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MIT Technology Review

Jump start

Why I spent a week in Bermuda in the gym instead of at the beach.

Stewart Isaacs jump-ropingStewart Isaacs jump-roping
Stewart Isaacs jump-roping
MUSILA MUNUVE

As an MIT Aero-Astro grad student and world-champion jump roper, I understand I have a story that turns heads. So when Sionna Barton, who runs Bermuda’s national jump rope team, invited me to teach a week-long camp for kids, I said yes. The idea of an island getaway right after I was scheduled to finish quals was naturally appealing. But that wasn’t the only reason.

Although many accomplished American jumpers had visited Bermuda before, most of them were white. As someone who could pass for Bermudian, I knew I could inspire kids on a majority-black team—and help convince their parents that this sport can help them succeed as athletes and students.

I know the power of representation because I’ve lived it. At age six, I got to shadow a world champion at the world’s biggest jump rope workshop. It changed how I saw myself and made my goal of becoming a world champion feel achievable.

When I got to Bermuda, I headed straight to the gym. Si asked me to lead the team—the Bermy Bouncers—in a speed workout, which entails jumping as fast as you can for a fixed period, counting your right steps. We warmed up with our heavy beaded ropes until I could feel all the muscles in my arms go from politely asking me to stop to begging me. I looked up to see that the kids were exhausted.

“To be good at speed, you have to train your mind to start believing you can hit the score you want,” I told them. “Your body can do it—it’s just a matter of letting yourself.”

“What are your three-minute goals?” I asked. “Three hundred,” someone said. Another called out, “420.”

“Okay, now divide that number by six. This is what you must get every 30 seconds, and it’s your goal for the next drill.” We switched to our thin wire ropes and did six sets of 30 seconds, with 30 seconds of jogging in between—the drill I did when preparing for the world competition. I knew most of the team wouldn’t hit their goal, but I wanted them to know and feel what it would take.

Throughout the week, I worked with the kids who enrolled in the camp on crossing skills. This requires moving your arms across your body so the rope completes a rotation while your arms stay crossed. I demonstrated and kids jumped right into the trick, generally failing. I had them drop their ropes and walk through the motions. This teaches the mind the feeling of getting it right. After several walk-throughs, most kids did it within a few tries. I high-fived them and then asked them to show me the same trick starting on their other leg. I smiled inside when they dropped their ropes to walk through it. The kids were learning the most important skill for getting better—how to break down a complex problem to teach themselves something new.

At the end of the camp, the kids demonstrated what they’d learned to their parents. I guided eight students through a demo of “Traveler,” where one person with a large rope jumps through a line of people jumping in unison. I stressed the importance of staying on beat, looking forward at the audience, and counting out loud. The greater the discipline, the greater the odds of success. So after one particularly messy practice run-through when the kids weren’t focused, I held the group back from a water break for two minutes so we could all clap to the beat and count in unison. It might seem harsh, but it helped them internalize that they’re part of a team. It’s not enough for them to get their parts right if their peers mess up.

When it was time to perform, my students smiled wide and counted loud—absolutely nailing the routine, even when we performed the whole show again for the audience members arriving on “Island time.” Their commitment to something more than themselves allowed them to put forth their best effort and deliver something everyone could be proud of—another lesson I hope sticks with them as they grow up.