A Boy, Three Fingers, and Lifelong Resilience


About a year ago, I worked with a client whose 9 year old (we’ll call him “Jacob”) was trying to deal with the pressures of being a little league baseball pitcher.  Despite the self imposed pressure of throwing more strikes than balls or hits, he had to deal with the periodic setback of a poorly played game. During one particular game, Jacob was slow to respond to a bunt that rolled toward 1st base.  After finally retrieving the ball, he dropped it, picked it up again, and then threw it to 2nd base where the batter had swiftly run.  Jacob grossly overthrew the ball into the outfield which allowed the batter to come all the way around 3rd base and reach home plate to score a home run.  That run broke the tie and resulted in Jacob’s team’s loss of the game.

Anyone who understands baseball knows that scoring a home run on a bunt results from a comedy of errors that can only occur in little league.  Jacob wasn’t laughing.  He was crushed at his performance and the heckling from his 9 year old opponents.

Jacob’s mom came to me concerned about his ability to “bounce back” from setbacks.  Every time Jacob loses, he gets a “funny feeling” in his stomach, frowns incessantly, and worst of all, blames everyone else on the team for their errors without addressing his own.

We got to work on right away on building Jacob’s emotional intelligence skills of resilience and accountability.  Many strategies helped him along his way, but one in particular stood out.

We asked Jacob to point his finger as if he was blaming a teammate for the loss of a game.  When he pointed his index finger we asked him where his middle, ring, and pinky fingers were pointing.  Jacob replied “back at me!” 

After that, every time Jacob blamed others (and that was A LOT!) his very dedicated mom and dad firmly yet lovingly reminded him to use the other three fingers pointing back at him to focus on what he could do to be accountable for his own actions. 

It worked!  Within a month, Jacob and his parents even created actions ideas for the three fingers.  They all started with the letter “s” which made them easy to remember.

The middle finger stood for “study and strength”.  After losing a game, Jacob was encouraged to study his errors and learn from them. Of course, his parents helped. After that, he would focus on very specific strengths that he brought to each game.  Jacob particularly liked to recall the number of strikes he threw with his famous curve ball and that made him happy.  With prodding from his parents, he learned to add additional strengths such as “I gave John a pat on the back after he struck out”, and “I hit a line drive when I was up to bat.”

Jacob’s ring finger stood for “slide off.”   He liked his mom’s idea of letting a loss or a poorly played game slide off his shoulders.  He would literally lean back to act out the thought. By viewing the loss as a temporary event, Jacob could start focusing on the next game.  (This thought process is part of a larger approach to learning the important emotional intelligence skill of optimism)

That led to “strategies” which was represented by Jacob’s pinky.  Jacob’s dad was particularly helpful in helping him to think through his plays and practice them. They would spend a couple of hours at the baseball field every weekend.  Besides improving his game, Jacob enjoyed the time with his dad and the feedback he received.

Jacob and his parents are to be congratulated.  They were active participants in the coaching process and worked hard in between sessions to overcome unproductive approaches and implement new ideas in order to achieve success in their goals.

This exercise didn’t just help Jacob improve his game or his mood after a loss; it helped him understand how to be resilient, optimistic and accountable to himself.  Research proves that these emotional intelligence skills will serve Jacob well in the problem solving arena for the rest of his life.  If he slips back in to the finger pointing blame game and its ensuing negativity, he just has to remember where the other three fingers are pointing.

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From "Boohoo" to "Woohoo". Teach Your Children Resiliency in 8 Easy Steps!

Coins have two sides that often represent choices.  We might flip a coin to choose either pizza or tacos for dinner, or to decide who will be cleaning up after that dinner.  We often hear kids using the coin as a tool for decision making such as “heads I go first, tails you go first”.  But what happens when adults or kids need to make life’s harder choices?  I’m referring to the kinds that involve how we will respond to and process difficult situations and emotions.   Adults slave away at work to sometimes lose a lucrative business deal, or a child might train for weeks and fail to make the cut for an athletic team that they had their heart set on.  At these times, our personalities kick in and sometimes react in a way which doesn’t feel so good.  We react instead of responding and we’re often so emotionally distraught that flipping a coin doesn’t even occur to us.   When a coin can’t help us choose, the skill of resiliency very well might. 

Resilience helps us to recover effectively from life’s adversities.  It is a vital tool to have in our arsenal of staying strong and seeing the optimism in even the most difficult of situations.   Unfortunately, we can’t find resilience on the roadside like we might find a coin.  We have to develop it and build it in our children.  Any parent wants their child to be able to “handle” life’s difficult situations and emotions so let’s look at 8 easy concepts that we can use ourselves and teach our kids to take them from “boohoo” to “woohoo”!

1.  Be Realistic.  Goals and expectations need to be within the scope of realism whether we like it or not.  In 2010, Princeton only accepted 17% of all Valedictorians who applied.  That means that 83% of the highest achievers were rejected.  Teaching our kids to focus on personal growth through an exciting journey of experience and maturity can lend an upside to any disappointment.

2.  Be Flexible.  Heaven knows the temper tantrum any age child (and some adults too) can have when they don’t get their own way.  Flexibility, not to mention cooperation can help a great deal to ease frustration and create a win-win scenario.  Here is what my parents taught me.  During a very bad storm when the winds are blowing violently, a stiff tree is likely to snap, but a flexible tree will bend with the wind only to stand straight when the storm is over.  Enough said.

3.  Stubbornly refuse to let negative emotions take over your happy life!  Let’s remember that we have the power to choose how we will react to any given situation.  We can’t change the situation, but we can choose how we respond to it.  We can let negative emotions make us miserable or we can choose to be positive!  Happy people replace negative thoughts with positive ones and they look for the positive aspects of even the worst situations.  It’s not easy, but every black cloud does have a silver lining if you look hard enough for it!

4.  Utilize powerful positive role models.  Do you have a special Saint, political leader, pro athlete, mentor, or other figure that totally inspires you or your child?  Utilize this person to motivate your ability to be resilient.  When the chips are down, imagine your role model defeating their difficulties and use their inspiration to lift yours or your children’s spirits.  Pictures and quotes around the house are good reminders.  One of my favorites is Mother Teresa.

 5.  Parents can be good role models for children.  If you whine at every little grievance in your day, you will teach your children to do the same.  So hold back your anger at crazy drivers, long lines, or perturbing people because your kids are watching your every move, and learning from you!   Do take the time to role model your positivity toward life even when difficulty arises.  Kids think of you as their hero, so act like one!

6.  Be approachable.  Your kids are not going to want to bring you any problems if you tell them to “get over it”, or if you start lecturing them on “what they should have, or could have done”.  Like any human who has emotions, kids need to be heard.  They need to get emotional baggage out of their system in order to find their resilience.  Sometimes, the best thing a parent can do is provide a heart filled with love and two ears to just listen!

7.  Allow kids to problem solve.  If parents are always providing solutions for their kids, how on earth will they learn to do this for themselves?  The only way kids can be resilient is if they are capable of strategizing their way to the outcomes they desire.  Ask them how they want to solve their own problems and then let them try it out realizing that they may or may not succeed.  This is how kids earn their own experience and wisdom.  Parents… please use your judgment.  Safety First!

8.  Lastly, give your children positive feedback when they handle their problems with resilience.  This is the greatest motivator of all to keep applying this potentially life altering skill.

Lucky is the child who can learn to respond instead of react, to choose positivity instead of misery, and to problem solve instead of stay stuck or use a coin to make life’s most important decisions!  Here’s to resilience!

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