My Review of Bounce by Matthew Syed

Bounce by Matthew SyedThe tagline for the book ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed is ‘How champions are made’, which sets the tone for a book dedicated to searching through academic literature, and engaging with top professionals, in an attempt to determine the causes of elite performance.

Watch the video below for a great introduction to the book by Syed himself.

Syed, is an ex-International table tennis player and now writes for The Times, amongst others. His interest in the topic of elite performance, athlete development and the ‘talent vs practice’ debate has obviously stemmed from his personal experiences in life and sport. This enables his to write in a way that is personal, while at the same time always ensuring his points of view are backed up by research. It makes for a very engaging book and style of writing.

Anyway, on with the review and Syed splits the book into three main sections;

  1. The Talent Myth
  2. Paradoxes of the Mind
  3. Deep Reflections

I am going to attempted to summarise the key points from each section and then give my own views. I will keep it brief. If you want to know more you can buy the book!

1. The Talent Myth

In this section Syed tackles the myth of natural-born talent and aims to convince us that it is practice rather than talent that creates elite performance.

  • The top athletes have completed more hours of practice than their lower skilled peers.
  • 10,000 hours of ten years of practice seem to be necessary to reach an elite level.
  • Practice develops an activity-specific knowledge base that leads to activity-specific performance improvements.
  • Child prodigies, such as Mozart and Tiger Woods actually back up this theory. They just started intensive practice much earlier than everyone else.
  • Practice must be purposeful, otherwise it is useless. It must ‘overload’ the current systems in order to cause improvements.
  • Feedback is necessary for improvement. It helps us correct and fine tune.
  • Sometimes it can be a particular event or conversation that sparks the belief and desire to excel.
  • A long-term, growth mindset is vital to creating an environment where players can thrive and stay driven.

Tiger Woods as a childThis section goes into detail about a lot of ideas of theory that are very counter-cultural. I think Syed’s arguments are extremely well-structured and his use of academic literature to back-up his main points is very helpful (he has a huge list at the back of the book of his references so you can look into them yourself).

I guess the main point to take from this chapter is that it is the quantity and quality of practice that leads of elite performance. Top athletes have worked damn hard to get where they are and to put it down to natural ability is insulting. As a christian, I struggled with this idea slightly. It seems to put 100% of the emphasis on the individual and removes any  possibility that God is in control and giving talents and gifts to his children.

But then I went back to first few pages of the book and read again of Syed’s rise to international table tennis. Yes, he worked very hard along the way but it all began with situations that were completely out of his control. His parents and brother. Where he lived. Who he met. Opportunities that presented themselves to Matthew Syed and not another boy, somewhere else in Britain. As in all things, I believe that God gives us the freedom to choice what we do with our lives but at the same time is the one that is ultimately in control and guides our path.

2. Paradoxes of the Mind

Muhammad Ali Allah is the GreatestThe second section is even more interesting for me as a christian as Syed tackles directly the effects of personal belief systems of elite athletes. This is really a huge section on the psychology of top sports performance.

  • A placebo can have unbelievable and explainable outcome results, despite physically doing nothing at all.
  • Ali and Jonathan Edwards believed in different God’s but both said their faith had helped them succeed. One or both must be believing in thin air!
  • Positive thinking is extremely effective in life and sport.
  • Choking is caused by us switching from the implicit back to the explicit system of the brain. In effect going back to playing and thinking and processing like a beginner for a brief period of performance often in high pressure conditions.
  • Sporting superstitions are pointless but can be positive as a belief in them can increase performance, as long as they are not inherently damaging in and of themselves.
  • Achieving your dreams or goals can be much less satisfying than you would think and feel like an anticlimax.

This section if filled with interesting and useful insight into the mind of a champion. The key take away lesson seems to be that a belief in your own ability to perform is vital for success. Even when totally illogical, based on better reason, a play must believe they can win.

And it doesn’t seem to matter where this belief comes from. It can come from within, or religion, or a superstition, or even a little yellow sugar pill. All that matters is that the belief is there. The use of Ali and Jonathan Edwards is particularly interesting as they both had very different religious beliefs and yet both found them beneficial to their performance. The idea of ‘if God is on my side how can I lose’. Well for at least one of them God would not have been on their side yet their belief carried them through.

From a christian point of view again, I believe that God cares about every detail of our lives, including our sport. But does God promise christian sporting success? No. He has a far greater plan for us and the world as a whole. That may include us playing sport at an elite level or it may not.

3. Deep Reflections

I was assuming that this final section would be a wrap up of all the ideas covered so far, followed by a couple of pages of conclusions and possibly some practice applications for sportspeople or business people. I was wrong.

Matthew SyedInstead, Syed looks at three other ‘hot-topics’ in current sport science academia. Some parts of which are relevant and other parts that leave me a little confused as to why they made it in. I won’t go into detail on this section but we get to see;

  • A brief overview of perception and attention and their advancement/limitations.
  • An overview of the debate surrounding doping in sport from a sociological or philosophical point of view.
  • A look at the genetics of top sports performers, that possibly could have been included at the start of the book as it is the other side of the coin to the whole purposeful practice theory.

The section is very interesting, and it takes me back to some of the more engaging lectures I had at university, studying sport science, but it does leave me thirsty for a good conclusion to the book.

And there we have it, my book review of Bounce by Matthew Syed. If you’ve made it this far, well done! I do tend to go on a bit. If you’re read the book I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Please leave a comment below. If you haven’t read it can I encourage you to check it out on Amazon. It is very reasonably priced and well worth a read.

