He was the number one table tennis player. Maybe it was because he was unique. And maybe not.
Matthew Syed deconstructs the less than purely accidental route to reaching #1 ranking in the UK. The more he dug into why he had been successful, the more it became clear practice had played a large part, both in his success, and those of pretty much every other sporting legend, Agassi, the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods, all had parents that encouraged / pushed them into high levels of sporting activity from an early age.
It’s good to read a book that goes into a more depth than just quoting the over simplistic mantra of 10,000 hours of practice needed to succeed. That alone is not enough, it needs to be intelligent, applied practice, and also for someone who has sufficient sporting ability too.
There are 10 chapters and each one looks to examine and demystify some well cherished sporting myths.
Syed looks at rituals in sport, and their value, versus the point at which they become a real drag on performance. Nadal for instance, endlessly adjusting his clothes as he prepares to receive serve. The obsession of ‘taking something positive from defeat’. We’ve heard it a million times. Surely the reality is that we / they played awfully on the day. However it’s hard to say this, and it might even be permanently damaging to their psyche. Therefore the mantras of taking something away from even the off days. On the other hand you probably need this armour, in the world of tennis for example, no one wins every game. No one has pulled off the men’s grand slam in one year in the modern professional era. So therefore you have to be able to lose the odd one, while still believing you can win the next game you are about to play.
Other interesting chapters cover choking and if black athletes are genetically predisposed to be better at sport. With choking, it’s a very popular term, especially in American sports. Thing is, in team sports I’ve always thought it’s a little harder for the whole team to suddenly start getting anxious the closer they get to the winning line. However I guess if you consider the English football team, and how they generally, inevitably retreat closer and closer to their own 12 yard line once they have scored, before eventually conceding the inevitable equaliser / losing goal, then you might say that’s a form of choking. Momentum is important in sport though, as teams often go on strong sequences of points scoring.
The last chapter is a great read , probably slightly provocatively titled ‘Are blacks superior runners?’ He digs into the research regarding the place of origin for great middle distance runners in Kenya and Ethiopia. Invariably reaching one very specific region within the country, at altitude, where children spend numerous years running optimal long distances to school. It is much easier for journalists to write simpler stories about the reasons for sporting dominance, but time and time again genetic results fail to back these comments up.
It’s a quick read, good, provocative and challenging. The key takeaway is that nothing comes easy, but equally that smart practice brings great rewards. Whatever your own sport I’d recommend reading it, to question your own point of view, and see what cross sport insights you can bring into your own field of practice.