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Lessons Learned from Thanksgiving Olympics

Every Thanksgiving, my extended family gets together in Palm Desert. Our group includes eight adults and eleven cousins from 4 - 17 years old.

For the last few years, I have organized a "Thanksgiving Day Junior Olympics" competition for the kids. This year, 8 of the 11 cousins participated.

The specific events (which are kept secret until game day) test a wide range of physical abilities, athletic skills, and random gameplay. It's an all-day affair (11am to 6pm) with a few breaks for water and snacks.

2016 List of Events

  1. Swim (sprint distance)
  2. Swim (long distance)
  3. Jump from 8-foot ledge into pool, underwater somersault immediately into a 20-foot underwater swim (all on a breath-hold)
  4. Submerge a water polo ball to bottom of pool using only one hand (must tap the bottom of pool with ball 2x)
  5. Plank (minimum 2 minutes, more points for longer endurance)
  6. Billiards
  7. Bean Bag toss
  8. Shuffleboard
  9. Running (sprint, 1x around lake)
  10. Running (long distance, 2x around lake)
  11. Running (40-yard dash uphill)
  12. Head's Up Game
  13. Golf Ball in cup game
  14. Situps in 2 minutes
  15. Horseshoes
  16. Solo lake paddle
  17. Lemon throw at palm tress
  18. Football throw at Adirondack chairs (8 targets)
  19. Frisbee toss
  20. Darts

[Check out photos and videos on Facebook]

Needless to say, with an age range of 7 - 17 years old, it was tough to design a program that leveled the playing field for all participants. I tried to create a mix of events that left room for anyone to have at least one shining moment or two - but there were no guarantees. After 6 long hours of competition, here's a small sampling of what we learned. 

Lessons Learned:

  • No cherry picking: During the morning brief, one participant asked if she could only do the events that she was good at and skip the others.  My answer: "Sorry, no cherry picking - full participation is required, even for things you might not be good at." She decided to bow out and watch from the sidelines. Lesson: In life, don't limit yourself to things that you're good at. Growth comes from seeing your way through hard things and unknown challenges - not repeating what you're good at. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls this a growth mindset.
  • Life isn't fair. Some events were absurdly biased toward stronger participants. It was unrealistic to expect a 7-year old to push a fully inflated water polo ball to the bottom of an 8' pool. Many tried, and failed. Oh, well. We did a running race consisting of 1 lap around the lake. Once everyone was done, much to their surprise, I asked them to do it again - this time 2x. You should have seen their faces. They asked, "You mean, you want us to do that again, but twice?" YupTake you mark, get set... Lesson: Life throws us curveballs. Things don't always go as planned. Life is not always "fair". Yes, I know you're tired and weren't anticipating another run. Work around it!
  • Diversification. We went directly from a football throwing contest to a "Head's Up" charade game. The football throw required strength, flexibility, and accuracy. The "Head's Up" game tested the ability to communicate orally with a partner who tries to guess what you're describing in words and gestures. Lesson: Don't pigeon-hole yourself into being a "math" person who ignores verbal or oral skills (or vice versa).  In today's world, knowing a little bit about a lot of things goes a long way. Be a skill accumulator.
  • Embrace Adversity. Toward the end of the day, the lawn sprinklers went off during the middle of an event. The affected participant hung tough, and finished the event even though the conditions hurt his performance and score. The participant displayed a great attitude during this unfortunate scenario - no complaining, no asking for a do-over, no whining. Lesson: Learning to deal with setbacks, even during a pressure-filled competition, is a critical life skill.
  • Self-Talk. Once a new event was revealed, several participants were caught talking about how bad they thought they would do on the particular event. This was unacceptable. Whenever I heard someone using this self-defeating language, my response was "Stop talking yourself out of it and just try it. If you tell your body that you're not good at darts, your body has no incentive to prove you wrong, and you will, indeed, be no good at darts." Lesson: Our self-talk (what we say in our own heads or aloud) affects our performance. Choose your words wisely.
  • Impact of Social Media and News Outlets. Several times during the event, when things were not going their way, I heard participants muttering the phrase, "This is rigged".  That was disappointing. Unfortunately, with the presidential elections getting so much attention, the phrase "rigged" has now become part of our everyday language. I hope this word loses some of its punch in the coming years. Lesson: Children are listening. They know what's going on. Be sure to have conversations about the power of words and what they communicate.
  • Shared Suffering. As difficult, unfair, rigged, or challenging as these events may have been - the cousins shared this experience "together". No one had an easy time. Everyone had an event (or two or three) that they disliked or performed poorly on. However, by the end of the event, they were all smiles. They appreciated the fact that everyone suffered together - a condition that leads to great bonding. Lesson: When teams, groups, or organizations push through challenges together - they grow closer.


Yes, I love competition, games, sports, and challenges of all kinds. I live for days like this. Not only are they fun, but they teach kids real-world lessons that TV, movies, iPhones, video games, and YouTube videos do not. They get wet, they get dirty, they feel pressure, they win, they lose, they support, they doubt -- they engage in life!

I also love how events like this provide a window into the souls of our children that we don't often get when 90% of our interaction is through a rearview mirror driving to and from dance, ice hockey, band, or debate practice.

I am passionate about challenging kids to do their best under all circumstances - especially tough ones.

As most of us know, the college admissions process can be a tough road - and a long one. It's my life's mission to assist teenagers in preparing for this process. I do this through my online mentoring program called PrepWell Academy. If you share my vision for our children, consider enrolling your son or daughter in this ground-breaking program today!

Prep On,

Author: PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank, etc.

Inside PrepWell Academy, Black teaches students everything they need to know about the college admissions process in a series of expertly-timed, 3-5-minute, weekly training videos starting in 9th grade and continuing through 12th grade [Note: this program can only be joined in 9th or 10th grade]. My specialties include military service academies, ROTC scholarships, Ivy League, and student-athletes.

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