In high school, I ran cross country and track, and during those experiences, I learned the value of pushing myself nearly to the point of muscle failure. Our season ran from September through November (if we ran well enough to advance past the district level to the regional or state meets). I and my teammates spent a lot of time thinking about how to train in the smartest ways so that we would have enough stamina to outrun others on race day.
I loved it. The guys were great, running was great, and processing through how to each race was far more complicated than the “get out there and run as fast as you can” approach that some, maybe even many, took.
Any runner who has spent any time trying to get better has learned certain truths. It doesn’t take long to realize you get tired as you continue to exert at a higher and higher level for longer and longer. And all it takes is one race where you go out too quickly to remember that a smart racer will be smart about when he conserves energy and when he chooses to push the pace. Any runner knows that the best way to improve as a runner is to spend a lot of time running, getting better, and learning recognize and push your limits.
What I realize now (thanks to a keynote by Dr. Roy Baumeister at the Learning and the Brain Conference) is that those efforts were really an exercise in self-control. In fact, Baumeister says that self-control is like a muscle in the same way I considered running (ok, he may have said that first, but the ideas still apply to what I remember of distance running). Specifically, Baumesiter said that self-control is like a muscle. It gets tired after exertion, it wants to conserve energy at times (often so that energy is retained for future use), and that exercise increases strength.
What he had to say snapped into even sharper focus when he added that “Resisting temptations takes something away from our ability to persevere through the next challenge.”
Think about the factors that can impact a student’s ability to demonstrate self-control. We often think that self-control is a trait when reality is that it is a skill to be developed over time.
But that’s not how we always think.
We think some kids can behave and some kids can’t. Or maybe we think that some kids can behave and others just persistently choose not to (usually just to drive us crazy, right?).
I’m convinced that Baumeister is right. Self-control is like a muscle, and the more we test it, the closer it gets to failure.
So, what do we do?
I don’t have an answer for every student in every situation (and neither does anyone at the conference I’m at–which is both frustrating and reassuring all at once), but I’m wrestling with how to teach that to students. I really like the two new ideas that Baumeister provided. I’d like to share them here and see what we can think of about how these ideas apply to our efforts to teach self-control to our students.
TWO RESOURCES FROM BAUMEISTER
First, he mentioned an article from the Wall Street Journal article about Odell Beckham Jr.’s decision to not only keep from wearing out his dominant right hand, but also grow strength in that left hand by completing everyday tasks with it. “The Secret Left-Handed Life of Odell Beckham” (link) is a great example of someone who is wanting greater control of a part of himself. It’s worth noting that he is as good a receiver as the NFL has right now, so it’s not like he’s doing this because he can’t keep up on his own. He’s wanting to get better, and I can’t wait to find ways to package this for student viewing.
Part of me wishes he had a list of things we could to to help our students “use the other hand” to develop more resilience, but I think I’m happy the question is still out there. I’m still mulling this over myself, and I’m benefiting from the thought process.
Baumeister’s other example that really stuck with me centers around this image:
Here, Odysseus (or Zeus) is subjecting himself to temptation. Sure, he’s putting some constraints in place to help him keep controlled (tying himself to the mast of the ship), but there’s a better way. In Baumeister’s words, “Those with self control don’t do what Odysseus did here; they take a different way home.”
I love the image and how plain it makes the risks of the temptations that come at us.
SELF-CONTROL AND OUR STUDENTS
The more I think about it, the more I think I’m convinced by Roy Baumeister’s compelling comment that there are similarities between working out a physical muscle and working out our self-control. That part is easy to nod along with, but the implications are significant.
Every coach knows that athletes will be pushed and will sometimes fail. Is that how we treat students who are being stretched in their ability to demonstrate self-control?
But that’s the task at hand. Teenagers experience a surge in brain plasticity during adolescence, and it’s our job to make sure we are helping stretch, grow, and cultivate students’ ability to demonstrate greater and greater self-control.
LET”S WORK TOGETHER
Let’s collaborate on this. How will you begin to put this into practice? What ways can you think of that help students to “use the other hand” or avoid the sirens on campus? I have a few ideas, but I’d love to hear what you think.
Leave a comment with an idea or some inspiration for others who are working to help teach self-control.