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ANSWERS BACK - Q&A on motivation with award winning journalist and author of Bounce, Matthew Syed

(48 Posts)
RachelMumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 10-May-11 15:31:00

With exam season about to start, we are all looking at ways to help our children to succeed but could we be hindering them by praising their talent instead of their effort? This week we're running a Q&A with Matthew Syed, all about best ways to motivate your kids.

Times columnist, three-times commonwealth table tennis champion and award winning author of Bounce, Matthew is hoping to help parents motivate their children by applying the philosophy he writes about in Bounce. In Bounce he dismisses the idea that talent is the key to success. He argues that David Beckham wasn't born with an innate free-kick ability but it came about as a result of hard work and practice and the path to the top is a combination of opportunity being in the right place at the right time and hard work.

So is it possible for all children to achieve grade A* Maths, given the right opportunity and guidance?

Send in questions to Matthew about motivation, his own success and Bounce and ask him how you can help motivate your children ahead of their exams. We'll link to his answers from this thread the following week. We have five copies of Bounce to give away to those who send in questions and will announcing the winners on Monday.

thebestisyettocome Tue 10-May-11 16:21:30

I think it's a great idea to ask Matthew onto here. I think he has some really interesting ideas.

To be honest, being the mother of two very sporty boys with very different personalities I have hundreds of questions smile

I am really interested to hear about Matthew's views on how you can ensure children peak at the right time. Modern parents often appear to be in a mad scramble for their children to perform well at a very young age. As mum to a 5 year old who two premier league football academies are interested in shockhmm I am very concerned it may be too much too soon.


SPandN Tue 10-May-11 16:24:13

I am currently reading your book, with great interest, but rather than sports, my daughter wants to become a dancer. Technically and physically she doesn't have a problem, it's more of a case of needing to practice "performing" so that she can increase her confidence when being watched. I'm wary of nagging and pushing her the other way, causing her to rebel. How do you draw that fine line between encouragement and being a pushy parent, particularly when it comes to practicing?

Merrylegs Tue 10-May-11 18:00:15

Marking my place as this is exactly the conversation I am having with DS (13) at the moment. He is a tennis player (and table tennis too!) and we have both just read Agassi's biography, Open. Here is the bit we were discussing -

"My father says that if I hit 2,5000 balls each day, I'll hit 17,500 balls each week and at the end of one year I'll have hit nearly one million balls. He believes in math. Numbers don't lie... A child who hits one million balls a year will be unbeatable."

So is that what it takes to make it? Sheer hard work and practice? Is it just a numbers game? DS thinks you must have an innate talent in the first place.

(But what is interesting is that because DS is so focused on his sport and so used to training to a discipline that this carries over into his school work. He gets excellent marks not because he is particularly academic but because he has such a focused approach to study. He knows the drill. He is not however 'gifted'.)

Pagwatch Tue 10-May-11 18:31:15

Ooh how interesting. Just started reading bounce.

I have seen some of his ideas in operation.
Ds1 aged 5 played rugby endlessly. Fantastic, enjoyed it, loved it.

Went to school and all was well. He won 6 races at sports day, good at tag rugby, brimming with joy and general running, bouncy, sportiness.

Aged 8 he turned up at a new school and head of sport looked at him and said "too small". He was born late June. Of course he was bloody small compared to all the sept and oct boys.
Second team. <<sigh>>
playing with boys who had never played before. Used as opposition in training. <<double sigh>>

Now aged 17 he makes it into firsts through bloodymindedness in rugby, cricket and remains very keen to get into sport at university.
But in truth he had all his confidence knocked, the standard and duration of training was always less in b squads and he is fairly jaded.

Such a shame and so frustrating to see a boy just pushed to one side aged 8 because he was young in the year and slight.

He is 6 ft now. Of course. Not a bad size fir a scrum half.

Dd is aged 8 now. Sept 3rd birth. huge difference

Pagwatch Tue 10-May-11 18:39:12

Gosh, it is lucky I have already bought his book as my rambling nonsense would never get a mn one grin

In fairness I am with dd at her swimming lesson. (first of 3 each week. Poor girl is so going to regret that I read Bounce.... grin)

Ignore my post. Just quite excited that Matthew is on. Sorry

<<mumbles off...>>

janeyjampot Tue 10-May-11 18:41:08

Marking my place as I've always believed that talent was innate. Practice is of course important, and in the normal scheme of things can help you to develop your talent more quickly, but I think that really outstanding exceptional talent is born as well as made.

bigTillyMint Tue 10-May-11 18:51:34

I believe in the adage 50% talent, 50% drive. A competitive child will push him/herself to the limit to achieve what they want, and will be willing to practise, practise, practise. Particularly if they have support at home, etc. But it is up to individual parents / children as to how hard they "motivate" them.

fromheretomaternity Tue 10-May-11 20:32:18

My question is, how do you get over laziness? I speak from experience as I'm prone to laziness and procrastination myself which has really set me back in my career. What tricks do you use to overcome this especially when the endless practice you talk about is inevitably going to get boring? Are some people just born with willpower and some without?

