Especially for Andy Tharby, a blog about what we can learn from the Olympics/sport etcetera and apply to school contexts. The Documentary referenced can be found here  

The set up: DNA testing to find out which foods suit you best. If these systems work it is more likely for successful athletes to come from developed countries. It would make it easier to focus energies on those with ‘innate talent’- everything would get better faster and we’d all be much happier and fulfilled.

Should we spend lots of money on education?

Greg Rutherford does not use gyms and tracks (as much as other Olympic athletes) but instead runs around the wood near his house. When asked about his DNA he states that he has been tested, he states that he discovered that he has the ability to develop fast twitch muscles. He previously thought that he was able to reach peak fitness before/quicker than other people. He reflects constantly on his process, adjusting his programme and seeing what works for his body. He does come across as slightly obsessive – Long jump pit in his garden to minimise time away from family- towards his happiness and avoiding ego depletion.

He is very much Rocky V in his general approach though- and if recent revelations are to believed he is competing against, and beating, the steroidal Dolph Lundgren of the Eastern bloc.

Should we stream education?

Genetically matched training can double performance- if it were possible to identify dominant skills in individuals would it be I . The best interest of all to focus solely on those existing abilities. Dr David de Lorenzo thinks not; ‘No, this is for fine improvements post 18, we are not interested in killing dreams’- we are “just furnishing information to take you to your desired destination quicker.” His overview is that these are marginal gains, for adults. Double performance sounds amazing, but when it is in reference to Olympic athlete it can be as little as two tenth of a second. He definitely buys into Deweck’s growth mindset, but concedes the journey to excellence is certainly shorter for some.

Should we tell children about their existing talents?

“Categorically, no!” Says Matthew Syed-former Olympian & Oxford graduate- “Knowing about talent decreases motivation and resilience. Genetic factors are significant, but perhaps more so in areas that are simplistic in skill. Weightlifting, Basketball centres et cetera”.a lot of Syed’s thinking derives from Erickson’s ‘10, 000 hours of purposeful practice’ motif, as popularised by Malcom Goadwell. His view on knowledge of talent also seems valid when looking at real life success stories- almost all top athletes were mediocre juniors and had to fight for their place as best in the country let alone number in the world.

The issue here isn’t whether Syed is right, that seems bloody obvious but rather ‘how’ we should go about it, and of the moral right to ‘trick’ children in this way. Of course, some children will be the greatest in the world at their age group at that given point- how do we manage that? How do we tell them to keep doing the work that carved this talent without damaging…

Should we reward people?

Teaching is currently in an odd place, the government has decided to offer rewards for those with excellently yearly performance. This is problematic as research says teachers can’t be measured in this way, but it’s also troubling because unlike the private sector where this model is borrowed from, these payments are not bonuses. You either get them or lose your job. Grrrrreat. In British Swimming the approach is very much – carrot and stick. Chris Spice (performance director) has been part of setting up a team that is Results driven and he says “we are seeing those results.” Well then, the two must obviously be connected, thank heavens that was so simple! Unless of course it isn’t, and he is simply noticing a correlation between two things on a graph. His Swimmers now compete more and British Swimming has had a total upheaval in directors at the top. Research has shown that competition/testing is one of the most effective way to improve, yet Spice mentions this but never factors it in to the improvements…at least not in this shirt documentary. Nor does anyone mention the fact that the spread of events is narrow, the funding has increased or that the talent pool is currently quite large. All significant factors. No, it’s be have everybody loves money!

But do we? Of course we all think we do, that’s why millions of people play the lottery, but is it actually a decent motivator? Adam Beatty his mentality is very focussed on improvements in swimming. He is not competitive in the rest of his life, but completely obsessive in his pursuit of becoming ‘a legend.’ He doesn’t mention the bonuses once- he just talks swimming. seemingly his every thought is about water, waxed chests and speedos: deviant that he is!

The programme concludes with two excellent quotes from two amazing coaches.

“I’ve coached for 20 odd years, I’ve seen many swimmers with loads of ability, the difference is the desire.” Bill Furniss.

“Attitude can be coached, talent alone is not enough.” Clive Woodward.

For me that sums all of the above up. We have everything we need, we just need to get our hands dirty and our brows sweaty. Sometimes we want to intellectualise our efforts as a way of procrastinating- but the only thing that really matters is what we do. It is possible to be an excellent teacher/student who knows nothing of what they’re doing, but I’d argue that like Adam Beatty they’d have to be reflecting quite obsessively. Contemplation, even if not founded in research seems to be a uniting quality of all these athletes and indeed the excellent teachers I work with.

I’d like to finish with a far less erudite reference- as Lungrens character lies collapsed in his corner, Rocky turns to the Russian crowd and simply says, “If I can change, and you can change, then everybody can change!” Well, that’s a good starting point –no glass ceilings and no excuses.

N.b this blog was inspired by some excellent points made by Andy Tharby (reflecting English) about how ludicrous using a sports model is – I won’t attempt to recreate his point for fear of not doing the, justice but I decided to challenge myself to, at least, learn something about any cross-over.