Determination: Back to the Basics

I think I can! I think I can! I think I can!

This familiar phrase was made famous by Watty Piper’s well-known children’s book The Little Engine that Could.  In the story, the little engine must overcome a challenge; she has a long train of cars and cannot carry them up and over a big hill.  After looking for help, she finds it in another little steam engine.  With the help of her new engine friend, the little engine persists and carries her long train up and over the big hill. Chanting “I think I can” over and over again, the two are determined to succeed and, after successfully completing the task, exclaim “I thought I could! I thought I could! I thought I could!”

What can this familiar story tell us?  The power of determination and positive thinking. 

I was recently teaching a Kid Fitness circuit class at my local gym and found myself relying on this story to teach an important lesson.  I start all of my classes (at KidFit Academy and beyond) with a purpose and intention—something everyone is individually and collectively working towards throughout our time together.  The focus of this class? Determination.

I opened, as always, with a quick guiding question: What is determination?  I was faced with blank stares.  A young group, this was not surprising.  So I changed my strategy, quickly thinking of The Little Engine that Could.  As a group, we discussed the story and some key takeaways.  I then revealed that THIS was determination—working hard to accomplish something and not giving up when faced with challenges.  The light bulbs flashed as students got it! 

The story not only teaches determination in an all-age friendly way, it also teaches the power of thinking positively.  By expressing confidence, the little engine uses positive affirmation (I think I can!) to help her accomplish her goal (pull cars up and over hill) and to celebrate her accomplishment (I thought I could). 

However, I would challenge the little engine to celebrate the work along with the outcome (i.e. have a growth mindset).  We live in a world filled with failure.  And children should learn that hard work may lead to something they define as “failure” and that is okay. Increasingly, failure is being celebrated as an opportunity for growth but we still have a long way to go before people feel comfortable failing.  Therefore, as good as this story is to teach determination, I would argue that we—educators, parents, mentors, society in general—need to better prepare the next generation for the world they will inevitably encounter, failure and all.  There is obviously a fine balance that must be carefully considered. However, I urge us all to keep searching for improved ways to teach determination, along with other important life skills.

Determination does not necessarily bring the expected outcome; however, the effort and practice of being determined to overcome obstacles in a real and meaningful way always equals success.  Let’s teach our children the power of determination for determination’s sake.



Nurturing Self-Confidence

Less than a week away from running the Napa Valley marathon, I need a good, healthy dose of self-confidence.  Without it, I know that it will be neither enjoyable nor successful.  

Mental preparation is crucial in endurance events (and life).  Flashback 4 years to Chicago.  Running a marathon in my hometown surrounded by friends and family fresh off of a Boston Qualifier finish months prior, I should have been ready.  It was a fast, flat course, after all!  However, the marathon ended up not only being my worst time-wise but also “feeling-wise.” In short, my mental state was underprepared.  My training had been rough—sickness, injuries, and an incredibly demanding work schedule took its toll.  Even though my body was arguably ready, my mind was not.  And I suffered the consequences.  I finished the race, but it was a fight every step of the way; I was miserable.  For someone who smiles through races and completes marathons because I truly enjoy them, this was bad.  That experience re-taught me something I already knew: Mental capacity, especially confidence, must be carefully trained with the body.

Mental preparation is generally underrepresented in training and fitness plans for “regular” people.  Professional athletes performing at the highest levels spend a significant amount of time mentally preparing for big events, using visualization and other techniques.  For the recreational athlete, however, this is generally not a focal point of training.   However, I know from experience (think: Chicago) that if my mind is not prepared for a race, it will not be enjoyable and likely unsuccessful. So what gives?  How can people avoid this painful fate? 

Build confidence.

All athletes, from professional to student to recreational—benefit from building TRUE self-confidence beyond the “You can do it” mantra.  This is especially important when developing fitness in young athletes.  Building meaningful confidence at a young age not only helps in fitness but also in life; confidence inevitably pours into other aspects of a person’s life, helping create a well-rounded, happy, and productive human being. 

Following are 3 starting points to begin building meaningful self-confidence in oneself and others, acting as a framework on which to build positive habits.  

#1: Change the language. Get specific.

Avoid “you can do it” and other vague language. It is SO easy to fall into this pattern because it is easy and usually comes from a very well-intentioned place.  However, this kind of praise can be detrimental, doing more harm than good.  Instead of saying “You can do it,” get specific.  Depending on the audience, humor can also be extremely effective.  Below are some examples of some specific, motivational phrases.  Many point to prior accomplishments in order to build confidence based on past success.  Having a “buzz” word representing a larger concept established beforehand is also a reassuring (and quick) way to motivate someone mid-pursuit.

  • Think of that hill repeat workout! Remember how exhausted you were? You dug deep and made it. Channel THAT!
  • Remember the 14 miler that almost brought you to tears? You did not give up then, so don’t now.
  • 6 months of training have prepared you for this moment! 
  • Think GRIT!  [potential buzz word]
  • FOCUS on your goal [or state actual goal]

#2: Clearly define the purpose.

Creating purpose matters.  By having a larger purpose behind every workout, motivation increases and confidence has room to better develop. Every class/workout should have a clearly defined purpose with both short- and long-term goals in mind.  With greater understanding of the WHY, children and adults alike will better understand HOW they can achieve and track their progress.  In turn, they are more likely to have confidence in what they are doing because they understand the reasoning (short- and long-term) behind the actions.  Athletes and students of all ages appreciate the transparency of a clearly defined purpose.


