August 14, 2016

Executive Function Lessons from the Rio Olympic Games

Many students ask whether or not the skills they learn in the classroom will actually support them in their future lives or careers. Although some skills may not directly translate into adulthood, most academic lessons prepare students for the kinds of thinking and problem-solving needed to develop solutions to pressing, real-world issues. As we finish the first weeks in August, nothing is more pressing than the 2016 Olympic Games, held in Rio de Janeiro this summer. Leading up to the Games, experts from around the globe weighed-in on Olympics organization and planning, and some experts worried about Rio’s preparedness to host the world’s best athletes. However, no one questions the preparedness of the athletes, who have worked tirelessly, for most of their lives, to achieve their Olympic dreams.

In a recent “Tip of the Week,” we discussed the hope that every athlete brings to their Olympic experience. Although athletes look forward to the summer games with optimism, elaborate planning goes into each and every athlete’s journey to the “world stage,” not just hope. Athletes adhere to regimented schedules, using executive functioning skills to plan out and execute behaviors that will better their performance in competition. Not only athletes, but also host countries and the International Olympics Committee (IOC), develop and execute long-term plans leading up to the Olympic competitions, demonstrating high-stakes, real-life applications of important executive function skills.

The Athletes

Olympic veteran, and three-time gold medalist, Kerri Walsh Jennings returns to the Olympic stage this summer with a new beach volleyball partner. Nonetheless, her pregame routine and commitment to practice remain consistent. In recent interviews, Walsh Jennings explains the way she fuels and cares for her body in order to perform her best. She also details every step she takes to balance her sport with family and other competing interests in her life. She admits, “My biggest stress in life is that I don’t feel like I have enough time,” so time-management skills, for her, are paramount. “I’m all about efficiency,” she says, of both her cross-training exercises and her daily schedule. Using strong self-monitoring skills, she aims to “balance three buckets,” her family, career, and faith. “If I’m ever off-kilter,” she explains, “[I ask myself] which bucket is not being serviced? Then, I go back to the basics.”

Walsh Jennings starts her day early, before her children wake up, to make time for meditation and stillness.To continue her reign as a gold medalist, she plans and organizes her life down to the tiny minutiae, including when and what she eats for breakfast or when she Facetimes her family supporting her at home. As a famous icon for the American team, Walsh Jennings attends press conferences, practices, matches, and more. So, when students at EM learn how to calendar, manage time, monitor progress, and initiate tasks, those skills will some day balance a schedule much like the one Kerri Walsh Jennings builds and follows every day.

michael phelps waves during medal ceremony at rio olympics 2016 201608 1470809949

Likewise, Michael Phelps, the winningest Olympian of all time, balances his life with his sport and uses execution function skills to support his achievements. Although he retired after the London 2012 games, Phelps came out of retirement in 2014 and returned to his Olympic training regimen. Phelps is known widely for his outrageous calorie consumption, which supports his six-hour training sessions in the pool. However, Phelps also emphasizes visualization, rest, recovery, cross-training, balance, and “whatever it takes” to win: “There are reasons why I swam every holiday, every Christmas, every birthday. I was trying to be as prepared as I could, and I tried to see what I could really do and what my potential was.” Day in and day out, Phelps demonstrates strong goal-setting abilities, task initiation, follow-through, and self-monitoring, since he always checks in with his own progress and potential as he seeks out his next achievement.

At 31 years old, Phelps admits that he has had to make adjustments to his schedule to maintain his world-class endurance. This year, Phelps is competing in so many events that, in some cases, he has as few as 40 minutes between his races: “The stacked schedule is a testament not only to Phelps’ extraordinary physical gifts, but also his remarkable commitment to an intense, demanding training regimen.”Most importantly, Phelps has trained flexibly, understanding that he needs to change his routine for his ever-changing body and mind: “Phelps’ training sessions don’t last quite as long as they used to — more like two to four hours per day instead of five to seven — because he’s taking more time to rest and recover. Learning how to manage your body is a crucial aspect to getting older, and while Phelps is as committed to his training as ever, that means working smart, too.” Students can take a page from Phelps’ book by learning to flexibly adjust their own schedules, incorporate breaks, and therefore produce their best results across a variety of circumstances.

The Administration

Although Rio’s athletes demonstrate the successes of strong executive function skills in the real world, the Olympic administration highlights the detrimental effects of weak executive function strategies. In light of the summer Games, Rio de Janeiro faces economic collapse, revealing just how crucial it is for the IOC and host countries to develop and use strong planning abilities. Before the Olympics had even begun, Rio de Janeiro’s governor, Francisco Dornelles, declared a “state of financial emergency,” discovering that he did not have room in the city’s budget to maintain “public security, health, education, transport and environmental management” while paying for the Olympic stadium, athlete housing, security, opening performances, and more. Dornelles begged Brazil’s federal government for help in order to avoid “financial calamity,” meaning that Brazil as a whole will suffer at the hands of the Olympic expenses.

With the Olympics underway, Brazil has entered one of the worst recessions since the 1930’s and, in such circumstances, has been unable to manage mounting problems both for its citizens and for visiting athletes. An outbreak of the Zika virus and the polluted waters in Guanabara Bay both jeopardize the health of citizens and competitors. However, Rio’s environmental and health initiatives were not executed in time for Olympians’ arrival, putting everyone competing in danger. Construction for the Olympic arenas themselves also remains unfinished, and hundreds of Brazilian families were evicted in order to make space to build.  All of these outcomes, unfortunately, result from improper budgeting, unforeseen variables, and unattainable plans. Although students rarely face such drastic outcomes, it is important to acknowledge how serious planning, budgeting, decision-making, and more can be in practical application.

Lessons Learned

Although it can be difficult to understand the far-reaching consequences of planning skills as a student, the 2016 Summer Olympics paint a clear picture of both inspiring positive outcomes and alarming negative outcomes. Executive functioning skills truly are life skills that can either support or hinder projects small and large. With a strong plan, one that has been thoughtfully organized, plotted, and followed, hardships like those taking place in Brazil can be readily avoided and gold medals can be won. With a strong academic plan, students can practice the thinking and work ethic that may someday make a positive impact in the real world.