kitchen table math, the sequel: how to grow an athlete

Thursday, July 10, 2008

how to grow an athlete

I still haven't read this story, but this paragraph caught my eye:

If I gave in to the uncontrollable Ericssonian urge to put Spartak's success into a formula, it would read something like:

Intense Parents + Young Kids + Rigorous Technique + Toughness = Talent

How to Grow a Super-Athlete
by Daniel Coyle
NY Times Magazine
March 4, 2007

I should probably go post that in the Comments on Concerned Parent's blog.

the "naturals"

Speaking of how to grow an athlete, I learned yesterday, while spending FOUR HOURS out on in a CVS out on Long Island trying to get Andrew's prescription medications labeled in compliance with state law for autistic kids attending 7 days of summer camp for the first time EVER, that there's a fellow in Switzerland who may be able to distinguish between the "naturals" and the "works hards." (You can get a lot of magazines read waiting 4 hours in a CVS.)

I wish to heck Psych Today had the print story posted online. The neuroscientist was an aspiring chess grandmaster who worked his tucchus off, was sent to special schools, etc. He finally gave up when he was beaten by an amateur player who "just liked to play."

Here's the blurb they do have posted.

The difference he's seeing has to do with memory, but I haven't figured it out yet.


Anonymous said...


About a week ago I was looking up the Polgar sisters. (They are in Wiki) Their father Lazlor Polgar was a psychologist in Hungary studied child prodigies and came up with the theory that there really are no naturals.

It says in Wiki, "Before he had any children, he wrote a book entitled Bring Up Genius!, and asked for a wife who would help him carry out the experiment. He found one in Klara, a schoolteacher, who lived in a Hungarian speaking enclave in the Ukraine. He married her in the USSR and brought her to Hungary. They have three daughters. He homeschooled his three daughters, primarily in chess, and all three went on to become strong players. An early result was Susan winning the Budapest Chess Championship for girls under 11 at the age of four."

One of the daughters did in fact become a grandmaster. Anyway, he thought that "naturals" are made by very careful training and mentoring by highly qualified experts.

He has books out too, but it looked like from the reviews in Amazon that it was more about the chess than about his theories on learning.

Gives me something to think about.

concernedCTparent said...

Posting that to my neglected blog would be a good thing. I absolutely agree with the formula with the caveat that the children must possess a certain intensity and desire as well.

I often find that coaches and athletes provide a parallel to how I feel about education. Some of my favorite quotes come from Wooden or Lombardi, for example.

I often find it ironic, however, that we accept this formula in the context of sports, but as a society often fail to transfer that knowledge to the academic realm. I know that observation has been made here at KTM often and it's something many of us grapple with in our own communities. When you support the growth of an athlete with all your available resources you're and "intense parent", when you do the same for a child's education you're a "pushy parent" or a "helicopter parent". It's difficult to understand how the majority of people cannot or will not seem to make this leap in thinking. Developing talent doesn't just happen.

Anyway, he thought that "naturals" are made by very careful training and mentoring by highly qualified experts.

I agree Myrtle. It is something to think about.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Polgar has found that nature plus nurture = developed talent. Time for some in womb and baby studies to characterize nature's contribution!

SteveH said...

"..but as a society often fail to transfer that knowledge to the academic realm."

The question is when do high expectations become "pushy"? In sports, nobody likes a pushy parent when the child has no interest. This doesn't apply to the pushy idea that if a girl wanted to play soccer, then she darn well better go to all of the pratices, even if they are at 8am on Saturday.

I've even had the pushy idea that if I force my son to practice more, he will have more fun in the end. More hard word means more fun, and less hard work means less fun. I don't always require a litmus test based on his willingness or interest. How many adults wish that their parents forced them to continue to play the piano?

It also doesn't apply to academics, where few parents would say that forcing kids to do homework is being pushy. The problem I see is that there are different levels of expectations and choices in sports, but not in academics.

I wish there was a travel team for academics. The expectations would be higher and the pushy cutoff would be higher. However, the idea of a travel team for academics is somehow fundamentally wrong. Apparently, it's OK for kids to be required to deal with the reality of different interests, capabilities (natural or taught), and drive in sports, but not in academics. I'll bet that if a school offered a travel team academic group in K-8, you would see a lot of pushy parents. What we have now is an academic environment that sets low expectations and downplays differences in abilities and drive.

[Actually, sports in our town are all about inclusion, skills, and fun until about fifth grade. Then comes the big splits based on talent and/or hard work. Coaches don't care much about natural talent. They care about hard work and results. They also have a clear idea of where they are going. That's another difference between sports and academics. Sports are not afraid of skills and drill and kill. They figure that the "Zen" of soccer does not need to be directly taught.]

You also have a knee-jerk reaction that more academics in K-8 is just about parents trying to turn their kids into super-students. How do you explain to the school or other parents that you have higher expectations (i.e. they have low expectations)? Apparently, pointing to algebra in 8th grade in other countries is not enough. We (incredibly) have people ask whether many adults really need to know algebra. Some of these prople are in charge of K-8 education.

In sports, most coaches know a lot about their sport. They know what is good and what isn't. Competition keeps everyone honest. People watch pro sports on TV and know what's good and what isn't. There's not much like that in academics.

I have teachers tell me that it's good to achieve the state's meeting expectations goal. I have had the the education reporter of our major newspaper tell me that the NAEP test sets the "Gold Standard". Obviously, they don't know what it takes to play pro-academics. It's not on TV. When mathematicians and engineers (who do know) give feedback to the schools, they are ignored.

I believe in a certain amount of natural ability. But what often happens is that those with a natural ability are inspired to work very hard. Hard work means more fun, and that provides a willingness to work even harder. People mix up the natural versus hard work percentage. If schools work harder on K-8 math, you will notice that many more kids will seem to be "naturals".

Anonymous said...

There are actually a set of equations.

Raw Ability + Dedication + Intense Coaching + Practice + Time = Mastery of Skills

Talent + Desire = Ambition

Ambition + Pushy Parents = Dedication

All this because the probability of success increases with mastery. Unfortunately talent and raw ability vary person to person so success is not always guaranteed.

ElizabethB said...

There is also a physical element in sports.

A 6 foot tall person is never going to be an olympic gymnast. Svetlana looked tall compared to the rest of her competitors...she was 5' 3"!

Conversely, there are few truly great basketball players that are short.

I read several years ago about a group of people who took 1,000 women with an interest in rowing. They measured them, and took the top 100 who fit the best body size and arm/trunk, etc ratios for rowing and subjected them to further tests to narrow down the ideal body type for rowing. They then went down the list in order and found the women willing to actually sign up to be on a rowing team...within 2 years, they were beating almost all the other womens teams out there.

As another example, I'm a fair sprinter and high jumper and long jumper, but I could have trained for 10 years and would never have been a good cross country runner. One season of cross country in high school was enough to convince me of this.

That being said, there were some interesting things in the article that could apply to both sports and academics.

Anonymous said...

Ognjen could be making a mistake. One of the differences between chess amateurs and grandmasters is that amateurs have to think out every single move. Grandmasters have memorized thousands of patterns so they intuitively know where to go for their next move.