Personally, I blame Taylor Swift. And Reed Kessler. And every other young prodigy who ever bloomed early, flourished, and made the normal kids of the world feel insignificant and underdeveloped by comparison.
No, really. I do.
Think about it: Within the last decade (maybe even longer), we’ve seen a major shift in what I’m going to refer to as “the age of achievement.” With increased technology and social networks, our communication speed has increased while our patience has decreased, resulting in children and teens who develop at a faster pace than I recall from my formative years. And when someone like Taylor Swift comes along and releases her first single at the age of 16 and Reed Kessler nabs a spot on the show jumping team for London at 18 – feats that spread like wildfire across all media channels – public perception shifts so that it soon becomes regarded as normal for this to happen to talented youngsters. Expected even.
Newsflash, students and parents – These accomplishments are anomalies; they’re not normal.
The opening keynote address for the recent educational consulting conference I attended in Boston was given by Dr. Ellen Braaten of Massachusetts General Hospital. She serves as director of their Learning and Emotional Assessment Program and specializes in teen mental health. (Her specific area of expertise is pediatric neuropsychological assessment – say that three times fast.) Dr. Braaten’s talk was both humorous and valuable as she discussed the disturbing trends she has begun to see in her practice – namely, the idea that some parents would rather their child receive a neuropsychological diagnosis of a cognitive disorder (a sequencing issue in the brain, dyslexia, ADHD, etc.) that explains why the child isn’t developing at a rapid rate than hear the awful truth:
The child is average. Normal. Progressing at an age-appropriate rate.
When did that happen? When did a brain disorder become preferable to normalcy? When did the word “average” become a synonym for “untalented,” for “lacking potential,” and “not destined for greatness?”
When did we adhere ourselves to the belief that kids are either on the fast track all the way or else they’re getting passed by their peers while they’re idling on the side of the road?
With prospective college equestrians, I see this focus on early achievement manifest itself primarily with students who near the end of their high school riding careers and panic because they fear they haven’t done enough shows, haven’t jumped fences over three feet, or won substantial amounts of prize money and ribbons. They use the widely-touted, media-feted junior riders they see each week in the pages of The Chronicle of the Horse and on various social media channels as barometers of their own success (or perceived lack thereof) and suddenly transform from happy, well-adjusted, and – yes, I’m going to say it! – average teenage equestrians to depressed that they’ve wasted their short lives.
It simply isn’t true.
Eschewing the fact that I’ve written previously about how riding is a lifelong sport – so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ian Millar make the Canadian team for Rio this year at the age of 69 – let’s take a moment to look at two things; the first is the dictionary definition of the word “average” (Merriam Webster says it’s “a level that is typical of a group, class, or series: a middle point between extremes”) and the second is the list of characteristics that will impress any college equestrian coach about any prospective rider – average or otherwise.
Coaches seek the following:
- Coachability. You can be the least experienced rider on a team (no problem in the IHSA – they rely on beginner riders for their rosters), you can have a show record that spans your county 4-H region and goes no farther, or you can have zero ability to tell the left lead from the right, but at the end of the day, the number one quality coaches want you to possess is the ability to do what they tell you to do when they tell you to do it, aka coachability. That’s it. And if they tell you that you can improve in a particular area, they want you to accept criticism and affect change. That’s the most valuable quality that any coach can have in their team riders and it’s one that any rider can cultivate – even an average one.
- A good attitude. When a coach asks you to try something in a lesson or help a teammate or set a fence, they want you to say yes. When the rain starts to fall on show day and everyone is cold and grumbling and (gasp!) the coffee runs out and there isn’t time to run for more, they want to know that you’ll still put forth your best effort when it’s your turn to compete. If you’ve won every Marshall & Sterling class from here to kingdom come but can’t do that, the coach may bench you for the rider who can. Good attitudes in average riders trump talent in above average riders in team settings any day.
- Good study habits. College equestrians are student athletes. The student part comes first, no matter what. For varsity teams, a minimum GPA is required to remain eligible to compete and for all teams, coaches need to know that the students are able to complete their academic work well and turn it in on time, not only because it’s the whole purpose for going to college (sorry, kids – riding is the frosting, not the cake), but because good study habits also translate into good riding habits – or at the very least, the ability to pick them up. So if you’re an average rider and an above average student, you’re still very much in the running for team consideration.
At the end of the day, everyone develops in different areas at different paces. We see this with our horses and with people. (My yearling, for example, is in many ways ahead of his peers in physical development and mental maturity but behind them in other ways – he hasn’t been to a keuring or a show yet, his trailer loading needs work, and he has a fear of water we’re working on.) There will always be people ahead of us and people behind us; the most important thing is to focus on what we need to do and what will most fulfill us at this and every stage of our development.
And if that’s being average, I’m okay with that.