The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

Tim Tebow: Lessons for Students About Prayer and Practice

What Can My Students Learn from Tim Tebow?

This past Sunday I was torn:  Should I watch the Broncos play the Steelers, or should I prepare my ethics course for the spring semester?  I made the right choice:  I'd watch the game and do some half-hearted preparation during halftime. The game turned out to be spectacular. But more importantly, I found a couple lessons for students embedded in all the Tebow hoopla.

We professors are always trying to make our courses more "relevant" by helping students connect our lessons to their experiences.  At the beginning of my career I could use public icons like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Kojak.  Those days are gone.  And, of course, Joe Paterno is out. I can't even use Michael Jordan anymore, because if I refer to Jordan and his work ethic, all students think of is underwear.  So I was delighted to spot some possible relevance to Tebow, because his celebrity seems to transcend sports.

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Prayer and Practice

I'll avoid the easy jokes about prayer being relevant because my students pray on test days, or because they don't have one.  But Tebow's kneeling down got me thinking:  If he is praying for divine inspiration, if he is asking God to attend more to Sports Authority Field than to, say, South Sudan, then he is worthless to me as a role model.  If, however, he is praying for self-discipline, courage, strength, and other qualities he himself can choose to apply towards good ends, I have this relevant lesson for my students:  People, whatever their faith, need to act in the world, and these acts (forgive the biblical reference) include such elements as practice, effort, and work.

The idea of practice is another lesson that students may miss if they think that what Tebow is doing comes naturally, or that he has not improved through hard work.  The broadcasters of the Broncos/Steelers game mentioned several times the intensity with which Tebow practiced during the previous week.  For example, he sprinted from station to station during workouts, whereas other athletes merely walk or trot.  There have been stories about him putting in lots of extra hours on the practice field.  Putting in time, and putting in quality time, are good lessons.

Students can pray as much or as little as they want; as an academic I have the greatest respect for whatever spiritual and religious choices students make and I have nothing to say in that regard.  But as an educator I have strong values about helping students develop good work habits.  My values are based on compelling research (and a Malcom Gladwell book) showing that the more time people spend on a task, be it physical or intellectual, the better they get at it.  This is especially true if they practice well.

The issue is not whether Tim Tebow has got God-given talent. I'll leave that to the three or four sportscasters and commentators who are following his story. The issue for me is that either because of or in spite of his level of talent, Tim works extraordinarily hard! "TT" is a great motto for students, but it doesn't stand for "Tim Tebow." Rather, it stands for "Time on Task."

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2012 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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