Elite sport shows winning requires more than natural talent

Tougher Minds Head of Education Andrew Foster uses last night’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year event as his cue to discuss the notion of “natural talent”.

‘I wasn’t the strongest, the fastest, the most skilful, the fittest. But I was also aware of my strengths. There was one area where I knew I could stand out, and that was by being the most committed’

The reflections by the former Rugby League player Kevin Sinfield on his remarkable career at last night’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards were one of just a number of insights that underlined sport’s value to teachers and indeed anyone interested in improving the performance (in any area or pursuit) of others and themselves.

Kevin Sinfield

I see more and more evidence that the biggest impediment to learning we face is the irrational, ill-founded yet widespread belief that talent is innate and some people are incapable of achieving things that other people do.

Sport is helpful to us because as well as being popular with children, it offers real-life examples of how vital deliberate practice and resilience in the face of setbacks is to success. Hard as the job is now to convince the eleven year old child decided they’re ‘just not good at Maths’ that if they persevere they can improve, it would be all the harder without the examples of the likes of Sinfield, Andy Murray and Jessica Ennis-Hill.

“I can’t do it… it’s going to be too hard.” Not a quote from 7B, Thursday period 6 but the then Jess Ennis, on being told that a stress fracture in her right foot would mean switching to her left when competing in both the long jump and high jump. With her face beaming from every surface horizontal or vertical that Santander or Adidas can muster, we forget the bumps she faced along the road.

Eight year old Bailey Matthews made the case even more strongly. He fell. And he got back up. Completing his triathlon without the aid of his walking frame made him an internet sensation. Teachers and parents of children with similar disabilities will know that he and they will face further challenges that are more than can be captured in a few seconds of YouTube footage. The question then becomes, how can that moment of inspiration be translated into daily action that has ongoing positive impact on lives and learning?

Another of the nominees last nigh, Adam Peaty offered some insight into how we might meet these challenges. He spoke about the battle in his own head as he surged through the water towards the first ever 100 metre breaststroke completed in under 58 seconds. The voice that said it was impossible, and the voice that said it could be done.

Dan Carter, winner of the Overseas Personality of the Year, knows all about this battle too. His All Blacks, acclaimed as one of the greatest teams of all time in any sport worldwide, make great use of refined mental skills. Thinking about thinking is the way we can best go about seeking to achieve what the young Kevin Sinfield determined he would do.

The reason I took the position of Head of Education at Tougher Minds is that there is to my knowledge no organisation with a better understanding of how to transfer this insight from the track, the pool and the field to the classroom and the office. I strongly recommend that you download the free Elite Business Athlete e-book.

Congratulations to all the fantastic athletes whose achievements were celebrated last night, and here’s to adding some more of our own in 2016.

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