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Athletes Teaching Resilience – Q&A with Greg Zuckerman

Greg Zuckerman has been writing for The Wall Street Journal for 20 years, but he recently turned to a new subject matter for his book Rising Above: How 11 Athletes Overcame Challenges in Their Youth to Become Stars. Zuckerman wrote the book with his two teenage sons, Elijah, 14, and Gabriel, 18. Going through the process of putting together the book was a learning experience for all three Zuckermans, and we spoke to Greg about what teens everywhere can learn from these great athletes.

Overcoming Setbacks: What These Athletes Can Teach Us

Welcome Greg Zuckerman. What inspired you to write this book?

Eli came up with the idea; he’s a big sports guy and he knew some of these stories. Gabriel’s an avid reader; he’s got a blog where he reviews books. So he thought it would be a great project to write a book, not just read one. I loved the idea of doing a project with my kids, but I also quite honestly saw it as a project where Eli could get more comfortable with his own difference: he was born with two fingers on his left hand, yet he plays soccer and track. I figured that talking to stars about overcoming their differences, would have an impact on him.

We also had the feeling that everyone would identify because each one of us has differences, experiences setbacks, or lives with insecurities. We hoped that reading about how each athlete overcame challenges would inspire young people and give them encouragement.

Why do you think it’s so important for teens to hear these kinds of stories? 

Teaching resilience is so important. I’ve been at the Wall Street Journal for 20 years, and there are many smart, hardworking, ambitious people who can’t deal with setbacks.

Was there any common thread you noticed among the athletes you spoke with? 

We all assumed that the players would look at their differences and setbacks as challenges that they overcame and dealt with, which is partly true. But a remarkable number of them saw these things as advantages.

Like Tim Howard, a goalie for the United States national soccer team—probably one of the greatest soccer players our nation has ever produced. Diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), Howard suffered as a kid. But it also gave him what his doctor called a hyper-focus, and apparently that’s the case with a lot of people with Tourette’s. Other kids get bored after a while and move onto playing other things, but he would be able to practice for hours.

Jim Abbott, a retired MLB pitcher, was born with one arm. Despite what might be a disability, Abbott wanted to be a pitcher. In Little League, opposing coaches would have their players bunt and would take advantage of his physical difference because it would be hard for him to field it. But it forced him to become a really good fielder. When he got to the major leagues, he was one of the better fielders in the pros.

How do your children deal with setbacks?

My eldest is really bright but he didn’t do so well on his ACT. He worked really hard and eventually got an impressive score. As a parent, you do not want your kid to have setbacks because they can be heartbreaking, but in the long run the lessons can be invaluable. It’s hard as a parent to watch your kids struggle—our temptation is to jump in and protect them. But it’s best to let our kids learn to deal with stuff on their own.

Was there any particular message or story that stuck out to you?

The highlight for me was sitting in the dugout of Yankee Stadium before a game with MLB pitcher R.A Dickey. He spent over an hour talking to us. This was a guy who was sexually abused and grew up without much money, and his advice was just find somebody in life, be it a coach, parent, therapist, or school teacher. That’s the kind of thing we try to emphasize when we speak to people. Find somebody.


Learn more about Greg Zuckerman at his website, GregoryZuckerman.com.