How to nurture an expert
Few of us have probably read the story of László and Klara Polgár. László is a Hungarian psychologist and Klara is a teacher from the Ukraine.
When László was wooing Klara, he told Klara about his theory on how to create a top performer. He said that with proper rearing, any child could become a genius.
So before they got married, both of them agreed on a plan and decided that they would nurture their children to be top chess players in the world. They chose chess, because they believed it was a game where they could easily track objectively the progress of their children.
The Polgár had three children, all girls. The first was Susan, born in 1969, then Sofia in 1974, and Judit in 1976.
All these girls became world champions in chess.
When Susan was just four years old, she won her first tournament, the Budapest Girls under 11 years old Championship. She got 10 wins, no losses, and no ties. At 15 years old, she became an internationally top-ranked woman chess player. Then she became the first woman to be awarded grandmaster.
Sofia, the second daughter, won the Rome chess championship in 1989 at the age of 14. At one time, she was the sixth-ranked female chess player in the world.
Judit was probably the best of the three. At 15 years old, she became a grandmaster, making her at that time the youngest person, female or male, to reach such ranking. For 25 years, she was the top woman chess player in the world until she retired in 2014.
How did the parents of these three top world chess players nurture them?
In the 1980s, Benjamin Bloom, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, did a study to answer the question: “What does one find in the childhood of people who become experts in their field?”
The group of Bloom studied 120 experts in six different fields—concert pianists, Olympic swimmers, tennis champions, research mathematicians, neurologists, and sculptors. They searched for common factors in these individuals’ development.
They found three factors common to these top performers. The first is that the parents themselves were interested in the field where their child later on became a top performer.
In Susan Polgár’s case, chess pieces were the toys she played with even at three years old. László Polgár was a chess enthusiast.
Tiger Woods, to cite another example, was just nine months old when he was given a little golf club to hold. The father of Tiger was a golf instructor.
At this young developmental stage, parents give their children a great deal of attention, encouragement, and time. The parents themselves are very achievement-oriented, modeling to their children the values of hard work, self-discipline, and spending their time constructively.
The second factor uncovered by Bloom is how the parents motivated their children. They had a way of motivating their kids with simple praises that made them continue practicing their skill without getting bored and tired of it. Once their child was getting serious with her or his field of interest, usually in the teen years, the challenge was to look for a coach who was a top performer in the field—the third factor.
At this point, these future top performers will learn how to practice deliberately and not just for fun. It will become like work for them. And it is at this crucial time that a coach will need to be an exceptional motivator to keep them improving and excelling.
The biggest role of the coach is to nurture a child whose motivation comes from within. Once that burning self-motivation is reached, she or he is on the way to becoming a world-class performer.
Leonardo Leonidas, MD, was assistant clinical professor in pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston.
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