Reporter and Olympian Matthew Syed on the making of great athletes, what feedback is best for kids—and why failing is good

A conversation with Kate Fillion

Kate Fillion

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Matthew Syed, two-time Olympian, was ranked Britain’s number one table tennis player for a decade and won the Commonwealth championship three times. Named British sportswriter of the year in 2008, the Times reporter (and aspiring politician) argues in Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success that natural ability has very little to do with high achievement.

Q: At the 2000 Olympics you had a good shot at a medal. What happened?
A: I know table tennis is not big in North America, but it’s a really big sport in the U.K., with 30,000 paid-up members of the governing body and over two million regular participants. And my whole life, really, had been directed at competing effectively at the Olympics. But when I got out there, I could hardly hit the ball. All those complex skills I’d built up over years of purposeful practice deserted me in a millisecond and for the duration of the match. I was very badly beaten.

Q: What causes a choke?
A: When we’re beginners, creating the neural framework for any kind of complex task—hitting a golf ball or kicking a football or singing or dancing—we have to exert conscious control to learn the skill because it’s unfamiliar. Neuroscientists have discovered that as you’re building up a skill, your prefrontal cortex is very activated. But over many hours of practice, the skill becomes encoded in implicit memory, and areas in the brain such as the basal ganglia become more effective. So beginners use an explicit system where they focus on the actual mechanics of performing the task, while expert performers operate implicitly, and can actually focus on other things, like tactics. Choking happens when a performer is under so much pressure that he thinks, “Oh God, I must make sure that I play this forehand well,” and instead of just doing it, he begins to exert conscious control and the neurophysiology is dramatically changed. You’re almost playing like a beginner again, operating from the explicit system rather than the implicit system. You’re trying to hit the ball, rather than just hitting it.

Q: How do you prevent choking?
A: According to the psychologist I worked with, and it makes intuitive sense, you pretend to yourself that what you’re doing doesn’t actually matter. Because if it doesn’t matter, you’re not going to try to exert conscious control. But once a choke starts, it seems to be an inexorable slide. Since Sydney, I’ve watched sports with a real eye on this, and I’ve hardly ever seen someone come back.

Q: As a spectator watching an athlete lose, I usually conclude that the other player simply has more innate ability. Why do so many of us believe “the talent myth”?
A: It fits into the familiar old Darwinian narrative: those who do well have a superior genetic inheritance. Yet if you look at the scientific evidence, where you end up in a field bears no relation whatsoever to your initial endowment and is created by the quality and quantity of your practice. Psychologist Anders Ericsson has shown that the difference between extraordinary performers and everyone else is that they practise more.

Q: Most of us put in a lot of practice at something: parenting, say, or our jobs. Why aren’t we super-achievers?
A: It has to be purposeful practice, with the right level of focus, and you have to be extending your limitations and receiving good training with rigorous feedback, or you’re not going to improve. I’ve driven for thousands of hours but I’m not a world-class driver, because when I drive, I’m listening to the radio and wondering what to have for dinner. But when I play table tennis, I’m pushing myself, always, just beyond my limits. That’s not particularly comfortable. I’m concentrating as hard as I can; I have a camera trained on me so I can get feedback by watching the video later; I’ve got the best coach in the world watching—all that means that you just keep getting better and better. Ericsson pointed out that the most amazing thing about expertise is the capacity of “ordinary” people to just keep improving with practice.

Q: But doesn’t the athlete who starts out with more natural ability, which is at least partially genetically determined, have a distinct advantage?
A: Genes are relevant to initial ability. You can see, for example, that some kids are better than others when they first pick up a ball. But the evidence shows that over many thousands of hours, that initial disparity just doesn’t matter. What really alerted me to a fundamental problem with the idea that success is all about natural talent is that I grew up on Silverdale Road in Reading, about as anonymous a road as you can imagine, and yet in the early 1980s that one tiny street contained more of the top table tennis players in the United Kingdom than the rest of the nation combined. There was no genetic mutation that occurred only for people living on Silverdale Road. We just had access to better opportunities—most importantly, the opportunity to practise at a facility that was open around the clock and receive very advanced training from the best coach in the country, who taught at our local primary school. Our genetic inheritance didn’t matter, because after a number of years, all of us who lived on that road found ourselves to be very new people, with brains and bodies sculpted by the training and practice.

