Book Preface

Nurture Talent

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Book Preface

I write this book for several audiences: talent seekers or those seeking to understand talent and its roots, talent enablers like school administrators and teachers, and talent coaches and mentors working in the talent development trenches. But, most of all, I write this book for parents because they are the prime movers in a child’s talent development. They can influence the constellation of environmental factors that determine talent’s parameters. This book is for parents who notice budding talent and wonder how to make it blossom. And, it’s for parents yet to unearth their children’s potential. This book is for all parents because, as you’ll soon discover, talent can blossom almost anywhere when growing conditions are right, and it is parents who largely determine those conditions. So, you certainly don’t need to be an educational psychologist to parent talent. You simply need to know what this educational psychologist has learned. I give you Nurturing Talent.

Nurturing Talent

Preface of Dr. Kiewra’s submitted book

When my first child, Keaton, was born, I had no intention of introducing him to chess and developing his chess talent. I was not a chess player myself and, like most parents, I just wanted him to be healthy and happy. I never anticipated he would become a six-time National Scholastic Champion, earn a full-ride college chess scholarship, achieve the International Chess Master title, and become a leading player and coach. And, I never imagined the essential roles I’d play in his development.

My Story as Talent Parent

My job as a college professor was flexible and allowed me to spend a lot of time with Keaton. Whatever interested him, we did. We reenacted and embellished stories by personifying Keaton’s stuffed animals. Three Billy Goats Gruff became a caravan of bunnies battling a venomous snake guarding the garden bridge. We drew his favorite story characters and posted his Top 100 Drawings on walls, counters, and cabinets in our kitchen gallery. Mostly, we talked. As we cooked, a conversation could boil up about corn and branch to farming, pesticides, and natural foods. Through our interactions, Keaton developed deep interests in revolving topics like dinosaurs, pollination, and the Pony Express. When an interest arose, I fed it. His dinosaur interest was met with new books, dinosaur themed make-up games, museum outings, and backyard excavations for Allosaurus bones.

When Keaton was four, his interests turned to skill games like tic tack toe, checkers, and Connect Four. As we played, I taught him strategies for where to play in certain situations. He quickly applied these strategies, discovered several more, and played these games in a deliberate, passionate, and calculating way. Soon, he became unbeatable, defeating everyone—children and adults alike—who visited our home. Recognizing Keaton’s penchant for games, I soon introduced him to chess because chess is the ultimate skill game and widely played. I retrieved my old wooden set from the basement and showed Keaton the little I knew about chess, but he did not find it interesting. After a few sessions, the pieces went back in the box and Keaton moved through other interests.

When Keaton was in second grade, I reintroduced him to chess still believing this would be something he would enjoy and be good at. This time, Keaton took to chess like rooks to open files. He wanted to play every free minute before and after school. A few weeks later, I entered him in a local scholastic tournament. My fascination that he was the next Bobby Fischer was quickly dashed when his first-round opponent defeated him in just four moves using a standard check-mating trick we knew nothing about. Keaton limped through the rest of the tournament winning just a few games against children his age.

The sobering result did not dampen Keaton’s chess enthusiasm. Quite the contrary; he wanted to learn more. Meanwhile, I realized that my scant chess knowledge was insufficient to help Keaton learn chess so I purchased several books and began instructing him from these. Rather than play chess, we studied it—openings, tactics, strategies, and endgames—for hours a day at his request. I translated the book’s themes and set up problems for Keaton to solve. He relished these sessions. A few months later, Keaton participated in his second tournament—the Nebraska Scholastic State Championship. Keaton’s name appeared at the bottom of the entry list among the 80 or so names ordered by chess rating. But, Keaton lost just once in the six-round tournament and finished third. His chess talent was emerging.

