What is the key to raising Spartan Kids who grow up to become resilient, successful adults?
In our personal opinion (backed by loads of research) it’s about teaching mental toughness at a young age. The same mental toughness that gets you out of bed at 5 a.m. to run in 40-degree rain. Or huff it to the gym for 90 minutes of self-imposed brutality. It’s your dedication to a goal. In a word, it’s grit—the ability to delay gratification and endure suffering so you can accomplish something big.
And the good news? None of us are born with it. That ability to stay focused on the prize is born out of years of real-life lessons, practice, and guidance. With the ease of life created by modern technology, raising Spartan Kids is more important now than ever.
Raising Spartan Kids in Modern Times
Life just doesn’t hit as hard as it used to, and according to Texas high school strength and conditioning coach Shane Trotter, the youth are not equipped to hit back. There’s a void of mental toughness.
“We have to be very honest about the trends we’re seeing,” said Trotter. “We’re talking about a generation that is constantly entertained. Cell phone in hand, spending too much time inside, too much junk food, too little play.”
More than his students’ fitness, Trotter worries that their four years in high school won’t prepare them for what’s next. Today’s college counseling centers are more concerned with young adult anxiety than any other health condition. In 2016, the American College Health Association reported that 62 percent of undergraduates feel overwhelming anxiety.
Trotter doesn’t claim to know the exact source of the generation’s angst, but he does how they cope. He calls it “limited living”: self-medicating with bad food, social media, benzodiazepines—anything to avoid discomfort. And yet, he says, aversion to discomfort is often the cause of anxiety in the first place.
“When you strip your kids of adversity you strip them of the opportunity to become who they’re supposed to be,” said Trotter.
Raising Spartan Kids to embrace the suck requires nuance. And a drill-sergeant approach risks doing more harm than good. Instead, Trotter employs three complementary philosophies to make sure his student-athletes get the formative experiences they need. Do you agree with the parenting approaches below?
1. Teach Mental Toughness as a Virtue
When Trotter encounters a new batch of student-athletes, his first task is to reshape their perception of struggle. For some students, Trotter is their first encounter with deliberate physical discomfort, which the coach sees as an opportunity.
“If you’re constantly trying to avoid all discomfort then you’re not happy,” said Trotter. “And when discomfort does rear its head, you’re going to feel overly victimized.”
The American Journal of Play arrived at the same conclusion when it compared the survey results from 14- to 16-year-olds in 1948 and 1989, in order to see the psychological effect of reduced playtime. The 1989 teen was 25 percent more likely to report working under a great deal of tension and four times as likely to feel strained by life. Also, the 1989 teen was six times as likely to say they were afraid of losing their minds. And that was three decades ago!
In recent years, the relentless consumption of digital media has only intensified the issue. A 2015 study of Canadian teens in Preventive Medicine found screen time to be a risk factor for depression and anxiety. A similar 2014 California State University inquiry concluded that for teenagers, “nearly every type of technological activity predicted poor health.”
So what all this research tells us is that kids are facing less adversity and it’s negatively affecting their health. That’s why Spartan is manufacturing adversity. And that’s why Spartan Kids tackle obstacles and earn finisher medals just like their parents.
Trotter explains to his students exactly how the suffering he’s asking them to endure will improve their lives. He invites them to join him in a process that improves their athletic performance and feels authentic
“They want to be something greater, they want to earn things, they know that it’s real,” said Trotter.
2. Celebrate Achievement the Right Way
There is a right way and a wrong way to celebrate achievement, according to Stanford researcher Carol Dweck, Ph.D. And this distinction is important because the way you celebrate achievement influences how your child perceives the path to success.
Dweck distinguishes two types of people: those with a “growth mindset,” who believe that people develop their abilities through dedication and hard work, and those with a “fixed mindset,” who think people are innately good or bad at something.
In a landmark 1998 study, Dweck proves that children who are routinely praised for intelligence (“You’re so smart!”) give up on hard tasks sooner than those who are applauded for working hard to achieve something. A child who believes he or she can work hard to get smarter has a growth mindset, and they internalize the notion that effort—not natural ability—is the key to success. So instead of saying Brian is good at violin because he has talent, emphasize how his hard work is paying off. Raising Spartan Kids with a growth mindset will give them control of their own success.
Trotter celebrates any student who demonstrates formidable effort in the weight room by applauding their work ethic.
“We celebrate great effort all the time,” he said. “So that physical activity isn’t always punishment; it’s something we get excited about.” He gets students clapping during warm-ups. “If you set it up right, there’s not a negative connotation with physical activity.”
When their hard work is recognized and reinforced, Trotter’s students discover how powerful they really are. “When an athlete hits a home run, they see me and say ‘yeah, that was the deadlift,’”
3. Tough Love Should Be Warm and Nurturing
In a study published in the Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development, Nancy Eisenberg, Ph.D., concluded that “warm, supportive parenting, rather than cold, directive parenting, appears to predict higher levels of effortful control.” Translation: Kids’ with nurturing parents have a better ability to control impulses and stick with undesirable projects. So don’t think you need to yell at your kids to foster their mental toughness. Rather, support and encourage them to do hard things from a loving place and they’ll be more successful.
“You don’t need the puke buckets on day one,” said Trotter. He knows that coming on too harsh isn’t constructive and physiologically speaking, more isn’t always better. “We need to establish principles and expectations and be very consistent in trying to implement those,”
Rather than squeezing out every last rep, Trotter focuses on teaching “physical literacy,” in hopes his students will leave the weight room understanding why they’re doing each exercise. He approaches the kids with an educational and supportive nature.
“One of my foundational principles is that we’re humans before we’re athletes,” says Trotter. “If my students have an understanding and competency that makes them more inclined to be physically active after high school, if they have a perception that embraces adversity, then I’ve done my job.”
Lastly, when raising Spartan Kids the most important part is to walk the talk. So, be a Spartan adult! Constantly push yourself to do hard things and share that struggle with your child as something you enjoy. The next generation is watching you.