11 Tamuz 5781 / Monday, June 21, 2021 | Torah Reading: Balak
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Channeling Champions    

Channeling Champions

Olympic gold-medalist Michael Phelps could have been a Ritalin-dependant, suburban kid. But, his wise mother heeded King Solomon’s advice, and channeled her...


First I must say there should be gold medals given for Torah scholarship, commitment to family and community, and feeding the hungry. Despite the fact that this doesn’t happen maybe at all here on earth, or at least not with the same financial backing and fanfare as the Olympic games, I still find the Olympics thrilling and beautiful. And they have made me think a great deal this year because they are about much more than scores and tacky uniforms.

King Solomon in Proverbs 22:6 says, "Educate the youth according to his way...”

For those of you who are too busy to watch the Olympics, Michael Phelps is one of the most astounding and terrifically gifted athletes alive today. He is an American swimmer. He could also kill a Goliath. I’m pretty sure.

Image left: US President Bush speaks with Michael Phelps after he won another Olympic gold medal in Beijing two weeks ago

I have a feeling that people all over the world saw the same interview with Michael Phelp’s mother. According to his mother Michael has ADHD (Attention deficit /Hyperactivity disorder) and as a child was constantly on the move, bouncing off the walls. She even says his mouth was constantly on the move. I thought that was a little harsh. But it paints a picture. We probably have all known or currently know a kid like this. Kids who are hard to keep up with are often irritating because they remind us of how lazy we can be. Sometimes God gives the tortoise a hare to raise. These kids often have low self esteem and fail because we are all too slow and fail to see their energy as a blessing.

Smart mom that Mrs. Phelps is, she got her son Michael involved in swimming to help him direct his energy. That’s code for ‘wear him out’. I’m kidding. Kind of. Most parents figure out that their kids’ behavior can change radically when they are given a healthy outlet for their energy. So instead of letting him drool for hours in front of a TV playing video games, she took him to the pool most days of the week, which probably wasn’t very easy given that she was a single mom supporting three kids.

At age eleven Michael’s swim coach told Mrs. Phelps that he had Olympic potential and that they should start training for the next Olympic games. She thought he was nuts but said OK. Now Michael at age twenty-three has more gold medals than any other athlete in Olympic history.

Instead of forcing her unique and wonderful kid into a mold too small for him, Mrs. Phelps put her son in a position to succeed. She channeled his energy and set him up to win. That’s a great trick. Without knowing it, she implemented King Solomon’s advice to the letter and educated her son according to his talents and aptitude. Many other mothers and fathers might have had a Ritalin-dependant loser but Mrs. Phelps channeled her child to championship by utilizing the positive side of what appears to be a drawback.

Instead of pretending that we know better than the Creator and breaking kids until they conform to a cookie cutter standard, look for their gifts, utilize them properly, and set them up for success. It seems to me this is honoring the child and honoring God at the same time.

By contrast, let us look at the Chinese government approach to training gymnasts. They have no use for King Solomon. What I have to say about the Chinese government’s approach to training gymnasts is not positive. I am in no way trying to impugn every coach in China or every gymnast in China, or every Chinese parent who allows his or her child to train for the international competition. I still don’t like what I have learned, really at all.

Sir Matthew Pinsent is a four-time gold medal Olympian from Great Britain, former IOC member, and is now reporter for the BBC. In 2005 he traveled to China to learn about the Chinese government’s approach to training gymnasts. He saw extremely young children being driven too hard, in pain, while being trained in the pursuit of athletic excellence. He even saw a young boy being beaten by a coach. The IOC claimed his views were third-hand accounts (not just second, go figure) and that they couldn’t, in essence, be taken seriously. Pinsent used words like ‘shocked’ and ‘disturbed’ to describe what he saw.

Or you can read in the International Herald Tribune, August 5th edition, the article entitled “Chinese Gymnast Endured Childhood Sacrifice” about the very beautiful and talented gymnast Cheng Fei, a gold medal winning Olympian on the women’s team. Here’s what her coach had to say about life for children who, as young as age four, are living at a training facility for athletes sans parents, "Gymnastics is a really painful thing, especially for pretty young kids; it's torture," said Zhao Hanhua, Cheng's coach at the Wuhan Institute. In the article Fei’s parents talk about her literally screaming and crying in pain as her parents and coaches stretched and contorted her in the name of training to win for her country. This is at an age when most kids are playing with dolls and finger painting. Her parents, who are quite poor, saw their decision to enter her into the Chinese government training machine as a potential escape from economic deprivation for their daughter. In Fei’s case this has actually happened. In the vast majority of cases it does not.

The Chinese government funnels tiny kids as young as four into boarding schools that are by all accounts, brutal training programs to create winning athletes for the state. The individual child is seen as a tool for state success. They are not a unique gift from God but rather a potential feather in a cap for the nation. For the parents, at least for some of them, it’s a nasty trade off – their most often sole child will have no childhood and the parents will have little or no influence over their child in exchange for the extremely tiny possibility that the son or daughter will escape poverty and/or achieve fame.

I am not trying to set up a patriotic dichotomy here. The American Government can be as Godless as the worst of them and American parents as desperate and blind as the worst of them. And I have no idea how I would think had I been born in the middle of China in 1968 to a couple of poor factory workers, instead of in a suburb of Washington, DC to a marine architect and a History teacher. But when we watch the Olympics we have a chance to see people from almost every nation on earth, all at the same starting line in Beijing having reached that starting line using what are often vastly different strategies, energized by what are sometimes terrifically different motivations. Yet when they compete, these folks might come within a hundredth of a second of one another at the finish line.

Given that this is the case why must some take the approach of picking twenty-thousand flowers to make a bouquet of five? Why is it so hard for us to not use our children’s lives to fulfill our own dreams instead of honoring theirs? If we see each person as a precious creation who reflects the Creator, who is created for a unique purpose we honor Hashem and have a chance to witness amazing spectacles and dramas unfold that lift us up and fill us with awe and gratitude over the astounding diversity of Hashem’s creations, instead of sadness over lost childhoods.

Michael Phelps is living proof of what proper child-energy channeling can do. This is an amazing lesson for parents and teachers alike. Conclusion? There’s no such thing as bad kids. When you see what appears to be a bad child, there are parents and teachers that have failed to channel the child’s God-given gifts into the right path. Let’s not forget King Solomon’s lesson.

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