Buoyed by his performance, we upped the training. We purchased more books and studied them cover to cover. But as the books increased in complexity, it became harder for me to teach Keaton. He was a stronger player than I was, and I lacked the knowledge to answer his questions and help him advance. I asked our state champion, Kevin, if he would coach Keaton and he agreed. Kevin was a serious teacher who was perfect for Keaton. Keaton did not want fun and games, he wanted chess knowledge. Kevin made Keaton earn that knowledge while molding him to think like a champion. The coach set up difficult problems, maybe just one or two a session, for Keaton to ponder and solve. When Keaton pressed Kevin for information, such as why a certain move is better than another or why a bishop is stronger than a knight, Kevin would patently reply, “You tell me.”

Months later, we traveled to Arizona where Keaton competed against a thousand students for the K-3 National Scholastic Championship. This was our first chess trip and his first serious tournament. Seven games were played over three days and each could last four hours. Several times Keaton’s game was among the last ones finished. I marveled that he played with such patience and care. He won six of seven games and finished in a tie for third place—third place in the country. I was stunned by his performance; I knew then that Keaton had found his element.

When Kevin relocated, I hired Tom, another local chess expert and university professor, to coach Keaton. Tom was especially instrumental in teaching Keaton about chess theory and helping him discover and cultivate his attacking style. In time, though, Keaton’s skill level surpassed Tom’s, and, at Tom’s urging, I found Keaton another coach—one of the world’s best. He was Grandmaster Miron Sher who we had met at a summer chess camp. Miron had recently moved to New York from Russia where he had coached the Russian National Team. Lessons with Miron were conducted via telephone. Miron and Keaton each set up a chess board and called out moves to one another using the chess board’s algebraic notation, such as, “Move White’s knight to the f7 square.” Keaton took these lessons in the quiet of his Chess Room—a converted basement bedroom adorned with chess-themed photos, awards, and wallpaper border. A wooden board and pieces sat center stage.

Over the years, Keaton took lessons from his coaches once or twice a week and studied chess another 10-15 hours per week. Oftentimes, I would work with him and reinforce what was taught in lessons. In addition, he frequented school and community chess clubs where he played practice games and socialized with other players. We occasionally traveled to places like New York, Atlanta, and Chicago to camps for serious players. The large amount of time Keaton spent on chess prompted him to drop other activities such as music, baseball, and soccer. Chess and school dominated his life, but he had no regrets. He loved to play and study chess. It was his passion.

I linked Keaton’s chess-talent development to school. Keaton was identified as gifted in the first grade and received mentoring in math or language arts for an hour each day. When he was in fifth grade, I approached the school district’s gifted committee and proposed that Keaton be mentored in chess. My rationale was that chess was Keaton’s true gift or talent. The committee surprisingly granted my request—the only time mentoring had occurred outside traditional subjects—and Keaton received daily chess instruction for course credit from his own coaches and partially at the school’s expense through high school.

For the most part, Keaton was self-motivated. He wanted to win national scholastic championships, win the Nebraska state title, and attain a master rating. He was also motivated to emulate his instructors who were wonderful role models. He was motivated most by his deep passion for the game. When he played, he was immersed in the game. He stared at the board so intently, it was surprising it did not ignite in flames. He was supremely confident and completely comfortable. He looked ageless. Still, I tried to boost his motivation when I could. For instance, I reminded him at tournaments how prepared and strong he was. Before each game, I reminded him to draw on that chess knowledge and to hear his coach’s voice while analyzing game positions. Before leaving Keaton at the board, I’d say, “Everything you need to play great chess is in your heart and in your head.” Only rarely did Keaton’s chess motivation wane. When it did, I reminded him that my time and resource commitment can only match his commitment. But, I also let him know that if he wanted to take a break from chess or even quit chess, that was his call and okay with me. This was his show.

