I went for a run the other day late on a hot afternoon after returning from several days away working with schools. I knew it wouldn’t be an easy run for me, but I knew that I needed the run to get my head clear and so that I’d be ready to go the next day. While out for the run my mind was running much faster than my legs: most of my thoughts were basically mental whining on my part about how tired I was, how hot it was, and how old was, and about why in heck I ate those chips at lunch, etc., etc., Amid the sweat and tears (starting to make a pretty pathetic run seem glorious, aren’t I?) I recovered an idea about our notion of performance character that was relevant on that run, and I think relevant to those we teach and coach: performance character isn’t simply about giving 100% all the time, because when it comes to giving our best effort in pursuit of excellence, we’re often drawing upon energy for excellence reserves that are much less than 100%.
We define performance character as the “character needed for excellence in any area of endeavor”. We’re talking about putting values in action such as grit, perseverance, work ethic, positive attitude. These “willing values” are what we need on a day and in a moment like I described above when you must do what you don’t want to do when you don’t want to do it. Performance is the outcome–the grade, the test score, the final scoreboard. It’s important, but doesn’t tell us if you have “performance character” those qualities needed to maximize your potential for excellence. (You can win by 40 and not ever draw upon your performance character, right?).
We first “rediscovered” the idea of performance character (rediscover since the character connection to excellence certainly preexisted our work, the field of character education was just predominantly focused on moral character) in our work with sports and character. Coaches talked a lot about the character needed for success in sport, the character that enabled a team or individual to “outperform their resources.” The idea of performance character has proven a sticky one that resonates deeply with those in all walks of life. It’s easy to see the importance of performance character; it obvious that our work as teachers and coaches is next to impossible if those we are working with will not continue giving effort, persevering through difficulty, or striving to maximize their potential for excellence.
The more I work on the development of performance character with teachers and coaches and with myself, the more convinced I am that the test of performance character is precisely when we don’t have 100% to give. I’ve done plenty of runs when I was well rested, had good nutrition, when it was perfect temperature outside (although in my current sleep-deprived, hectic life, here in Upstate New York, I don’t see many those perfect days!). Heck it’s easy to give it your all on those days. That’s the point: performance character isn’t a sometimes ideal that we go after as if we’re trying to plan the perfect moment to summit a mountain. It’s an all the time struggle to do the best we can given the circumstances and what we’ve got to offer.
Developing performance character means that we find really good Public Performance opportunities to work out our performance character muscles (this can be that last lap when you’re tired and you just want to go home; or it can be one more draft on a paragraph that you’ve revised 25 times, but still isn’t clicking). I wouldn’t have likely worked out my performance character muscles if I hadn’t been out running—putting my weakness and humanity on display for all to see. Sport gives us plenty of Public Performance/Presentation, which is good. But the glorious moments of “the game” often require less performance character than the inglorious moments of practice. Bottom line: we need opportunities for Public Performance/Presentation to draw out our inner reserves.
Developing performance character requires utilizing Self-Study to monitor how we react or respond when “we’re in the red.” What do you do when you’re tired, frustrated, hurting and think you can’t do it anymore? Do you simply quit. Do you lash out at others? Do you beat yourself up? Can you find little ways to keep yourself moving forward through the pain to your goal? It’s a scary feeling to get in that uncomfortable spot in your mind when you just want out; if you can stay there, study it and maybe understand it; you’ll discover a limitless power source.
Developing performance character also requires use of good Other-Study examples, and here the obvious ones aren’t always the best. I love Hoosiers and much as the next guy, but that’s a pretty view of performance character, when in reality it’s much, much, more gritty. Use Other-Studies that draw out the gritty, difficult, but absolutely essential elements of giving 100% in a moment where all you’ve got to draw upon is 75, or 50, or 25% of your normal reserves. Everybody loves the “pull it out at the end against all odds in front of the sold out stadium story.” We have to draw more attention and teach from the “pull it out on a Tuesday afternoon when you’re tired and distracted by other things and you still stuck with it even though nobody would know if you didn’t story.” (And if we want to connect to the real world, we should study the performance character needed by the worker who gets up every day at 5AM and does their work well day after day after day; or, study the performance character needed to be a single parent juggling life at home and work. Which is often nothing like the glory of sport whatsoever, but very much like the inglorious preparation required for sport).
Finally, developing performance character requires Support & Challenge. Don’t simplify performance character to a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” hero complex. I’m sure that if I’d had a running partner out there with me on my run, I would have been able to get out of my own self-pity and pulled it out. I would have drawn energy from their example and gotten more out of myself simply by keeping up with them. Performance character isn’t just about personal reserves; it’s about surrounding yourself with others who know how to support and challenge you to get the most out of what you have to offer on any given day, in any given circumstances. In fact, the “so what” of this story may well be that the way to routinely outperform your available resources is seeking out the Support & Challenge of good coaches and teammates capable of helping get more out of yourself than you believed you have.
Performance character: the character needed to outperform our resources. Is it in you and your team?