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How Champions Are Made - The Science of Success

Matthew Sayed

I first came into contact with Brian McDermott after a press conference last May after a string of wins that took Reading into the play-offs after a poor start to the season. Asked to account for the turnaround, McDermott credited Bounce — my book on the science of success — as part of the explanation.

“I read Bounce, some of the players read it, and the staff read it. I thought it was terrific. One of the sections said, ‘Mediocrity is very easy, you always get there . . . Success is different. It has peaks and troughs. And you have to work very, very hard to get there.” It was an exceedingly generous comment, and one that is characteristic of McDermott, who is always on the lookout for new ideas.

The basic premise of Bounce is simple: talent is overrated. It argues that top footballers, mathematicians and the like are not born with genetic gifts that propel them to stardom. On the contrary, success is the consequence of years of high-quality practice, structured according to scientific principles that build skill, and transform the body and brain. In other words, practice is more important than talent.

Bounce does not argue that genetic inheritance is irrelevant, but that it is misunderstood. We tend to think that footballers have faster reactions than average, that chess players have superior memories, and that maths prodigies have faster calculating ability. These assumptions are misconceived. What looks like inborn talent is, in reality, the neurological consequence of many years of high-quality practice.

McDermott, in addition to many other facets of his managerial repertoire, has used these ideas to nudge the culture of Reading FC. “When you have a bunch of people — both players and staff — who have read about how success is a consequence of hard work, rather than something that automatically emerges from fixed talent, the result is a very powerful one.”

McDermott’s view is backed by extensive evidence. It turns out that our views on talent have profound effects on behaviour. Those who think that success is about talent (labelled the fixed mindset) are less hard working and less resilient. After all, why bother to work hard if you have superior genes? Won’t you just cruise to the top? And if you lack talent, well, why bother at all? Those who think success is largely about hard work (labelled the growth mindset), on the other hand, are more resilient, more motivated, and far less likely to lose their way if they encounter temporary difficulties (“if I keep at it, I can eliminate my weaknesses!”) This observation is as true of coaches as it is of players.

The growth mindset is a cornerstone of high-level performance because it internalises the conditions of success. As David Beckham, who learnt to take free-kicks over many years of graft on a London field, put it: “My secret is practice. I have always believed that if you want to achieve anything special in life you have to work, work and then work some more.”

“There are really two different ways to look at the world,” McDermott says. “When you realise that success is in your own hands, rather than something that happens to you by way of talent, a light goes on in your mind. We never use words like ‘talent’ here. We focus on hard work; how players and staff can grow over time. We may not become Premier League champions, but we will reach our potential.”

More books on Sport

Sayed starts his book by telling you he is a British table tennis champion. (This is quite a big deal in Britain with 2.5 million players and a rich league for the top guys.) Seemed like he was a talented guy, but then invites you to consider his background. First, his parents bought a table tennis table and he and his brother spent hours competing with each, honing their skills. Second, he went a school on Silverdale Rd where he met a teacher who was a fanatic about table tennis. Not only was he was the top coach in England, but his school had produced more British champions than the whole of the rest of the country.

Sayed suggests that if you look closely at any champion you will find extraordinary circumstances. If he, for example, had lived just one house down the street, he would have gone to a different school and never been coached by the top guy. If look at all top achievers you'll find they got there with a minimum of ten years training. And because hard to do more than 1000 hours a year of high quality training, that means 10,000 hours.

All top Canadian ice hockey players born in first 3 months of the year. Cut off for age grade teams is Jan 1, so if you're born in December, you start playing against boys who are almost a year older than you. The older boys are a bit bigger and better co-ordinated, so they get bit more coaching and encouragement, and they quickly become noticeably better.

Top cricketers or tennis players don't have superior reaction speed, they are simply better at analysing and anticipating the patterns of bowler or server. If measure any of their physical attributes you find they are in same range as many others - nothing special.

Saw a table tennis player who seemed to have extraordinary reactions - he could play right up to the table even against the best players. Yet when his reaction times measured, he was actually slower than most. Turned out that he ha learned to play in a schoolroom where there was only just room for the table and so everyone had to stand close - he'd spent 5 intense years learning to play table tennis this way.

Gary Klein Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions gave example of the fire chief who pulled his crew from a building that looked like a simple fire but which collapsed seconds later. Unable to articulate why he'd done that, but Klein worked out that the guy's experience had provided him with a set of patterns. He would size up a situation by matching it against one of those patterns, and when he didn't get a full match he got very uncomfortable.

For years attitude that knowledge and experience didn't matter; that talent, in terms of good reasoning skills and logic, made for good decision-makers. Presumption that can just 'parachute' in some 'talent' to transform a business. But it turns out that the opposite is true - need 'deep knowledge' to make sensible decisions.

Mozart, Tiger Woods, Williams sisters, David Beckham all the same story - self-motivated enough to stick to tough, focused practice regimes so that by by their mid-teens they'd already done their 10,000 hours. Child prodigies don't have unusual genes, they have unusual upbringings.

Lots of people have done more than 10,000 hours driving but they're still crappy drivers. The key is focused purposeful training. Strive for a target that is just out of reach, but with a vivid picture of how the gap might be breached. Most people content to just get 'good enough' rather than try for 'great'. Sunday golfers happy to rip a couple of buckets at the driving range, but not focused practice. The pro's do things like try to hit a frisbee 100 yards out.

Importance of feedback - knowing whether you've chosen the best option. Can do this with chess - set up a historical game, make your move and then compare with what a grandmaster did.

Two athletes. Jonathan Edwards, who won Triple Jump at Sydney Olympics, was born-again Christian who carried a small tin of sardines with him in his bag to remind him that God could do miracles. Mohammed Ali totally confident because "How can I lose with Allah on my side?" Each man totally confident that his God was helping him. But at least one of them must be worshipping a God that doesn't exist, so one, or both of them is benefiting from a false belief.

Choking. As a novice, when you learn a shot, you start out consciously monitoring every part of the technique. After lots of practice, you can do it unconsciously, without thinking. And the shot gets integrated into rest of your game. You are then in expert mode. Problem is that under great pressure you start worrying about each part of the shot, and you flip back to novice mode, where you try to scrutinise each part of the shot to make sure you're doing it right. But it's too complex to be done well by the conscious brain - you have to rely on the (trained) instinctive mind to integrate everything.

Anti-climax. Defeat produces a variety of emotions, but it does give you something to feel. But victory, after got over the first glow, leaves a huge existentialist hole.

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