Everyone knows that David Beckham crosses the ball better than anyone else and that Tiger Woods never “chokes”. But what are the hidden factors which allow the most successful sports stars to rise above their competitors – and are they shared by virtuosos in other fields?
In Bounce Matthew Syed - an award-winning Times columnist and three-time Commonwealth table-tennis champion - reveals what really lies behind world-beating achievement in sport, and other walks of life besides. The answers - taking in the latest in neuroscience, psychology and economics - will change the way we look at sports stars and revolutionise our ideas about what it takes to become the best.
From the upbringing of Mozart to the mindset of Mohammed Ali - via the recruitment policies of Enron - Bounce weaves together fascinating stories and telling insights and statistics into a wonderfully thought-provoking read. Bounce looks at big questions - such as the real nature of talent, what kind of practice actually works, how to achieve motivation, drugs in both sport and life, and whether black people really are faster runners.
Along the way Matthew talks to a Hungarian father whose educational theories saw his daughters become three of the best chess players of all time, meets a female East German athlete who became a man, and explains why one small street in Reading - his own - has produced more top table-tennis players than the rest of Britain put together. Fresh, ground-breaking and tackling subjects with broad appeal, Bounce is sure to be one of the most talked about books of the year.
‘A gripping examination of the hidden forces that come together in the making of a champion.' Michael Atherton, former England cricket captain
'A fascinating subject and Syed is a dazzling writer.' Owen Slot, The Times
'I love this book. A must-read if you have ever wondered what sets the super-achievers and the rest of us apart – in any field, not just in sport. I only wish I had read it when I was fifteen.' Gabby Logan, BBC presenter and former international gymnast
'Intellectually stimulating and hugely enjoyable at a stroke … challenged some of my most cherished beliefs about life and success.' Jonathan Edwards, triple jump world record holder
'Cutting-edge analysis and devastatingly argued.' Mark Thomas, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at University College London
'Compelling and, at times, exhilarating – Bounce explains high achievement in sport, business and beyond.' Michael Sherwood, Chief Executive, Goldman Sachs International
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'A fascinating subject and Syed is a dazzling writer .' Owen Slot - The Times
'A gripping examination of the hidden forces that come together in the making of a champion.' Michael Atherton - former England cricket captain
'I love this book. It is a must read if you have ever wondered what sets the super achievers and the rest of us apart, in any field not just in sport. I only wish I had read it when I was 15.' Gabby Logan - BBC TV Presenter
'A cutting edge dissection – and ultimate destruction – of the myth of innate talent in the pursuit of excellence. Syed synthesises his evidence with the precision of an academic, writes with the fluidity of a journalist and persuades with the drive of a sportsman. Read this book now – before it’s too late.' Mark Thomas - Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at University College London
'Matthew Syed was an exceptionally fine table tennis player and he is an exceptionally fine sports writer.... In the end this book is about the human brain. It is funny and tragic, learned and urgent - the story of the extraordinary capacities we all possess, the irrationalities that drive us to succeed or fail, the opportunities we are given or miss out on.' Howard Jacobson – award-winning author of Kalooki Nights
'Intellectually stimulating and hugely enjoyable at a stroke... challenged some of my most cherished beliefs about life and success.' Jonathan Edwards - Triple Jump World Record Holder and Olympic gold medallist
'Compelling and, at times, exhilarating - Bounce explains high achievement in sport, business and beyond' Michael Sherwood - Chief Executive Goldman Sachs International
'When a book includes subject classifications as diverse as sport and outdoor recreation, Europe, mathematics and popular science, you know you’re not in for a run-of-the mill sports book. Indeed, it’s so wide-ranging that a chapter discussing motivation assesses strategies for understanding educational achievement, morphs onto an examination of Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy and ends with an analysis of Enron’s hiring and promotion strategies (yes, really)... It’s impressively researched, forcefully argued and... extraordinarily interesting and thought-provoking.’ The Bookseller
'Everything Matthew Syed writes is worth reading' Lynne Truss, best-selling author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves
'Cogent discussions of the neuroscience of competition, including the placebo effect of irrational optimism, self-doubt, and superstitions, all lend credence to a compelling narrative; readers who gobbled up Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational will flock to this one.' Publishers Weekly
Bounce is a very interesting and thought provoking book. It basically argues that for any significantly complex human activity (especially sports like tennis, football and golf, and games like chess) natural talent is of pretty low importance because the wiring of the brain required to succeed can only be achieved through a massive amount of "purposeful" practice. The end result of this practice is often mistaken for natural talent, but in fact the trait most high achievers have in common is a willingness to work harder than their peers and a belief that this hard work will drive greater improvement and success, not a belief in their fixed superiority. There are a number of compelling and inspiring examples in the book, the most amazing of which is a family of Hungarian chess players whose story has changed the way I look at what is possible for any person to achieve. Woven into this argument are snipets of the author's own story as an internationally ranked table tennis player and Olympian. Although some of the material draws on the same sources (and also directly quotes) other popularizers like Malcolm Gladwell, I must say that having read the latter's books "Outliers" and "What the Dog Saw", I felt many of the key themes in "Bounce" are expressed in a very different way, and are in many ways much more compellingly argued. There are also whole sections on additional factors behind sporting success such as confidence, faith, nerve and even race, so that the overall sweep of the book's arguments is truly unique, rigourously argued and highly thought provoking. Although anchored mostly in the world of sports, it is hard to define this as just a sports book, as the ideas apply to many other walks of life as well. Highly recommended.
