Reflections on Gifted Education from the Olympics: What can we learn

As I replayed in my head the accounts of various athletes’ journeys to Rio, I reflected on the parallels between elite-level athletics and gifted education, and I thought how much we could learn about developing exceptional ability from what we saw during those two weeks.

The games of the thirty-first Olympiad are over. Maybe now I will be able to catch up on my sleep! For two weeks I stayed up way too late, spellbound by the competition between the world’s greatest athletes. I loved the world records, the close finishes, the upsets, the rivalries, and the camaraderie. I loved the emotion. But even more than these, I loved the stories—stories of athletes who excelled against the odds, who came back to compete after everyone said they were too old, who sacrificed so much to be Olympians. The stories of individual athletes kept me awake even after I was finally able to turn off the TV. As I replayed in my head the accounts of various athletes’ journeys to Rio, I reflected on the parallels between elite-level athletics and gifted education, and I thought how much we could learn about developing exceptional ability from what we saw during those two weeks.

Let’s consider just two of the athletes who delighted us during the games—Simone Biles, now the most decorated American gymnast in history, and Michelle Carter, American record holder and gold medalist in the shot put. At first glance, could two women be any more different? Biles, a sprite who can fly, and Carter, a powerful woman who challenges our stereotypes of athleticism and femininity. Different physical gifts, different paths to greatness. What can we learn from Simone Biles and Michelle Carter?

Lesson #1: The field of gifted education must focus on recognizing and serving a broader range of gifted students with a wider array of program models and services. Attention to giftedness and gifted education has historically been directed at elevated intellectual abilities and a limited range of manifestations of those abilities—often only the logical-mathematical and verbal-linguistic abilities associated with what has been called “schoolhouse giftedness.” Our increasingly complex understanding of extraordinary human potential (i.e., giftedness as a multifaceted phenomenon) requires us to honor a more diverse range of abilities in our identification and programming practices. Yes, we should identify and serve our gifted readers, writers, mathematicians, and scientists; but we also have an obligation to expand our services to children and youth who demonstrate their giftedness in creative productivity, leadership, the arts, and other valued domains.

The daughter of drug and alcohol addicts, Biles was in and out of foster care until she was taken in at the age of three by her grandparents, who described her as a hyperactive child. Parental substance abuse, early disruption in primary caregiving, hyperactivity: These are factors associated with vulnerable populations. It is also easy to imagine Carter, who already exhibited a larger-than-average frame in adolescence, falling prey to a number of social-emotional problems related to negative body image—withdrawal, anxiety, depression, eating disorders. Yet something helped transform Simone and Michelle from children who might have been labeled “at risk” into individuals who were seen instead as “at promise.” Part of it, obviously, was their extraordinary physical talent. But there was more.

Lesson #2: All students benefit when educators take a “proficiency view” of their abilities and behavior, focusing first on their strengths, their interests, and what they do well. Gymnastics became the vehicle through which Simone found success; in that realm, her diminutive size and high level of energy were assets. What might have happened if, instead of encouraging her physical talent and passion, Simone’s adoptive mother had insisted that she sit down and be still? Similarly, because Michelle Carter’s father and a junior high school coach recognized her potential for greatness in field events requiring size and strength—and because they encouraged her to be herself— she came to understand the power of E. Paul Torrance’s advice to gifted children: “Know, understand, take pride in, practice, develop, exploit, and enjoy your greatest strengths.” High-quality gifted education programs focus on individual strengths and interests. Even when children need remedial instruction, it is most effective when based on their strengths and interests. We need to be more skillful at tying the things students already love and can do well to the things we’ve been charged with teaching them.

Lesson #3: Parents play an important role in developing children's giftedness and productivity. Michael Carter, a former Olympic shot putter himself, knew the path to elite performance in track and field and provided much of Michelle’s coaching. But in time, she was also coached by high school, college, and Olympic-level shot put specialists. Simone’s parents provided constant support as she worked with many coaches throughout her rise in the world of elite gymnastics. As they expand to provide a variety of supports to help diverse gifted individuals achieve their potential, gifted education programs must model this kind of collaborative partnership between parents, schools, universities, mentors, and resources at the local, state, and national levels.

In combination, the lessons learned from the life stories of these two gold medal athletes reminded me of how important it is to embrace a comprehensive talent development model in gifted education. The stages through which Simone Biles, Michelle Carter, and all the other Olympians developed the psychosocial skills needed to compete at the highest level are identical to those we should provide for gifted children and youth. First they must be given exposure to various talent domains through enrichment programs that unearth talent and potential and ignite passion for future possibilities. This is particularly important for young people whose families are unable to provide a variety of enrichment experiences.

Those children who demonstrate interest and strength in a domain must then be given opportunities to learn more. (Simone Biles visited a gymnastics center with her daycare group. Recognizing her enthusiasm and natural talent, the coaches at the center invited her to take classes.) Finally, because it requires time—and increasingly specialized learning opportunities—for giftedness to develop from potential to competency to expertise and distinction, high-ability children must be supported as they invest the effort it takes to fulfill their potential for achievement and personal satisfaction. (Rio was Carter’s third Olympics; she finished fifteenth in Beijing and fourth in London. She invested fifteen years of training to achieve Olympic gold. The learning experiences and competitive opportunities changed over time to match her stages of development.)

These stages were captured precisely by NBC and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Gold Map program: exposure and inspiration, increasingly specialized instruction as domain-specific interests and talents emerge and coalesce, and a long-term plan of guidance and experiences for those who show the motivation to aim ever higher. On the Gold Map website, aspiring Olympians can watch videos of athletes in all Olympic sports and, from the linked websites for each sports’ national governing bodies, learn how to find support, training, and competition in their local areas. The program is an intentional, strategic effort to create a large talent pool of potential Olympic athletes. Shouldn’t we be doing exactly the same thing for our gifted “intelletes,” aspiring artists, musicians, creative problem solvers, and leaders? I think so!

Dr. Sally Krisel, director of Innovative and Advanced Programs for Hall County Schools in Gainesville, Georgia, is president-elect of the NAGC Board of Directors.

Editor's note: This is part of a series of blog posts that is collaboratively published every week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and National Association for Gifted Children. Each post in the series exists both here on The NAGC Blog and the Fordham's Flypaper.