Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice - Book Review

Bounce by Matthew Syed (International table-tennis champion turned Times columnist and feature writer) is a well-researched and instructive book that explores the theme of achieving exceptional performance, particularly (but not exclusively) in the realm of sport. As its one-word title suggests, Bounce sits within the genre of personal/ business thinking books that popularlise the results of psychological research, such as Blink, Drive, Mindset and Outliers - indeed Syed draws heavily in places on Dweck and overlaps in parts with Gladwell.
The book is presented in three parts. The first outlines the central thesis that talent is a myth and that success (particularly in sport) is in reality the product of three factors:
  1. 10 years (= Gladwell's 10,000 hours) of "purposeful practice" under the guidance of expert coaches who provide stretching training programmes and constructive feedback;
    "Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again." (p.79)
  2. circumstance -  growing up in an environment which gives the opportunity to develop;
  3. a "growth mindset" (Dweck).
Syed draws on a range of psychological research, illustrated by an excellent range of examples to support his thesis. What is particularly impressive about his analysis is the distinction that Syed makes between "simple" and "complex" tasks. He tacitly acknowledges that there are biological factors which give certain individuals advantage to perform simple tasks - for example high jumpers need to be tall and light - but that the playing field is much more level when it comes to complex activities, such as playing tennis. Here the three factors have their most impact.
The second part explores a range of angles on the psychology of (sporting) performance:  (1) the placebo effect - which includes an interesting discussion section on how religious belief can enhance sporting performance; (2) the curse of choking (under extreme pressure) and how to avoid it; and (3) a quirky chapter on the place of ritual and superstition within sporting performance.
The final section is in effect three essays that are only tenuously linked to the central theme (and have the feel that they were tagged on to make up the pages - but they are no less interesting for that - in fact they are some of the best parts of the book). The first is on the psychology of perception, which Syed imaginatively links to the theme of performance in sport. The second debates the ethics of artificial ways to enhance sporting performance. Here Syed rehearses the arguments put forward by Julian Savulescu, Professor of Practical Ethics at Oxford, who makes a eloquent case for "regulated permissiveness" - a halfway house between a total ban of drugs in sport and a free market. In essence, Savulescu's argument is that performance enhancing substances should be permitted in sport up to the point where they become a danger to the health of the athlete. Syed then goes on to discuss the ethics of genetic enhancements that could engineer humans who are stronger, faster, brighter, heal more quickly, and so on. The book closes with an outstanding essay exploring whether or not blacks are superior runners. Drawing on human genome research, Syed's argument not only debunks the myth that black athletes have a racial or genetic advantage, but he also goes on to demonstrate how socially pernicious this racial stereotyping narrative has been.

At times, Syed seem to fall into the "talent trap" against which he is warning: for example his throw-away line when he describes Greg Norman as "the most gifted golfer of his generation" (p.172). However the greatest weakness in Syed's argument is that, at times, he confuses the three concepts of "excellence", "expertise" and "success" and shifts seamlessly between talking about these concepts as if they are the same thing. Nevertheless Syed's central argument remains: purposeful practice, circumstance and a growth mindset are the key to achieving one's goals and maximising one's potential, whether that means "excelling" or "becoming and expert" or achieving wider "success".

There is much to recommend this book - particularly if you have an interest in sport.

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