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Bounce Hardcover – 2011
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Observers usually nominate two variables, exemplified by the following news excerpts about the 2012 Wimbledon final:
"Talent does what it can. Genius does what it must. The old Edward Bulwer-Lytton aphorism smacked Andy Murray round the head in his first Wimbledon final, his fourth in grand slam tournaments overall. Murray was as good as he could be. Federer was the master we always knew he was...this was an explainable defeat to the greatest of champions. Genius: it does you in." – Paul Hayward, The Telegraph
"Although we tend to think of genius as something akin to magic, a kind of short-cut to mastery of the elements, it is nothing of the sort. A proper investigation of the careers of the supreme achievers, whether in sport or other fields, reveals that they are based above all on monomaniacal diligence and concentration. Constant struggle, in other words. Seen in this light, we might define genius as talent multiplied by effort." – Dominic Lawson, The Independent
Talent and innate ability vs. hard work and ‘deliberative practice’. Which is the greater and more determinative force?
Matthew Syed’s ‘Bounce’ marshals some persuasive data in support of the latter view. Drawing on his own experience as an Olympian and world class table tennis player, Syed illustrates the power of practice with flair, passion and no small amount of skill.
And yet, and yet. This book is saddled by an annoying undercurrent, one that detracts from the author’s central thesis: Syed’s inability, even in passing, to acknowledge that ineffable ‘something’ which is inseparable from world class achievement; the talent, the gift, the genetic fortuitousness that must be present for practice to feast upon. Or, phrased alternatively: those innate qualities that separate elite combatants when the level of practice is roughly equal.
Gradually, the ‘practice is everything’ line of argument becomes infuriating. Data is cherry-picked and counterexamples are ignored. To cite two examples:
“It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision to devote himself to whatever field of expertise.” Syed might want to consult Andre Agassi on this one (coerced, against his wishes, into a grueling tennis upbringing by his Father).
Or that “Klein found that for chess experts the move quality hardly changed at all in blitz conditions”. Laughable, truly, for anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of high level chess.
In the end and despite its strengths (which are numerous), ‘Bounce’ exhibits many of the ‘PC’ sophisms prevalent in the present era and our discomfort with exceptionalism; the notion that, by definition, only a very small percentage of people will traverse the upper echelons of achievement, the road to which requires phenomenal levels of hard work and, yes, intrinsic ability.
How I wish Syed had consulted his own OpEd piece in The Times a few years ago:
“If every champion who has ever won at Wimbledon symbolises the shattering of 127 rival dreams, each of those also rans represent the shattering of thousands more. We talk about 10,000 hours as the minimum amount of practice time required to attain mastery, and this is a truth that I strongly subscribe to. But every player here has practiced 10,000 hours, and then some. Many who didn’t quite make it have given it everything, too. All have become first-class players. The difference in standard at this level is so miniscule that it is almost impossible to perceive unless you are keeping score.
Wimbledon articulates this essential truth with rare eloquence. The small few vying for glory, the stars we cheer on Centre Court, represent the shattered dreams of thousands. And this is as it should be. It is brutal, but it is also, in its way, beautiful.”
To Bounce’s prejudice the practice always triumphs over talent, the cynic would reply the opposite: that talent always triumphs over practice. The real lesson to be learned from Bounce is that practice may not always triumph, but it sometimes does. The most valuable talent, paradoxically, might be our capacity to work breathlessly to fulfill it.
Bounce is an interesting book that paints a valuable picture. But it’s a partial picture.
He talks about motivation and how it can strongly influence an athlete's confidence. He touches on performance enhancing drugs and the ethical implications of allowing athletes use these. I agree with his point that if scientists focused on making safe performance enhancers instead of those that are used to bypass testing we might have some really incredible technological breakthroughs. If some were legalized then everyone would be on the same playing field but they'd be safe.
He leans on Gladwell's "Outliers" but goes into more depth about focused training and how effective it can be. A lot of his examples were very helpful in illustrating his points. For thise who like this book, "The Sports Gene" is a little more scientific.