One of the most common questions I get asked when I visit schools and tell my story to pupils is "Why didn't you win a gold medal?" (or variations such as "Do you wish you had won a gold medal?" "What happened? Where's your gold medal?" or "Why didn't you keep on swimming so you could win a gold medal?").
My response is always the same: "I didn't swim in the Paralympics to win a gold medal, I swam at the Paralympics to be the best swimmer I could be." At this point, some pupils will nod their head and smile, as they get it, but others will still look confused, not quite comprehending why someone would not want to be the best ever, whether that be in sport, school, or life.
Perhaps it's the influence of the world wide web, social media, news sites, and the like; or their friends and family, pushing the idea that to be liked you have to be the best, or even, dare I say it, the school and teachers, desperately trying to reach Ofsted requirements and criteria and Government SATs expectations. Whatever it is, we need to address the fact that people are so caught up in the cult of being the best (when realistically we can only be the best we can be, even if that means you come 2nd, 3rd, or dead last), that children's, teachers', AND parents' mental health, resilience, and expectations are wobblier than a one-legged chair.
This morning I was reading this article on the Guardian website We're all casualties of this cruel arms race in primary school education by Zoe Williams. She speaks about parents now "competing" to get their child into the best school possible, with everyone trying to get into the local "outstanding" school, to the detriment of the other, not so "outstanding" local schools. The desperation that parents feel, and then the devastation if they fail to get their first choice, is a pure reflection of this "cult of being the best" that I mentioned above. Now I do believe that parents should want the best for their children, absolutely, but I think what we have to be aware of how our expectations and then reactions to possibly disappointing results can impact on the little people around us. A four- or five-year-old should not be worried about what school they are going to get into - instead they should be excited and curious about school, looking forward to making new friends and starting to learn, regardless of whether the school is "outstanding" or not.
Further down in the article Zoe then speaks, rather sadly, of eight-year-olds that are ranking themselves against their peers on their maths ability. This reminds me of a primary school teacher telling me about a child that automatically placed themselves on the lower skilled (2nd place) table. This self-assumption about skill, the ability to learn, and the lack of growth mindset, means that with the stress and pressure to perform or be the best, children are at great risk to give up on setting goals and aiming for success on their terms, because they already lack the self-belief that they can grow and achieve.
So what can we do to counteract this growing pressure, not just on our pupils/kids, but on our teachers and parents as well? Here are three concepts to work with.
1. Firstly, let's become a bit more optimistic! It certainly is not the end of the world if your child doesn't get into the local "outstanding" school, in fact it's not the end of the world if your school isn't ranked "outstanding", or you don't come first in maths. As long as, within the circumstances you find yourself in, you have done the best that YOU can, then there is nothing else anyone can ask of you.
2. Secondly, foster collaboration within your family, school, and community. Instead of focusing on who is the best person, who is the top of that subject, or who is the best teacher, get in there and support everyone, develop a team mentality, and raise everyone up, regardless of ability.
3. Thirdly, develop a healthy sense of self and self-belief, in children and adults. Instead of berating a child, a school, a teacher, or a parent, for not doing their best, focus on what they are good at, whilst supporting them as they develop and work on the stuff they need to work on. It should never be a race to see who is the best or "outstanding", but a social push to develop healthier attitudes to hard work, self-belief, and success.
To sum up, instead of becoming complacent about our "lot" in life, or believing that to be valued we need to be the best, let's be comfortable with where we are now, think about where we would like to be in the future, and let's support each other as we map the steps to achieving our own version of success.
This article was originally posted on the RWS Website on 20th April, 2016.