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How to support the student skills that really matter

Teachers who share lessons in life skills as well as academics can help students meet their potential.

7 min read

Educational Leadership

Millennial friends stacking hands together - View from below. They are wearing protective face masks. for teaching life skills story

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headshot of Duncan Simpson for article on life skills

When Flora Zhang arrived at IMG Academy, a Florida boarding school for student-athletes, she had no idea how much the experience would change her life for the better outside athletics. Many people think of a sports academy as a place where gifted student-athletes focus on their sport more than the other parts of a traditional education. But Flora, a senior golf student now on her way to Princeton University and recent winner of a Yale Book Award, credits much of her success to our life-skills program, Athletic and Personal Development. 

I spoke with Flora at length about the program that helped shape her as an athlete, student and well–rounded individual. Our APD program provides training in areas like leadership, vision training, nutrition, mental performance, and strength and conditioning. And it can bring benefits that last well beyond the next game or test.

“Because of the core life skills I acquired, I wound up with a better balance of strengths,” she explained. “The greatest benefit for me was realizing that everything in my life is connected. Approaching my daily habits with this holistic mindset helps me feel better and perform at my best in tasks outside of sports.”

Finding the courage to ask for help

Flora Zhang, a student at IMG Academy who learned life skills
Zhang (Photo by Casey Brooke Lawson)

When Flora came to the school from Beijing in the sixth grade, she had several unique challenges. First, she was not as far along in her sport as her classmates because it had not been a focus for her from an early age. Second, she had trouble finding the courage to ask for help. 

“I felt like I should know all the answers already,” she recalls. “But I was able to overcome my anxiety by applying some of the mental conditioning that we do in APD. I feel more comfortable now asking questions when I need help, and I’m better at resolving conflicts and identifying miscommunications. That has had a massive impact on every part of my day.”

After speaking with Flora, I wanted to share how our school develops its core life skills — coachability, focus, resilience, confidence, how to handle pressure, leadership and nutrition — as well as pass along tips for educators to implement some of the skills that Flora found most powerful.

Learning to fail fast with resilience

Resilience is the art of quickly bouncing back from adversity, adapting to change and swiftly recovering from setbacks. This skill is vital for everyone but more so for student-athletes who routinely face challenges and obstacles in their training and competitive endeavors. Flora learned to see her mistakes not as stumbling blocks, but as opportunities for growth. By embracing her failures and learning from them, she was able to improve her mental toughness.  

Tips for Educators

  • Uncover resilience. Share stories, such as that of Thomas Edison, who made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When asked about it, Edison allegedly said, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb.” Discuss how these setbacks were stepping stones toward success, demonstrating that failure is a part of the learning process.
  • Encourage a growth mindset through the concept of “yet.” When students say they can’t do something, add the word “yet” at the end. This simple word signifies potential and growth and can help students view challenges as opportunities for development.
  • Resilience-building activities. Create a resilience challenge where students work on a challenging puzzle or problem, face obstacles and experience failure. Guide them to learn from each failed attempt and iterate their strategies. This process helps them understand that failure is not a dead end but a part of the journey toward success.
  • Teach stress management techniques. Incorporate breathing, yoga or Tai Chi sessions into the school day, teaching students how to use these practices to manage stress. Also, introduce a feelings journal where students can write about their stresses, worries and how they overcame them, facilitating emotional resilience.

Tapping into focus to achieve goals

Focus is not merely an act of attention; it is a potent skill that empowers us to zero in on a task and filter out distractions. This skill is indispensable for goal achievement and particularly vital for student-athletes tasked with repetitious exercises and rigorous training. Through APD, Flora mastered the art of focus using visualizing techniques to crystalize her goals and block out distractions.

Tips for educators

  • Visualization exercises. Guide students through a visualization of completing a challenging project or task. This mental rehearsal helps embed the processes and outcomes in the mind, enhancing focus and increasing the likelihood of success.
  • Attention training. Introduce exercises like the Card Sort game, where students have to sort cards based on changing rules. This not only tests their ability to switch focus but also to maintain attention on the task at hand. Another option is the Dual Task exercise, where students do simple arithmetic while catching a ball. This helps to train attention under more complex and distracting circumstances.
  • Meditation and mindfulness exercises. Implement short, guided mindfulness sessions at the start of the school day. Teach students to focus on their breath, their physical sensations or the sounds around them. This practice helps students concentrate on the present moment, improves attention span and equips them with tools to handle distractions better.

Developing leadership as a life skill

Leadership is a skill that can be applied across school, sports, careers and personal relationships. Flora attributes her leadership qualities to her experiences with building life skills: “Our mentorship training helped me communicate better, especially in tough situations. I’ve also learned how to be more proactive and take initiative when needed.” 

The program’s multifaceted approach to leadership development, encompassing innovative exercises and programs, offers a blueprint that other institutions can adapt to cultivate their own leaders.

Tips for educators

  • Foster mentorship. Establish a structured mentorship program, such as a buddy system, where older students are paired with younger ones. Through activities like collaborative project work, the older students demonstrate leadership, providing a real-life model for younger students to learn from.
  • Promote teamwork. Use innovative team-building exercises like escape room challenges” or group problem-solving activities. These exercises enhance cooperation, communication and problem-solving skills by creating a scenario where students must work together to achieve a common goal.
  • Design community service engagements. Implement programs like a student-led charity drive or neighborhood clean-up days. These allow students to take on leadership roles while fostering empathy, initiative and teamwork as they contribute positively to their community.

Flora’s success as a student-athlete reflects her talent, hard work and dedication to her sport and her studies. But it’s also a testament to the effectiveness of the life skills educators can share with students. 

As educators, we have the opportunity — and the obligation — to inspire and develop the next generation of leaders. By implementing exercises like these, we can help students, whether or not they’re elite athletes, realize their full potential and become successful, well-rounded individuals. 


Duncan Simpson, Ph.D., is the director of personal development at IMG Academy. Prior to joining IMG Academy, Simpson was an associate professor in the Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology Program at Barry University. He is a Certified Consultant with the Association of Applied Sport Psychology and conducts mental skills training with athletes and coaches from a range of sports and varying in talent and ability from beginners to professional/Olympic athletes, including NCAA D-I, II, and III student-athletes.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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