One of the most inspiring books that every athlete should read is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. In this book, Coyle investigates places around the world where impossible amounts of talent spring up, seemingly with no explanation. Statistically speaking, talent should be spread out across the population. That is how most genetic statistics work. Sure, some populations tend to be taller, or fatter, or any other specific variation; but within that population, there is usually randomness to the statistics. For example, it is highly unlikely for everyone in a single neighborhood to be over seven feet tall. We all know by experience that genetic variations, such as height, are more spread out.
Yet, when it comes to talent, isolated pockets of expertise are far more common. Coyle calls these places “talent hotbeds,” and he found many in his investigation. He looked at a slew of these “hotbeds” in fields ranging from academics to skate boarding. In each, the ratio of elite performers was drastically out of the range of statistical probability. For instance, one humble tennis club in Russia, called Spartak, produced more top-20 women players than the entire United States combined!
How does sort of thing happen? According to one common understanding of talent, some have it, and some don’t. Yet, the existence of “talent hotbeds” flies in the face of that type of assessment. If talent were simply a genetic variation, then places like Spartak would be as common as the previously mentioned 7’0 and taller neighborhood. It simply wouldn’t happen. In the case of talent however, hotbeds are the rule, not the exception. What is even more interesting, though, is that Coyle found that these hotbeds all tended to share the same characteristics. Whether it was the soccer-crazed ghettos of Brazil, or an expensive world-class music academy, the students and teachers all seemed to be operating by the same set of principles.
In The Talent Code, Coyle assimilates these principles into three central ideas. The first of these is what Coyle refers to as “deep practice.” Deep practice means practice that is focused on challenging individuals at the very limits of their ability. Scientific research has shown that this type of practice causes physiological changes in the nervous system of those who engage in it. When someone consistently engages in a challenging activity, specific neural adaptations occur that create more proficiency at that specific task. One of the ways this happens is through a process called “myelination.” When individuals push themselves to the edge of their ability, a neural insulator, called myelin, wraps itself around neural circuits causing those patterns to be more efficient. As these patterns become more efficient, the ability to perform challenging tasks (such as hitting a curveball, or executing a back-hand-spring) becomes easier.
This is why practice makes us better. It comes down to science; when someone practices, their body is developing neural adaptations. The more one challenges themselves, the better they will get, period. This process never really stops for the elite performer. Extensive research by authorities on human expertise have shown that it takes about three hours of deliberate practice per day, for roughly ten years, to become world-class in any field.
The second principle that Coyle discusses is “ignition.” In order for someone to be willing to put in the ridiculous amount of work that it takes to be an elite performer, they have to want it really, really badly. Many times, this deep desire or “ignition,” happens as a result of being close to something really exciting. For example, Larry Fitzgerald was a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings as a youngster. Experiences like that helped Fitzgerald develop the love for the game that drove him to his current success. Ignition also comes from experiencing the thrill of competition. Michael Jordan grew to love basketball during his boyhood battles against his brothers. He later attributed the dedication he had as an adult to the “love of the game” that he developed in his early years. Another way that we become ignited is when we see people whom we consider to be “like us,” achieve great success. Baseball in the Dominican Republic has almost become a religion as a result of the string of successful Major Leaguers that have come from the island. There are many examples like this. Coyle argues that having role models that we can identify with helps us to see our own potential. It creates a fire within us as we ask to ourselves, “they did it, why can’t I?” Regardless of how one becomes ignited (there are countless ways beyond what we’ve mentioned), it is abundantly clear that those who enjoy the highest levels of success have a fire burning within that causes them to work much harder than the average player.
The final principle that Coyle points out as universal to all great successes is “master coaching.” In all of his research, he noticed that the great performers always had great coaches who taught them. No matter how much someone works at something, if they aren’t working on the right things, they won’t reach the highest levels of success. Whether by luck or design, elite performers have the opportunity to cultivate their skill under the watchful eye of a “master coach.” The qualities of “master coaching” are too numerous to be covered in this article (we will get more in depth in another entry). To summarize though, Coyle points out that these coaches are often those who have come very close to achieving great success themselves. For one reason or another though, these coaches didn’t reach their objectives. Their failures caused them to ask questions, and in that process these coaches acquired golden nuggets of information that they are able to pass on to future generations. That story is true of Bill Walsh. It is also true of Tom Brady’s private coach, the late Tom Martinez (whom Coyle writes about in his book). These coaches tend to be more observant than instructional. They know how to say the right thing at the right time. In pursuing your goals, try to find a master coach to help you along your way. Make sure that you are always placing yourself in an environment in which you can develop your potential.
We can’t be too complimentary of Coyle’s book. Every parent, athlete, and coach should become familiar with its concepts. It is one of the major inspirations behind our company. We incorporate these concepts by providing an atmosphere that allows players to practice the exact skills that they will need on game-day. Greatness is cultivated just as much in the off-season as in the regular season, and we have built our business trusting in your commitment to improve all year long. We believe in exposing athletes to the best coaching available. Our objective is to create our own “talent hotbed,” as we see a disproportionate number of you go on to have success in high school, college, and beyond. Winning Edge is determined to help its athletes reach their goals. Reading this book will help you along your path. It will take the “mystery” out of elite performance. Once you understand and incorporate the principles of The Talent Code into your life, you will begin to accomplish goals that may seem impossible today. You can do it! The decision is up to you.
Click here to purchase The Talent Code
Click here to read Daniel Coyle’s blog (it’s a must-read!)