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4.0 out of 5 stars Taking a single theme too far perhaps?, 10 Jun 2010
This review is from: Bounce: How Champions are Made (Paperback)
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I hadn't read anything by him previously, but Matthew Syed seems to appear in Private Eye's "Pseuds' Corner" on a semi-regular basis, so I had a vague fear about the style of this book. However it's a very readable and accessible work, but it feels a little like it's trying to stretch a single theme too far, namely that success in sport as well as in many other fields in life is purely down to practice and nothing whatsoever to do with inherent talent.

This is of course not entirely true, and even Syed himself is forced to concede in one tiny footnote that of course for example a short person is never going to become a basketball champion. Despite what he says, genetics does have something to do with it for some sports, for example the genetic propensity to develop a certain balance between type Ia, Ib and type II muscle fibres.

Much of the book is essentially devoted to giving examples to support the theme of practice over talent, and gets a little tedious after a while. Nevertheless it has far reaching implications in all areas of life. For example large companies everywhere think that parachuting in some supposedly talented executive with no actual knowledge of the business is going to turn things around, but there's simply no substitute for the experience built up over many years. We are tightly wedded to the idea of such success being down to natural talent alone, and if we aren't born with it we aren't going to get it, and certainly Syed is largely right to say the opposite. What we can all achieve with some application is amazing.

In the latter part of the book are a couple of slightly off-track chapters. Firstly on the use of drugs in sport; I find Syed's attitude a little distasteful here as he gives the impression of feeling that it's not necessarily so bad a thing.

Secondly, a chapter entitled "Are blacks superior runners?" Well you know what his answer is going to be without even reading it, as it would invalidate his entire thesis otherwise. Much of the chapter indulges in liberal hand-wringing and agonising about even considering such a thought. Syed wheels out the 1972 paper by Lewontin on genetics and race supposedly demonstrating that there is no such thing as race, something latched onto by liberal thinkers these days, but Syed would do well to look up "Lewontin's fallacy", as that argument is far from conclusive.

Despite this it's an interesting chapter. Syed at least successfully demonstrates that the situation as regards East African long distance runners is not as simple as it might at first seem; however he doesn't successfully persuade me that there isn't something genetic in relation to Afro-American/Caribbean sprinters, though neither do I believe that there necessarily is. There's probably a certain role model aspect to it in my view. Syed bewails the fact that blacks are not entering certain walks of life in British society, supposedly due to barriers of prejudice, but is it not perhaps much more down to the prominent visibility of successful black "role models" in sport and music continuing to draw many black youngsters in that direction?
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