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The Secret To Success for Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson

There is an assumption by many youth sports parents that laser-focused specialization is the only way to launch a stellar athletic career for their son or daughter. With so many hours dedicated to practices, training, and competition, other childhood activities get crowded out. Somehow, though, the two quarterbacks in this weekend’s Super Bowl rose to the pinnacle of their sport despite parents who stressed a normal family life with education as a priority.

Long before he won the starting quarterback position for the Seattle Seahawks, Russell Wilson learned how to use his natural leadership abilities to get the best for himself as well as others.  In his early school days, “They’d have a game or something they’d be playing and Russell would sit in the rocking chair and the other kids would be on the floor and he’d kind of run the game,” says Russell’s mom, Tammy Wilson, in a recent interview.

In high school, he learned quickly how important education was in his family. If he was struggling in a subject, he would seek out smarter classmates and trade athletic tips and tricks for tutoring.  He used his sports skills and his good grades to get into Collegiate School, an elite preparatory school in Richmond, Virginia. One thing was clear; he was there for education first. Charlie McFall, Wilson’s football coach at Collegiate, remembers a conversation with Harrison Wilson, Russell’s dad, he said, “Let me tell you something: I didn’t put Russell in Collegiate for sports, I put Russell in Collegiate to get the best education he could get.”

Because of the strict focus on being a complete person, winning a Super Bowl may just be the next chapter of Wilson’s accomplishments. “He could run for governor in North Carolina, Wisconsin or Washington and win,” said Harry Wilson, Russell’s brother.


While everyone knows about Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Denver Broncos and his younger brother, Eli, quarterback of the New York Giants, not many know that their older brother Cooper could have been the third Manning in the NFL. An all-state high school wide receiver, Cooper caught passes as a senior from his sophomore brother Peyton, before a rare spinal condition forced him out of the family sport.

However, Archie and Olivia Manning never pushed their sons into football or any sport for that matter. Having lost his own dad when he was a 19-year-old quarterback at Ole Miss, Archie was determined to be a supportive father. Even with his own experience as an NFL player, Archie is convinced that all of the success that Peyton and Eli, as well as Cooper, have enjoyed has just been a byproduct of a close family.

“We just tried to raise kids,” said Archie Manning in the ESPN film, The Book of Manning. “We tried to raise good kids and have a good family. I don’t like the perception that it was a plan. You know that I was an NFL quarterback for a while and then I’ve got these boys, I’m going to mold them into being NFL quarterbacks. Not so. You can do that and they might be an NFL quarterback, but I’m not sure you’re going to have a great father-son relationship. That’s what I wanted.”

Not two football families, but two strong families who happen to enjoy football.  Just as easily, they could have excelled in music, astronomy, entrepreneurship or any other activity.  The secret is providing a solid foundation for kids to explore their interests, knowing that their parents’ only goal is for them to be happy.


Dan Peterson is exploring the intersection of sports skill development and cognitive science at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental.  Studying how the brain learns and adapts to the physical and emotional demands of sports, he has authored over 250 science-based articles for parents and coaches trying to understand their young athletes. 

Photo credits:  Russell Wilson via Wikimedia Commons, Photo by Larry Maurer
Peyton Manning via Wikimedia Commons, Photo by Jeffrey Beall



The Science Behind Thrively’s Groundbreaking Strength Assessment

Dr. Jayme Neiman-Kimel and Dr. Jonine Biesman are two of California’s seven Board-certified pediatric neuropsychologists. Together they developed Thrively’s Strength Assessment, an online survey that allows children to discover their strengths. The results are a custom profile built to offer insights into a child’s dynamic personality.

With the incredible and exciting advances in neuroimaging that have emerged over the past decade, we now know that the brain is an extremely dynamic and adaptable organ that can become more efficient based on the experiences to which it is exposed. Its growth and organization is not fixed, but rather ever-changing. Thus, what we do matters! This is the basis of the recommended activities offered through Thrively including out of the box, cutting edge opportunities that not only contribute to the emergence of highly well-rounded children and adolescents but to healthier brains. Specific activities are recommended following a student’s completion of a thoughtfully designed strength finder that is engaging and fun to complete and highly informative for parents.

