3 Ways the Super Bowl Can Teach Your Students About Adversity

My guess is, you watched Sunday’s game, and witnessed the Denver Broncos winning Super Bowl 50 through a pretty commanding performance. The story in the moment was about Peyton Manning sealing his legacy with a second Super Bowl ring, and defensive powerhouse Von Miller winning the MVP award for both his ability and leadership. Over the hours following the Super Bowl, however, another story emerged. It’s a tale of two Millennials.

A Tale of Two Super Bowl Millennials

In a post-game press conference Cam Newton, the 26 year-old quarterback of the losing Carolina Panthers, spoke about the game. That short conversation, recorded here, was a painful reminder of the need for leaders to take responsibility for their team, even when the fault may not rest completely on their performance. Cam and the Panthers played pretty well, ending the game with more total yards, first downs, and possession time. What really killed them was the stellar performance of the Broncos defense and a string of drive-killing turnovers. What the Panthers needed, in the wake of the loss, was a leader who’d stand up and take responsibility. Not just for the game, but for the future of the team. Instead, there was pouting, complaining, and a bad attitude. Understandable? Yes. Excellent leadership? No.

During the season Cam got lots of flack for celebrating in the end zone after he scored. His response was: If you don’t like me dabbing, then don’t let me score. Well, that’s exactly what Denver did—they didn’t let him score. (In fact, they sacked him seven times.) He was beaten fair and square. So afterward, in the interviews, Cam had no right to sulk. Denver just did what he told them to do if they didn’t want excessive celebration. You can’t have it both ways. Following a game like this, leaders must take the high road—especially when they hate to lose—and lead with their words and responses. Cam is the face of the team. They look to him for leadership, just like Denver does with Peyton Manning. Cam must learn to lead in wins and losses.

At the same time, on the other side of the field, there was another Millennial who had done his part behind the scenes to get his team onto the field. When Peyton Manning missed 6 weeks of the season, due to a foot injury, a young teammate from the practice squad stepped in to help. Rookie Jordan Taylor was on Manning’s speed dial through the recovery process from his injury. At a moments notice, Taylor would come to the practice facility to catch Manning’s throws. According to Taylor, he effectively participated in 2-a-day practices for most of the season. First regular practice, followed by special training with Peyton. Who knows where the Broncos might have ended up if someone wasn’t willing to get Manning back in shape.

The key difference between these two Millennials on either side of the field is attitude in response to adversity. Taylor is a rookie wide receiver who walked on as a free agent from Rice University, where he had a very successful career. Needless to say, his salary is tiny compared to that of Manning or Newton. Cam Newton’s history you already know: Heisman winner and leader of a national championship team at Auburn University.

Responding to Adversity

These two Millennial leaders may represent the types of leaders you may have on your team or in your classroom. Some young people handle adversity well, taking responsibility and leading change. Others feel the weight of failure. They may pout, get angry, or walk out. So what can the Millennials around you learn from the Super Bowl so they can respond well to adversity?

  1. Teach students and teammates that adversity, (even failure), is an opportunity to improve, not feel shame. Imagine how different Newton’s press conference could be if he said, “I plan to work as hard as I can to get us back here again next year.” Cam actually made a statement yesterday: “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser…I am my own person.” I say: “I’m not asking you to enjoy losing. No one does. I am challenging you to be the face of the team and lead them. Don’t pout. Show class.”
  1. Find ways to reward the growth mindset of your students and teammates. Keep the focus on getting better, not on achieving goals that are out of your control. Taylor’s attitude was created by his commitment to improve. He didn’t feel like a failure being on the practice squad because his goal was to improve. Progress, not fame, is the goal. On the other hand, while I love watching Cam Newton play—he must seize this opportunity to grow, emotionally and athletically. Even coach Ron Rivera said, “It’s time for us to learn and grow.”
  1. Meet with your students (or teammates) who’ve experienced failure. Acknowledge that failing is hard, but is a necessary element from which you have to move on. It’s certainly normal for Newton to be mad about the loss, but his mistake came when he took out that loss on the press. As I said, Cam had challenged the Broncos to “not let him in the end zone” and they took him up on it. Time to get better. Remorse or regret should always be accompanied by restoration. Don’t get stuck. Don’t sulk in it.

A couple weeks before the Super Bowl, Taylor, knowing he was about to travel with the team for the first time this season, realized that he didn’t have the required attire, a suit and tie, to ride the plane. He texted Manning asking if he could borrow one of his suits for the trip. Manning responded with an illusive, “I’ll get you set up.” By set up, he meant an appointment with his custom tailor. Taylor boarded the plane to San Francisco looking good and feeling good, having done his part, even from his spot on the practice squad, to contribute to his team’s preparation.

A new suit was a natural response from Manning, having witnessed this Millennial face adversity with such poise and perspective.

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3 Ways the Super Bowl Can Teach Your Students About Adversity