Crumblemum Tue 10-May-11 21:20:14

Great book - never thought I'd say that about a sports book!

My kids are a bit young, but will read thread with interest. Matthew, do you think there is an age where you shouldn't overly encourage sport (my 2 year old would kick a football all day long) or if they show an interest just get stuck in!

Cortina Wed 11-May-11 07:53:00

It’s brilliant that Mumsnet have you here to answer our questions, thank you. I’ve read your book with interest and others that touch on similar themes, Outliers, Dweck’s Mindset and Guy Claxton’s books. They’ve changed my life and I have mentioned your book in previous discussions on this site. Mumsnet – please spread the word on other areas of the site that Matthew will be doing this Q&A session, it’s such an interesting and valuable area for discussion.

I’ve come to realise that the majority can get incrementally better at whatever they set their mind to, what one child can learn most can learn, if you treat children as if they are more intelligent they tend to become more intelligent in this sense, etc. There might be genetic differences in ‘intelligence’ but there is a huge variation around the base point that depends on encouragement, self belief, mind set, and experience. I think you’d agree with that? I have spent most of my life believing I am hopeless at certain things, maths and sport for example. I know see with the right mindset and approach I can get better. Your book has helped with that.

I am interested in your view on the difficulties I’ve faced and noticed, these are academic rather than sports related. It seems that many still have the view that ‘you can’t get out what God didn’t put in’. Interestingly I found this seems to be especially true in the Western world. I’ve worked in Asia and the mindset there seems to be there’s no reason your child can’t get into the ‘gifted’ stream or become a violin prodigy but boy, are they going to have to work hard. Most in the UK still seem to see intelligence as fixed, as a unitary quality of mind. Your ‘brightness’ would follow you around from maths to english even to athletics training as Claxton has explored. In my experience many still believe you can’t get much smarter. There has been talk that the Beckham children have allegedly secured places at a highly, academic selective school. Many have expressed disbelief that they will be ‘bright’ enough to gain a place legitimately as they are unlikely to have inherited sufficiently high intelligence from their parents. Whatever their genetic inheritance, it’s my view excellent teaching, especially early on, can mean that children can develop skill sets & methodologies that would mean they could pass 'tricky' exams especially if coupled with drive and ambition. I’ve been told that children are likely to find a second language ‘too difficult’ if it’s introduced at primary level. Of course not every child is going to be hugely academic, but many are capable of far more than some realise.

Subtle, unconscious streaming and subconscious labeling happens as early as our reception class. Go to the TES site or speak to teachers and almost universally they speak about their high, middle and low ability pupils. Of course they want pupils to surprise them & they appreciate there will be changes but once a child is seen as ‘bright’ they rarely lose that label, excuses will be found for poor performance, getting in with the wrong child etc. A ‘slow’ pupil is unlikely to rise up to become a high achiever, a vast improvement is likely put down to hard work rather than innate ability. My son’s targets will be lower than a child who sits on the top table at any given point in time. Most believe a child who is heavily tutored for the 11 plus is likely to struggle at the Grammar school and be at the bottom going forward etc, he simply isn’t as bright as those who have sailed through the questions on the test. Given these thoughts my questions are:

Can a minor intellect become a major genius?
Does a child that starts ahead generally stay ahead?
Why is the view ‘you can’t get out what God didn’t put in’ so resilient?
Do you agree with setting and streaming of any sort in primary schools?
What can we do to instill drive and ambition in our children?

In the last 10 years or so I’ve watched with interest those children that do Kumon or have what I call the ’20 minute a day’ parents – parents that spend 20 minutes going through maths problems or facilitating literacy enrichment. I’ve noticed that they usually have children who are perceived as more able early on, they are often, at least initially, more verbal and quicker with maths problems for example. These children are often more confident and tend to go on to do well. Others may catch them academically but my observation is that those that start ahead tend to stay ahead.

mrsgmhopkins Wed 11-May-11 10:42:59

Hello, Matthew, I heard you on the Today Programme - great interview.

My son is 17, working towards AS levels from next week onwards. He does get top grades, albeit with the odd slip-up; he's aiming for Oxbridge.

