In Australia, our culture venerates sport to the extent that we dedicate weekends to watching our heroes battle for supremacy on the field, court, track or in the water. In the sporting arena, Australians are fiercely competitive and dedicated to performing at the highest level.

In contrast, our top-performing Maths counterparts in East Asia, Asia and South-East Asia have a powerful, ubiquitous cultural psyche which reveres scholarship and academia. It is instilled in children from a very young age and goes generations deep.

Countries like Singapore, South Korea, China and Hong Kong – the top performers in Mathematics – emphasise academic excellence in the traditional disciplines of Numeracy and Literacy.

Sadly, recent PISA results show Australia is slipping in Maths. However, I believe we can counter this trend – and help other nations improve, too – by applying principles that promote excellence in sports to our approach to Maths learning.

Here are five key methods for becoming a ‘mathlete’ by approaching Maths like we do sport.

Get the basics right - repetition, frequency and intensity of training

In any sport, setting solid foundations is crucial for success. Take swimming, for example. Beginning swimmers must learn correct stroke, breathing technique and turns. They must build up muscle strength, endurance and cardiorespiratory fitness to improve performance and reduce injury risk.

This doesn’t happen at random. Top swimmers have spent thousands of hours at the pool and gym – doing stroke drills, strength and conditioning, and stretching interspersed with recovery. Getting stronger and faster requires a progressive program of training at a specific intensity and frequency.

Moulding the mind for Maths success is similar. Young learners must develop fundamental skills before tackling more complex ones. Two basic success factors are:

Drills to Build Automaticity and Fluency

Although I understand the move away from rote learning to conceptual learning, there are benefits to developing Maths fluency that can’t be replaced by technology or Math apps. The emphasis on conceptual understanding over reinforcing processes has meant tossing out the ‘secret sauce’ that is still the success of our top-performing Mathematics neighbours.

Imagine a swimmer who needed to stop and think about approaching every tumble turn. Similarly, when students are dependent on calculators to counter a lack of automaticity, it slows them right down. 

Competitive swimmers have practised tumble turns until they’re automatic and fluid. Likewise, ensuring the number facts are well drilled is the key factor for success in high school Maths.

Focusing on this in primary school – as painlessly and enjoyably as possible (there are some great creative, interactive ways of doing it) – goes a long way. Students with strong number fluency actually enjoy Maths more because they are confident.

Furthermore, mastery of the basics leads to an appreciation of the beauty and richness of maths at higher levels.

Homework

Like any skill, practice makes perfect. Unfortunately, some schools don’t prioritise Maths homework.

However, to be a successful mathlete, you need to make homework a part of your study routine. Spend regular time at home developing your basic number skills. Just like a swimmer is committed to their daily pool drills, discipline yourself to work on basic Maths drills every day.

Know your ‘why’

To get to the top, sportspeople need a compelling reason to keep training, eating well and maintaining a positive mindset.

Mathematics is a subject that requires sustained focus, discipline and dedication to succeed. It will challenge you not just intellectually but also emotionally and psychologically. Pursuing mathematical mastery can provide a sense of academic achievement, but at a deeper level, it teaches you a lot about yourself.

Maths isn’t always arduous, but at times it will test how you deal with adversity, frustration, and feeling embarrassed, incompetent, inadequate and overwhelmed. It drives you to dig deep into your inner resources and find the grit to keep going. These are skills you can draw on throughout life.

If you’ve got dreams for solving 21st-century problems – like environmental sustainability, disease pandemics, global food security or political crises – the skills that stretch your mind in Maths are invaluable.

Persevering when the going gets tough

Unfortunately, Maths is no longer compulsory in some Australian states, giving students who are struggling or don’t see its value an easy out. The flipside is a lost opportunity for building intellectual tenacity.

Many students are more interested in getting the answer right than knowing why they got an answer wrong, and how they can grow from reviewing their attempts.

Imagine a tennis player wanting to make all the right shots, without wanting to know why some didn’t go so well. That player wouldn’t go far, because we learn most from our mistakes. Elite sportspeople have made countless errors in their quest for success – all the while reviewing their mistakes and learning from them.

Just as in sport, persistence is paramount to Maths mastery. One positive is the integration of Maths into STEM programs, which highlights its value in other key 21st century disciplines.

