What can we learn about learning from World Class Athletes?

I’ve spent a large part of the summer watching large multi-event sporting events on TV.  First, there was The World Athletics Championships, followed by The Commonwealth Games, and then hot on its heels, The European Championships.

As well as enjoying the competition, I find the background stuff really fascinating.  How the athletes have got to be competing in a world-class event, at the top of their discipline.  They aren’t just “really good” at running, jumping, throwing, or swimming and magically found themselves at the competition.  There is a lot of hard work, perseverance, disappointment, failure, resilience, and LEARNING happening over a long period of time that got them to that competition.

This is why I think athletes are such great role models for children and why we should encourage children to “think like an athlete”.

From listening to commentators, coaches and athletes talk about how athletes prepare for competition, and cope when things don’t go their way, it is clear that athletes have mastered “growth mindset”.  I’ve talked about this before in other blogs.  Essentially, if you believe you can do something if you have a go, learn from mistakes and persevere, then you will find the learning process much more enjoyable and achieve higher levels as a result.  World-class athletes have growth mindset in spades, and they are world-class athletes because of this growth mindset.  If they had fixed mindsets – “I can’t do this.  This is hard.  I’ll never be able to run that fast,” then they wouldn’t be at the championships, or winning medals, because they would think they’re not good enough and therefore won’t even try. 

As an example, let’s take Eilish McColgan who won gold in the 10,000m and silver in the 5000m at The Commonwealth Games and just over a week later won a silver medal in the 10,000m and bronze in the 5000m at The European Championships.  This is an astounding achievement and one she had been waiting to achieve for a long time!

How did she achieve it?  It’s not just about running faster than the other people in the race.  It’s not as simple as that. It took lots and lots and lots of practise.  Lots and lots and lots of learning from mistakes.  Lots and lots and lots of disappointments where she didn’t medal in competitions or didn’t run as well as she wanted to, or had injuries and illnesses which meant she couldn’t compete or run to the best of her abilities. 

Every single training run, every stumble, every defeat and disappointment were all essential to her achievements.  They all added up to help her refine her technique, learn how to manage her energy, when to run slow, when to run fast, where to place herself in the pack, when to make a move, when to hold back, how to get out of being boxed in by other runners, how to run in the most efficient way.  Small changes to make marginal gains which helped her win the race.  It’s as much, if not more so, about mindset and learning than it is actually putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as you can.

Another example is the high jump.  While watching this event the commentator was explaining how after an unsuccessful jump, the athlete will make tiny tiny adjustments to how they approach their next jump.  These alterations are imperceptible to us novices sitting at home. We can’t see them starting their jump a few milliseconds before they did previously, or making a tiny change to the angle of their body going over the bar.  But they are constantly learning and tweaking.  If they do knock the bar down, they might have a moment of frustration, but then they stand up, wave to the crowd and walk off to think through what to change next time with their coach. They are probably still feeling disappointed and frustrated, but they are able to manage this and not just have a hissy fit and give up. They learn from their mistakes to make the next jump better.

So, how does all this help children with their learning?  How can children “think more like an athlete”?  Here are my top takeaways from watching athletes this summer:


Top athletes keep practising their key skill a lot.  Runners run every day.  Swimmers swim every day.  Round and round the track, up and down the pool.  Once they’ve learned how to run/swim/cycle they don’t stop doing it – they keep doing it, over and over again.  It’s not always fun.  It’s often very boring.  Especially in the cold and dark of winter.  But they get up, get out and get practising – keeping the end goal in mind – to enter a certain competition, to run a personal best, to win a gold medal.  If they are injured or ill and can’t train, they notice that their technique is not as good as it was when they go back to it, because they haven’t been practising. 

Children need to keep practising key skills.  Practise makes the connections in your brain stronger.  The more we practise the stronger the connections get and the easier it is to recall the fact, or do the skill or whatever it is.  If we stop practising, the connections become weaker and it is harder to do.

If you don’t keep practising your times tables, your recall will not be so fast and it will hold you back in other areas of maths.  Just because you know your 3 times table it doesn’t mean you stop practising it.  Eilish McColgan knows how to run. But she keeps practising her running so she can get better and better at it.  Keeping practising the things you can already do are essential to help keep you moving forwards. 

They are resilient

Resilience is the ability to cope when things go wrong.  Athletes want to win every race, but they also know how to cope when they don’t.  That’s not to say they don’t feel disappointed or frustrated.  They absolutely do!  But they use that to help them get better, rather than giving up at the first hurdle (excuse the pun!)  In so many post-race interviews where the athlete has not done as well as they wanted to, they say things along the lines of “I’ll look at what went wrong and what I can improve and I will do better next time”.  This is growth mindset.  This is learning. 

Children need to learn that we all make mistakes and this is normal.  Things don’t always go our way.  This is good!  This is how we get better at things.  Instead of giving up, think about how you can change what you did, so you don’t do it again (this might take practise!)

They persevere

Athletes are this good at what they do because they have kept practising, they haven’t given up, they kept trying.  Athletes don’t turn up to the Olympics having done no preparation in the 4 years beforehand. Those 4 years are full of perseverance.  Perseverance to keep training in the cold and dark, early in the morning and late at night.  Perseverance to keep practising key skills.  Perseverance to keep trying even when you didn’t win the race.  Perseverance to try and beat your best time, or best distance.  Perseverance to move up one place in the rankings.  Perseverance to get through the tough times because without those, no learning will take place and the successes won’t come your way.

Children need to understand that we don’t get good at things overnight or by magic.  People who are good at things work hard to be that good at it.  We often don’t see that hard work going on – we only see them being good at stuff.  If they want to be good at something they need to keep trying and accept it will be hard sometimes.


They have a positive mental attitude.  They don’t say things like “I can’t do this” “I’m not good at this”.  They believe they can win.  They believe they can be the fastest. They believe fully in their abilities because they have put the work in.  If they don’t win races they say things like “I haven’t won a race yet, but I will!” or “I didn’t beat my top competitor today, but I will one day!”

Changing the way we talk about our abilities is powerful.  Using the word “yet” is helpful for children – “I can’t tie my shoelaces yet, but one day I will!”  or, “I’m finding this difficult at the moment, but if I keep practising it will become easier.” 

 What’s the goal?

Depending on where athletes are in their career, they might not be aiming to win the race.  Their goal might have been to get into the competition itself, or to make it through the heats into the final, or to get a personal best, or top finish in the top 5.  Many athletes don’t go to major competitions to win a medal – that isn’t the goal.  Some do go on to win a medal, and that’s a bonus, but it wasn’t the goal.  Every athlete has their own individual goals and they focus on those. Your child can focus on their own goals.  What do they want to achieve?  Take small steps, keep practising, think like an athlete and you will get there.  Many athletes say things like “I ran my own race and it paid off”.  This means they focused on the skills they had practised, kept their goal in mind and didn’t worry about what their competitiors were doing. 

Don’t worry what others are doing.  You focus on you.  Practise, persevere, welcome mistakes and use them to help you get better.  That’s how you can think like an athlete whether you’re running, jumping, swimming, writing or doing long division!

If you have found this blog helpful, then do come and join my free Facebook group Primary Matters for more help and advice about learning in the vital primary years.

To discuss how I can help support your child’s learning, please see my services or contact me.

2 thoughts on “What can we learn about learning from World Class Athletes?”

Leave a Comment