The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

I’m an accidental coach. I thought I would sign up to assistant coach my son’s 4th grade soccer team but with limited parent volunteers, I got “promoted” to head coach of the Bears. As it turned out, some other parents stepped in to help out and I’m enjoying it.

One of the other father’s even gave me a half-dozen books to read on soccer and coaching. The one he recommended most highly was The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. Coyle’s book is fairly short (not much more than 200 pages) and focuses on a fairly basic concept. That said, it is full of information that I want to review so herewith is a summary or synopsis of the book.

I should first note that Coyle did a lot of reporting and research, meeting with master coaches in music, sports, elementary schooling and more. The anecdotes that draw from those meetings are the best way to remember these concepts and for that reason I recommend reading the actual book. That said, here’s my takeaway.

The first point is that talent is not innate; it develops from practice and motivation. The Beatles had their ten thousand hours of practice playing in German rock clubs, Mozart probably had his ten thousand hours before most because his father was a musician and teacher. Similarly, seeming “prodigies” like 17 year old Pele or Jessica Simpson or many others were simply people who worked really hard at developing a skill. They practiced.

More importantly, they “deep practiced.” Deep Practice is so effective that researchers suggest that in 6 minutes of good deep practice, a musician could improve the same as a month’s worth of regular practice.

Deep Practice

Chapter 1: Sweet Spot
Deep Practice involves constantly setting the bar slightly higher than your reach. If you have to work at something, you remember it better. Small example: “ocean/breeze” is harder to remember than “bread/b_tter” because you spend time thinking about the second pair, and you’ve practiced deeper. The sweet spot of practice is finding the “optimal gap between what you know and what you’re trying to do,” says Rober Bjork, psychology professor. This involves making lots of little mistakes and then making lots of minor adjustments to fix those mistakes. Another example here was a Brazilian game called Futsal, soccer using a small court and a small and heavy ball; these circumstances force players to be quicker, more controlled and more creative. Ultimately, players on a regular field with a regular ball feel like they have a lot more space and time to make their plays.

Chapter 2: The Deep Practice Cell
Turns out that there are physical manifestations of skill building in the form of myelin, a substance that wraps and insulates neurons, making them fire more efficiently. When you practice a golf swing, you are building myelin around the particular neurons that make up a golf swing — that’s why practice works. Some points about myelin: it does not unwrap — that’s why it is hard to break habits, and it comes and goes with age — that’s why kids learn more and that’s why it’s harder to develop new skills after age 50. Also, omega-3 fatty acids are the building blocks of myelin and are found in breast milk.

Chapter 3:Brontes, Z-Boys, Renaissance
Here, Coyle takes some time to use the example of novelists, skateboarders and artists to explain this theory of deep practice.

Chapter 4: 3 Rules of Deep Practice
Rule One: Chunk it up: look at the whole task (i.e. a piece of music), then break it up into its smallest component parts (tricky measures or rhythms), finally play with time (play things very slowly, then speed up). Slowing down helps find and correct those little mistakes; good players know what they did wrong and know what they need to do to fix it.

Rule Two: Repeat
Practice always help, but deep practice turns out to have a limit. It’s hard to maintain that sweet spot; most world class musicians, chess players, athletes, practice between 3-5 hours a day; the myelin is there already.

Rule Three: Learn to Feel It
You need to recall the feeling of the sweet spot, of reaching just beyond. It should require focus and attention and is not easy.

Another way to summarize Deep Practice:
1. Pick a target
2. Reach for it
3. Evaluate the gap between target and reach
4. Repeat

Ignition: ie. motivation

Chapter 5: Primal Cues
Along with practice, you need motivation. Coyle calls this ignition and describes it as a hot, mysterious awakening.
Great study: how long did students intend to play their instrument? How long did they practice a week?
More practice helped, but the commitment made more of a difference: longer commitment – least practice kids did better than short commitment – most practice kids. Of course, longer commitment plus more practice was the best, but the curve of that graph is also much steeper than either short or medium commitment.
Another way to express ignition is a desire to belong to a group (elite athletes, life-long musicians, etc.). There is also motivation is improving life conditions — thus great talents rising from poor conditions, or the number of great artists who lost a parent early in life. Fun example of belonging: great sprinters tended to be among the youngest in their families (they were running to catch up to their brothers and sisters).

Chapter 6: Curacao
Example of an island that was inspired to get better at baseball. More interesting, studies on praise — praise for intelligence is a hindrance, but praise for effort actually helps. Also, big praise is hollow, but clear, small comments are more motivational.

Chapter 7: Igniting a hotbed
Story of KIPP charter schools. Very detail oriented, fixing every small thing, making kids alert to details and feel like part of a new group. Set up long term expectation: College. Make mistakes, but earn privileges (like chairs and desks).

Master Coaching

Chapter 8: Talent Whisperers
Most master coaches are quiet, older, and were attentive. They didn’t give pep talks, but instead gave small, targeted adjustments. They adjust their teaching style to individual students. This is what was found when researchers had a chance to watch UCLA basketball coach John Wooden at work: his utterances consisted of 7 percent compliments, 7 percent displeasure but 75 percent pure information.
Small bursts of information: This, not that. Lesson plans that emphasized constant learning.

Master coaches are also often very encouraging, helping ignite passion in their students.

Chapter 9: The Teaching Circuit: A Blueprint
4 Virtues of Master Coaches:
Matrix: task-specific knowledge that lets teachers respond to student effort
Perceptiveness: understand your student so that you know how they can be taught
GPS Reflex: Instruct like a GPS: Do this, now that. No “please” or “What about?” Push them to the next level
Theatrical Honesty: sometimes overreact to make a point and gain empathy

Chapter 10: Tom Martinez
About Tom Brady’s quarterback coach (who died recently) and his help in getting the Oakland Raiders to draft Jamarcus Russell (who turned out to be a bit of a bust).

Main takeaway for parents: You don’t need to push your kids into multiple activities on the off chance that they are an innate genius in that field. There is no such thing as innate genius, so just pay attention to what your kids show and interest in and praise them for effort. Also, tell them that the brain grows with practice.

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