Turning our kids into a Sam Kerr

Thursday, 29 Apr 2021

She is the Matildas Captain. She plays for Chelsea FC and is widely regarded as one of the best female footballers ever. She is a Ballon d’Or nominee. And yet she said, “I was total crap in my first season as a footballer”.

I wish every young sportsperson would read her story. I wish every musician – trumpeter, trombonist, clarinettist etc - would read her story. I wish every kid who ranks him/herself as a weak mathematician would read it. I wish every kid who puts him/herself down would read it.

 Sam’s training as a kid was all about AFL (not football believe it or not). Her competitive streak would see her train hard for AFL and handle the footy ball on any occasion she could. However, at the time, the 12 year old Kerr found herself more alone as the only female player amongst the boys. She had to leave the code and find another to satisfy her talented instincts. 

“Being taken away from footy really sucked,” she says. “I was very good at it, I had good hand-eye co-ordination, my family was really embedded in the club, my brother played – everything was just easy for me. It hurt going from one of the better players, one of the most popular players. I just went from being at the top of my game, as much as you can as a kid, to going to the bottom moving to football. I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t know offside, I didn’t understand why no one would pass me the ball.”

Kerr did not just move away from AFL but moved away from the associated social life and friends that she had made over many years. Her family attended soccer matches but did not know the rules and found the game boring. ‘Just three years later Kerr became the youngest scorer in the W-League, was voted the players’ player of the year and made her national team debut, aged just 15 years and 150 days’ says Joey Peters (The Guardian 2019). A serious ACL injury knocked Sam out of the game for a while and it was then that she reflected on her footballing career. Football eventually took her to the US and then on to the UK. 

What are the lessons we can teach our kids? Out of adversity comes opportunity (Benjamin Franklin). We call it The Learning Kind and The Achieving Kind. And in between, we expect our kids to be Kind to Yourself. We all face plenty of adversity and many are able to harness the skills and talents they have to turn these moments into opportunities. Time and again.

Jack Krier identifies the characteristics of these people:  

1. They don’t fear adversity, they welcome it.

2. They take risks but also accept responsibility.

3. They take action instead of reacting.

4. They always think long-term.

5. They constantly learn.

6. They focus on progress, not perfection.

A quick search reveals hundreds of people who have turned personal adversity into opportunity. I find myself winding back to a common thematic denominator when writing about so many of these topics. Developing a resilience – an ability of ‘bounce back’ and a tenacity to hang in there (‘grit’) being the two characteristics which define so many successful young people. The Stockdale Principle asserts: You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Kerr knew an ACL injury was serious as much as she knew she was sacrificing her love of AFL to play football. There were brutal facts that she had to accept on her journey. She had the ability to bounce back and showed a determination to succeed regardless of the challenges. The first rung on the step ladder is to bounce back and that would step you into a better position. The second rung on the ladder is to turn the challenge into a test of one’s mettle. 

Our wellbeing focus at the College incorporates a strong Bounce Back component. We speak the language of resiliency and make sure we reward kids for genuine achievement rather than inconsequential acts. The ability to show grit and bounce back is compromised if a child is served a constant diet of unwarranted praise. And there is a message for parents tucked away in this story – Sam Kerr’s parents were not the kind of people to excuse her or give her permission to quit. They also played their part in helping her develop the required resiliency. 

We are not looking for each individual to be a Sam Kerr but live in the hope and expectation that with the right coping strategies, adversity will be met with a realistic appraisal of what needs to be done, whilst for some, they may go even further and turn the adversity into an opportunity for growth.  

 I never lose. I either win or learn – Nelson Mandela

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