By James Vaughan
Bounce is the nature vs. nurture debate reinvented and super-charged for sports enthusiasts, coaches and parents. Award winning sport journalist Matthew Syed delves into his own past, unearthing the key elements that led to his success. Matthew was England’s #1 table tennis player and a triple commonwealth champion.
Syed starts by painting a behind the scenes picture of his upbringing, reflecting on the unique opportunities and idiosyncrasies that shaped his earliest table tennis experiences. Using his story of lucky learning opportunities and random experiences (nonlinear pedagogy) the idea that natural talent is a myth is introduced.
Bounce continues by gathering compelling research and combining this with extraordinary stories of expert individuals to support this idea. What bounce shows is that experience is all-important, not genetics. Bounce explains that our environment shapes our experience and it is this experience that allows us to develop perceptual and motor skill. Bounce shows that quality experience allows the ‘perceptual chunking’ and ‘motor chunking’ needed for the automation of skill and expert performance.
Syed constructs a compelling portrait combining research, personal experience and the stories of famous athletes to highlight that dedication and hours of practise (experience), not natural talent, are required for expertise. However, Syed is quick to highlight that the type of practice is the key. Syed suggests the practice sessions of aspiring experts have one specific, never-changing purpose: progress – to engage so deeply in the task that they push themselves beyond the outer limits of their capabilities. It’s here that Syed hits on a critical point – hours of experience mean nothing if the practice isn’t purposeful. For practice to be purposeful learners must freely engaging in an activity with a growth mindset that is focused on mastering their chosen activity. What Syed is hitting on here is the mindset that players bring to practice; this is probably the most important player attribute.
Bounce explores a number of examples of purposeful practice and highlights how the environment and the task shape the player (an example of the constraints-led approach). He uses the development of Desmond Douglas as a fantastic example. Desmond ‘lightening man’ Douglas was considered to have the fastest reactions in table tennis, which people believed allowed him to develop a unique style – a style that saw him stand flush with the table never retreating, returning the ball as quickly as possible. The thing was, when Douglas’ reactions were tested they where slow, slower than not only the England training squad and the juniors but also the team manager! When investigating Desmond’s playing history, Syed finds that his reactions did not shape his unique style of play – his style of play developed his reactions.
Desmond describes the old and broken-down hall (the environment) that shaped the task (and experience) of playing table tennis during his development. “There were three tables along the length of the room to accommodate all the players who wanted to take part, but there was so little space behind the tables that we had to stand right up against the edge of the tables to play, with our back almost touching the blackboard.” With no room to retreat this environment shaped the task, basically defensive shots (that slowed the rally down) weren’t an option. Therefore Douglas spent the first five years of his development playing speed table tennis, pushing his perceptual abilities beyond his limits he learnt to read his oppositions body shape and know where their shot would go before paddle hit ball. Making it look like he had lightening reactions.
Syed explains that our reactions are based on context specific ‘perceptual chunking’. Perhaps the easiest way to think about this is that pattern recognition that allows anticipation. For a full explanation you’ll have to read the book, or for another mini football example see our article ‘boardroom to boot room’ in issue 7 of C14 PDP magazine here.
Looking at team-based examples of purposeful practice Syed highlights futsal as football’s version of speed table tennis. Syed calls it a perfect example of how a well-designed game – the task constrains – can accelerate learning. The experience of playing futsal gives players more touches in tighter spaces, promoting quicker play all around. Demanding quicker decisions, quicker reactions or quicker pattern recognition (which in this case may be the defenders body shape and positioning) allowing ‘perceptual chunking’ and the experimentation with skills and techniques that lead to skill automation – ‘motor chunking’.
At this point Bounce takes the reader on a fascinating journey that explores choking, the power of double-think (contradictory belief systems), superstitions and the placebo effect. All of which helps us to understand that cultural forces not only shape our perception but are the main determinant of sporting success.
To illustrate this point Syed uses research to show that there is no significant genetic difference between races, and yet there is a commonly accepted belief (mindset) that black people are physically superior athletes. In exploring the phenomenon of Kenyan runners and Jamaican sprinters Bounce shows that cultural factors and early individual experiences shape these expert performers, not genetics.
Put another way the over-representation of African-American sports men and women at the top-level is not a consequence of genetics but of a belief system or mindset. Syed suggests the over-representation is sport mirrored by an underrepresentation in positions of economic power. Therefore the unequal opportunity (cultural forces) experienced by African-Americans of over the last 50 years, coupled with the superior athlete mindset made sport the best avenue for success. Similar to South American kids growing up in the shantytowns of South American who idolise and emulate their Football heroes.
Bounce shows that the quality of our early experiences shape our perceptual and motor skills. Going beyond Bounce it is key for us to recognise that our earliest experiences – in any sport or activity – shape our future experiences due to the mindset they create – a mindset that shape our perception of the world. Bounce is must read for people wanting to take an open-minded approach to coaching, parenting and life.
About the Author
James Vaughan is the Co-Founder of the Player Development Project. A current New Zealand Futsal representative, James is currently working towards a PhD in Creativity in Football through the University of Queensland. With a range of expertise Futsal and Football coaching with New Zealand Football and Football Federation Australia’s National Training Centre programmes, James is at the forefront of the latest research and knowledge in player development.