Join over 2,000 members and become a part of the ETT Academy here.
  • simmo90

    A few points here where I would like to question having researched this also. I have the book sitting at home but wont be able to read it until around December, so I cant fully comment on his arguments.
    firstly on talent v practice, practice does not fully explain (in my view) the differences between 2 elite athletes. It is my belief that yes practice has been shown to be able to get you to an elite level however, then that is where talent comes in. Innate talent is shown in the genetic differences in muscle fibres which have been shown in twin studies. thoughts? since this topic was your dissertation area could you not see the re-classification almost of talent as being what the current perception in modern language is and instead a genetic predisposition to be suited to a particular sport than others… eg in this definition people who are tall could be said to be more talented in that sense than shorter people in basketball.

    secondly, on faith in sport, it has been shown in lots of ways that self-belief is an important factor in success and what better basis for self-belief than a belief that something all-powerful (ie the God of everything!) is with you! As the bible says- if God is for us, who can be against us?, what more self-belief can you have than that. Another way in which faith can help performance is the calmness in competition from the belief that there is more to life than winning that particular match, this can stop over-arousal, over-the-top aggression (i.e. getting sent off etc)… although I suppose in that sense it can have its drawbacks, the lack of this arousal may not give the edge on the performance, or the unwillingness to… bend the rules… to get the win etc may be disadvantageous to sporting success.

    Both of these are great topics of discussion and in the coming weeks I will try to get my thoughts down on cyber-paper on these to get some good discussion on this


    • Ben

      Hi Mark,

      In reply to your first point you are completely right. Syed mentions height in basketball as one of his examples. I guess we really need to decide what we mean by ‘talent’ but the idea that Roger Federer was born with better tennis-specific ability than anyone else is almost definitely not true. I guess you could say he was talented in the sense that he isn’t 5 foot 4 and was given a body capable to playing top level tennis, which is not the case for many of us.

      Your points on faith in sport are useful. I feel like I didn’t really cover this properly in my post as it wasn’t really the main point but I will do so again at a later date. The point Syed was making was that either Ali or Edwards (or both) were believing in a God that doesn’t exist, and it was working for them. I guess this is different to how our christian faith should shape our sports performance.

      Anyway thanks for your comment. Hope all’s well in Sweden!


  • Steve

    The question of whether elite athletic performance comes predominantly from from ‘nature’ or ‘nuture’ is an interesting subject and is always open to debate.

    I think it may be useful to highlight sports-people who were clearly ‘the best’ in their field at the time of their peak performance (Tiger Woods – Golf, Stephen Hendry – Snooker, Usain Bolt – Athletics, Phil Taylor – Darts). I wonder how and why they achieved what they did over and above the average ‘high achiever’?

    From my observations, ‘the best’ all show a combination of a natural ability for the sport in which they have excelled, together with dedicated and quality practice and training from an early age.

    Some sports are also more technically based, whereas others rely to a greater degree on pure physical ability. For example, if Tiger Woods and Usain Bolt had swopped sports at a very early age and carried through on their respective careers, would they have both achieved the same success? Would Stephen Hendry have been as good a darts player as Phil Taylor had he spent more time on the oche?

    I know it’s very difficult to come up with a definitive answer to all of this, but could it be that sporting success, along with many other aspects of life, is achieved as a result of a combination of things, including God given ability (mental and physical), hard work, practice and commitment (perhaps all in varying degrees)?

    • Ben

      A very good response Dad :) I think you’re point about Tiger and Usain swapping sports as children is a very interesting one. I know researchers have drawn a bit of a line between sports that require precise motor-control (such as golf) and those that are really just testing one speed or strength characteristic (such as sprinting) with less motor control demands. I guess maybe Usain Bolt wouldn’t have been as good as Tiger if he had concentrated on golf due to as you say, the combination of factors involved. His personality doesn’t seem to suit gold very much. However with enough practice the theory says he should have been able to become a professional golfer, with enough practice and opportunities.

  • Richard

    Focusing on the book itself, the most interesting thing for me was the opportunities and circumstances that surround people who stand out from their peers. Clearly a lot of hard work and practice has to be a prerequisite for excellence – however this element of circumstances is a very powerful argument. After reading Bounce I then read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which Syed references. Gladwell uses the same 10,000 hour theory but uses very diverse and compelling examples to explain the concept of how being ready to take the chance opportunities is a vital part of “success”, whatever that is. He doesn’t talk about table tennis – but Gladwell’s analysis of Asian culture could offer an explanation as to why Chinese dominate table tennis.

    • Ben Larcombe

      Hi Richard,

      Thanks for your comment, I completely agree. The section on all the secondary factors that lead to Syed’s success was very interesting. Outliers is on my list of books to read so I’ll get onto it and review it asap.

  • Discus man

    Ever since Ericsson announced the 10,000 hour study lots of people have used this as the way to develop champions, however Ericsson never actually called it the 10,000 hour rule and by and large much of the statements that have been made about the rule has been discredited. Ericsson has made various statements stating very clearly that his research was not used in the correct context. Some of the latest research has shown that the amount of practice required varies by the discipline I.E. music, sport games ETC.
    If you believe that you can take a man off the street and make him practice in a deliberate manner and he will become a champion or elite performer then you are very much mistaken. Deliberate practice is an important ingredient in the mix. To understand the problem of what maks a champion you have tostudy the problem in greater depth than just reading a good book.