On an overcast afternoon last week — a day in which the rain threatened but never came — I took two of my children to the pool.
My 8-year son went off the diving board for the first time that day.
It took several tries of walking out to the edge of the board, fear taking over and slinking back down the stairs, before he finally gathered his strength and launched himself off the end in a gigantic splash.
Then – with the fear conquered – he jumped, again and again, arms and legs flailing with delight off the bouncy end of the board.
My son is what one might call a reluctant swimmer. This summer, for the first time, he ventured past the roped off shallow section. He can motor himself around the water and has the basics of freestyle down, but swim-team is probably not in his future.
That said, innate talent has never deterred him from anything he has put his mind to. As his Tae Kwon Do master once said to me, “There’s no quit in that kid.” (Mind you: That’s only true for the aforementioned “things he puts his mind to”. There’s plenty of quit when it comes to his chore of cleaning the bathroom.)
Days later, at our friend’s pool, my son decided he wanted to take his new diving board confidence to the next level. “Teach me to dive!” he said, eagerly.
We started him on the side, instructing him to reach his hands over his head, touch his finger tips together and reach loooooow into the pool. “Hands first, buddy. Hands in the water first!”
A few tries later, he was ready for the edge of their diving board. First on bended knee, then on both feet. As he stood there, folded in half and reaching toward the water with both hands, I thought to myself, “He’s totally got this.”
And then he jumped off the board, still folded in half like a piece of paper, feet splashing into the water seconds before his pointed fingertips.
“Sweetie, you gotta lead with your hands. Your hands and head should hit the water first, not your feet.”
Several tries later and he was landing belly first. Progress? “I’m doing it, Ima,” he beamed.
“Almost, bubby. Almost.”
Another 20 minutes of trying – in front of a group of younger friends who were not just diving, but doing flips – he did it: A head-first landing! Sure, his body was still folded slightly, but he nailed the order — hands, head, torso, legs, and last, feet.
As I told him last night, while tucking him in to bed, “I’m so proud of you. You really stuck to it, even when it was tough.”
Our success is measured not by the first try, but by the sum of them.
And not just half-hearted tries.
We live in a culture that urges us to “Try and try again.”
“Practice makes perfect,” we’re told.
And yet the truth is that not every person can nail that Olympic-form dive. Even with decades of diligent practice.
So why bother encouraging them to master those skills at all, if they’re just going to be perfunctory?
Because even if it doesn’t result in the perfect dive, scientists tell us that deliberate practice is literally building our brains.
In Talent Code, Daniel Coyle explains how practice creates a circuit of nerves in our brain; repetition of that practice builds up the myelin around that neural circuit, insulating (and strengthening) that nerve.
What does all this mean for our children who want to dive off the board – literally or figuratively?
I think it means that as parents, we must encourage them, praising their effort instead of their results. We must teach them that only through challenge and persistence does the muscle in our brains grow.
Of course, the best way to teach this is not just by our words but through our actions. And, as a side benefit, as we model willingness to practice – even if it means failure – we strengthen our own brain muscle, too.
During this month of Elul, a time in our calendar for cheshbon nefesh, I see my eight-year old’s board diving as a clear model for my own personal growth. It’s not enough for me to set goals – Be a better person; Be more patient with my children — I need to commit to deliberately practicing those skills. Daily.
Of course, deliberate practice is just our generation’s term for this concept. We’ve actually had a model for it in our tradition all along: Na’aseh v’Nishma.
Before we can fully “hear” something — comprehend it, become experts (nishma) – we must practice doing it, over and over again.
Deliberate practice is our way of building that myelin, every single day.