The Rocky Balboa Guide to Teaching Students With Low Self-Esteem

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The story of Rocky Balboa is an inspiring and motivational tale of an underdog struggling to literally fight his way through life in the boxing ring. Every opponent he faces, whether it is in the ring or in life, challenges him to develop his strengths and his own character.

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When I was younger, I had self-esteem issues due to my ADHD and the effects it had on my school work and my abilities to socialize and make friends. I would watch the Rocky movies as a form of motivation and as a self-esteem boost; telling myself that if Rocky could win the World Heavyweight Title, even with the numerous obstacles he had to overcome, then there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish.

There are many instances in the films where Rocky is down because of circumstances outside of his control, similar to the many challenges those with learning disabilities face through no fault of their own. But Rocky, with a combination of persistence and smart, hard work, manages to overcome these circumstances in the end, and winds up better than when he started.

The lessons Rocky learned can also be applied to teaching students with low self-esteem and can help boost their self-confidence and thus their performance.

Here is what Rocky Balboa can show you about teaching students with low self-esteem.

Identify the source of low self-esteem

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Following his victory in Rocky II, our main character spends months at the beginning of Rocky III defending his title from challengers. Unfortunately for him, these opponents are handpicked by his trainer to be easy fights, so Rocky can be protected. The lack of a true challenger makes Rocky lose his hunger and edge, and he fails to keep his skills in tip-top shape. This backfires when he accepts a challenge from a gritty up-and-comer, Clubber Lang.

When Rocky and Clubber go toe-to-toe, Rocky loses his title in a knockout. Shortly afterwards, his trainer dies, leaving Rocky devastated and directionless.

His old foe, Apollo Creed, agrees to help him rediscover the “eye-of-the-tiger” Rocky had back when the two of them fought.

It becomes clear the source of Rocky’s low self-esteem is not only the loss of someone close to him, but his own lack of a challenge. Once he figures this out, he’s able to see what he needs to do to gain it back: push himself to beat Clubber, and grow a new friendship in Creed.

When teaching students with low self-esteem, you have to find the source of their problem before you can ever hope to fix it. When I was in school, my teachers found that it was my ADHD and its effects on my life that was causing my low self-esteem. Once this was identified it was easier to come up with solutions to my problem.

While, sometimes, simply asking the child what is keeping them perpetually down is an easy way to identify the problem, what should you do if it runs deeper than that?

If your student is struggling with low self-esteem, it would be best to have that child see a counselor or some other type of psychological specialist who can accurately identify any issues that may be contributing to this ailment. What if they have a troubled past in a broken home? What if they suffer from dyslexia or ADHD?

Try new types of tasks and assignments

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Every time Rocky finds himself fighting a new, more powerful opponent, he must adapt and find a new way to train so he can develop strengths he’s never used before.

While training for his rematch with Apollo Creed in Rocky II, Rocky has to throw his opponent off by switching from fighting left handed (southpaw) to fighting dominantly with his right hand as well as work on building insurmountable speed. This requires a whole new system of training that pushes Rocky but ultimately leads him to succeed and win the World Heavyweight title.

Students who suffer from low self-esteem have to challenged by also put in a position to succeed so they can build up their self-confidence, which in turn will increase their classroom performance. This requires different types of lessons or special attention to show the student that you care about them and that you believe in them. There are many different lesson plans online that address building self-esteem for grade levels spanning from elementary to high school.

Be sure to offer words of encouragement to the student

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One thing the Rocky movies are never short on is motivational speeches. One of the best speeches, ironically enough, comes from what is easily considered the worst film in the series. In Rocky V, we find our main character has fallen on tough financial times and is living back in the slums of Philadelphia. Rocky returns to the gym where he began and he reminisces on a conversation with his old trainer, Mickey, from back before he fought Apollo Creed.

Words of encouragement are a powerful force, especially when given to a child that has a hard time believing in themselves. Words of encouragement can motivate a child with low self-esteem to succeed in their classwork and in their social life.

Enlist other classmates to contribute to their success

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Although Rocky does much of the heavy lifting in his training for each match (quite literally), he wouldn’t be able to succeed without the help of his friends, family, and his trainers. They are always there to provide him with guidance when he falls or finds himself led astray. When his original trainer Mickey dies, his former opponent Apollo Creed takes up the mantle to train Rocky for his next fight.

That support is a significant contributor to his success.

You should be encouraging your other students to play a role in each other’s success, especially when it comes to a student suffering from low self-esteem. When other classmates are providing emotional support, it increases the confidence and performance of the struggling student. Offering incentives, such as prizes or recognition to students that go above and beyond to help their peers can increase the likelihood of success.

Teach the child that it is okay to stumble

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We all stumble and fall sometimes. Rocky has many moments where he stumbles or falls short, such as his first fight with Apollo Creed or his first fight with Clubber Lang. But one lesson that is constantly pushed in the Rocky movies is that it is okay to stumble and fall, so long as you get back up and keep pushing.

 

“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”

Students will fall sometimes and those with self-esteem issues may take those falls harder than others. They will let it drag them down until they have no motivation left to succeed in class. Letting your students know that it is okay to fall, that it is a part of growing and getting better, will help them manage their small failures and turn them into successes later on.

PBS has a great guide on teaching children this important lesson. The key takeaways are:

  • Use empathy when you see the child struggling. Let them know that you understand their frustration.
  • Use personal stories or anecdotes to explain a time that you failed but you ended up better because of it.
  • Talk about what went wrong with whatever it was they were doing and what they could do better next time by coming up with a problem solving plan that they can follow.
  • Make sure the child knows that each failure is a learning experience for better results in the future.

Conclusion

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Low self-esteem can be a hard feeling to overcome. I know, I had to overcome it as a child. Luckily I had great support from a network of incredible family, teachers, and friends. With their help I was able to find my own success. You can do the same for your students.

Do you feel like I missed anything? Any tips or resources we should add? Let us know in the comments below!

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Nick Morpus

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Nick Morpus is a former Capterra analyst.

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