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What Russian tennis tells us about talent

Is talent innate, a birthright awarded to the lucky few, or is it something that we all have if it is developed correctly? Given the right experience and opportunities can we all excel?

I remember, when training as a teacher, hearing a lecturer tell us that in our class every child was gifted. Our task was to discover in what field they were gifted and to provide the learning opportunities to develop in this area. Maybe this is true but perhaps talent works in different ways.

Spartak tennis club in Moscow has attracted attention as a result of success. Perhaps it is an example of growth mindset in action. Carol Dweck’s Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential explores why mindset is important to success and Spartak certainly relies upon the correct mindset. Let’s take a look at some facts about Spartak tennis club.

Indoors facilities at Spartak tennis club

Spartak tennis club, Moscow

– It is located on the outskirts of Moscow and has only one indoor court. For many months of the year the outside temperatures mean the only facility available is this one court.
– Three of the top six female Russian tennis players (four if you include the now retired Anna Kournikova) were trained at Spartak.
– Between 2004 and 2007 Spartak achieved eight players in the women’s year end top 20 rankings. In the same time the whole of the USA achieved only seven.
– Spartak has produced more top 20 players on the WTA than the whole of the USA. It has produced more top 20 players on the WTA than the whole of Europe.

But why? What happens to make such a small tennis club stand out. Two things took place here that cemented the celebrated position it now holds in tennis history. Firstly, the lady responsible for coaching took what was, at the time, a unique approach. Secondly, in terms of believing something is possible, success breeds success.

Larisa Preobrazhenskaya

Larisa Preobrazhenskaya – the mother of Russian tennis

The coaching strategy
The coach responsible for the success of Spartak was Larisa Preobrazhenskaya. She developed a system of coaching perhaps in part as a result of her limited resources. Where the USA and Europe were training tennis players by getting them into tournaments from a young age, Larisa was training their muscles. Working in a way that is now common in sports science she realised that a movement could become hard wired (or myelinated) into the brain if it was practised repeatedly. Her coaching strategy was to have her students practise the correct movement for playing different tennis strokes. The students practised in slow motion, with no ball and no game being played. They repeated for hours and with time increased the speed. Only when the students presented with sufficient skill to handle a range of strokes correctly did Larisa use tournament play in the training regime.
In effect, Larisa took the old adage “practice makes perfect” and honed it into “targeted practice makes perfect”. Why spend hours playing a game that might bring only a small amount of opportunity to play a backhand stroke down the line when you can practise that stroke a hundred times in a couple of hours? Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown explores this notion that with the right training talent can be developed. So, is talent simply a matter of the right training or is there something else needed?

Belief breeds success
The importance of self-belief is vital for success in any field. If you don’t believe you can excel then how can you dedicate the time and energy needed. By the way, if you’re still not sure how much time, 10,000 hours. Malcolm Gladwell identified that in any given field to become an expert takes 10,000 hours of practice. That is usually around ten years of dedication. (Outliers: The Story of Success).
Spartak suddenly burst onto the scene with the success of Anna Kournikova. In 2001 Russia had one player in the WTA top 30. In 2007 half of the WTA top 10 were Russian women. In fact, in 2004 the French open final between Myskina and Dementieva showcased an all Spartak final. (A tournament event that became quite common.)
This isn’t unique and talent pools develop elsewhere in the world when an exemplar succeeds and demonstrates what is possible. In 1998 Se Ri Pak from South Korea sank a birdie putt to win the US Women’s Open. This made her the youngest to win, the only South Korean to win, indeed, the only Asian to ever win the tournament. The result, within ten years South Korea jumped from having one player in the top fifty to having more in the top fifty than the whole of the USA. Ten years on and Se Ri Pak was still playing but now although still in the top fifty she was only the 14th highest placed golfer from South Korea. Her success gave belief to South Korean golf and that was the catalyst to a practical take over of the golfing world.

What does this mean for teachers
As teachers, this is important. It is science and it is proven but does it have a place in the classroom? I believe so and I believe there are two key points to take away.

1: Training needs to be targetted – don’t waste time on things that don’t matter
Do pupils have individual learning targets? Are they developing towards an achievable target that moves them forward? Do they understand what they need to do to improve and is it an objective that they can self monitor or, to put it another way, will they know when they have achieved success?

2: Belief breeds success
Using the correct feedback, praising effort as opposed to the child or the attainment, we can develop a belief. Call this what you like, Mindset, confidence or self-belief but without it there is no motivation to invest time and energy into working to improve. Teachers have a duty to make pupils believe in their own capacity to improve and this means removing labels and including individual pupils in an evaluation of their learning. If you know where you are and can see where you are going then you can buy into the possibility that you might succeed. Nothing drives motivation like the likelihood of success.

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