Q: How does practice sculpt the brain?
A: The importance of myelin, an insulating material that wraps around nerve fibres and helps neural signals travel faster, is a hot new topic in neuroscience. In one experiment, the brains of concert pianists were scanned and there was a direct relationship between hours practised and the quantity of myelin. Purposeful practice also creates new neural connections and increases the size of specific areas of the brain. For instance, there’s evidence to show that the area of the brain responsible for spatial navigation is larger in London taxi drivers, who have to pass a very difficult test to get a licence. So two things seem to be happening: it’s as though you download software that contains specific knowledge, and that very process of downloading seems to change the hardware, the physical geometry of the brain.

Q: But that software doesn’t improve performance in other areas. For instance, in 2005 you played an ancient form of tennis with a harder ball and different techniques against Roger Federer, and he could barely hit the ball. Why was his reaction time so slow?
A: When we see elite athletes returning a smash, we assume they have instincts or reactions that they were born with that are faster than ours. The evidence shows that is not the case. What experts in tennis or chess or any other field have is an ability to perceive patterns in their particular area of endeavour, which enables them to anticipate far better than other people—but it doesn’t transfer to another field, because it’s not a general talent but a specific skill built up through years and years of practice. Psychologists call it “chunking.” Think of reading: if a word flashes on a screen you don’t have to look at every letter—you just recognize the sequence, the pattern. And the more you read, the easier it becomes to chunk words. But if someone flashes a random assortment of consonants, you can’t chunk them because the pattern isn’t recognizable. Athletes build up years of experience with the “language,” as it were, of their particular sport. For example, in table tennis, when I see somebody shaping up to play a forehand smash, because of my long-term experience watching people smash, I’m able to infer from the movement pattern of my opponent where the ball is going to go, so I’m already in position to play my return. But that ability to chunk is very specific to table tennis. The patterns are totally different in tennis, in golf, in chess.

Q: How is chunking different from memory?
A: If you disrupt the “language” or familiar patterns of a game, the ability to chunk disappears. Scientists have shown that if you set up a chess board in a real-game situation and throw a chess expert in for five seconds, he’ll be able to remember the placement of every single piece on the board. The pattern is familiar. But if you set up the pieces randomly, in a way they would never be placed in an actual game, he can’t remember the position of the pieces better than you or I. His memory is not better, but his pattern recognition is better. To circumvent the constraints of short-term memory, chunking is absolutely vital in many areas of life. Experienced firefighters, for instance, can look at a fire and understand its dynamics almost instantaneously by the process of chunking. Over time, they build up extraordinary pattern recognition, and part of that is because they have to concentrate so hard and be fully engaged, or people will die.

Q: You say that there’s no such thing as a child prodigy, there are just parents who coach their children to start practising earlier and harder. Why do some parents succeed while others fail?
A: If there’s some level of coercion, if a child is doing the work or the sport because he feels he’ll be disciplined by his parents if he doesn’t, the amount he’ll improve is severely compromised and there’s a greater risk of burning out. Good coaching is about encouraging enjoyment and getting the young person to internalize the motivation. Tiger Woods said, “My dad never asked me to play golf. I asked him.”

Q: You write about Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian educational psychologist who set out in the 1970s to prove that any child could become world-class at something. He chose chess because success could be measured objectively, and his three daughters became the best female players in history. How did he get them to internalize motivation?
A: Polgar made chess playful, jovial, and he used little tactics to build a level of excitement and interest. For instance, at the beginning he would say, “No, no, you’re not allowed to play yet.” By the time they were teenagers and winning international tournaments, the girls were fascinated by chess and wanted to practise. They didn’t need to be pushed.

Q: How important is positive feedback?
A: The type of positive feedback is crucial. If you praise kids for talent, for how skilled they are, they avoid challenges because they know that if they fail they’re going to lose that label. You want to encourage and praise them for effort, for working hard. The distinction is between what Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist who has done groundbreaking work in this area, calls a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that talent is what leads to success, and you are likely to give up if you fail early on because that will be regarded as evidence that you lack the necessary talent. But if you believe that success revolves around hard work and practice, failure is not going to deter you at all. It’s going to tell you that you need to practise harder. With a growth mindset, you’re more likely to reach excellence, because failure is an inevitable part of reaching excellence.