Review of Daniel Coyle (2009). The Talent Code (Chapter 1: ‘The Sweet Spot’).
The Bantam Dell Publishing Group
The Talent Code is Daniel Coyle’s “Great Expedition” to demystify the recipe for greatness - his quest through nine “hot beds” that have produced disproportionate “Everest-size amounts” of talent. ‘The Sweet Spot’ as the book’s introductory chapter provides the first clue in this treasure hunt - a journey that takes the reader across continents; from a soccer field in São Paolo, Brazil to a vocal studio in Dallas, US.
From his observations of the talent hot beds, Coyle deduces a pattern in the training regimen (p. 13-19). The way to accelerated learning, according to Coyle, is through targeted deep practice training – a program that places the trainee in, what as the chapter refers to, a sweet spot – challenging the body and mind to reach towards a goal, just beyond the current level of expertise. The intense pressure of “operating at the edges of ability” forces the individual to fumble and stumble, and eventually rectify the errors, mastering the skill in the process. The “rhythmic pattern of botches” in the final count proves to be desirable; – and is, by no means, something to be avoided as conventional wisdom may sometimes lead us to believe.
Coyle refers to Robert Bjork, the chair of psychology at UCLA, who reaffirms the deep practice learning through mistakes view. With the help of a simple memory test and similar examples from Bjork (p. 16-18), Coyle tries to prove that the human mind captures more from occasions when we actually falter, which in fact are the times when more impulses are triggered to our brains.
Through an engaging narrative, Coyle presents further evidence in the form of two case studies. In the first one (p. 20-24), he talks about how the initial version of flight simulator built by Edwin Albert Link Jr. became the de facto mode of training for US Army Air Corps pilots in 1934. The underlying reason per Coyle was the plain fact that the machine permitted the pilots to practice deeper – to continuously stop, start, err, recover and hence learn, without the risk of personal injury.
The second case study (p. 24-29) centres around a Leeds based soccer coach Simon Clifford’s mission to Brazil in 1997 to figure out for himself - as to what keeps the country’s football talent production machinery ticking at such an efficiency level. He saw the obvious reasons - the passion, the tradition, the highly organized training centres, the long practice sessions, the poverty and the perception of football as a ticket to prosperity – all adding up to the effect, but the clincher according to him was something else. The training program of Brazilian players incorporated deep practice in the form of an indoor version of the game called futsal, which by its very nature allows 600% more opportunity to touch the ball, hence more opportunity to make and correct errors. With its smaller and heavier ball, compressed space and fast pace; the indoor game necessitates all of precision, control, team work, sharp passing, vision clarity; thus expediting the learning of ball-handling skills. Armed with this knowledge, back in Leeds, Clifford started Brazilian Soccer School for elementary and high-school children, a soccer program with an elaborate series of drills based on futsal moves. In Coyle’s opinion, Clifford stood vindicated when, four years hence, his team of under-fourteens defeated the Scottish national team of the same age, with other successes to follow.
Deep practice – becoming smarter through our mistakes - is not a new concept, as evident from numerous proverbs on the same lines in various languages, including the one cited by Coyle himself in the chapter (p. 11). This is probably one of the most fundamental principles to adhere to while striving for excellence. As a strategy for a program to create and groom greatness, targeted deep practice training, beyond an iota of doubt, is of supreme importance.
But Coyle goes on to stretch the theory further, when he raises the thought that deep practice training might actually make natural ability inconsequential (p. 19). This seems to be questionable, to say the least and none of the examples that he provides attests to the theory. Whether we like it or not, who does excel and to what extent, are a factor of the combination of genes and environment, nature and nurture as Coyle calls them. Questions like who has the aptitude and who has the opportunity cannot be simply wished away to irrelevance. Coyle himself has talked about the contributory impact of environmental components in the Brazilian football case study.
Having said that, the significance of deep practice training is not to be undermined - it is rather an augmentation to the nurture dimension of excellence. The chapter is valuable to all in the business of harvesting talent – be it a parent, a coach, a sportsperson or an artist – in designing training programs for giving shape to greatness. The doors to distinction will open, as Coyle says, if we keep seeking struggles in certain targeted ways.
Reference: The Talent Code Chapter 1 'The Sweet Spot'