Helping Young People Achieve Peak Performance

By Pamela Cantor, M.D.

KEY POINTS

  • Talent exists everywhere, not on a bell curve.
  • Experiences, not genes, determine whether a person’s potential gets revealed.
  • Deliberate practice builds new and powerful connections in the brain.
  • Obstacles are opportunities to overcome disappointment and learn the value of perseverance.

When we watch the very best performers — say, Serena Williams, Aaron Judge, or Yo-Yo Ma — they make it look easy. Their tennis, baseball, and cello skills appear to be innate. How often have you heard it said about any of today’s greats, “(S)he is so talented!”?

The truth is, we are not watching talent. We are watching performances at the very top of their developmental range.

Every human skill in every person has a developmental range, but the sad fact is that most of us never get to explore the upper limits, whether in classrooms, in sports, or in the arts.

The Path to Full Potential

In his 1984 2 Sigma study, psychologist Benjamin Bloom demonstrated that building highly favorable conditions in all the environments in which children grow and learn will put many children on the path to realizing their fullest potential and all children on the path to equity in learning and opportunity.

His proxy for highly favorable conditions was an individual tutor. He found that he could take a student performing at the 50th percentile and move them up two standard deviations through the experience of individual tutoring.

But here’s the thing — when he studied his data, he realized that the active ingredient that generated the outcomes was not the academic content alone. It was the content and the connection; the nature of the relationship with the tutor.

Think for a moment about your own lives. For most of us, there was a person who saw what we could be before we could.

But relationships can’t do it all.

Talent Exists Everywhere

Today, we have new insights into the human brain and biology that challenge long-held but false assumptions about talent, learning, and human potential. In short:

  • Talent exists everywhere, not on a bell curve.
  • The human brain is malleable well into young adulthood.
  • No matter the starting point or how many obstacles get in the way, all humans can develop to their fullest potential and contribute to the world.

Building Cognitive Muscle

Author and teacher-educator Zaretta Hammond argues that one of our most important jobs is to build what she calls “cognitive muscle,” or muscle that helps kids to carry more and more cognitive load.

Think about how a young person learns to play a sport or an instrument.

  1. First, they get an opportunity to play.
  2. They have a teacher or coach to guide and inspire them — a relationship that matters a lot.
  3. They learn, they practice, and some even begin to train seriously.

Training can be a struggle, but if done right, it is a productive struggle. Training builds strength and not just the muscular kind. It builds connections in the brain by chunking information, developing pattern recognition, and producing fluency through new and stronger pathways between sight, hearing, comprehension, memory, coordination, flexibility, and strength.

Deliberate Practice, Practice, Practice

Deliberate practice — think Serena Williams on the baseline, Aaron Judge in the batter’s box executing hit after hit after hit, or Yo-Yo Ma playing note after note after note — this kind of practice establishes numerous connections as new areas of the brain are recruited to do more complex tasks. Over time, skills that were new and seemed hard become automatic and fluent. Performance gets easier, even fun, and inspires more effort. This is the performance flywheel that produces greater and greater skill and expertise.

In the process, and with the support and expertise of a trusted teacher, an emerging athlete or musician learns something about the value of struggle, overcoming disappointment, and stick-to-itiveness. This is how the highest levels of performance, expertise, and mastery emerge.

Psychologists and coaches who study performance often say, “It’s the software, not the hardware.” In other words, it’s the experiences, not the genes that determine whether a person’s potential gets revealed.

Obstacles Are Opportunities

Can we predict how good anyone will get at anything in advance? No. But what we do know is that progress isn’t linear; there are bursts and plateaus, and we could get stuck, fail, lose a game or several matches, or botch a recital. What happens in those difficult moments matters a lot. The people around budding performers can influence whether they quit or persevere.

Parents, coaches, and teachers can all do their part to equip young people with the tools to reach their fullest potential, recruiting the full capacity of their brains and bodies toward increasingly ambitious goals. How?

  • Introduce them to new experiences.
  • Create conditions that are safe and nurture belonging.
  • Know the individual young person well enough to understand their interests and when to encourage, push or rest them.
  • Shape experiences around the value of struggle to prepare each child for challenges, and potentially even higher levels of performance.

Doing these things will optimize biology, psychology, character, creativity, and bravery. It will help young people manage the fear of failure and high levels of stress.

Human beings are wired to develop, learn, and grow. Great potential is there. It’s up to us to unlock it.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today.

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Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement. www.turnaroundusa.org