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.