Title: Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success
Author: Matthew Syed
Genre: Nonfiction: Psychology, Sports
Rating: *** 1/2
Why have all the sprinters who have run the 100 meters in under ten seconds been black? What’s one thing Mozart, Venus Williams, and Michelangelo have in common? Is it good to praise a child’s intelligence?Why are baseball players so superstitious? Few things in life are more satisfying than beating a rival. We love to win and hate to lose, whether it’s on the playing field or at the ballot box, in the office or in the classroom. In this bold new look at human behavior, award-winning journalist and Olympian Matthew Syed explores the truth about our competitive nature—why we win, why we don’t, and how we really play the game of life. Bounce reveals how competition—the most vivid, primal, and dramatic of human pursuits—provides vital insight into many of the most controversial issues of our time, from biology and economics, to psychology and culture, to genetics and race, to sports and politics.
Backed by cutting-edge scientific research and case studies, Syed shatters long-held myths about meritocracy, talent, performance, and the mind. He explains why some people thrive under pressure and others choke, and weighs the value of innate ability against that of practice, hard work, and will. From sex to math, from the motivation of children to the culture of big business, Bounce shows how competition provides a master key with which to unlock the mysteries of the world (from Goodreads).
Thoughts: What makes great people ‘great’? What makes certain people live and perform on a level so above the norm that it appears that they have some sort of supernatural ability for running or soccer or chess? Matthew Syed, former professional table tennis player, decided to find out. During his career he won three Commonwealth Games and represented Great Britain in the Olympics more than once. Now retired, Syed became curious about what only made not only his career, but other great athletes, so successful in comparison to others. Through interviews with athletes and other ‘greats,’ coaches, and leaders in the fields of sports, medicine, and psychology, Syed came to several conclusions as to what makes an athlete, artist, composer, or anyone else rise to the top in their chosen field which, he relates in Bounce.
Syed doesn’t pull any punches in Bounce. He categorically states in the beginning that he does not believe that any innate talent is responsible for Beckham’s, Mozart’s, or even his own success in table tennis. In fact, he finds the prevalence of the ‘talent myth’ – the belief that certain people are genetically predisposed from birth to be tennis starts or chess grandmasters or ‘human caluculaters,’ etc. – harmful in the respect that it limits what we think ordinary human beings are capable of. Syed uses his own history as a world-ranked table tennis player and the lives of other great athletes, combined with new scientific studies and research to support his claim.
Syed holds that excellence in anything, whether it be a sport, math, a musical instrument, chess, etc.- depends on several factors that have nothing to do with genetic predisposition. The first thing that Syed identifies as necessary for someone to achieve excellence in their chosen field is practice. Syed is not talking about practice as most of us know it; he is talking about sustained purposeful practice over a period of years. Research on several fronts (Syed particularly draws from Anders Ericsson, who along with colleagues conducted the most comprehensive investigation into the causes of outstanding performance ever initiated in the 90s) has now informed us that it takes so-called experts- pro golfers, top-tier composers, classical musicians, etc.- about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve the pinnacle of their abilities. By studying the habits of various experts in different fields, Ericsson found that all, regardless of it they were involved in chess, music, sports, science, etc., took around just about 10 years to reach their world-class status. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers, discovered that most world-class performers practiced about 1,000 hours a year for 10 years before reaching the top of their respective fields. This is true for all experts– becoming the best at anything is a long road that takes years and literally thousands of hours of practice.
Ericsson’s research also shows that there is no ‘fast track’ for success. Gifted musicians, for example, learned their skills at exactly they same rate as other lesser ‘talented’ peers in their field- the only difference was the amount of practice the ‘experts’ put in to mastering their art, starting from when they were children. But it is not just large amounts of practice over an extended period of time that leads to success. Rather, it is sustained, purposeful practice over many years and many hours that leads to skills and abilities so amazing, so above the ordinary, that it seems as if those in possession of them have some natural gift or innate talent. This is down to not practicing what we know but by practicing what we don’t know: world-class performers strive toward a goal or skill beyond their current ability and, when it is reached, immediately strive for a new skill currently beyond their capacity. World class experts fail again and again as a certain skill until they simply don’t anymore and than move on to another aspect of golf, or ice skating, or violin training to fail at. In fact, study as show that, for example, elite, world-class ice skaters attempt jumps that are more difficult even when measured relative to their superior abilities. Top ranked ice skaters fall more in practice then others, which makes them great.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but on further investigation it makes sense. This kind of sustained, challenging practice has been shown to build new neural connections, to increase certain areas of the brain, and to allow purposeful practitioners to use areas of the brain not used by others to complete their task. For example, the math ‘prodigy’ Rudiger Gamm’s participated in a study in which his brain was scanned. It was found that when making calculations he not only used traditional parts of the brain associated with number calculations but that he also used parts of the brain that others do not, such as areas responsible for storing personal memory. Taxi drivers in London who have been on the job for years were found to a larger part of their brain in charge of spatial navigation compared to the general population and to less seasoned taxi drivers.The same has been found in concert pianists and the amount of myelin in their bodies (myelin wraps around nerves and acts to increase the speed with which messages are passed through the brain). Purposeful practice over a long period of time doesn’t just make us more skilled, it changes our brain structure and how we store and process information relating to what we are practicing. This is why top athletes and other performers seem to have been ‘born to golf’ or ‘born with a violin in their hands.’ They weren’t born different but they became different as a result how they practiced and for how long. Talent, according to Syed, has nothing to do with it.
There are, of course, other things that make great athletes great (and more to how and why purposeful practice is so necessary to achieve greatness). Having the right mind-set is especially important. Studies have shown that when children of the same age and intelligence, even from the same school and class, are given the same set of puzzles or problems to complete, those that believed that their abilities can be improved upon consistently score better than their classmates who thought their intelligence or skill at math or solving puzzles was innate. Those that scored higher did not see failure as something to be ashamed of; rather, being challenged or getting a problem wrong was seen as an opportunity for improvement. When the same study was repeated, with the added change of the ‘teacher’ encouraging children according to either their intelligence or effort, those praised for their effort did better over 30% of the time, and other group actually saw a decrease in their performance as the test went on, even though the questions were no harder in the end then they were in the beginning. I remember learned in my AP Psych class that intelligence is innate and that you ‘don’t get smarter over time,’ so I admit that I am a bit confused as to what exactly the relationship between intelligence and your belief about whether you can change your abilities in the classroom is, but I thought that this section was very interesting and raised the neat points. However, the fact remains that just about all top-tier performers believe that their success relies on effort, not on innate talent, which I think must be relevant.
Seyd also talks about the placebo effect, the importance of ritual to many top athletes, the science of ‘choking’ (which I thought was extremely interesting), the importance of the coaching style of the coaches of great athletes and how they regard the importance of effort and they approach ‘failure,’ child prodigies and how they are made not born, and other topics that go into making someone great. But I feel like I’ve talked enough (dare I say, too much) about this book. Bounce was largely focused on success in regards to athletics. I wish there has been a larger focus on other fields, such as classical music playing and composition, artists, opera singers, writing, etc. These were mentioned a bit, and chess I think the most of all after sports, but I wanted more about these fields as I am not a great sportswomen myself- far from it, actually. Overall, I really found Bounce enjoyable and enlightening on several areas.
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