Whose Life is it Anyway?

A great play I saw many years ago. But I was reminded of the title when thinking about the whole issue of youngsters, parents, teachers, coaches … and the life that a youngster wants to live for him or herself, with their friends.

Many wiser folk than me have looked at the whole issue of ‘talent’ and whether it is inherited from talented parents or the result of what you do in the early years of life. You may well be familiar with the concept of “10 000 hours”. This goes back some time. Research showed that to be ‘at the top of your game’ in ANY sphere of endeavour – music, sport, languages or whatever – there is simply NO substitute for hard work and ten thousand hours of practice. The practice must, however, be based on good teaching/coaching. It is useless to simply repeat BAD practice, and ingrain your faults.

So you need a good teacher or coach AND a huge amount of dedication to reach the top.

Matthew Syed – a well known psychologist, journalist and England No 1 table tennis player for 12 years – has written a brilliant book called ‘Bounce – the myth of talent and the power of practice’. Read it if you have ANY interest in enabling youngsters to become outstanding. He describes a conversation with David Beckham (whose autobiography he ‘ghost-wrote’ for him) in which Beckham expressed his frustration that fans respond to his 89th minute goal in the European Championships by saying ‘Oh – I wish I had his talent’. Beckham himself sees this as an excuse for laziness on their part. He said that they don’t see the hundred – no thousands – of hours he spends doing the drill over and over again in practice, long after everyone else has gone home. He explained that as a boy, he was one of the worst in his class at ‘keepy-uppy’, so he practised and practised until he could do not 3, but three thousand and 3, and got in the Guinness Book of Records. Syed’s book gives dozens of examples, denying the ‘myth’ of a child prodigy, and instead saying we can ALL become super-talented at almost anything, provided we start early enough, get good quality coaching, and then practise and practise and practise.

So – easy, eh? Perhaps. But who wants to be so dedicated to a single goal in life that EVERYTHING else has to be subservient to that goal? Fitness, food, drink, exercise, sleep, rest … all have to be ideal. And the relentless slog of training and practising, whatever the weather, no matter how you are feeling. And you have to avoid injury….

As Headmaster of a very successful Boys’ School in Northampton, I was privileged to have a fantastic PE team. We placed huge emphasis on the importance of sport in the development of ALL boys, not just the sporting elite. We had coaches of national renown. As a result we won the ‘State School of the Year for Sport’ three times in 5 years, and were runners-up twice. In my time as Head, we won national titles in Rugby, Football, Basketball, Cross-country and had world champions in Trampolining, and too many international sportsmen to mention. You will all know Courtney Lawes & Steve Thompson (British Lions) and David Willey (Cricket). Some will know Alex Ward (Wimbledon this year). But we also won national titles for Music (especially Jazz and Wind Bands) and Dance. Matt Smith – yes, Dr Who – was also one of ours, after he had to give up a career in professional football with Nottingham Forest due to injury in Y11, and switch his talents to acting! ALL these boys were talented. But so were hundreds more.

What all of the above boys had – and others who have been British champion boxers, karate fighters, gymnasts, go-karting champions – was a huge commitment to be the best they could be. They showed the single-minded determination that was needed to succeed.

But our concern as teachers, coaches and parents is just how far can you push a child? Just how much can you keep them focused? Just how much is it THEM that wants the success, and not us? The saddest thing I saw as the coach of a regional schoolboy football squad was the sight of parents trying to live THEIR dreams through the lives of their children. The boys just wanted to have fun playing the game. The parents wanted more. It can lead to a breakdown in relationships.

In a future article, I will outline how I dealt with over-ambitious parents, and with professional clubs – and football is the worst culprit – who try to interfere with every child’s right to an education. Getting the balance right is an almost impossible task, for parents, coaches … and headteachers. So – just “Whose life is it anyway?”


Sir Michael Griffiths

Education Consultant – SMG Education Limited
Former Head Teacher Board Member – Department for Education (DfE)
Former Council Member & President – Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)

Former Headteacher – Northampton School for Boys & Wallingford School