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Powerhouse Athletes Jovan Haye, Terry Bradshaw, Jewell Loyd, and Harry Zimmerman Share How Their Learning Differences Became Assets With Eye to Eye Fellow Will Koester

Will Koester was our 2020 Eye to Eye Fellowship recipient. With David Flink, Eye to Eye Founder and CEO, as his mentor, he conducted a research project on the challenges as well as the opportunities that learning differences present to elite athletes. Below is his final research report, as well as the final interview between him and David.

Fellowship Program: The Eye to Eye Fellowship Program is a self-directed and self-designed program for students who have shown exceptional interest in the learning disability landscape to explore a topic of their choosing and create a portfolio that demonstrates their findings. The individual will work closely with an Eye to Eye staff member (TBD on subject matter interest) in weekly or twice-monthly virtual meetings to choose a topic of interest, conduct research, and develop an interactive portfolio that serves as a capstone project. The staff member will serve mainly as a mentor and connector to the student. Interested applicants should review the Eye to Eye Fellowship overview and email Elizabeth Super at esuper@eyetoeyenational.org by June 1st.

Will Koester, Eye to Eye 2020 Fellowship Recipient, Final Project:

Introduction

The summer of 2020 was anything but what I had expected. My plans to work this summer were sidelined due to the Coronavirus pandemic. However, thanks to Eye to Eye, what was a difficult situation ended up providing me with an extraordinary opportunity.

I’m 17-years old and a Junior at Salisbury School in Salisbury, Connecticut. I was awarded a research fellowship by Eye to Eye this summer to study elite athletes with learning disabilities, which is also sometimes referred to as a learning difference. I am inspired by athletes in general, but as someone with dyslexia and ADHD, I am especially drawn to athletes performing at the highest level who have persevered with learning differences.

Sports have meant the world to me ever since I was 5 years old. Even during my recent quarantine due to the pandemic, I found joy in spending most of my weekends and free moments watching great sports moments and competitions of all types. For me, this project is the marriage of my passions: sports and helping other students with learning differences.

As a part of my research, I hoped to better understand the challenges as well as the opportunities that learning differences have presented to elite athletes. Eye to Eye provided me the fellowship to pursue this research.

I was able to speak to four amazing athletes: a Hall of Fame NFL quarterback, an all-conference Division I athlete, a WNBA all-star and former rookie of the year, and a retired NFL player and current Division I football coach. In addition, I was able to get insights from a head college basketball coach about coaching players with learning differences. I am so thankful to each of them for spending time with me. I reached out to each of them because I was inspired by their experience. However, speaking with them was a game-changer for me. It was very generous of each of them to share their story with me. I’m lucky to be able to have their permission to share some of that story with you, the readers of this report, too. In reality, speaking to each of them exceeded all of my expectations. It made for an extraordinary summer for me. Not the summer I had planned but the ability to adapt and to be presented with this opportunity has been really important to me. I am very grateful.

Why the Research Project

I thought it would be helpful to give you some of my thinking regarding the project.

Why did I decide to do this fellowship? I wanted to learn for myself (and also for others) from successful athletes that I look up to. I wanted to learn about how they became successful but also to learn from others who learn differently, like me.

Why did I focus on athletes? I love sports and so athletes were the ones I knew best and looked up to from a young age (for as long as I can remember).

Why did I only want to do elite athletes? I wanted to learn from the best of the best (even though I don’t have a similar level of athletic skills!).

What did I expect to hear from these athletes before I started? I expected to hear about lots of challenges, but they talked about the opportunities the learning difference created for them and it turned into an asset for many of them at different times.

What was it like speaking to athletes that I admire? I was wondering if anyone was going to call me back. It was hard to find a way to get in touch with the players. Then, one afternoon, I got a call on my cell phone from Texas. I don’t ordinarily get calls from my phone from Texas so I almost didn’t pick up. When I answered and heard “Will, it’s Terry Bradshaw” my heart nearly stopped. I was so excited to be speaking to such amazing athletes. I was really nervous. But as I did each interview, I grew more comfortable. Each of them was kind and generous. It felt like they were speaking with passion and from their heart.

What I Learned

I learned so much from speaking to these amazing individuals. Each person was courageous for sharing their story. I also feel fortunate to have been able to have these conversations because many elite athletes choose not to come forward and share the stories of their learning differences. In fact, few athletes have acknowledged their learning difference.

There were a number of consistent messages and experiences. However, there were some real differences in experiences as well.

For example, some of the athletes learned about their learning difference at a young age. Others were aware of issues but did not know what it was called or have a diagnosis until much later in life. For example, Harry Zimmerman learned about his learning difference in elementary school. Jovan Haye and Jewell Loyd were diagnosed in high school. Terry Bradshaw was 50 when he learned of his learning difference.

This was important because it determined when they could get help and to understand how they could be helped.

Each of the athletes struggled in school. Their struggles in the classroom were in contrast to their success in their athletics. Knowing what success felt like in athletics and contrasting that with their experience in the classroom challenged their self-confidence. Some said that they would ignore what they were not interested in. However, they had their energy and focus on what they loved. Struggles with schoolwork led to needing an extra amount of time to study. This made excelling in sports and classes very hard as it took up nearly all of their time. Despite their struggles, each of them wanted to be successful in the classroom. Each of them discussed that hard work and preparation were key.