Managing Keaton’s chess activities was time consuming and like a second job. I attended many of his lessons and all his tournaments and camps. Most years he played in a couple dozen tournaments throughout the state and around the country. Some tournaments, like the U.S. Open, lasted nine days; most camps lasted a week. I made all the registration, hotel, and travel arrangements. In addition, I attended weekly chess clubs with him in our community and ordered materials and resources. Of course, I also paid the bills. The yearly price tag for chess activities in the 1990s usually exceeded $10,000. Grandmaster lessons alone cost $50 an hour and some weeks Keaton had four hours of instruction. A typical chess trip for a national tournament cost us $1,500 for transportation, hotel, registration, and food. In the early years, Keaton would win one or two giant trophies at a national tournament and I’d pay $100 to have them shipped home. Eventually, I got smarter and started bringing a wrench to tournaments to dismantle the trophies and an extra suitcase to carry them home—when bags flew free.

Probably the biggest thing I did to support Keaton’s chess was establishing a chess culture in our community that allowed Keaton more chess opportunities and legitimized his chess involvement. Let’s face it, society values things like football as a sport and music as an art. Although chess is part sport, part art, it is viewed by many as a game for nerds. I wanted to alter that perception for Keaton and others. To do so, I organized and taught a chess club at Keaton’s elementary school. One hundred kids participated. Although Keaton was one of the youngest, he was also the best player and quickly earned the acceptance and admiration of school mates.

A second chore was writing a weekly chess column for the city newspaper. This was a way to inform the larger community about chess and its educational values. I also kept the press informed about Keaton’s chess accomplishments as he won national and state titles. This publicity led to feature stories about Keaton that appeared on television, radio, and in newspapers. I became president of a local chess organization that supports chess education. From that perch, I organized dozens of chess activities, tournaments, and camps in which Keaton could participate, instruct, or showcase his talents by playing several opponents at once or playing blindfolded. Finally, I co-taught after-school chess clubs with Keaton and helped him gain independent employment as a chess instructor in schools and at camps. These experiences helped pay for chess lessons and travel. They also legitimized chess as a profession and set the stage for his eventual chess coaching career.

As I did these things to support Keaton’s talent journey, I never did so with complete certainty or conviction. I wondered if I was doing the right things, if I was doing enough things, and, at times, if I should be doing these things at all. But, I did these things for what seemed like good reasons. First, Keaton had a need that begged to be fulfilled. As a parent, I could no more ignore this chess need than a medical need. Second, I treasured my involvement in Keaton’s chess. I savored the time we spent together playing, practicing, traveling, and teaching. Third, chess was his passion and I loved his chess too—not just the championships but the dazzling moves he made. Finally, I loved that Keaton was engaged in deep study and could generalize that to other life aspects. I knew if he could master chess, he could master anything.

My Story as Talent Researcher

Hearing my personal story, you might wonder if talent is the bastion of few—reserved for the intellectually gifted or for the offspring of an educational psychologist with time and capital. I wondered too. And, that’s when my personal journey as chess parent merged with my professional role as educational psychologist. I wondered why some children like Keaton develop talent, whether talent is within the reach of most children, and what roles parents play. I then set out to find answers.

My search led me to study the lives of extraordinary individuals like Wolfgang Mozart in music, Pablo Picasso in art, and Bobby Fischer in chess, and to conduct my own interviews with dozens of talented individuals, their parents, and their coaches to uncover how talent is nurtured. Interviews extended across various talent domains such as chess, baton twirling, figure skating, speed skating, swimming, diving, golf, gymnastics, baseball, softball, basketball, football, volleyball, fencing, bowling, rodeo, music, dance, theatre, costume design, photography, art, law, spelling, fiction writing, poetry, psychology, robotics, rock climbing, business, coaching, teaching, and gifted education.

The people investigated were truly elite and often well known. They included Olympians such as Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen (speed skating), Charlie White and Meryl Davis (figure skating), Nancy Metcalf and Elisabeth Davis (volleyball), and Paul and Morgan Hamm (gymnastics). They included professional athletes like Jason Werth (baseball) and Bo and Barrett Rudd (football). They included renown artists such as Joel Satore (photography), George Winston (piano), and Adam Wolsky (costume design). Also included were many national and world champions, award winners, and up and coming stars.

