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I have a question regarding Math Olympiads. I always asked myself if Math Olympiads need natural intelligence or rigorous hard work (or both) in order to reach levels such as the IMO. I always hear people that reach national level olympiads or the IMO have the sharpest minds in the world and that they are really talented. What I am confused about is that what do you need to become really skilled in Math Olympiads? Is it hard work or practice or just mathematical talent and people who reach the IMO are just natural geniuses?

The reason I ask this question is because I am trying to get better at Math Olympiads but no matter how much I practice, my results seem stagnant. I am skilled at routine Math like what they ask at school like numeracy and mechanical calculations but I am not so good when it comes to Math Olympiads.

My question is does one need rigorous practice to become better at Math Olympiads or is it a skill that one naturally has?

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closed as off-topic by Andrés Caicedo, Ayman Hourieh, RghtHndSd, PVAL, RecklessReckoner Jul 31 '14 at 20:59

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question is not about mathematics, within the scope defined in the help center." – Andrés Caicedo, Ayman Hourieh, RghtHndSd, PVAL
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Your question to some extent presumes that practice and talent are mutually exclusive factors that lead to success, when the most plausible explanation is that both play their role in aptitude for contest math. – heropup Jul 31 '14 at 18:42
If you look at the best Olympiad performers (Noam Elkies, Grigori Perelman and so on), it is clear that they possess(ed) a genius for mathematics that no amount of hard work could substitute. I suspect that extends quite a bit down the ranks of Olympiad medalists. I knew an Olympiad silver medalist and he was unbelievably good. I don't think he had trouble learning anything at all. Hard work is necessary, but rarely sufficient, for such cerebral endeavors. – user_of_math Jul 31 '14 at 18:47
You are talented but - as anyone - up to a certain level. To be succesful in Math Olympiad this level must be quite high. Start learning now allready to accept that it eventually is not high enough. Yes, you can gain by hard work, but you cannot give yourself more talent. This is my personal view on it. – drhab Jul 31 '14 at 18:48
See also the prior question Advantages of IMO students in Mathematical Research. – Bill Dubuque Jul 31 '14 at 18:52
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Short answer: it's a lot of practice.

Math is like music, it requires tons of practice before you can reach superstar status. The most talented musicians are those who spend thousands of hours practicing their instrument. It's the same for mathematicians. Math and music actually stimulate/rely on similar areas of the brain and I've read that practicing one improves abilities in the other because they use the same connections.

Keep practicing and challenging yourself, and give it time - lots and lots of time, and when you need break pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano. ...or violin or whatever you like...

Even Einstein said "It's not that I'm so smart, it's that I stick with problems longer."

I'm not saying that there aren't a few people out there with some natural talents or special gifts, but for most of us, it's hard work and dedication.

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I am lucky to study with two IMO medalists in the university. I would say that they are almost 50/50 talent & hard work. Their mind generally works a bit faster than mine; nevertheless when discussing problem sets, I notice that they spend almost as much time to solve a problem set as me.

But the most important thing that I noticed is that they have almost perfect studying pattern:

1) They carefully listen to the lecture - they are the two persons in the class who ask most of the questions during the lecture.

2) They won't start the problem set until they learn all the material from the lecture. They read textbooks in order to patch the holes in their understanding of the lecture.

3) They read lots of optional material.

4) They just love doing math.

They also directly said about their IMO years that they solved lots of Olympiad style problems (in Russia there are many books with problems from Olympiads of all level) and discussed the solutions with their teachers. Having a good coach to discuss solutions really helps.

So I think that if you have a rough diamond (a bit of math talent) you certainly have to cut it (and cut it a lot)! Good luck

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This is an opinionated question.

While true math "prodigies" may exist, I think that hard work and determination outweighs this quality.

Also, understand that people don't "practice" to do well in Math Olympiads. People learn and practice math because they enjoy doing it, and through competitions one can evaluate oneself to see how well he has done.

True the IMO is a very prestigious achievement, but the people who make simply have an aptitude and "thirst" for math, they enjoy doing it, and want to improve their skills in it by learning and practicing more problem sets.

Hope this answer helped.

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Nice answer. But I disagree on certain points. Firsly, many people do practice just to do well in the MO - not just for the 'love of math'. Also, many of the problems in MO are such that one need to learn certain 'tricks' / ways of thought to be able to solve them quickly and efficently so some form of training/practice is really required in order to do well. – Winther Jul 31 '14 at 18:58
@Winther I agree with you, but understand the competitions are created to guage how much math a student has understood and whether or not he can apply it to certain problems. I'm not saying people don't practice, I'm saying that people practice because they love the subject of mathematics and want to improve their skill in it. – Varun Iyer Jul 31 '14 at 18:59

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