Winners aren’t born, they are made.
So says Matthew Syed, the ex-table tennis champion.
He says that to be the best, whether in sport, music, chess or anything else, it’s about being able to practise. And do the right kind of practice. The idea that talent is innate or intelligence god-given is nonsense and he goes on to prove it.
Beckham? He practised in a field every night, kicking a ball from the same spot again and again. Mozart? His father was a renowned music teacher. Tiger Woods? His father started teaching him when he was still in diapers.
It’s not just about practice, but the correct kind of practice: he learnt that the Chinese table tennis training regime meant using a double-sized table so that when they came back to a regular sized table it was easy. The Brazilians were so great at football because of a game they played on a smaller pitch with a really heavy ball and a smaller team which meant it was harder and you got more touches of the ball. Quality and quantity.
Opportunity counts too: ice hockey teams mostly have birthdays in January and February – that’s because of when the selection of kids happens; the best kids are simply the ones that are older in their academic year.
The best East African distance runners are in fact from Kenya. Further they’re from the small hilly Nandi area. They live at altitude, have a high protein & carbohydrate diet, and have no transport, so have to run miles to school each day; i.e. it’s not genetic. Similarly with West African / West Indies sprinters.
Failure is key to success. You must be prepared to fall again and again and again. He gives the example of an ice skater who perfected an amazing move only by falling on their backside hundreds of times before they could execute the trick.
He told the story of an eastern European chap that believed talent is a myth and proved it. He set out to make champions: he found a wife that would help him, then they had three daughters and trained them to be chess winners. They were the best women chess players the world has seen, one even ending up in the top five players of all time.
Syed then looks at the psychology of performance.
He covers choking – once we’re trained up we shouldn’t think about specifics, rather more generally, e.g. the golf swing should be smooth and hard, rather than thinking about shoulder position, wrist twist, etc.
Telling kids that they are intelligent is bad for them – they perform worse. You should praise their effort. See Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking research for more on this.
He talks about the power of belief – if you “know” you’re going to win, even against all the odds, you will perform better.
A great book to encourage you that you can achieve whatever you want with the right commitment, training and self-belief.