Thing is, at home he doesn't work half as hard as dh and I used to. Basically he comes home and is on Facebook and computer games (social ones) all evening, chatting to friends. He claims to fit revision in around the online socialising. When we say he should be doing more, he says he works flat out at school and needs to relax.

He wants to study maths at uni, so that does make a difference (ie his performance in maths papers is paramount).

How can we motivate him to really put some time and effort in during the next few weeks?

He does understand that Oxbridge entrance is very competitive; but doesn't seem to see that working really hard is the way to make sure he has the best chance.

Thank you so much in advance!

Cortina Wed 11-May-11 12:35:11

Just been thinking some more on this, and would like to ask a couple more questions/raise a couple of points:

Why don't we attach status to drive and tenacity? A lazy, bright child that wins a place at a selective school may not gain as much from the experience over time as an industrious but less bright child. The child with a good work ethic may well do better academically longer term too. We talk disparagingly about 'plodders' and most would choose to be a 'hare' rather than a 'tortoise'. If I revised hard I found I could beat everyone in tests and secured top grades in public exams but didn't gain a place at an academically selective school at 11.

Do you believe ability has a ceiling? Can a 'lower' or average IQ be overcome with practice? If a person has no innate sports ability, two left feet etc, do you believe could they play top level football in time, with practice? What percentage of innate talent, as a bare minimum, would anyone need to achieve greatness?

To hark back to my earlier points, I think it's interesting schools usually talk about 'ability' rather than 'attainment' - ability many think is usually fairly fixed and attainment more variable.

Just to add I thought it was so interesting that the parents of Serena and Venus Williams decided they would be tennis champions BEFORE they were born.

senua Thu 12-May-11 07:00:30

It is tempying to look at the likes of Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters or the Hungarian chess family and say that they got there by hard work and tenacity, and if they can do if then so can you. However, it is in the nature of things that we only hear about the sucess stories. Has anyone actually scientifically tested this theory? There must be kids who have had the intensive input and training but didn't become champions: what is your analysis of them?

A second question, if I may. What are your thoughts on the opposite end of the spectrum? An average person may get better by practise but if someone is already ahead, and can stay ahead without trying too hard, then how do you keep them motivated? I am thinking principally in terms of education where teaching tends to be aimed at whole-class level and does not have the time or resources to cater for the G&T. How do you teach the academically able to learn-how-learn, to apply themselves when they don't need to.

Cortina Thu 12-May-11 08:57:55

Interesting questions Senua, will be good to see Matthew's response. As an aside have you read Carol Dweck's Mindset? - Some discussion/exploration regarding your second question, also Claxton's What's The Point of School.

jafina Thu 12-May-11 17:47:30

My question is similar to fromheretomaternity's. I have non-Identical twin boys. Both sporty and quite academic but one is a real self starter and very motivated to do well, the other could just lie around all day staring at the ceiling if not made to do things (which he then enjoys!).

So how do you deal with laziness? Is it innate?

Vale Thu 12-May-11 20:21:08

I take my child to swimming lessons since he was one year and half. He 's just turned 5 now, and recently moved to a proper swimming class where they start learning the swimming styles, everytime whines because he doesn't want to go.

I ignore his complaints and the strange thing is that once he is there he enjoys it, but I don't think he is never going to successed in sport because he doesn't have the drive.

How can I motivate him?
My main and more important goal is that he has an healthy lifestyle, so sport is paramount.

ShoonaBee Thu 12-May-11 20:31:37

Two questions re. practice: How much pushing encouraging your children to practice is too much? When does it become counter-productive?

I wouldn't describe our family as 'naturally musical' but I was always keen that my kids had the opportunity to learn an instrument if they showed the slightest inclination.
So Ds started piano lessons - my idea but he was keen - when he was 7, by the time he'd done his Prep test and Grade 1 it was becoming increasingly harder to get him to do even 15 mins practice every day; by the time he was 8 1/2 yrs old the biggest single cause of rows in the house was the piano and his lack of practice/enthusiasm etc. He continued working towards Grade 2 but before he took it I allowed him to give up because we moved house last summer and never found a new piano teacher in our new area. sad
Now my DS (7) has badgered me to allow her take up the violin, with lessons at school. Decidedly her idea. She's currently very keen but already getting a bit bored with repetitive practice sessions at home and I don't want history to repeat!

generalhaig Thu 12-May-11 22:19:57

I'm perfectly willing to believe that practice makes perfect, but there has to be a spark of some kind (call it innate talent, call it drive, maybe call it parental ambition!) in the first place which ignites the desire to practise

