A Basketball Center en pointe and Parabolas on the Fairway

March Madness in almost here, making college basketball top-of-mind. And so I perked up at last week’s California Association for the Gifted Conference when Dr. Sandra Kaplan mentioned that UCLA’s basketball team takes ballet classes. This caused me to sit up and think. Any young woman or man playing on a Division I basketball team is a gifted athlete. But ballet?

Well, yes, ballet. There is a lot of fancy footwork going on down below while basketball players are busy dribbling, passing, shooting and dunking.  Watching the Lehigh versus Bucknell Patriot League Conference Tournament Championship game, and looking only below the knees, I saw dance. Pirouettes, jetés, leaps, and the occasional third and fourth position were all there. Lehigh’s Tim Kempton (6’10”, 245 pounds, 20.4 PPG) would make a wonderful Rat King in The Nutcracker.

This all begs a few questions. Can an art inform a sport? Can sport inform an art? Can students advance in one field because they explored another? By combining unrelated fields, will our gifted scholar-athletes create a greater exceptionality? And what does this mean for us?

I am an independent college counselor, often working with gifted students as they apply for college. (I am also an IEA mother and consultant.) Some families consult with me when their students are just entering high school, so I see exciteabilities develop over the course of four years. Before taking on Dr. Kaplan’s question, I knew, but I didn’t comprehend, how ballet made for better basketball. My happiest students have been telling me for years that they like it when they mix things up, when obvious skills and interests become companion to less obvious skills and interests. Reflecting back, I see that those students who intellectualize their giftedness were among my most joyful.  Here are some first hand examples.

My first inkling this was happening came fifteen years ago, from a Mentor supervising five high-school-aged IEA Apprentices in a material science research lab. (IEA’s Apprenticeship Program has evolved into the EXPLORE Program, both outstanding.) These Apprentices were similar in lab skills and science understanding. One stood out, however, because of his English skills. Specifically, he could more quickly tease out ideas shared in conversation, read manuals and reports in and out of context, and clearly stated questions that moved ideas forward. Early on, he became the student leader because everyone in the lab understood him. He is now a very successful computer scientist. (And an aside: research labs are often home to scientists from around the world and of many languages, so clarity of communication makes for better science.)

I’ve had many students with exceptional mathematical abilities, and their stories speak directly to drawing energy from unusual sources. Four of them were quite upfront that their love of math was fueled outside of math classes. One, a Berkeley graduate, said that creative writing relaxed her into a feeling of bliss, and then, without any notes, she would imagine the answers to her problem sets. Another, now a math major at Reed, described how her remarkable sophomore year English teacher inspired her, through close textual reading, to consider multiple approaches to any problem. A UC San Diego math major told me he feels strongly that poetry and math are the same subject–economy of ideas—and so he approaches them in tandem. And another student, bound for college in 2018, craves playing golf every day because it is so much fun to watch parabolas on the fairway.

And it’s not just my mathematicians. One student, a Harvard graduate, became a better Russian language student when she started playing the piano every day. A current Berkeley undergraduate understands literature more deeply on days when she sees poor immigrants walk into traffic to sell flowers. One of my favorite students this year keeps finding ideas for prosthetic designs watching movies that are not about prosthetics. One young man, Cal Tech bound, described how ideas come while he paints. If he didn’t paint, would he have these ideas?

Lastly, and saluting March Madness, I have worked with both a semi-professional dancer, and a winning basketball player. My dancer, on History: “Yep, the world has always been all about ebb and flow.” And my basketball player thinks his internship in a research university’s chemistry lab is less akin to science classes and more like passing just outside the paint: “The graduate students throw ideas around faster than a good offense, so I’m still hustling to keep my eye on the ball.”

Our students give us their giftedness; our efforts should include enabling their intellectualism. The UCLA coach who first enrolled the basketball team in ballet is now a personal role model. Dr. Kaplan’s workshop, “Giftedness versus Intellectualism,” has prompted me to think of ways to help my students identify and encourage the productive combinations in their lives.

For me, as an independent college counselor, that means more time listening and waiting for the student to share enough so that I can ask more direct questions. For a gifted student, who feels his or her exciteabilities more strongly, working at this intersection is key. Within my niche in their lives, answers to those questions make for powerful application essays.

Sometimes we talk about nurturing a gifted student’s spirituality. For me, the mere though was daunting, so I stayed away. It is easy to get tripped up here because many of us equate “spirituality” with “religion.” But that was never gifted educators’ intention—instead, it is something wholly interior, unseen, and a powerful animator. Perhaps a mathematician’s spirituality lies in poetry.


Photo courtesy Chad Cooper, "Shannon Evans Pass: UB defeats Western Michigan 84-63," 1/29/14, Creative Commons