What Talent Research Taught Me

Here are some things I learned:

1. I was not alone trying to navigate talent waters. Parents everywhere were rowing the same boat without compass or sextant. Most said, they didn’t plan for talent, see it coming, or know what to do when it appeared. Most also said, “I wish there had been a manual available for raising a talented child. We just muddled through the process and did the best we could.”

2. Talent is neither a starting point nor an endpoint. People are not born with talent and talent development is not finite. Talent is a continuum, a process of increasing growth. This process viewpoint means that all people are somewhere on that talent continuum and that talent growth can proceed indefinitely. There are no winners and losers, only developers. Talent, then, is a pursuit and growth available to all.

3. Talent is not born but made. Whatever biological hand we are dealt can be greatly enhanced as we draw new environmental cards that support or even override biology. Through practice and training, we can alter our bodies and our brains. We make talent. None of the famously talented people you know, or I studied, could have been who they became without a constellation of environmental factors firing in sync.

4. There is a constellation of environmental talent factors. They include: An enriched early environment to set one on the talent path, strong mentors, a long and arduous practice routine, a center of excellence training ground, a singleness of purpose motivation to master, and a talent manager. All or most of these factors must be in play for talent to develop..

5. Children cannot take the talent journey alone. Children cannot possibly make all these talent factors fire. But, they can if others help. Parents are in the optimal position to foster talent. They can provide an enriched early environment, secure mentors, regulate practice, locate or build a center of talent excellence, spur motivation, and manage all aspects of talent development. This is no easy task. In fact, it can be life altering and require extraordinary actions and sacrifices. But, for parents I interviewed, the desire to fulfill these myriad roles was powerful and came from two places. One, parents saw their children displaying talent development needs that begged to be met the same way special needs, like physical or cognitive disabilities, must be met. Two, parents loved their children and wanted them to be fulfilled and happy.

6. Maximum talent development hinges on the child’s commitment. Parents play crucial roles in developing their children’s talent, but elite level talent development rests first and foremost with the child. If the child is not passionate about the talent domain and not committed to pursuing talent, it’s game over. Elite levels of talent development are only possible when the child has a single-minded passion to pursue the talent area and is willing to practice hard over an extended period. Parents cannot drive the talent train, children must do that. Parents can, however, ignite a talent passion and fuel commitment to it.

7. Talent development is not an isolated journey. Some families might avoid the talent path in favor of a developing well-rounded children. This is a value judgment left to each family. In making this judgment, consider that most talented children I studied were happy and well-adapted. Most were strong students and had close friends. Some participated in activities outside their talent domain. Even though most pursued their talent domain with singleness of purpose, their lives were not one dimensional. Also consider that it might be more fruitful to spend time leveraging strengths than shoring up weaknesses. The world is fast becoming a technical place where specific strengths trump general competence.

8. There are talent benefits. Talent pursuit and fulfillment have myriad benefits. First, talented people enjoy their talent domain and enjoy pursuing talent. And, parents love being on the talent journey too. Second, many talented people turn talent enjoyment into talent employment. Talented children emerge as professional musicians; coaches; photographers; writers; chess players; and volleyball, football, baseball, basketball, and skating athletes. A third benefit is self-growth—not just in the talent domain but as a person. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said, “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” What talented people become are winners, confident they can accomplish anything they set their mind to in the same way they tamed their talent domain. They know how to achieve great things. They have learned how to master any domain.

Talent development yields more than personal benefits, it yields universal benefits. What if Mozart had not pursued music or Picasso art? What a cultural loss that would have been. What if Darwin had not pursued biological science or Freud psychology? What an intellectual loss that would have been. What if Marie Curie had not discovered cancer radiation treatment or Alexander Fleming not discovered penicillin bacteria treatment? What a medical loss that would have been. And, what if Bonnie Blair had not pursued speed skating or Roger Federer tennis? What an athletic loss that would have been. The world is a better and more enjoyable place because of talented people. I enjoy watching Federer hit groundstrokes, listening to a Johnny Cash ballad, and reading a Hemingway classic. Talent is for the world to appreciate and share.

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