How to help students harness their hunger to achieve

Neil Danns

Neil Danns is a world champion skateboarder and uses his inspirational sporting journey to inspire others as an Athlete Mentor for Sky Sports Living for Sport, a free secondary school initiative delivered in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust. This month Neil is fronting a campaign for Sky Sports Living for Sport to show students how they can harness a hunger to achieve and refuse to let disadvantages in life hold them back.

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The ability to set goals and understand the steps necessary to achieve them is a key skill for secondary school students looking to succeed in life and work. Whether it’s encouraging pupils to discover the desire to improve, to follow their dreams or to learn from their mistakes, having dreams and ambitions can turn young people’s lives around.

It was a skill I learned from a young age growing up in the tough Toxteth area of Liverpool during the 1970s and 1980s. My skateboarding career began by accident when I was on a school trip to Liverpool museum aged 14 and saw a performance by American skateboard team, Hobie. My family didn’t have much money, but I was determined to learn the sport so I built a skateboard from a plank of wood and my sister’s roller boots!

Discovering skateboarding helped me to set goals for my future and strive to achieve them. Growing up in inner city Liverpool, I was aware of negative influences around me such as truancy, drugs and crime and, although I knew I didn’t want to be a part of that, until I discovered skateboarding, I didn’t have a focus for my future. Skateboarding gave me something to concentrate on and I set myself a target of becoming the UK’s best skateboarder by the time I turned 16. With support from the English Skateboarding Association, I achieved this goal within a year.

Maintaining my position at the highest level within the sport meant I endured frequent injuries as a result of pushing myself to the limit, from broken arms, legs, wrists and collarbones, to a ruptured knee and osteoarthritis. It was my passion for the sport and my hunger to achieve that got me through those setbacks and it is this message that I share with the pupils I meet in schools on behalf of the Youth Sport Trust.

When I meet students today, I share with them the story of my sporting career including all of the highs and the lows. I spent a lot of time injured because skateboarding is such a physically challenging and high risk sport - though I never let that get me down. Friends and family spurred me on to stay positive but there was also a constant desire within me to return to the sport I loved and keep focussed on what I wanted to achieve in life.

It is this determination that I try to impart to the students that I meet. I believe everyone should have goals in life and, through the skills that I teach, I hope I can give today’s students some of the drive that I had to stay focussed on my goals, despite setbacks along the way. Many of the young people I meet come from disadvantaged or difficult backgrounds like myself, and being able to inspire them to dream, aspire and achieve whatever they set their minds to is something I am passionate about.

Teaching students valuable life skills through practical activities works extremely well. During my school visits I lead a number of games for the pupils that encourage them to work towards certain goals and plan strategies to achieve them. This can be something as simple as splitting the group of pupils into two teams and using ball games to encourage a passion to succeed which is helped by working in competition with their fellow peers. One such example, where each team is in a circle and has to both throw and catch balls at the same time in an increasingly difficult order, teaches the pupils the importance of focus and resolve. Even with these relatively basic tasks, it is incredible how quickly the students become determined to win; developing their hunger to achieve.

My biggest piece of advice to teachers in helping students to identify the goals they want to achieve in life, is to be open and share their own experiences of setting goals. By discussing the steps they took to achieve these and, in particular, focusing on how they overcame any challenges on the way whilst maintaining the enthusiasm to succeed, teachers can provide students with real life examples that they can relate to. I am very open with students about how different my journey could have been had I not found something I was passionate about. It is this honesty and openness that helps earn the respect of students and enables them to also see how they have the power to determine the course of their own lives.

I’m proud of the achievements I made during my 25 year career and hope sharing my story shows the students I meet that, no matter where we start in life and what we come up against, we can all succeed if we have the focus and determination to do so. I was fortunate to recognise that I had a hunger to achieve and by harnessing and developing that skill I believe I was able to drive forward my success in the sport. This passion and drive is one of the major building blocks to accomplishing goals in life, and it is a mentality that I wish to pass on to today’s students as they enter an increasingly competitive world.

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