My two boys both had swimming lessons from an early age - ds1 is naturally sporty and pretty much right from the start was a boy-fish hybrid - it came easily to him so he wanted to do more, doing more meant he got better so a virtuous circle got started. Pretty much any sport ds1 tries, we get the coach/teacher coming up to us and telling us "he's a natural, he could go really far if he wants to"

ds2 has hypermobile joints and low muscle tone - he's more like a boy-spider hybrid, and spiders aren't very good swimmers ... he found it very hard, didn't do as well, didn't enjoy it as much so there was no motivation to work at it like ds1 did. However, despite not being a 'natural' ds2 does stick at things which interest him - he's practised his bowling really hard over the last couple of years and is now the reserve for his cricket team's B squad - might not sound like much but for ds2 it represents enormous improvement, but I'd be surprised if he got any further - lots and lots of practice doesn't even get him as far as ds1 does on his first try at something (which must be galling, but doesn't seem to have marked him)

Certainly in sport, physical attributes make an enormous difference - one of ds1's friends has been fantastically successful at his sport during the last 3 years, however judging by the size of his parents he's probably pretty close to his physical peak, and his coach doesn't think he'll make it through to success as a senior competitor as the boys winning from 16,17 onwards are simply much bigger than he's likely to be and no amount of practice is going to be able to wipe out his physical disadvantage.

I wonder how much impact differences in intelligence have on academic success, or whether there's a similar effect as in sport??

snorkie Fri 13-May-11 02:02:32

how can you motivate/encourage a child who has talent but underperforms when competing or doing exams due to a lack of self belief? You can see at the start of a race some children are slapping their thighs and getting all psyched up and others look slightly slumped and you can tell they've lost even before the race has started. Same thing seems to happen in academic exams too, some children just don't seem to handle the pressure whereas others seem to thrive on it.

keb1 Fri 13-May-11 13:55:19

I would like to ask about motivating my 8 yr old DS. He is an able student always done well until recently moved up to Yr 3. He is going backwards in his work and often doesn't even complete work at school which then has to come home. He is easily able to do it but not at all motivated, he does a half assed attempt and then gives up. He suffers from anxiety and hates school but this never affected his achievements at school before. I am totally against pushing him too hard but at the same time he needs to learn that nothing comes free in life and he does have to work hard. HELP!

Cortina Sat 14-May-11 10:36:59

Senua - I've just remembered that Matthew did refer to a test (in Bounce) which examined whether talent was about innate ability or practice. He took a group of violinists, some were rated as having an outstanding talent, some were seen as having a 'good' ability and others rather mediocre ability. He then looked at the number of hours each member of each group played the instrument. In EVERY case those believed to have the most natural talent were those that spent the longest time playing. There were absolutely NO exceptions to this rule which was what made the experiment so interesting.

I don't have my book to hand so can't reference exactly. Matthew will hopefully elaborate on this.

Cat98 Sun 15-May-11 15:35:05

I wondered if you had read or heard about any of alfie kohn's theories with regard to competition and if you had any opinions. My brother is an international sportsman and I also play the sport to quite a high level (though not quite international) so I have grown up in a sporting environment. Also, another question - I have a son who is 3, and he is already showing a keen interest in a number of sports. However, he does not like to hit the ball the proper 'technical' way, and my brother wonders if there is any point if he is going to do it technically wrong (he is of course only 3 so a non issue at the monent, but I am wondering about as he gets older). What do you think about this?

senua Sun 15-May-11 20:30:23

Thanks, Cortina, but I'm not sure that that entirely covers it. You've heard the phrase 'banging your head against a brick wall'? I can see that there may be a correlation between practice and attainment but which is cause and which is effect? Or are they both effect and there is a third element which is the cause (see questions on motivation/laziness)
Do the naturally talented practise more because they get the required output?(virtuous circle) Do those who do not get the required output stop trying? (the head/wall situation)

Once the experiment found there was a correlation between practice and attainment, what did they do next? Did they take the lowest achievers, persuade them to practise more and discovered a huge jump in attainment?

That is what I am saying. Did they find a cosy theory to fit the success stories or did they scientifically test the hypothesis?

orienteerer Sun 15-May-11 20:54:17

Ooh, pleased to find this thread. Don't have a specific question but just wanted to add that I am currently 1/2 way through reading Bounce. Fascinating as have sporty 8 year old (Year 3, Sep birthday so one of oldest in year) keen on sport. Will be watching thread with interest but, until now assumed skill was innate but can now see argument for repetition, repeat, practice etc........

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