Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice

Why read this

  • You want to know which is more important: talent or practice, and why;
  • Why there are places that produce unusually high amounts of highly skilled sportsmen.

Why listen to the author

  • Syed was the #1 British table tennis player for some years, he was three times the Men’s Singles Champion at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships (in 1997, 2000 and 2001);
  • He is a commentator for BBC and Eurosport and has won some awards in those professions.



Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice – Book Notes

Reading time: ~17min.

Take Autobiographies With a Grain of Salt

The author starts by doing a small autobiography telling how he became no.1 in table tennis saying how skilled, fast and agile he was, and how it was a triumph against probabilities and an example of individual success. This is how most autobiographies go. Then he goes on to talk about how in autobiographies authors generally leave out many other parts which were actually the most important for success, though not as flattering. In his case, the fact that he had the luck that his parents bought a table with the official dimensions, that his brother was also passionate about the sport (he was no.1 for a few years too), and that they played hours on end since they were kids, that he had the luck that in his school was the best table tennis trainer in the UK (his country), and that they had the luck of having access to the only place in the UK with 24h access to a table tennis club.

Look for Unusual Circumstances in Your Life

He says that if everyone could have these same advantages, he probably wouldn’t even make it to the top 1000. How many more swimmers better than Phelps aren’t there but which were not as fortunate (for example born in a country too poor to afford swimming pools). How many more drivers better than Schumacher that didn’t have money to race karts when young? Etc…

Almost every man and women that wins against the probabilities benefits, in close inspection, from a whole range of unusual beneficial circumstances. When very successful people describe themselves they fall prey to the illusion of the individuality of their triumph instead of noticing all the opportunities that fell in their favor. The author gives several examples, Bill Gates, the Beatles, etc.

Gladwell writes, “the people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves, but in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

Gained Talent > Raw Talent


“Talent is something a top violin coach can spot in young musicians that marks them out as destined for greatness. But how does the teacher know that this accomplished young performer, who looks so gifted, has not had many hours of special training behind the scenes? How does he know that the initial differences in ability between this youngster and the rest will persist over many years of practice? In fact, he doesn’t, as a number of studies have demonstrated.”

In a study of musicians in the UK it was shown that top performers were seen as having had an early gift for music, it was often because they were given extra tuition at home, generally by their parents. Also the so-called ‘child prodigies’ didn’t learn at a stupidly fast speed. They simply had astronomical quantities of practice compressed, almost since birth. The author says that there is absolutely no evidence of a fast track for high achievers.


The author speaks about how it was playing against a top table tennis player known for having very fast serves. The author though he himself had very quick reflexes wanted to test if he could keep up and catch the ball (he thought so). He missed all. He couldn’t even see the ball. Later on he got to know that, after inquiring several sport universities, table tennis players look at the torso and legs to know where the ball is going. From there they extrapolate the approximate trajectory. Without this step they could have the fastest reaction in the world and it would be useless against someone with it.

The author invited several sportsmen to play table tennis with him, and they all had slower reaction times at catching the ball than old tennis table players. This is an example of something that at first seems like an innate ability, but at close inspection we can see it is nothing more than abilities that result from techniques and a lot of practice, specific to the sport.

When Federer was invited to play a different type of tennis (different ball, different racket and fields) called Real Tennis, the spectators were astonished to see that he barely could hit the ball.

At a time when several table tennis players’ reflexes were tested, Dougals (a 11-time English table tennis champion  player that is known for having played very close to the table, which requires very fast reflexes) had one of the worst results, that is, he was the slowest to push a button when a light turned on. He had the slowest innate reflexes from the table tennis group that he belonged to – and yet he was the fastest at table tennis.

The author then goes and asks him how did he become so quick, to which he answers that he “had good eye for the ball”. A typical response from top performers. Of course unconvinced the author asked other people that knew him how it was his education in table tennis and then the real answer came out… so actually when he was young he had to play in a very closed space where everyone had to be really close to the table, because there was no space for all the people in the room, so everything was really fast. Also, Douglas didn’t spend a few weeks or months practicing in that classroom, but the first five years of his table tennis development. A classmate of Douglas said “While the rest of us had other hobbies and interests, he spend all his time in that classroom practicing his skills and playing matches. I have never seen anyone with such dedication.”

“Douglas spent more hours than any other player in the history of the sport encoding the characteristics of a highly specific type of table tennis: the kind played at maximum pace, close to the table. By the time he arrived in international table tennis, he was able to perceive where the ball was going before his opponents had even hit it. That is how a man with sluggish reactions became the fastest player on the planet.”

Musicians and Other Sportsmen

Another Douglas, Wayne Douglas Gretzky is a Canadian former professional ice hockey player. Called “The Great One”, and “the greatest hockey player ever” by many. He is the top point-scorer in NHL history, with more assists than all other players have points, and is the only to have over 200 points in one season – something he accomplished four times.” “I wasn’t naturally gifted in terms of size and speed; everything I did in hockey I worked for.” “The highest compliment you can pay me is to say that I worked hard every day… That’s how I come to know where the puck was going before it was there.”

The author keeps on argues how a lot of what we call talent, genius or ability comes from knowledge.

