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Bounce: The Myth of Talent and The Power of Practice by Matthew Syed

When we watch Nick Matthew, Ramy Ashour or indeed any of the world’s leading players in action we are invariably astounded. We are electrified by their virtuosity, the intricacy of their skill and the diversity of their shot-making. Their abilities seem so far beyond the reach of us ordinary mortals as to occupy a different planet.

The same perspective applies to other types of world-beaters, whether it is chess grandmasters or virtuoso pianists. They possess such artistry, vision and audacity as to seem like a special breed, touched by a genetic miracle that eluded the rest of us.

Talent is the word we use to rationalise these skills, the idea that sporting stars are born with greatness encoded in their DNA. How else to explain how the likes of Ashour can flash the ball into the nick in the blink of an eye or how Matthew is able to stroke a backhand winner from the back of the court?

It boils down to the idea that sporting excellence is reserved for a select group of individuals – winners in a genetic lottery that passed the rest of us by. But what if this seductive idea is all wrong? What if our deepest assumptions about success in squash – indeed, about life itself – are entirely misconceived? What if talent itself is not just a meaningless concept, but a corrosive one, robbing ourselves and our children of the incentive to work hard and excel?

After all, what is talent? We all think we know it when we see it. We really believe that we can spot giftedness in a young player according to how they hit the ball, moves their feet, and react to the shots of their opponent. Many squash associations even have talent identification programmes.

But how do we know that this player, who looks so gifted, hasn’t had many hours of special training behind the scenes? How do we know that the initial differences in ability between her and the rest will persist over years of practice? In fact, we don’t, as several studies have demonstrated.

A ground-breaking investigation of British musicians, for example, found that the top performers had learnt no faster than those who reached lower levels of attainment: hour after hour, the various groups had improved at almost identical rates. The difference was simply that top performers had practised for more hours.

Further research has shown that when top performers seem to possess an early gift, it is often because they have been given extra tuition at home by their parents.

Precisely the same insight is revealed by looking at child prodigies: boys and girls who reach world-class levels of performance in their teens. At first sight, they seem to have been blessed with amazing skills; skills that have enabled them to take a shortcut to eminence.

But a closer inspection reveals a very different story. When the Ramy Ashour and many of the latest generation of Egyptian’s burst on the scene, they were considered miracle players, widely recognised and acclaimed as ‘the most super talented players for a generation.’ But now consider that these players started playing before the age of five, that they endured exhaustive sessions of practice and match play, that by the age of ten they had clocked up more hours of practice than most semi-professionals achieve in a lifetime. Far from being players zapped with special powers that enabled them to circumvent practice, the Egyptian’s embody the rigours of practice.

Examine any sporting life where success has arrived early, and the same story keeps repeating itself. In tennis, Andre Agassi hit 2,500 balls a day and Maria Sharapova built her formidable skills over the course of many gruelling years at the Bollettierri Academy in Florida. Even Roger Federer, considered by many as the finest player of any generation, has an equally ferocious work ethic.

The illusion of talent arises because we only see a tiny proportion of the work that goes into the construction of virtuosity. If we were to examine the incalculable hours of practice, the many years ingraining excellence, the thousands of baby steps taken by world class performers to get to the top, the skills would not seem quite so mystical, or so inborn.

Indeed, extensive research has shown that there is not a single top performer in any complex task who has bypassed the 10 years of hard work necessary to reach the top. As Andre Agassi put it: “Nothing can substitute for just plain hard work. I had to put in the time to get back. It meant training and sweating every day”.

Of course, none of this is to deny that some kids start out better than others; it is merely to suggest that the starting point we all have in life is not particularly relevant. Why? Because over time, with the right kind of practice, we change so dramatically. It is not just the body that changes, but the anatomy of the brain. The region of the brain responsible for controlling fingers in young musicians, for example, is far larger than for the rest of us. But they were not born with this; it grew in direct proportion to the number of years of training.

Similarly, a study of London taxi drivers discovered that the area of the brain governing spatial navigation is substantially larger than for non-taxi drivers – but it did not start out like this, it developed with time on the job.

To put it simply, the secret of success does not lie in talent, but in hard work, will and opportunity. It is a truth that should be stapled to the wall of every squash club on the planet.

Matthew Syed is a former table tennis international and now a columnist for The Times and author of Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, which is now available in paperback. For more information, visit: www.matthewsyed.co.uk

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