Education · Local · Nature-Based Learning · Through the Power of Sport

Pat Summit: A Model for Grit and Resiliency

Girls of Summer Climbing Big Rocks, Mountains, and Ideas

When I heard about the passing of legendary great Pat Summit, the most winningest coach  in the history of the NCAA, I reflected first on her courage as a human being thwarted by a devastating illness;  I obviously did not know her on a personal level, but I remember watching and learning from her tenacity on the court as a coach, along with the  power she wielded as a leader in the years I was growing up as an athlete.  She played on the 1976 Olympic team and coached it only eight years later.  Her players rallied around her in life and even surrounded her as family as her illness progressed.  Robin Roberts of Good Morning America shared this morning about the way  Summit coached them, both on and off the court, demanding and pushing and encouraging, pulling and prodding, to get only the best effort from her athletes.  And those Lady Vols of the University of Tennessee were often the very best in the country with a 100% graduation rate, not easy to come by in any of the decades she saw in her coaching career.  Furthermore, Summit helped her players understand how to develop their true grit and aptitude for resiliency.

Over the past year, I’ve read a number of articles talking about this concept of GRIT being one of the qualifying characteristics of successful people; only 100 years ago, this didn’t matter because everyone had grit in some form, or people simply did not survive.  And so today, in honor of Pat Summit, and other women in outdoor leadership roles we learned about at last week’s Girls of Summer field trip to the Museum of the White Mountains, we wrote about what it means to have and recognize and develop our own sense of grit and resiliency.  We discussed the helicopter parent vs. the hummingbird parent– those who forever hover and those who only swoop in when safety or survival is at risk.  Some girls thought long and hard before writing a word down to describe true grit; others hardly hesitated, like Cassidy Santos, who will be a senior next year and one day hike the AT, and said, “I like to think about grit as the strength to endure.” Pat Summit certainly had the strength to endure, and she shared that with countless generations of young women and men who watched her own professional career end too soon due to personal adversity.  Yet, she openly talked about the struggles and challenges that lay ahead for her when first diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s and her need to battle those horrific diseases in the same way she coached basketball: gracefully, confidently, and strategically.

After discussing Pat Summit career highs and personal attributes, we also today talked in the woods about my new 3 month trial period as a blog contributor for the Reeve Foundation.  “You girls know,” I said, “about Christopher Reeve, right” more as a statement than a question.  But then, the quizzical looks, darting glances of the 15 middle and high school students showed me they indeed did not know about Christopher Reeve.  I explained how he was the original Superman, tall, dark, and handsome– and had a horrific spinal cord injury while in a horse back riding accident many years ago.  But that when we examine the equation of risk vs. reward, he would not have been the kind of person to regret ever having gone horse back riding to begin with, despite this kind of complex disability, which ultimately ended his life due to health complications related to infected pressure sores.   His wife, Dana, who perhaps had even more grit than Superman, stood by her husband, helping to develop the charitable foundation in their name to research cures and treatments for paralysis due to spinal cord injuries and other neurological disorders.    Talk about resiliency, Dana ultimately lost her life at only 44 years of age, only 17 months after her husband’s death, due to lung cancer.  Talk about resiliency, their son Will, orphaned at only 13, goes on to live his life and not curl up on couch for the rest of his life, despite overwhelming tragedy.

We connect all of this talk about grit and resiliency with how nature models this for us– about how cool it is when trees grow out of giant rocks and how flowers survive alpine temperatures and gusty winds.  We watch how rushing water makes the stones smooth and beautiful, but they are still rocks at their foundation, hard, strong, and full of years’ worth of adversity.  Richard Louv in Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life discusses how “back in the day” every kid climbed trees.  This is how we as children developed our core strength, how we built our arm muscles and finger grip, and, yes, even our individual grit through problem solving and independence.   Sure, climbing a tree even only 15 feet up is risky; just as walking on the rocks across a river bed could certainly cause an injury, but leaders like Pat Summit would have encouraged the crossing and the climbing because they make us better thinkers and stronger humans.  Using our brains and bodies together makes for a whole lot of innovation, which is just one reason I love to hike and write with our Girls of Summer.  Even Superman himself would still have ridden horses, because we can’t live in fear of what could happen if we fall.  We can assess the potential risk and be safe and be brave.  Thank you, Pat, for modeling for those little boys and girls of the 1980s, and the bigger boys and girls of the 90s and beyond about the power of resiliency and true grit; hoops in heaven will be a whole new game with a  new coach in town.  Girls of Summer, thanks for filling up our hikes in the woods with great ideas and a whole lot of grit of your own.


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