  • (Vague): Run for 30 minutes today to prepare for the 5k race.
  • (Clearly defined): Today’s skill is STAMINA, focusing on pushing through the “wall” of self-doubt.  Run 5 minutes easy and 5 minutes at 80% effort (fast pace) for 30 minutes.  These intervals help build the stamina needed to pick up the pace when you are tired toward the end of the upcoming 5k race.

#3: Celebrate the effort!

Celebrating success is a well-known and largely used technique in athletics, academics, and life.  However, the goal should not be to simply celebrate the end accomplishment but rather the effort along the way.  By praising and celebrating the effort (despite the outcome), children begin to see the value in the work and understand how it can help them be successful.  Psychology shows the importance of developing a growth mindset, focusing on praising the specific effort. As a general rule, the more specific, the better.  Give kids a safe space to push themselves harder than they ever imagined, celebrating their efforts along the way.  In time, this will not only build confidence but also important character traits such as perseverance and determination.


Confidence is crucial and can be developed and increased over time.  Parents, coaches, and educators of young athletes have an opportunity to develop healthy, meaningful self-confidence through the use of fitness-related goals and pursuits.   

Focus: Fighting Distractions and Looking Within

Sitting at a crowded coffee shop writing this post, I am surrounded by distractions.  My own workspace is covered in technology enticing me to explore its welcoming interfaces.  My personal distractions, combined with the music in the background, surrounding conversations, fascinating human interactions, and cars/people passing outside, vie for my attention. Looking around, everyone seems to be in the same position.  Distraction is literally a click away, if not closer.   It a wonder anyone can get anything done.  However, I find this kind of environment invigorating and well-suited for writing and thinking.  How?  Because I am constantly working on focus. 


This simple five-letter word can be heard everywhere from athletic events to classrooms to people walking down the street.  It is used so often that it often loses its power.  The ability to truly focus, despite the distractions and challenges constantly present, is a crucial skill to grow.  Although easily understood, it is incredibly challenging to remain focused on a given task.  With the threat of shortening attention spans across all generations, focus becomes even more important.

So, how does one develop greater focus?  The short answer: Listen and Learn. 

First of all, focus is not something that develops overnight.  It is something that needs to be developed and nurtured over time.  Without practice and fierce determination, true focus is hardly ever achieved. 

Second, triggers for focus (and distraction) are different for everyone.  There is no “one size fits all” method of learning what builds focus.  Therefore, it is essential for people to listen to themselves and learn what works.  Maybe it is setting aside specific times for distractions or hiding the distractions altogether.  Whatever it is, it is important to be honest with oneself in order to understand what works and go with it. In other words, listen and learn. 

 Obviously, in a school setting, this becomes more challenging as every child is different.  As a result, teachers must create an environment flexible enough to be conducive to every child’s style.  Given the physical constraints of many classrooms, it becomes even more challenging.  However, it is not insurmountable.  By explicitly teaching and practicing focus with students, teachers will see results.  Using guided reflection is a great way to start this process. Then, teachers must build students’ toolboxes, providing examples of coping mechanisms when they find themselves in situations that are distracting.  By turning within, students can learn to focus despite what is going on around them—a skill crucial to a society filled with distractions.  Sure, it would be great if everyone had an environment that was conducive to their particular style; however wonderful this sounds, though, it is not practical.  Learning how to combat distractions and truly focus is a skill that will serve students (of all ages) in their academic, emotional, and physical lives.   

Healthy Snack Alert: Apple Chips!


Looking for an easy, delicious, healthy snack recipe?  Look no further!  These apple chips are incredibly easy to make and are perfect for an afternoon snack. They are crunchy and sweet–the perfect little treat!


  • 2-3 apples (or more depending on how many you want)
  • Cinnamon


  1. Preheat over to 225.
  2. Prepare several baking sheets covered in parchment paper.
  3. Slice apples thin (using a mandolin works best).
  4. Place apples on baking sheets, being sure that they don’t overlap.
  5. Sprinkle with cinnamon.
  6. Bake for 1.5 to 2 hours, flipping halfway. (depends on oven so check periodically so they don’t burn)
  7. Enjoy!


The Power of Grit: Journeying through the Mud

“What matters… is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.”

-Paul Tough,  How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character


Character matters. It is often the thing that separates those that succeed and those that do not. People may have all of the technical skills in the world, but if they do not have the determination and work ethic to accompany those skills, they are often out of luck.

There has been a lot of buzz recently about “grit.” The word can be found in books (such as Paul Tough’s quoted above), articles, blog posts, and countless school and classroom walls. However, I find that it is often misunderstood and difficult for children to grasp.  Unless explicitly taught, children often do not quite understand grit and how to use it in their everyday lives; however, on the other hand, children encounter the power of grit on a daily basis.  By helping children understand the power of grit, educators are able to harness and hone a skill/character trait increasingly important in modern society.

Whenever I teach grit, I always start with an image, helping students feel what grit is done to their core.

Imagine yourself running through a pit of mud.  You see something that you really want at the end of pit—sneakers, a friend, the finish line—and you are giving everything you got to get through the mud.  But it is hard and gets harder with every step as you immerse yourself deeper in the mud.  But you will not be stopped! You reach deep inside of you and gather the strength—physical and emotional—to reach the other side.  Despite the excruciating challenge, you make it.  That is grit.

Although similar in nature, grit is different from its close relative determination.  Grit requires more action, more gut-wrenching perseverance, and not being afraid to get dirty to get things done.  It is not glamorous and the rewards may not be realized right away.  But it matters. 

Grit is often the characteristic that separates the good from the great from the exceptional—in academics, athletics, and life.