World-class athletes are made, not born
ABC TV Lateline
Broadcast: 12 July 2010
Reporter: Leigh Sales
Journalist and former table tennis champion Matthew Syed argues that academic research has ruled out the idea of innate talent.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: If you were one of the people up in the early hours watching the World Cup, you witnessed some of the world’s best athletes at the peak of their performance.
What is it that allows some human beings to reach the most elite levels of sports and performing arts? Why do some people choke? Why do some become accomplished, but never brilliant, and are humans born with talents that make them particularly suited to certain pursuits?
Matthew Syed is a former world class table tennis player and journalist.
He’s the author of a book called ‘Bounce: How Champions Are Made’ and he joined me from London.
Matthew Syed, thank you for joining us.
MATTHEW SYED, AUTHOR: Thank you for having me on.
LEIGH SALES: In people who become highly successful at something, world class in fact, what weight do you give innate talent versus hard work and opportunity?
MATTHEW SYED: I give innate talent almost no weight at all, and that’s a controversial view and I know it’s a radical and rather subversive view, but I think the evidence backs up that assertion.
If you dig down into the narrative histories of anyone who has reached a high level in virtually any task with a certain level of complexity, what you find is they have spent many, many hours, many months, many years building up to that level.
There is no shortcut, even if sometimes we look at young performers and it seems as if they’ve short-circuited that long road to excellence, when you actually find out about what they did, you find that they started super-young.
Tiger Woods as a two-year-old, the Williams sisters at three-year-olds, Mozart, who was dazzling the aristocracy with piano skills at six and a half. His most eminent biographer assesses that he had already practiced 3,500 hours.
The process of ingraining excellence is long-term, but what the evidence suggests is that almost all of us who are healthy have the potential to get there, provided we’re willing to stick at it for all those many hours.
LEIGH SALES: But I’m five foot nine, so I could do the hard work in the world and I will not be a prima ballerina because my body type doesn’t suit that?
MATTHEW SYED: Well there are certain hardware issues that are significant in certain activities. So, for example, if you’re very, very short you’re unlikely to become a top basketball player and if you don’t have sufficient number of fast-twitch muscle fibres, you’re not gonna become the world’s greatest sprinter.
However, in virtually all the tasks characterised by what I describe as complexity, the limiting factor is not hardware, it is software. So, for example, Lionel Messi’s not the greatest soccer player in the world because he’s faster than everybody else; Federer is not the best tennis player in the world because he’s faster or stronger.
What they have is acquired mental representations that enable them to play in the most efficient way. So, for example, Lionel Messi can discern the pattern of players around a football pitch which enables him to select the right pass into an on-running teammate whilst avoiding the defenders.
That is pattern recognition facility that is built up over time; he wasn’t born with it. Similarly, Roger Federer: the reason he can return a fast serve isn’t because he has faster reactions than you or I, it’s because he can anticipate where the ball is going before it’s even been hit by decoding the pattern of movement of his opponent, and we know that from the very detailed scientific evidence that is available, these kind of innate attributes that we often think are implicated in top success very rarely are.
LEIGH SALES: In your book ‘Bounce’ you give the example of growing up on a street where a really large number of children became table tennis champions. Explain that for us.
MATTHEW SYED: Well, you’re absolutely right. I grew up in a very anonymous street in an anonymous suburb of south-east England, and yet that one street – Silverdale Road it’s called – produced the vast majority of the top players in the 1980s in England.
Of course, my natural inference when I became the top table tennis player was, “Wow, I must have special table tennis genes.” But there hadn’t been some mutation that had only hit that street and avoided all the surrounding neighbourhood. So in actual fact what created the excellence was the fact that we had access to a very good coach, access to the only 24 hour-a-day club and over many years we transformed ourselves from ordinary table tennis players into extraordinary performers.
And we see these pockets of excellence in sports other than table tennis. Spartak Moscow, a tennis club in the Russian capital has produced more top 20 female players than the whole of the United States. A very small area of the Western Riff Valley in Kenya has produced a very high proportion of the world’s top distance runners. This is not genetic. The pattern of success is environmental.
LEIGH SALES: The tennis player Andre Agassi has written a really interesting memoir called ‘Open’ and in it, he details all the things that you’ve just explained: opportunity and practice and good coaching and parental involvement – all of those things.
He had a brother who was put through exactly the same routine until they were both in their mid-teens. So how do you explain, if not for natural aptitude, the fact that Andre Agassi was always, even from childhood, a better tennis player than his brother?
MATTHEW SYED: Well when you dig down into the histories of these top performers and it is done in a scientific, controlled way, what we find is that the players who get to the top are those who practice the longest amount of time and with the most voracious appetite.
Give you an example: three sisters from a chess-playing background in Hungary – they all reached a very high level, but the distribution of success was almost entirely explained by the amount of practice and the voraciousness with which they practiced.