Bounce is superb at demolishing the ideas of "innate talents" and "genetic endowments and "racial characteristics." Syed points out the combinations of factors that come together to allow top performance to emerge. It is usually some combination of focused and genuine enthusiasm, opportunity, certain local quirks; disciplined practice and well trained experience. The initial enthusiasm for a task has to come from within- which allows the learner to put up with the knocks and setbacks on the way to becoming good at something. He explains very well why parents can try pushing their children into something...but probably won't get great results by so doing. The proverb about leading the horse to water, but not being able to get them to drink comes to mind. This leaves open an obvious niche for a book that helps parents to recognise and go with their child's talents and abilities.
The idea of disciplined practice being necessary to get good at something is stressed throughout the book. This applies in many fields both in sporting and other professions. The idea of perceptual compression, so that an expert apprehends and understands a situation so much more quickly and deeply than the non-expert is well described. The importance of domain specific knowledge is stressed. Syed makes a well aimed punch at the nonsense of "general management" and the idea that "the cognitive processes of learning, reasoning and problem solving" are sufficient for good decision making. He points out that the expert in a field does all these processes much more quickly, effectively, and powerfully than any non-expert, no matter how intelligent. The mechanism is that the expert is using is called "advanced pattern recognition."
"It is the rapid escalation in the number of variables in many real life situations-including sport- that makes it impossible to sift the evidence before making a decision: it would take too long. Good decision making is about compressing the informational load by decoding the meaning of patterns derived from experience. This cannot be taught in the classroom; it is not something you are born with; it must be lived and learned. To put it another way it emerges through practice."
Syed describes what happens in the brain as we progress from learning to performance. He also describes beautifully what happens when an expert "chokes." In this the expert stops using their unconscious competence, and tries to move back to doing the task consciously. But in so doing they disrupt their flow, and take too long analysing the situation, when normally they would just do what has to be done.
There are many good and useful ideas within this book about what helps towards and what hinders achievement. Syed mainly uses examples from sport, but he also uses examples from other fields with memorable examples of a fireman's sense that something was just a bit different so he got his crew out just before a building collapses, and of the differences between experienced and novice doctors.
Bounce is a remarkable book. Its central argument is that there is no such thing as natural talent and that top achievement is the consequence of huge amounts of a very particular kind of practice.
This may sound radical, but the evidence is compelling. The author shows how child prodigies are not quite what they seem and have actually clocked up quantities of practice that few of us achieve in our whole lives. He also shows how the extraordinary skills of elite athletes and other top performers in the arts and business can be explained by mental representations that all of us can acquire with practice.
When Roger Federer returns a fast serve he is not demonstrating faster reactions, but quicker anticipation. He is able to maker sharper and more accurate inferences about where the ball is going to go via the movement patterns of his opponent, so that he is in position almost before the ball has been hit. First class cricketers have figured out whether to play off the front or back foot 100 miliseconds before the ball has been bowled. The author demonstrates that these skills are not innate, but learned - and learnable by all of us.
Later chapters explore the importance of mindset and how parents and teachers can inculcate the "growth" mindset by praising effort rather than talent - this is of huge importance not merely to sport, but to education and life. There are also fascinating discussions of self belief, superstition, choking and drug taking. The final chapter provides a discussion of the reason for racial patterns of success and failure in sport and the wider economy.
It is absorbing, vividly readable and thought provoking throughout.