The science behind the Thrively Strength Explorer and Map is grounded in principles of life span development, strength-based research, the most current understanding of neural connectivity, the mechanisms of optimal brain functioning, motivational variables, as well as over forty years of combined assessment experience with thousands of children and adolescents. It is safe to say that countless tests exist to assess specific “domains of functioning” such as a student’s language skills, academic knowledge, and memory. While these measures provide information about an individual’s capacities as well as their areas of need; most tests that children and adolescents take do not generalize well to their day to day activities nor do they provide direction for enrichment.

The Thrively Strength Explorer formulated by Dr. Biesman and Dr. Neiman-Kimel, board-certified pediatric neuropsychologists, was designed by drawing upon their vast database and knowledge of existing test questions, problem-solving tasks, and brain-behavior relationships coupled with their understanding of personality dynamics, child development, children’s social-emotional needs, and real-life demands. As just one example, we get at the question of a child’s social acumen through a robust set of questions, each with many viable answers. All of this is presented in a way that does not signal anyone answer as more correct than any other. The result is an honest assessment of more than 23 different strengths. Thus, the questions were created to capture information across a broad range of areas essential to one’s functioning but are offered in a much more accessible, engaging, fun and interesting format than students are used to seeing.

Children and adolescents immensely enjoy learning about themselves. What distinguishes the Thrively Strength Explorer is its ability to tap into essential areas of a child’s life in a format that makes sense to them without being overwhelming. Self-awareness is a powerful gift to give our children. Surprisingly, many students when asked, “What is good about you?” struggle with this question.  To have a tool that is entirely strength-based is refreshing and innovative in the current world of assessment and fills a missing need in the library of tests available for children and adolescents.

Once completed, an individualized profile is generated from which directed activities are identified.  The activities offered may embellish upon already existing strengths as well as to nurture those areas that will help students become more versatile. We seek to optimize each student’s capacity to fully thrive – intellectually, creatively, socially, emotionally, physically, motivationally, morally, and neurologically. Appreciate these principles:

  1. There are an estimated 100 billion neurons in the human brain. The connectivity of these neurons is what makes us our unique selves. While these connections are to some degree genetically determined, experiences can also influence their optimal arrangement. The brain is in continuous formation throughout life.
  2. There is no question that motor development and cognitive development are intricately connected and do increase grey matter in the brain, so keep your children moving!
  3. Brain networks do not work in isolation. Neither should we. Affiliative activities are essential in development.
  4. Experience can change neural connectivity. Neural connectivity or large scale brain networks influence everything human from cognition to personality to motivation to emotion to our sensory and motor systems. You can be instrumental in shaping your child’s experiences.
  5. Take an interest in your child’s passions and nurture those passions above all else.  The outcome will be worth the journey!


Dr. Jonine Biesman



Without Passion, Kids Struggle


When we examine the essence of what Thrively is about, it boils down to passion. We help kids discover and pursue their passion in life. Understanding core strengths and connecting children with the right activities based on those strengths are a means to the end. As part of our constant self-examination, we look for research on happiness and success, in search of that secret ingredient to a thriving child.

Shawn Achor spent eight years living in the Harvard dorms studying that link between happiness and success. His research turned a fundamental assumption on its head. Society has longed believed that if you work harder, you will be more successful, and then you will be happy.  Shawn’s research found that to be reversed. He found that we are far more productive, 31% more in fact, when we are happy. So happiness leads to more efficient work, and thus to success. Not the other way around!

We also came across a study that may be more intuitive: that perceived ability is the only reliable indicator of continued participation in activities. In other words, if you believe you’re good at something, you’re more likely to stick with it. This is where a firm understanding of the core strengths of a child can help us provide critical guidance.

Obviously, there are no silver bullets to the challenges of growing up, but research clearly shows that when you find someone who has discovered their passion and has been given the freedom and encouragement to fully pursue it, they will feel a strong measure of self-respect, confidence, and determination to succeed.  And that’s why passion has such an important role to play for Thrively and for all of the families we serve.

Discover Your Child's Strengths