Olympic February is here. But if you think you can just pop the corn, stack the firewood, lay in the comforters and become a world-class couch potato, think again. The Olympic games aren't just entertainment or sport -- they're an opportunity to learn and teach.
Oh, you probably won't learn to figure skate on your couch and your daughter won't perfect her slalom sprawled out in a beanbag. But the games promise many "teachable moments" -- times when the student is eager to learn, even though he or she doesn't know it.
As the world oohs and aahs at skiers lofting through the French Alps and skaters gliding across crystal ice in Albertville, parents will have many chances -- during 116 hours of network coverage between Feb. 8 and 23 -- to talk about competition, cooperation, persistence and courage.
And that's just for starters.
There will be time to talk about winning and losing and how hard work -- and luck -- have a lot to do with both. There also will be plenty of lessons in geography, history and the cultures of the world.
So don't get too comfy. You've got work to do.
Learning from watching
"Children learn best by modeling, by watching and aspiring to [emulate] others," says Jerry May, a clinical psychologist at the School of Medicine at the University of Nevada at Reno. During the Olympics, youngsters will find many role models, he says.
"The people who reach the Olympic level are exceptional people. These athletes have a special ability," says Dr. May, who has worked with Olympic athletes for 15 years and will be the team psychologist for the American athletes at the summer games in Barcelona.
The athletes are motivated, he says, "by the love of achievement, by the love of mastering something." It is these forces that other young people can put to work in their own lives, and not necessarily in athletics.
The important skills that help athletes get to the Olympics -- hard work, courage, persistence -- "can cross over to whatever you do," says Sandra Calvert, a child psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University in Washington.
If your child stammered his way through his last class presentation, suggest that he practice more for the next one so that his public speaking skills become as second-nature to him as skating backward is to Brian Boitano. And, of course, offer to listen and to coach him.
Because their failings are often quite obvious, she adds, the Olympic ice skaters teach perhaps one of the most universal lessons: "Never give up. Get up and keep going. They show a tremendous amount of courage and determination."
There are two other lessons among all that glitter, she suggests:
*"Even the very best . . . make mistakes."
*"Always do your best. That is a powerful message to send in any arena."
Winning and losing
Although being the best is what the Olympics are about and the media often flaunt the winners to the exclusion of others, parents can use the games to teach about winning and losing -- in athletics and in life.
"The majority of the competitors are not going to win," says Deborah Feltz, a sports psychologist and member of the Youth Sports Institute at Michigan State University at East Lansing. "Just because someone lost does not mean he was a failure," she says, adding that winning and losing should not be equated with success and failure.
"An individual who puts out maximum effort to achieve the goals he sets" is a success, Ms. Feltz says. A failure is someone who does not achieve his goals because he did not put out maximum effort -- not because someone was better or high winds blew him off the ski slope.
"The people who win have a lot more going for them besides their own abilities," she says.
Dr. May says the Olympics definitely teach people -- participants and spectators -- how to win and how to fail. "Failure is a reality of life. Nobody succeeds unless he has learned how to fail . . . and how to bounce back."
Competition is inherent in the Olympics, but "I talk about cooperative competitiveness," says Dr. May, who was the team psychologist for the U.S. Alpine skiers for 12 years. When a U.S. skier finishes his run, he will go to a radio hookup and advise his teammates on the slope about course conditions. "That's cooperative competition," Dr. May says.
He adds that this cooperation, plus camaraderie among athletes, can dispel some of the "us vs. them" feeling that can surround the games. Dr. May, in fact, shies from the idea of one country "beating" another and talks instead of the Olympics' "positive mission" of bringing not only this country, but also the world, together to celebrate excellence.
The Olympics are also filled with mental skills that are applicable to youngsters' everyday lives. "You have to have very good attention skills; you need to be able to concentrate; you need to be able to handle pressure extremely well, to be in control of your emotions, to follow directions," says Ms. Calvert.