When Chaos is Helpful

Forbes recently published a fascinating story called "You Can Only Win in Sports, or Anywhere Else, if You're Ready for Chaos." It describes how Michael Phelps' coach prepared him in some pretty unconventional ways for Olympic success. The premise is that in the Olympics, all the top competitors have the necessary physical prowess to win. On a good day, any of them are capable of winning a gold medal. Yet when they compete, there's a wide spread of outcomes - pointing to the fact that other factors, specifically mental discipline and psychological resilience, are key determinants of success. 

Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, saw that teaching how to handle uncertainty was a key part of his job. At swim meets, he would deliberately crack Phelps' goggles before the competition, or run late and force Phelps to miss a meal and swim hungry. The aim was to build the mental resilience Phelps would need to win in a high-pressure situation. Not only was this helpful psychologically, but in the 2008 Olympics Phelps' goggles did indeed fill with water during the 200-meter butterfly, and it didn't stop him from winning the gold medal.

Why is this relevant for middle school? To prepare students for success in the real world, you need a school environment that isn't overly routinized, and that isn't cut off from the unpredictability of real-life situations. Instead, we envision a school where learning often happens in real-world settings, through projects and apprenticeships; curriculum is designed around complex problems that may have more than one right answer; faculty are just as interested in developing students' emotional intelligence and resilience as they are in conveying specific academic content.
Ultimately, whether you're Michael Phelps or a middle school student, we all aim to find the sweet spot where we have both high performance capacity (knowing the content cold, practicing skills to a high level) and high psychological capacity (emotional intelligence,  resilience, concentration, self-regulation, and others). Everything we're designing for the school is about balancing those two areas. Phelps needed the world-class physical performance AND extraordinary mental discipline to stay focused and win more gold medals than any swimmer in history. At Millennium, success is when students graduate knowing how to manage their internal state and possessing the academic content and skills to perform well in the outer world. That's a gold medal to us -- and we believe all students have this capacity.