Mindset factors - self-belief, respect and a positive attitude

For sportspeople to have the discipline and perseverance to succeed, the right mindset is critical, especially when they come up against injuries or a slump in performance. These times test the will and sift megastars from the mediocre.

It’s only a matter of time before Maths students experience feelings such as boredom, anxiety, inadequacy, frustration, disappointment, and apathy. Just as in sports, a positive attitude is crucial to pushing through.

It starts with our conversations. Phrases like “I’m not good at Maths” or “That’s just not the way my brain is wired” can be replaced by “I’m developing myself to reach my Maths potential”.

When I was trying to give up smoking – one of the hardest things I’ve done – I tried everything from hypnosis and nicotine patches to non-nicotine cigarettes and rubber band therapy.

But my turnaround point was realising I was relying on something external to fix my problem. This took away my power to do what I needed to do. Once I took back my power and resolved to quit once and for all, I could use those tools to facilitate my decision.

We need challenges to grow, and the self-belief to tackle them with confidence.

Looking to our Asian neighbours (notably Japan), the early school years focus on teaching students to manage themselves and engage with their social environment. They learn to notice when they feel tired, bored, fidgety, or excitable, plus appropriate ways of dealing with their feelings and behaviour in the classroom.

In the same way, a martial arts student respects their dojo and sensei, school students can benefit from learning to look after their classroom and resources, respecting the cleanliness and order of their environment, the need to be punctual and respectful, and productive ways to maintain focus for learning.

Quality coaching – the role of teachers and parents

Every successful athlete has a support team – like coaches, physios, psychologists and nutritionists. Mathletes, too, need a strong team to facilitate their success.

A great teacher can not only teach technical skills, but they can also mentor students throughout their Maths journey. Like great coaches, they’ll provide the real-time, immediate feedback on performance – followed up by consolidation – creating the tight feedback loop that ensures real progress.

Engaging in dialogue with mentors and teachers helps students identify problems and strategies to solve them, such as clarifying facts, breaking the problem down into parts, grouping, reorienting, weighing up pros and cons, reframing the situation, and so on.

Problem-solving is a skill that’s better caught than taught. It is best learned through meaningful engagement with adults about the adult world.

If you’re unhappy with your teacher, consider discussing options with your school.

Tutoring is an option for supplementing school learning and can be of great benefit if administered correctly. However, you need to do the work. A personal trainer won’t help if the athlete eats junk food and sits around the rest of the week, no matter how good the trainer is!

What parents can do – some tips to set your child up for Maths success

  • Help with their mindset

If you say, “I was never good at Maths, and I got by in life”, what is that saying to your child? I understand many parents feel out of their depth when supporting their children with Maths, but you may not realise the significant, unintended consequences of such a comment.

How much more empowering would it be to say, “I was never good at Maths growing up, and I wish I paid more attention at school. I don’t want the same thing to happen to you. It’s not too late for either of us, so let’s spend some time studying Maths together. We could both learn something.”

This might seem too much, but even baby steps towards that attitude would be a great start.

  • Look for opportunities to develop curiosity about Maths

My cousin is an astute businesswoman. At a restaurant once, she immediately turned the conversation to “How much money do you think this restaurant makes?” For the next 10 minutes, we talked about how many seats were in the restaurant, how many hours it was open, the dollar spent per customer – all the while doing calculations in our head.

You could have similar conversations with your children at the shops. “Our budget is $50, we need to buy this, will we meet our budget?” Look for ways to incorporate Maths into daily life.

  • Connect with the school

Get to know the Maths department and your child’s teacher, and stay on top of things like the year’s learning plan, when major assessments are, what will be tested, what resources will be used etc.

  • Providing a good environment for learning

Ideally, this should be a quiet place where your child can focus and study, plus a supportive environment where you can talk about what they are learning. Ask questions like, “Did you understand everything?”, “Are you struggling with something?”. This will go a long way, not just in Maths, but your relationship with your child in every area of their life.

Some final thoughts

Training for Maths may not seem as exciting as aiming to become your country’s next star athlete. However, cultivating the discipline, mindset and tenacity of a mathlete will benefit every area of your life.

What employer wouldn’t want an employee with demonstrated diligence, perseverance and a commitment to excellence? Furthermore, our planet needs people with the skills and attitudes to solve global challenges.

By applying these principles of success in the Maths arena, you could become one of them.