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Lizzie Yarnold’s Gold at Sochi is not about process but character

Lizzie Yarnold is a complete inspiration. Having won gold in the skeleton bob in Sochi she exhorted anyone who cared to listen immediately after her victory not to limit their dreams: “My message would be follow your dreams, never give up & never limit yourself to what you can achieve.” She certainly didn’t. She grew up in Kent and competed in heptathlon events as a child, having been inspired to take up the sport by watching Denise Lewis win Olympic gold at the Sydney 2000 Games. Yarnold took up skeleton in 2008 after being recruited through UK Sport-backed talented identification programme ‘Girls4Gold’. This faith in her raw ability bore fruit in the final of the skeleton where she proved to be the Usain Bolt of the sport – she blew every other competitors’ time away.

And frankly inspiration is what our young people need. As we look to an uncertain future, more than ever we need to give the young a sense that they can live a life worth living. Heroes like Lizzie Yarnold are all about hard work, resilience and achievement. Unfortunately the X-Factor generation also receive the message that celebrity per se is all you need. The hollowness of this ambition is polar opposite to the lives of people like Lizzie. She lives a life of self sacrifice, hard work and dedication – so much easier (at least on the surface) to audition for a talent show, impress Simon Cowell, and become a household name.

Lizzie’s approach to her sport tells us a great deal about her character. And character has featured in educational news recently. A report from a cross-party parliamentary group declared that Britain’s schools must be “more than just exam factories” arguing that more importance should be given to the development of “character and resilience”. It says schools should make it part of their “core business” to nurture pupils’ self-belief, perseverance and ability to bounce back from set-backs.

The challenge for schools is how to educate children in the round and not just to achieve certain grades in examinations. Arguably in recent years schools have shied away from making the development of character part of their mission. After all how do you measure character? It is utterly subjective. You can announce examination grades but how do you quantify levels of resilience, perseverance, integrity, kindness, courage etc.? 80% kindness quotient this year meets floor target – I don’t think so. The elephant in the room in this discussion is that – and whisper it softly – you don’t have to measure everything in schools. The development of a child is complicated and not easily measured. An approach to education which looks at the child in the round, an approach there to support, guide and engage, is an approach which is really making a difference to the individual. That child matters, not as a statistic, but as a human being.

And this is where the lives of people like Lizzie Yarnold make a difference. Lizzie went to school and lived a life familiar to us all. What sets her apart is her self-discipline and perseverance and complete commitment to her sport. Potentially anyone can adopt the same approach to their dream. As Lizzie said, never give up and never limit yourself. Life is there for the taking. Young people need to be encouraged to dream. Let’s inspire them to believe in themselves.