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Why Learning Maths is Like Learning Soccer

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

Right, let's get this out of the way. At first glance, a maths lesson and soccer practice don't seem anything alike...

Maths has textbooks, calculators, assessment, homework and classrooms. Soccer has soccer boots, balls, whistles, goals and a field

Yet, scratch the surface and there are some important similarities that help to paint a picture of what learning both is all about. In this article, I'm going to take you through these and, don't worry, I'm not pulling your leg!

When I first heard maths and sport compared, it helped me to see how different aspects of learning maths fit together to create a balanced educational program. Instead of pitching teaching practices against one another, we can look at how those practices complement and enhance - and ultimately, why it's worth students having a range of learning experiences in maths class. By thinking about soccer, I got perspective on maths.

Here's how learning maths and soccer compare:

1. You Practice

Boy practising maths
Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash

When you're learning to play soccer, you practice skills. You practice dribbling a ball, kicking to a teammate, shooting for a goal.

Similarly in maths, you engage in regular practice, with multiplication facts, solving linear equations, finding the area of shapes and so on.

In both domains, practice is necessary if you want to get better.

A great deal of research has examined practice and the development of skill across many more domains than just maths and soccer. What is consistently found? Having a high IQ or being born with certain skills (i.e. innate abilities) isn't what matters in the long run. What is needed, however, is practice - and, not just any kind of practice. In their article on building expertise, Ericsson and colleagues (2007) noted:

"When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. "

For children, teens, elite athletes and mathematicians, deliberate practice underpins the pathway for improvement.

2. You Get Coached

Photo by Rachel on Unsplash

Yet practice - deliberate or not - is challenging if you're doing it in isolation.

In soccer, a coach will give you tips on kicking with greater precision or show you how to get out of a difficult position when someone is defending against you. In maths, the teacher will introduce new concepts that will take what you ever knew about numbers (or algebra or shapes, etc.) to a much deeper level of complexity. They will suggest ways to organise your thinking or set out your work to help you make sense of the logic of a solution.

A coach or teacher helps focus and refine your practice. They will introduce new ideas and give you feedback that enables you to take your skills to new levels. From this, you can get perspective on the challenges you've overcome and what's still to come.

3. You Play

Photo by skeeze from Pixabay

And all of this, ultimately, is so that you can bring those skills together and play a game. You don't learn soccer, just to do training each week. You learn it so that you can get out on the field, have fun and get a bit competitive.

It's the same with maths. Students don't learn maths just so they can acquire a selectively chosen set of skills. They learn it so they can bring those skills together and use them in meaningful or fun or competitive ways. 

Maths and soccer: practice, get coached, play

With this combination of Practice / Get coached / Play in mind, take a moment to stand back and reflect on what the maths program in your classroom or school looks like. As you reflect, you might consider questions like:

  • Why should I run different types of activities in maths class? What purpose do they serve?

  • How often should I run them?

  • How might I justify these activities to parents, school leadership and my students?

One last thought: I find it interesting how we say someone learns how to play soccer and they learn how to do maths. To me, this is indicative of how we tend to frame the goals of each. What if we re-framed what maths is about, and instead learned how to play maths?

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