I know that Andre Agassi has written his book and he’s described the painstaking process of engraining excellence that he went through. I suspect, and I will check it out after the interview, that his brother just didn’t put the same amount of effort and didn’t put the same amount of time in as his brother.
LEIGH SALES: Isn’t the ability to practice for a long time, to have the focus and determination that allows you to do that, a sort of talent that one is born with as well?
MATTHEW SYED: Well, this is – that’s a very interesting question. These patterns of success and failure, as I say, it’s about how long you’re prepared to work. It’s an ability to stick at it, even though there are gonna be difficult periods along that road. And what the evidence seems to suggest is that those who make it are those who believe that excellence pivots on practice.
Because if on the other hand you believe that excellence pivots specifically on talent, any time you fail, you’re gonna interpret that as you not having sufficient talent. So you’re likely to give up. If you believe that excellence does hinge on effort, then any time you fail, you’re gonna see it as an opportunity to adapt and grow. And so that mindset, what a psychologist at Stanford University calls the “growth mindset” – the idea that you can transform yourself over time, it’s a deeply liberating mindset and it is that belief that tends to propel people along the road to excellence.
LEIGH SALES: You write in the book that the accepted amount of hours required to practice something to become world class at it is about 10,000 hours. How does – it’s one thing to start off with motivation, but how does one sustain motivation over that period of time?
MATTHEW SYED: Well, as I say, one of the aspects is that you need to believe that excellence hinges on effort, because that is gonna motivate you to continue striving. The other thing that you need is to care about the destination.
You need to want to be excellent at tennis or golf or being a ballerina, whatever it happens to be, or being a journalist or a chess player. This applies to things outside of sport too. If you have that belief and you have the desire to get to the destination, they both count a great deal.
The problem often comes when parents are pushing a child to become excellent, but they don’t care about it. The motivation is not internal, it’s external, and in those circumstances, the evidence suggests very strongly, very persuasively that the young performer is on the road not to excellence, but to burnout.
LEIGH SALES: So, there’s a fairly, I guess, sort of narrow line there between parental encouragement and then pushing your child too fast, too far?
MATTHEW SYED: Oh, absolutely, and the genius of a great coach, and actually of a parent, is to encourage without coercing. We often see in young sportsmen and women, prodigies, musicians and so on, if the parent is creating the conditions where the child is resenting what they’re doing, that can be deeply destructive.
If on the other hand, the sociological skill of encouraging and coaxing and trying to ensure that that motivation is internalised, that is the liberation that the performer needs to get there. And I think the skill of top coaches, particularly at the young stage of development, is not technical, it’s not tactical, it is almost a branch of social psychology to get the young performer to really care about where they’re going and to entrench the growth mindset.
LEIGH SALES: Is age any barrier to mastery? If you were prepared to put in the hours at any age, would you become equally as good as something as if you started putting those hours in when you were five or six?
MATTHEW SYED: Well this is very interesting. One of the reasons that initial talent doesn’t really matter very much is that your innate structure is very much the starting point. Over time, as I say, with practice, you change dramatically, not just the body, but the anatomy of the brain.
Now there was a time when scientists thought that the plasticity, the adaptability of the brain, was limited to childhood. We now know that the brain can adapt, the anatomy can change dramatically even at late middle age.
So, in answer to your question, yes, you can become excellent if you start late. The one problem you have is a practical one, rather than a physiological one. The practical problem is if you start very late, you need to earn a living by doing a different kind of job; whereas if you start early, by the time you get to 18, you can do your job as a professional golfer and so you have a head start, but you can also push forward by, as it were, earning a living from the thing that you’re excellent at.
LEIGH SALES: When we’re talking about the top of any field – let’s take tennis because we’ve been talking about that. So say if you’re looking at Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick and players at that level, all of those people have had the opportunities, they’ve all put in the hard work, they’ve all had the excellent coaching. When you’re at that very elite level, what makes the difference between an excellent player and an absolutely historically outstanding player?
MATTHEW SYED: That’s a really interesting question. And by the way, let me just touch on something that came to my mind as you were talking about those players. The reason I think that the idea that talent matters is such a powerful and seductive illusion is because we see great players, like Federer, like Nadal, like Andy Murray, like in the past – Pat Cash.
We see how wonderful they are and we just assume they got there quickly. If we were to actually look at the painstaking process, the very small trajectory of improvement that took over a long time, the small baby steps they took to get to the top, it wouldn’t seem like a miracle; each step would look manageable. The illusion that we have is to think that they got there quickly and, “Oh, my goodness, I could never get up that slope.”
But in answer to your question: what makes Federer the greatest player, rather than Nadal, rather than somebody else, that’s rather more elusive? It’s very difficult to get a controlled experiment where you can actually sift into the causal relationships that propelled Federer to the very top and Andy Murray to just slightly behind, but either way there’s no evidence to suggest it’s genetic.