The role of support or lack of support was really important. A patient teacher, a supportive parent, someone fighting for them and in their corner made a huge difference in their self-esteem. Harry Zimmerman discussed surrounding himself with smart people. These were people that he could learn from and see as role models as well as avoiding those who could be a bad influence. Jewell Loyd had her mother, who was a teacher to her, who could really understand her, and who knew how to help her. She also had a few really helpful teachers that had an outsized influence on her. That said, overall the level of support from teachers was mixed as often they didn’t know how to help. Or, in other cases, the teachers didn’t think that the athletes were putting in the work. Jovan Haye discussed that one of his passions is coaching (he coaches for Vanderbilt now). He loves to help others. He was really helpful to me. I wondered if that passion came from his own experience.

Each player discussed at length how they found ways to adapt. Finding ways to change was critical across the board. Here are a number of examples of the lessons they shared:

Trial and Error. Jewell Loyd talked about trying lots of things out. Keep trying until you figure it out on your own what works best for you.

Using Humor. Terry Bradshaw discussed the role that humor had for him. He had so much energy because of his ADHD and he was able to harness that energy to perform and make people laugh. He said he gets a great deal of self-worth by entertaining people.

Surround Yourself with Smart People. Harry Zimmerman discussed the importance of having role models around. Be with people that are a good influence and you can learn from.

Develop Your Own Way and Lead with Your Strengths. When it was difficult to remember a play call, Jovan Haye developed his own way to remember. For example, an “inside play” he associated with “eating in”. An “outside play” he associated with “eating out.” Jewell Loyd talked about being a verbal and visual learner as a strength over written lessons. For example, she would ask her teammates to demonstrate the play to help her visualize the play being called. Harry Zimmerman had trouble with written work, but he developed an ability to speak and to have great conversations.

Be Savvy. Learning outside of the classroom is as important or more important than learning inside the classroom.

Find Your Support. Jovan Haye talked about the importance of asking questions. Jewell Loyd discussed the importance of doing your work and once you figure it out yourself in your own way, you don’t forget it. Terry Bradshaw discussed that he learned to leave the things that are hard for him (such as remembering names and numbers) to others. They can help him with those things.

“Lock-In” on What You Love. Terry Bradshaw talked about using your energy to focus on what you love (football and what he liked in the classroom). “When it comes to the things I was interested in, I could know it out of the park.”

Creativity. Learning differences can often lead to thinking differently. This means different problem-solving. Different perspectives come from learning differences. Looking at different ways to deal with challenges can lead to better outcomes.

Work Hard. Everyone discussed hard work. But not just hard work, they talked about out-working everyone else. This also meant sacrifice. For example, not going out on nights and weekends because they needed to prepare for school or their next game was fundamental to their success.

I thought it was amazing that many of them described their learning difference as an asset. It helped them to create what a few called their “super-power.” I’m really excited to share some of these. For example:

Perseverance – Doing whatever it takes to overcome the issue at hand.

Creativity – Having a different and new perspective – “connecting the dots differently.” “Thinking outside the box is a gift.”

“Building Muscles” – Building unique strengths developed from your learning difference.

Passion – A desire to succeed and the hard work necessary to get to your goal.

Energy – Use your energy to follow your passion. Hard work and passion are an incredible combination.

Conclusion

I came into this project not knowing who I was going to interview or even if the interviews would amount to anything at all. But each person I interviewed had amazing stories to tell. They all had their struggles. I learned that school was not easy for them, but they stuck with it and never gave up. Most of them said that their learning difference made them much more motivated for their games and got them very excited for their games. They said it was like a super-power as I described above. They all had one thing in common and it came up over and over again and that was a combination of both passion and hard work. They were so passionate about their sport and even though school wasn’t the easiest for them, they gutted it out. As Jovan Haye shared, “When you accomplish things – you know that you did it on your own – then you stop doubting yourself – and you learn through hard work that you can accomplish what you want.”

They also all had another important message. For those of us with a learning difference, we are who we are. Each said to do your best to ignore the slights, the self-doubt, the disbelief, the stigma, instead, be proud and confident in yourself. Jewell Loyd shared that advice that she found to be helpful from one of her mentors. “Be yourself. Don’t hide who you are. You are made for a reason. You have great value. Take pride in your work. Everyone has a purpose, a reason, and authenticity.”

One last piece of advice that I received: Be positive and be hopeful.

I found this to be inspiring.

I hope that more is researched and written on this topic in the future.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank a number of people who helped make the fellowship an exciting learning experience for me. Firstly, I’d like to thank Eye to Eye for sponsoring me, especially David Flink. David gave me great guidance and provided me with so many helpful introductions. He helped me many times when I got stuck or didn’t know what to do. I would like to thank everyone that I got to interview: Jovan Haye, Terry Bradshaw, Jewell Loyd, and Harry Zimmerman. I was amazed by all of them. I also want to thank Coach Chris Phelps, the Salisbury School head football coach, for all of his help. Coach Josh Pastner, Head Men’s Basketball Coach at Georgia Tech, whom I didn’t get to speak to but provided helpful insights into coaching players with learning differences in our written correspondence. I also want to thank Jane Goodell who helped introduce me to Mr. Bradshaw.

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