I remember, distinctly, the moment that I decided that I would never swim breaststroke again. I had just been disqualified from my first ever big competition race as a swimmer and I was devastated. It had been entirely my fault, swimming the wrong stroke in a race (other than a freestyle race, where you are actually allowed to swim any stroke), and the humiliation was all pervading. For a few minutes I had wanted to quit swimming, I had wanted to give up on my dream and hide, but that had quickly passed once I reminded myself of how badly I wanted to achieve my goal to swim at the Paralympics. So I wasn't giving up on my swimming dreams, but what was so aptly revealed to me in that moment was this, if I wanted to be the best swimmer I could ever be I had to focus on my strengths and where I was already excelling, and let go of weaknesses that, if I gave too much attention too, would inevitably hold me back. So breaststroke got the boot, and over the next weeks, months, and years, I started to fly. My first international medal came in 100m Backstroke (and whilst this race remained in my repertoire, and I maintained respectable world rankings, it became more of a warm-up race), but at Paralympics and World Championships, my best results and medals came from frontcrawl and butterfly.
I want to clarify that I am not saying we should give up anything where we have a weakness - if we gave up at any appearance of a weakness we would do nothing at all. Weakness is inevitable in all areas of our life. This is fact.
What I am talking about is making a sound judgement about what weakness is worth letting go of and what weakness is worth working on. With breaststroke there was no way the entire sum of weaknesses I had within performing that stroke were ever going to strengthen... this was my opinion and my coach's opinion. So it was not worth my or my coach's time working on this stroke that was seemingly impossible for me to perform effectively. Backstroke, frontcrawl, and butterfly, however, were a different story. I was fast and strong with these strokes, and weaknesses that I had within them (regarding style, technique, and speed) I could work on effectively and quickly, bringing about drastic improvements in my times and rankings. I had these strengths that I could make stronger by addressing the weaknesses within them. This was true resilience and persistence in the face of achieving a goal.
In Dr Lea Waters book "Strengths Switch" she talks about the process by which a child's grey matter grows and recedes as they go through the cycle of experiencing the world and then focusing more and more on where our strengths and interest lie. The part of this process that I am interested in is in the adolescent years, when a teen's brain is actually shrinking as the brain discards the grey matter that it doesn't need, and keeps the grey stuff that is being used regularly. This receding, pruning, shrinking of the brain starts at age 12, and it is at this crucial moment that we have an opportunity to help our teens build the brain of their dreams!
"A type of survival-of-the-fittest endgame takes place where neural networks battle it out to secure their place in the remodelled adult brain." (Strengths Switch, p 102)
I read this and it instantly made me think.... as our neurons battle it out for supremacy, is it actually a neuron Olympics/Paralympics going on in our brains? Do all teens actually have a chance to create a "medal winning" brain?
As we grow into adulthood it seems that we have an opportunity to cultivate and build neural networks that can actually help us achieve our potential as adults, to be the best person that we can be. And in understanding that we can make choices regarding what neural networks we make stronger, does that not empower us to have more control over our lives and how we respond to the ups and downs of life?
Think of the fours strokes that I started off swimming in as an athlete: breaststroke, backstroke, frontcrawl, and butterfly. Imagine each of these strokes is a neural network/pathway, and at the age of 13 I had an opportunity to decide, do I strengthen the ones that are already quite strong, and prune away the weaker pathways? Or do I persist in trying to strengthen a weakness that actually won't help me be the best swimmer that I can be? I had an opportunity to prune my neural networks to give myself the best chance to be the best person that I could be, and even though my strengths (frontcrawl, backstroke, and butterfly) were not without their weaknesses, constant working on them strengthened those strengths and enabled me to walk away with medals.
When teens have an understanding of how their brain works and how they have a crucial window within which to strengthen certain networks and pathway, this can empower and build confidence in their choices for life. Let them learn and know that when they engage in certain behaviours, emotions, and skills that are not helpful to their futures these become patterns that can and will hold them back, that can make them less resilient and less likely to cope with life's stresses. Let them learn and know that when they engage with behaviours, emotions, and skills that are healthy, uplifting, and positive, they are creating pathways that will help them thrive and flourish in the present and the future, and that by building their strengths, through choice and knowledge, they can be resilient to the ups and downs in life, and ultimately create a "medal winning" brain.
They can win the neuron Olympics/Paralympics. Your role in this is to support, encourage, and role model these behaviours, be their "coach" and provide them with the opportunities to practice, practice, practice. Be their cheer squad, be their strengths supporter, be their lighter of the path, and watch them flourish.