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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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If I call a Ford Fiesta a Lamborghini Gallardo does it then go faster?

If I am disappointed with the speed my car moves will it go faster if I call it a Lamborghini Gallardo? Perhaps if I get it a shiny new badge that covers the old badge and maybe even give it a re-spray?

Over six hundred failing primaries in England are to be converted to academy status. That will be six hundred schools with the same children to educate, on the same sites, with often the same staff, teaching the same curriculum. Or will it? One academy in Bristol managed to dramatically increase the standards despite having the same site, staff and one would think the same pupils. However, a little scratching of the service reveals an admissions policy taking 80% of pupils from a more affluent neighbouring post code. The result I suspect is that those children who used to attend before the academy nameplate was nailed up are now being pushed out into LEA maintained schools and are disproportionately reducing the LEA results. Clearly then, academies work because in this area of Bristol the academy is considerably out performing the nearby LEA schools. Except, of course, nothing has changed. Taken as a big picture the standards in this area of Bristol have most likely not changed at all. Children are in different schools. Children working against social disadvantage aren’t affecting the statistics of the flagship academies, but they are still there, hiding below the surface, missing out on education because the real cause of low attainment was ignored in favour of a headline winning national strategy that now publishes the improvement that the local community wanted, even if that community are now prohibited from attending their local school.

Schools need to be allowed to focus on their core purpose, teaching and learning. Rebranding, even if it comes with a new letterhead, school badge, uniform or multi-million pound privately financed building can’t improve standards, at least not without a little behind-the-scenes manipulation, such as an admissions policy. Focussing on teaching and learning is what will improve standards.

It is refreshing to be able to sit back and watch developments in UK education with a critical eye before adopting them into school. Certainly I oversee the National Curriculum being taught in the schools that I lead but with the facility to dictate the ‘how’ from a basis of sound teaching and learning as opposed to needing to respond immediately to non-educators stipulating ‘how’ the education should happen.

Most effective strategies for school improvement focus on the process of learning and move away from the product. Why then is the UK determined to try and find a just method of measuring affectiveness of schools based on product. We can talk about value added, contextual value added, mix in some poverty factors, employ teams of mathematical graduates to crunch the numbers and convert the raw statistics into pie charts for the tabloids, but the real measure of schools comes from an evaluation of the teaching and learning. For that, the inspecting body needs to turn the focus away from judging teachers and look more closely at the learning taking place in school. I can make a judgement on the standards within a classroom fairly accurately and fairly quickly by talking with the pupils about their learning. I don’t need an analysis of how many are claiming free school meals, how many are diagnosed with a behaviour problem or what proportion of those pupils appear to move two percentile points when I look at the teacher assessment data. The teachers are responsible and must be held to account for the quality of their teaching but to improve schools we need to focus on the aspects of teaching and learning that have the most impact and not be pushed into manipulating statistics to attempt to demonstrate improvements.

It will be interesting to watch in a generation’s time and see whether or not the millions poured into the rebadging of ‘community primary schools’ as ‘academies’ has made a real difference to the educational attainment of the nation. We won’t be able to see that until a generation of pupils has been through their education and then we will discover the truth not by looking at the output of the academies in comparison to the remaining maintained schools, but by looking at all pupils and comparing to the previous generation.

In the meantime, I am happy to sit outside the direct influence of state controlled schools and lead learning that makes a real difference. Positions available in September for anybody needing to get back to real teaching. In the meantime, I am off to paint my car and rebadge it, just in case despite my cynicism, it can make a difference.

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