A while back, at a meeting of the London Professional Speaking Association, we had a talk given by Matthew Syed. Former British No. 1 at table tennis and triple gold medallist in the Commonwealth Games, he’s now a journalist and broadcaster.
More to the point, he’d recently published his book: ‘Bounce: the myth of talent and the power of practice.’ It’s been a while, but can I just say that I thought his book was (and remains) SUPER and well worth a read? This is especially true if you’re a parent to young children!
Even now, two years on I can remember a good deal of the insight – and particularly the anecdotes – which Matthew cited in his talk. Expanded on in some detail in the book, he references the fabled British table tennis player, Desmond Douglas, alleged to have ‘lightning fast reaction speeds’ only for researchers to discover his reaction times were actually slow when under controlled conditions.
The explanation for his speed at the table tennis table? Growing up in a poor neighbourhood, he spent countless hours learning to play at a local youth club so small there were only a couple of feet between the edge of the table and the back wall. He had to stand up close to the table and react quickly because of his environment. nothing to do with innate ability at all.
Or the reference to Mozart – the ‘childhood prodigy‘. Yet on further examination, the product less of extraordinary talent, rather the product of an extraordinary upbringing. The idea of having conducted more hours of piano practice by the age of six than most adult musicians conduct in a lifetime makes me shiver to this day!
Matthew made much, I recall, of the critical role of ‘mental software’ to conduct activities at a high-level of skill. This software is highly specialised and cultivated over many hours of dedicated, meaningful practice. In time, actions/thoughts which to the uninitiated take conscious effort become embedded in the sub-conscious. Hence, Roger Federer playing lawn tennis is sensational. Put him in a Real Tennis court, however, and he become merely… ‘very good’.
As a child growing up, so often I recall peers of mine being praised or castigated for being ‘very talented’ or ‘very clever’. How disempowering was that?
As father of a 21 month old daughter, I for one am committed to praise her effort and hard work – above any presupposed ‘talent’ I may decide to bestow upon her as a doting parent! For this mindset, which I’m convinced will serve her far better for her long-term development, I have many resources to thank, chief among which is ‘Bounce.’ Great job, Matthew. And come to think of it, it might just be time to pick it up again…