There’s nothing in the DNA sequencing of Federer, no mutation that I think you could identify as explaining why Federer is the best. He’s certainly not stronger, it’s certainly nothing in his anatomy. It’s almost certainly to do with the mental representations, as I say, that enable them to anticipate more effectively and the fine motor skills, the complex motor skills that you build up over time. Maybe you’ve practiced better, maybe you’ve practiced harder, or maybe he’s able to translate his skills more effectively into top performance under pressure.
LEIGH SALES: Given the mental skills that people have to develop to get to these elite levels in sport and music, why do we still sometimes see top performers choke?
MATTHEW SYED: Well, this is one of the great mysteries of sport and one that I had good reason to look at in the book, because I, in one of the defining matches of my table tennis career at the Olympic Games in Sydney, I had a catastrophic meltdown in my opening match.
It wasn’t that my ability was insufficient, ’cause I was a good table tennis player, it’s that I just couldn’t cope with the pressure, the expectation, the occasion. And this is a fascinating phenomenon, because it’s something I think that we can all relate to.
You know, Greg Norman, great Australian sportsman, final round of the US Masters in the 1990s, he was leading by five or six shots from Nick Faldo and he totally fell apart and he did it a number of times in the defining stages of golf’s major titles. And I think the answer is actually relatively simple.
When you learn a skill for the first time, you exercise conscious control over it, like when you drive a car, you’re thinking about turning the steering wheel, looking in the mirror, moving the gear stick and so on. And as you build up the neural frameworks supporting the skill, you have to concentrate very, very hard.
When you become brilliant at something, proficient at something, you can do it subconsciously. So when you drive you can actually think about what you’re gonna make for dinner. The problem with choking is you become so anxious that you wrestle conscious control over a skill that you ought to be delivering automatically and that complicates the kind of the smooth workings of the connection between, if you like, brain and hand or brain and foot or whatever it happens to be. And that’s why you get such a dramatic decline from brilliance to somebody who looks actually rather like a novice.
LEIGH SALES: Given that presumably the natural instinct when you’re faced with a pressure situation like this where you’ve got one opportunity to sink a putt or one opportunity to play a piece of music correctly in front of an audience, the natural thing would be to choke and to doubt yourself, what do athletes do to try to avoid having that reaction and overthinking it?
MATTHEW SYED: Well first of all, I’d really like to acknowledge what you say. It is almost natural when you care about something to focus very, very hard on doing it. You can understand why we do that, we can understand why it’s an adaptation that often would work. But when there’s something that is very complex that you’re doing, that conscious control can be catastrophic.
How to avoid it? We know that choking is triggered when you are striving for top performance under pressure, when you really want to do your best. One way is to take the pressure off by pretending to yourself that what you’re doing doesn’t really matter very much. Because if you don’t care about the outcome, you’re less likely to become anxious and therefore less likely to choke. And a lot of top performers are able to, as it were, engage in a useful form of self-delusion; they use a bit of kidology before they go out to try and alleviate the pressure on themselves.
Different techniques works. Some people say, “Oh, the result’s in God’s hands,” and it liberates them to play without becoming anxious. Kevin Pietersen, the English cricket player, said it’s all about fate, what will be will be and that liberates him. So different performers use different techniques.
LEIGH SALES: Or you need to carry your racquet in the right bag or be wearing the right sneakers?
MATTHEW SYED: Exactly, superstition. I mean, it is rather extraordinary to see in the arena of competitive sport when defeat and victory are measured in such small variables, so many athletes are superstitious. But it’s nothing to do with the superstition in some objective, rational way improving performance, it’s the way it impacts on the mind. And if the performer believes that it might help them, that actually can help them. It’s like a placebo effect.
LEIGH SALES: Matthew Syed, we appreciate you very much coming in. Thank you for joining us.
MATTHEW SYED: Thank you.
Full Transcript here
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Discover how champions are made with BOUNCE. Bold, subversive and backed by solid evidence. Buy it here tinyurl.com Everyone knows that David Beckham crosses the ball better than anyone else and that Tiger Woods never “chokes”. But what are the hidden factors which allow the most successful sports stars to rise above their competitors — and are they shared by virtuosos in other fields? In Bounce Matthew Syed – an award-winning Times columnist and three-time Commonwealth table-tennis champion – reveals what really lies behind world-beating achievement in sport, and other walks of life besides. The answers – taking in the latest in neuroscience, psychology and economics – will change the way we look at sports stars and revolutionise our ideas about what it takes to become the best. From the upbringing of Mozart to the mindset of Mohammed Ali – via the recruitment policies of Enron – Bounce weaves together fascinating stories and telling insights and statistics into a wonderfully thought-provoking read. Bounce looks at big questions – such as the real nature of talent, what kind of practice actually works, how to achieve motivation, drugs in both sport and life, and whether black people really are faster runners. Along the way Matthew talks to a Hungarian father whose educational theories saw his daughters become three of the best chess players of all time, meets a female East German athlete who became a man, and explains why one small street in Reading – his own – has …
Bounce: How Champions are Made
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