Last month, in my review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, I mentioned another book with a similar topic I was reading, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.
Coyle’s book has as much or more relevance to tennis development as Gladwell’s. In fact, the impetus for his book is this article on Moscow’s Spartak Tennis Club that Coyle wrote for the New York Times' (now sadly defunct) Play Magazine back in 2007.
The “growing” Coyle refers to in that piece and throughout his book is centered on myelin, brain matter that neurologists believe may hold the key to skill acquisition. Coyle writes:
“It explains the world’s complexity with a simple, elegant mechanism. Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals. The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin.”
But you needn’t worry that the book is a scientific thesis. Coyle shows us other Spartaks: Curacao baseball, Brazil Futsal, Meadowmount music education, KIPP Heartwood Academy, revealing how these talent hotbeds conspire to produce greatness, while other, similar places do not. Why here and not there? he asks, and his answers are found in the book’s three sections: Deep Practice, Ignition and Master Coaching.
Although he cites the 10,000 hour expertise study that plays such a prominent role in Gladwell’s Outliers, Coyle adds this:
“Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable. There are, however, a few caveats. With conventional practice, more is always better: hitting two hundred forehands a day is presumed to be twice as good as hitting one hundred forehands a day. Deep practice, however, doesn't obey the same math. Spending more time is effective—-but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits. What’s more, there seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice human beings can do in a day. Ericsson’s research shows that most world-class experts—-including pianists, chess players, novelists, and athletes—-practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue.”
In the chapter entitled "The Three Rules of Deep Practice," Coyle explains the concept of chunking and how it relates to what he terms the HSE (Holy S**t Effect), “the feeling of seeing talent bloom in people who we thought were just like us, the feeling of where did that come from?”
“When chunking has been done effectively, it creates a mirage that gives rise to the HSE. From below, top performers look incomprehensibly superior, as if they’ve leaped in a single bound across a huge chasm. Yet as de Groot showed, they aren’t nearly so different from ordinary performers as they seem. What separates these two levels is not innate superpower but a slowly accrued act of construction and organization; the building of a scaffolding, bolt by bolt and circuit by circuit---or as Mr. Myelin might say, wrap by wrap.”
In Ignition, Coyle turns his attention what motivates people to undertake the tough work of deep practice. Sometimes it is a peer who breaks through—-Se Ri Pak in women’s golf, Anna Kournikova in women’s tennis, Andruw Jones in baseball. Sometimes it’s what Coyle refers to as the primal clues of a young life, “a vision of their ideal future selves, a vision that oriented, energized and accelerated progress, and that originated in the outside world.”
In the Master Coaching section, Coyle explores the successful coaching styles of John Wooden, Robert Lansdorp, Linda Septien, Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, Hans Jensen--the Talent Whisperers, as he calls them--and provides examples, through their teaching, of the four virtues of good coaching. And then he lobs in this curve ball in a section entitled Coaching Love:
“It’s the most basic common sense: if you want to start a child in a new skill, you should search out the best-trained, most John Wooden-like teach possible. Right? Not necessarily. [a University of Chicago study] discovered a surprising fact: many world-class talents, particularly in piano, swimming and tennis, start out with seemingly average teachers.”
Coyle then goes on to describe his local piano teacher, Mary Epperson, and how she is average in conventional teaching terms (that is, not famous), but is exceptional in “creating and sustaining motivation…teaching love.”
“As Bloom’s study summed up, ‘The effect of this first phase of learning seemed to be to get the learner involved, captivated, hooked, and to get the learner to need and want more information and expertise.’”
These are just a few of the many thought-provoking studies and observations that appear in Coyle’s book. If you read it, and I consider it essential reading for any coach or parent, there will be other insights that will resonate with you, that will alter the way you look at talent, practice and achievement. The book may not be the simple blueprint the “Here’s How” in the subtitle implies, but there’s no denying that the questions it asks and the conclusions it draws are a giant step toward understanding just what it is that constitutes that omnipresent and loaded word "talent".
For an interesting interview with Daniel Coyle, please see this entry at the blog "49 Writers."
To read the first chapter, see the book's website, which also contains an author's blog.
If you use the links to Amazon in this post, I will receive a small percentage of the sales made through this site.