by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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Parents, coaches, and teachers are in a constant hunt for ways in which to develop kids’ skills so that they can be successful in life. There is an interest in finding the newest and coolest ways to build skills in academics and athletics. There is fascination with the flashy innovative method that nobody else is doing because that will give the kid the edge over everybody else.
I was one of these parents looking to help my daughter get better at softball. She was pretty new to the sport, having only played one season, and the new season was about to get started. Last softball season we had practiced a lot on learning the basics of throwing, catching, and hitting off the tee. By the end of the season she was one of the few players on her T-Ball team that had graduated from the tee and could hit a ball that the coach pitched to her. But the season ended and she moved onto a summer filled with so many other things like swimming, riding her bike, and playing with friends. Winter time hit and softball season was right around the corner. So I did what all parents do at that time - get back on the field and practice. When we got to the field I started throwing her pitches and she couldn’t hit a single one. Ball after ball sailed right past her bat for a strike (if only I had that kind of success when I used to pitch in games)! I asked her, “What is going on, last year you were hitting everything?” Her answer was perfect, “I guess I forgot how to hit.”
I hadn’t really considered that she would ‘forget’ how to hit a pitched ball. It wasn’t that she mentally forgot, but rather her body and muscles hadn’t built up enough memory of how to hit the ball. For someone like myself, who has hit hundreds of thousands of baseballs throughout my life, I could pick up a bat and hit without any practice. But it took years of practice to get to that point. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” He argues that it takes that much practice or apprenticeship to really be an expert. Along the way to those 10,000 hours, our bodies and mind build memory of the skills that we are working on. We become accustomed to the skill and we learn how to correct when issues arise.
Now in no way do I as a parent expect by kids to be experts yet at their skills, but the more they can repeat the skills that they need, the more memory they will build up. This advanced mental and physical memory will lead to success. So while we as parents, coaches, and teachers try to find the best and most innovative method for building kids’ skills, the success boils down simply to how much have they practiced the skills. A perfect example is the current push in the Common Core Math for more advanced critical thinking and problem solving. But before we can expect kids to learn these advanced concepts there is a need for the repetition of basic math skills such as addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Repeating flash card after flash card of the multiplication problems builds the hours needed for success in math skills. The same can be said for coaches on athletic fields. There is such a push to play games and compete at early ages, but there is an incredible need for practice time where kids take hundreds of shots on goal, batting practice swings, and flip turns in the pool. The more they can practice a skill, the easier it becomes, and the greater success they will experience.
So with that thought in mind, I put my daughter back on the tee and started repeating the swing over and over again. A few more sessions over the next few weeks hitting off the tee and she seemed to have the swing ready. So the tee was set aside and I threw her a pitch. She ripped the ball right back at me and hit me squarely in the chest (I wasn’t ready because I didn’t think she would hit it). She smiled big, especially because she had hit me, and was ready for the next pitch. The next dozen or so balls got hit hard and suddenly I realized that the repetition of skills so as to build up the mental and physical memory pays off big time! She yelled out to me, “Now I remember how to hit the ball!” She was right, her muscle memory had picked up the skill again and she was ready to play. So as parents, coaches, or teachers, don’t be afraid to skip the innovation and go ‘old school’ with the skill building. This method sets up to be a home run for kids’ success!