Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bela Karolyi Montessori

No, Bela Karolyi isn't opening a Montessori school in Houston.

I just finished reading Mary Lou: Creating an Olympic Champion.  Mary Lou Retton and Bela Karolyi author alternating chapters throughout the book.  I found it very interesting to read what this man, who has spent his entire career working daily with children as young as five or six and calls the years between ages seven and eleven "the best years", had to say about working with and coaching children.  It is too bad he and Maria Montessori cannot have lunch together.  It is fascinating that in developing a method of coaching based on observation of the child, Mr. Karolyi came to many of the same conclusions as Maria Montessori.

Those who are familiar with the misconceptions about "work" versus "play" in a Montessori environment will notice that Mr. Karolyi encountered some of the same objections to his program.  He states:

Some people said that we were killing those kids, overforcing them in workouts.  But we never did that.  We just let them go.   Our philosophy was that nothing can happen wrong while the kids is showing positiveness. 
We discovered that you cannot overwork young children.  When I was a kid, I was all the time running around. "You are going to destroy yourself," my mother warned me. 
"Let the child go," my father told her.  "There is an automatic system, like electronics.  When the child is tired, he sits down.  There is no way to move him.  But in a few seconds he is getting up and continuing." 
This I find out, is absolutely true.  You can see the little two-year-olds going boom-boom-boom.  They relax for a moment, then go boom-boom-boom again.  But if you force them, forget it.  You can pull the skin off them and they are still not doing it.  You can do it with adults.  You can stand behind them with a shotgun and force them to work their butts off.  Not the child. 
The only thing that consistently works with kids is to stand behind them, motivate them, make them excited.  You show the challenge, make them feel confident, and that makes them to be going further and further all the time.  That was our approach from the beginning.  34

The book talks at length about how the Romanians and Russian kept thinking that it was only the particular girls that Mr. Karolyi had.  So, they (the Romanian government) would take the girls away and give them to other coaches (after which their progress deteriorated). Karolyi showed that it was not just the girls but also the method.  He started over with only local girls an isolated area and returned in just a few years to win again.  They took the girls again.  He started over again, won again, and they took the girls again.  It was this that led to his defection to the United States.

It is easy to draw parallels to government schools in this next excerpt.  Also, he mentions briefly his lack of a strong gymnastics background.  I find that interesting because many people who oppose homeschooling are concerned that parents aren't "experts at everything."  Montessori guides are often regarded suspiciously for the same reason.  How can the child be educated without a specific expert for each subject?  Mr. Karolyi continues:

You have to realize that the Russians had dominated women's gymnastics since they first showed up at the 1952 Olympics.  They had a gymnastics-making engine, like a huge factory, thousands of clubs with hundreds of thousands of athletes, all following the same plans and using the same methodology.  It wasn't easy to overthrow that engine, but it happened because we were willing to go our own way, to go against the world trend which had everybody following the Russians. 
We did it the most natural way, by working hard and preparing our athletes both physically and mentally, and opening our minds to new technical possibilities.  I had never wanted to follow anybody.  I never could, because I hadn't had a strong gymnastics background.  So I had no formula, no idol, no traditional scheme.  What I followed was based on a simple reality:  The kids are the best teachers. 
You can learn more from them than from any kind of books, and I recognized that at the beginning.  Anybody who has a clear mind and is not an egomaniac can learn.  If you have open eyes you can see in a short time that the kids are guiding you to the most efficient way.  I knew certain technical information from my studies at the physical education institute in Bucharest, where gymnastics was my specialty.  Studying biomechanics helped.  But no one book can teach you better than the kids.  36

I really enjoyed Mr. Karolyi's chapters in this book.  It was funny how so many "Montessori" concepts popped out at me.  I've only included a few spots here.  I love when he states, "There was nothing mysterious or overscientific about it.  It was simply a new approach.  We never copied anybody else.  If you copy, you will never be first.  You will only be a poor imitation of the best" (37).

Montessori Monday


  1. What a fascinating post! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and seeing these connections. Excellent!

  2. There was a group I was in that one day we talked about this man - I can't remember if it was one of my Montessori trainings, or a CGS training or what... but I remember talking about "if we just observe the child, respect the child, and remove all obstacles (including bad habits, etc), anyone can come to the same conclusions as Montessori". Like this man said, it is NOT a secret! It is right in front of us - just look! ;)

  3. After having competitive figure skaters, this was especially interesting to me! I love that there are so many similarities to Dr. Montessori's findings. It does make sense! Thanks so much for linking up with Montessori Monday. I shared this at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page: