too often arising… these things of teenage-ness can challenge a parents patience and lead to fears for a child’s potential for future “success.” Ironically, these road bumps on the developmental journey nurture the resources that will lead to fulfillment of potential. The Tiger Mom (parent) that smothers the intellectually active sports participant dynamites speed bumps that aid long term development (as was so well stated by the Wall Street Journal – you can brute-force any kid to learn to play the piano – just precisely like his or her billion neighbors, but you’ll never get Jimi Hendrix that way.)

This is not however a is a crucification of the Tiger Mom, too often Western culture lowers standards on deliberate practice and commitment too quickly (how we appropriately model them and support them is a post for another time and another day). Excellence simply cannot be achieved without persistence and practice. This being said, the athlete that is neither active in decisions about his participation nor reflective about her striving and struggling plays at a disadvantage at the higher levels of sport.

There’s some wisdom to both East and West. There is great opportunity in a nuanced and caring blend of both when nurturing a child’s passions in performance domains.

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