“It is the willingness to engage in hard or, quite often, very boring, practice that distinguishes the very best”
A standard belief held by many was that the very best were supremely talented due to an inbuilt gift that couldn’t be created. Some people said that it was inherited and others may have said it was a god given gift. Therefore yes, you could get better with practice but that was never enough to be a world beater. In my childhood memories the world beater did not have to just be an Ian Botham, a John MacEnroe or Daley Thomson, I am showing my age here. Instead a world beater could be the child who always beat you in an individual sport, the child who scored the hat tricks on the football field or the child who bowled a ball you could not put a bat on.
We used to practice of course. I can remember spending hours at the cricket field persuading anybody I could to bowl at me or just running in and trying to bowl as fast as I could at unguarded stumps pretending I was Malcolm Marshall. In some sports there was some coaching. I played table tennis at a reasonable level and attended group sessions were there were 16 children all practicing the same routine. I can still remember, backhand short serve, opponent backhand push and then the server hitting a forehand top spin… with the instruction from the coach continue the point from there. However individual coaching that really focussed on an individual weakness, well that was few and far between and only for the wealthy few. There was no doubt that practice did make a difference in comparison to those who didn’t but it never seemed to make a difference in comparison to those who were practicing as much I was and in the same style… if they were already better than me they just stayed better than me. In fact even practicing more did not seem to impact either, especially if always I was doing was just repeating the same thing and in terms of cricket, my bowling has its own individual idiosyncratic action all of its own which you would never find in a coaching guide.
The idea of practice beyond this was not really discussed in any length. I did read occasional stories such as of Ivan Lendl who was not even the best player in Russia in his teens and went onto be the best player world apparently through a phenomenal work ethic. Another story that stayed with me was Geoff Boycott having the wooden floor of a gym polished so the ball would turn and bounce to replicate the wickets of the sub continent. Yet it was the individual genius of the tabloid favourites that were much more to the fore.
The first occasion when I heard a different view was during teacher training when I attended a half day seminar entitled ‘ability.’ There two Maths education lecturers propounded the view that there was no such thing as ability it was all about the environment a child was brought up in and then the teaching they received at school. I can remember railing against this, it couldn’t be right. I commented that it wouldn’t matter how much I practiced it would not turn me into Bryan Lara! The lecturers responded to my views and those of others with a patient, weary wisdom borne out of an unshakeable belief that they were on the right track. (They were far too humble a pair to claim they were right!)
That was twenty years ago and now my view has greatly changed. Why you may ask?
First is just the life experience that has made me consider what is practice? How can it be made more worthwhile? In my teaching how could I encourage children to solve equations and then just practice, practice, practice… Those children who would do this really did make huge strides and would overtake the pupil who had appeared naturally talented at 11 but did not retain the work ethic. My biggest success was a child who was a Maths level 4 at 11 (the national average) and a set 3/4 candidate but with continual practice achieved his A* and the second highest result in the school five years later. This was a child whose primary teacher would not have said was talented in any way.
One of the biggest impact though has been two books, ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell and ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed which turn the talent myth upside down. They do this by highlighting all the stories of some of the gifted individuals I had used in my arguments such as Tiger Woods or Mozart and explained how they had achieved so much at an early age due to the incredible number of hours that they spend on their practice. Also the type of practice they engaged in. This was not just repetition for repetition’s sake but instead practice which was highly purposeful. These are books which I regularly read sections of in school assemblies as I constantly wish to present the view that the children can always practice and find a way forwards.
I wonder if the other element which has greatly changed my view is of being a father and being a tennis dad. Tennis was not a sport that I played as a child or certainly not in any organised fashion but now I spend hours at the side of a court or chauffering my children to coaching sessions. I have a reason for wanting to believe that purposeful practice is the solution because that means that if I can find the right opportunities for whichever activity my children wish to pursue whether it is tennis or something else and can then encourage a practice ethic amongst them, then there is no limit to what they can achieve. I am sure that every parent holds that dream, that our children’s outcomes are potentially limitless.