• by Blaine Helwig

Music and Athletics – Lessons to Emulate in Skill Mastery

When I was in high school, I could hold my own in both wrestling and distance running. I was a respectable high school athlete – never possessing the natural talent to go beyond that level. But, I studied my sports. I read books on training. I talked to folks that had excelled in the sports. I watched others that were better than me – learning from their superior expertise. And, of course, I practiced and practiced and practiced – consistently.

When I left structural engineering and began teaching in the elementary schools, I was amazed at the success learned in skill preparation and practice used in athletics and music was largely ignored. It seems to me today, as it did a quarter century later, that far too many educators view student learning in their professional field as isolated and unique. I have heard over the years at least 10 professional development presenters basically state, ‘Children are not little adults, and they learn differently. We should not treat them the same.’

Yes. That is true. Children are not little adults. But, they are human beings, albeit little ones, but they are still human beings – with human brains attached to their small bodies. They learn basically the same way big human beings seem to do – only the content must be developmental and presented more concretely due to a lack of perspective and background knowledge due to their age. They learn skills (developmentally) in core subjects by a tactile, pictorial and then abstract methodology. Then kids apply those skills in some application activity, and they usually struggle at the new exposure. They practice. They practice. And, they get better. Basically, I was taught the same basic skill methodology as a civil engineering student at the University of Texas, except the vast majority of time we skipped the tactile and went directly to the picture – and transitioned quickly to paper-pencil physics and mathematics. After the skills were learned, our classes delved into an application.

Athletics and Music – Skills to Application with Lots of Practice

When there is a sports documentary of a famous athlete and highlights are shown of the athlete playing in game during their high school years, it is evident that they are a gifted athlete in comparison to the players around them. It is like watching a man competing against boys. Outside the fact that they are gifted athletically, what else did they do to play the sport so remarkably? The game is but an application of their skills. Those skills were not mastered by playing the game at full speed. They developed individual skill sets by practicing them in isolation – a lot! As these athletes are interviewed in the documentary, they often share the amount of time they practice. It is of little wonder they are exceptional. They possess gifted ability, and they do not shy away from the required perspiration as they consistently practice…and practice…and practice. What is also interesting is when the athlete shares insight into the elements of their game. They have mastered the fundamentals and the application – and they reflect on a micro level in many areas the respectable player cannot.

While traveling in Europe a couple decades ago, I met an accomplished musician who was a member in a major orchestra on the east coast. We discussed the amount of skill practice required to become a musician at her level. Again, as with athletics, it was a similar tale. The amount of skill practice in scales and technique did not surprise me in the least, despite the fact that I do not play an instrument. It only made sense it would be the same. But, I asked her what she was thinking about when she played her instrument in a concert, and her answer was telling. She replied, “I know the music so well due to an inordinate amount of skill practice and preparation that I am thinking deeply about the music – on the smallest of details.”

If we are to learn anything from talented athletes and musicians when it comes to teaching elementary students basic core subjects in math, reading and writing, it must be a developmental emulation of basic methodology. Students must practice basic skills until mastered – and skills must be applied until the application is mastered. Then, the student will be capable of holding more information in working memory and focusing more fully on the content – even at an elementary age.

But, it is true. Elementary students are not little adults. So, make the lessons fun and interesting – which may be the only real challenge for the educator. The methodology is certainly not much of a mystery.