One the defining characteristics of human beings is that we are great at adapting. You can find people all over the world in different climates, using different materials to make our homes and eating different food depending on what is available. We use tools to accomplish things we cannot do with our own two hands, and machines that are far stronger than any one person could ever be. More than any other creature on Earth, we are able to adapt to new challenges, and adapt our environment to suit us. And this all possible because of our ability to think creatively.
I asked Peggy Sheldon, the founder of USAT, what she thought about the word adapt, and I really liked her answer. She told me, “It is about seeing and using the patterns in the place, space, and time and using creativity to re-imagine landscape, social, and conceptual systems.” The emphasis on pattern recognition, another thing our big human brains are extremely adept at, is a key part of adaptation. For instance, the delicious Spanish cuisine known as “tapas” did not come about spontaneously. The story goes that there once was an owner of a tavern who had a space outside for his patrons to sit. This outdoor space was in the shade of a large tree, which made it cooler and more comfortable to sit outside, but the leaves and seeds from the tree would sometimes fall into the patrons’ drinks. The patrons would get annoyed and decide to take their business elsewhere. To counteract this problem, the owner started to serve his drinks with a thin slice of Serrano ham across the mouth of the glass to act as a cover, or “tapa”, to keep the seeds out. He saw a pattern of cause (seeds) and effect (loss of business) and adapted to the problem.
As it turned out, the patrons would finish their drinks and then eat the salty ham, which in turn made them more thirsty, which then led to them ordering another round of drinks. Pretty soon, the owner was offering different kinds of salty snacks free of charge, and other people started to catch on to this ingenious idea. So now in the Southern parts of Spain you rarely order a drink without also getting a small plate of olives or some other salty snack along with it free of charge. And from there, chefs started to develop dishes that are almost exclusively served in this way, and a whole new cuisine was born and continued to spread to different countries.
Adaptation is a method of changing actions and attitudes in response to recognizing the need for that change, and this takes a flexible and creative mind. During the course of a USAT season, or even in the middle of a Mind Sprint, students may find it advantageous to adapt. A strategy that seems like a good idea “on paper” may turn out to take too much time or they lose track of the original question they are being asked to answer. The events in USAT are all timed and the season is short, so to be the most successful at Meets students need to be able to quickly evaluate if strategies work and how to change those strategies and try new things to improve. One way coaches and parents can help this process it to take some time after each Meet to talk about what worked and what didn’t work, and to brainstorm new ways to Meet those challenges should they arise again. And it important to remember that changing your mind or your strategy midstream doesn’t mean the first idea was “bad,” but perhaps with some modification you can come to the “best” conclusion.