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Nelson Mandela Wasn't the Sportiest Kid at School (and Why Our Kids Should Know It)

By Lucy Singer, Founder and Editorial Director, HistoriCool magazine

One year after Nelson Mandela, one of the most influential global icons of our time, passed away at the age of 95, Canadian ice hockey star, Jonathan Bernier, paid his respects at a gala held in honor of the late leader.

Well obviously growing up, he's one of the most known athletes in the world. A lot of impact in any kind of sport that he did, and even playing hockey, everyone knows him, right? From being the type of person that he was off the ice and on the ice. It's unfortunate that he passed a year ago, but, he changed a lot while he was with us, and he's a tremendous guy.

I think Mandela spent a little more time off the ice than on it, but hey, that's just me.

But while Bernier was hopelessly mistaken about the person he was honoring, his gaffe brings about an interesting point.

Nelson Mandela was not, obviously, an ice-hockey champion. In fact, while he was passionate about sport as a vehicle to harmoniously bring opposing parties together, he himself was not a particularly remarkable sportsman (although he participated enthusiastically) and he certainly wasn't the sportiest in his class.

Likewise, Galileo was likely not the most popular kid at his school, and Cleopatra probably wasn't on the academic honor roll.

These well-known (we can be sure that Bernier is absolutely aware of Mandela's true legacy now!) historic figures achieved great things in their lifetimes, however they were not born any differently to you or I, or importantly, our children.

Studies have shown that children who exhibit perfectionist attitudes are hindered in their ability to attain their goals and shape their future. These same children often deal with issues such as low self-esteem and anxiety.

When a student aims to be on the top of the podium, the class and the social ladder simultaneously, the fear of slipping at even just one of these tiers will deeply affect their potential to achieve at another.

I believe that the best way to teach kids that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things is by letting them discover the stories of those that have done it before them.

Tell me one great person in history that 'had it all'. Guess what? That person doesn't exist. And that is why I believe that researching the lives of those who shaped our past is one of the most impactful ways that we can help children to shape their future.

Nelson Mandela was the first person in his family to attend school; both of his parents were illiterate. During his years in education, he developed a love for history, as many leaders do, and steadily maintained his social, academic and sporting commitments between taking time to garden. He was your average young adult (except, maybe, for the gardening!)

He was not the best at anything. He was simply a man whose passions aligned with his personal strengths. And over the next many years of his life, he continued to be an ordinary man, just one who achieved extraordinary things.

Learning the stories of people like Nelson Mandela should trigger the realisation in our children, particularly those who suffer from low self-confidence or an undeniable perfectionist streak, that by being in the middle of the pack, by being perfectly ordinary, is in no way an interference to achieving greatness, even the sort of greatness that we will remember for generations to come.

You don't have to look too far to find the stories of historical figures that will help in conveying this message. These come to my mind immediately:

People who failed at first

•  Thomas Edison (who tried more than 1000 times before he finally invented the light bulb)

•  Walt Disney (who was repeatedly fired and unsuccessful in starting his own businesses, until one just worked)

•  Winston Churchill (who lost his first parliamentary election)

People who came from places of extreme adversity

•  Louis Braille (who was blinded at age three and who's invention continues to help millions)

•  Helen Keller (who lost her ability to see and hear before her second birthday)

•  MalalaYousafzai (who, as a female, was banned by the Taliban from attending school)

People who didn't finish school

•  Benjamin Franklin (who left at age 10 due when his family could not afford to keep sending him)

•  Princess Diana (who too dropped out at 16 and was regarded as "academically below-average"

Each of these figures had a particular passion, which drove them to do great things, academic, social and physical capabilities aside.

If you have a child or a student that has a fear of failing, or a belief that to achieve extraordinary things they must be extraordinarily adept at everything, I recommend you ask them to picture Nelson Mandela on ice skates. And, more importantly, help them to discover some of the figures above and encourage them to recognise their passions.


HistoriCool provides parents and teachers with a resource to do just this in a fun and engaging format. Check it out today at www.historicool.com.au and start your kids on a journey to achievement.

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Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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