Friday, June 3, 2016

Tennis, Anyone?

“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.” 

I am a horrible tennis player. However, in the 1990s, I played competitively and practiced regularly, eventually reaching a level of proficiency I would describe as, “not too embarrassing.” During that time, I noticed something interesting as I tried to “master” the game of tennis--admittedly, a rather lofty, if unattainable, goal.

At the time, I was teaching in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. Most evenings, I would practice, and on weekends I was part of a team that competed in a citywide tennis league. My closest friend at the time was a fellow teacher who lived nearby. We had similar schedules and a common tennis court available so we had the opportunity to practice together frequently. Even though this person was one of my closest friends, I hated playing tennis with him. You see, as bad as I was at the game, he was even worse, a step below my own meager ability level. Whenever we played, I would win nearly every game, without much of a challenge. I found myself a bit bored and--more importantly to me at the time--not improving my game. On the other hand, there was another person on our tennis team who was able to practice with me, albeit much less often. I looked forward to these sessions. Although we were not as close personally, this fellow had exactly what I needed when it came to tennis: he was slightly better than I was! Most times we played, he would win our sets by scores of 6-3 or 6-4. On occasion, I was even able to win a set. Playing against someone of his skill level was precisely what I needed to stay totally focused and engaged during every single shot of every single game. Moreover, I found myself getting better whenever I played against him. In this instance, winning was not nearly as important to me as getting better. Although I consider myself one of the most competitive people around (perhaps too much so), in this case, I was less worried about competing against him (winning) than I was about competing against myself (improving).

So, how does this relate to the world of teaching, learning, and leading? Reflecting on this experience hearkens me back to Dan Pink’s seminal work about what motivates us. Anyone reading this post likely needs no reminder that Pink identified three essential elements related to motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Although all three may be applicable here, my tennis experience is most connected to the “Mastery” component: I had a strong urge to get better and better at something that truly mattered to me at the time. I realized I was not going to get any better playing my good friend, while I was equally confident I would get better playing an acquaintance whose game was a step above my own and pushed my own performance. As classroom teachers, this is vitally important to remember. Are we assigning work that is too easy? Stuff our kids already know and can do with no real challenge to them? If so, we may find our students losing interest in the work, possibly complying with the assignment by doing it without truly being engaged and trying to grow and get better. At the same time, we cannot create student work assignments that are overly challenging. In my tennis analogy, if I had played tennis against Serena Williams, who presumably has the ability to defeat me 6-0 every single set, I would neither improve nor be overly engaged in the game for long. As teachers, it is equally important that we not assign work that is too far beyond our students’ current skillset.

As with so many other things in our profession, what holds true for students also holds true for adults. When designing professional learning experiences for our colleagues, as an example, we need to
take into account each individual's current "Point A" and then
identify each one’s “Point B” on the learning continuum, holding everyone on the team accountable for extending their learning, but never expecting all adults in the school to be at the same point on the learning continuum at a given point in time. We must design professional learning experiences that stretch everyone based on their current level of proficiency in a certain area. We must keep expecting educators to grow and get better by providing learning experiences that matter to them and are challenging, yet attainable.

Both Dan Pink and Michaelangelo make the connection between work and mastery, suggesting that one will never approach mastery without putting in the necessary work. Motivating ourselves--and our students--to embrace the work on the road to mastery require us to intentionally assign tasks and performances that push each individual just beyond their current level. We need to provide our kids--and ourselves--with what Pink calls “Goldilocks tasks,” challenges that are neither too hot, nor too cold; not overly difficult, yet not overly simple. One source of frustration in classrooms and during professional learning sessions is the frequent mismatch between what people must do and what people can do. When what they must do exceeds their capabilities, the result is anxiety. When what they must do falls short of their capabilities, the result is boredom. We must find the sweet spot in between.

Achieving total mastery in any area may never actually happen; however, motivating people to strive for mastery in important pursuits is a noble and attainable endeavor. Motivating our students--and each other--to get better and better at something that matters is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!


  1. Great messages Jeff! It's essential for us, as lifelong learners, to strive for excellence and to awaken our DRIVE to improve and excel.
    Thank you,

    1. Mike, Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Leaders like you help others get better by never resting on your laurels and always striving for improvement. Thanks for pushing me to get better!

  2. A fantastic post, Jeff, I really enjoyed reading this. I think you hit the nail on the head with finding that sweet spot of a push needed to improve. Keep doing great things.


    1. Thanks, Dan, for reading and commenting. So important to keep motivating and challenging our kids--and ourselves--to get better. Appreciate your awesome leadership in so many areas. Best, Jeff

  3. I love this post, Jeff, because I think sports analogies are easily understood and valuable. I think it's important to point out that you were focused on getting better, not on winning. In other words, you were focused on the process instead of the outcome. It was you recognizing your zone of proximal development and putting yourself in those opportunities. I think that as we provide PD, we must keep in mind where each individual is and where they want to go, we must also help them to find their own ZPD and teach them how to create those opportunities for themselves.

    1. Jennifer, Thank you for reading and for these great comments. I love the ZPD for PD idea. The idea that some of us (especially competitive people) would rather lose and get better than win and stay the same is a key idea to me as well. Really appreciate your thoughts; thanks again, Jeff