Mozart’s father was a famous composer, performer and pedagogue. The book he published, on the day his son was born, about violin instruction kept being improtant for several decades. He had a great interest in how music should be taught to kids. He started Mozart in an intensive training program on composition and playing since he was 3 years old.

“When Tiger Woods became the youngest ever winner of the US Master golf championship in 1997, he was hailed by many experts as the most naturally gifted golfer to play the game.” Earl Woods (his father) was a former baseball player who was obsessed with the idea that practice generates greatness. He gave him a golf club before he turned 1 year old. He practiced hours on end when he was a kid. At 13 he won his first national championship. At his mid-teens he already had accumulated over 10 years/10 000 hours of necessary practice just like Mozart.

Two Grand Slam winners, sisters, were born from 2 parents that, before they were born, decided they would raise two tennis champions because they had seen how rich tennis players were. They put them practicing since they were 3, hours on end, even in the vacations. Later on, at the start of their teens age a famous trainer impressed by their skill decided to train them. Soon after the family moved to near the tennis club so they could train anytime. By that time the sisters had accumulated thousands of hours of practice.

“Examine any sporting life where success has arrived early and the same story just keeps repeating itself.”

Beckham, for example, used to take a football ball to a park in London as a child and would keep shooting it hours upon hours precisely in the same spot. “His dedication was breathtaking’ his father has said. ‘It sometimes seemed that he lived on the local field.’ “Beckham concurs. “My secret is practice,” he said “I have always believed that if you want to achieve anything special in life you have to work, work, and then work some more.” By the age fourteen Beckham’s dedication paid off: he was spotted and signed by the youth team of Manchester United.”  His trade-mark kick, which seems natural, is actually deliberated. All the movements he does with his feet and body has been practice countless times, just like Tiger Wood’s swings.

However, according to sports scientists, children should only practice early on in their lives and for long hours when they can do it they do by their own motivation and not by obligation, as this is the only circumstance in which very early development seems to work. Tiger Woods: “My dad never asked me to go play golf. I asked him. It’s the child’s desire to play that matters, not the parent’s desire to have the child play.” (even if he didn’t ask, he was clearly influenced otherwise what are the odds that he would chose precisely the same sport that his father wanted him to?) Children that don’t have internal motivation (i.e. that don’t practice because they like) that start very early and too strong find burnout rather that excellence.

Laslo Polgár and His 3 Chess Champions

An educational psychologist, Laslo Polgár, one of the oldest apologists that practice leads to excellence, decided to prove his theory by having kids and making them chess champions. He found a woman willing to go through that “experiment” and proceeded to raise the three young daughters with that objective in mind. All the 3 (Susan, Sofia and Judit Polgár) became the 3 most successful chess women players ever, beating records left and right, and the first women in men championships and beating the very best. When they were young (before 5 years of age) in order to avoid the burnout we talked about earlier he introduced them slowly to chess, to the pieces, to its magic, etc. At 5 he started training them intensively and, by that time, they were already fascinated by and loved chess.

Noteworthy is also the public’s reaction to those 3 kids when they were winning tourneys so young, so early for their age: They were described as child prodigies, people talked about how much talent (read innate ability/predisposition) they should have. As Polgár puts it: “if they had seen the painfully slow progress, the in-by-inch improvements, they would not have been so quick to call Susan a prodigy.” “Geniuses are made, not born” was László’s thesis.

Something similar happens with maths “prodigies”. The author gives the example of a girl that was a genius in maths. Turns out she has a father that is a mathematician, that encouraged her to think about numbers, who at dinner discussed math problems with her, and how at home there were math problems spread throughout the house to be solved. The authors gives several more examples of other maths “genius” that spent hours as kids tinkering with numbers.

Practice Like a Champion

He the talks about how a lot of spend thousands of hours driving and yet, very few are professional-like skilled drivers. This is because when most people practice, they focus on the things they can do effortlessly” Ericsson has said. “Expert practice is different. It entails considerable, specific and sustained efforts, to do something you can’t do well – or even at all. Research has shown that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

The practice sessions of champions have a specific and never changing purpose: progress. Every second of every minute of every hour, the goal is to extend one’s mind and body, to push oneself beyond the outer limits of one’s capacities, to engage so deeply in the task that one leaves the training session, literally, a changed person.

The author then speaks about how one of the greatest Chinese table tennis helped him train when he (the chinese) was retiring. Contrary to what they did in the UK, which was to repeat specific movements countless times, he put him doing how they did it in China. He threw him several balls from several angles, speeds, rotations and always calibrated in order to force the author to push his limits. Then he increased the size of the table to force him to use the feet more efficiently. The Chinese player forced him to be constantly struggling. His ranking shot up. For years people had attributed the Chinese’s success to their quick reflexes, great eyes, and long training hours. Actually it was that they were training with more focus and in turbo mode.

An ice skating dancer: “I ask Kirsty if it is painful falling over again and again. “To be honest, yes,” she says. “But I just get on with it. It’ll be worth it when I nail that jump.”

Another example is given about futsal (a kind of football (soccer) played indoor, played in a much smaller field and which is much more action-packed), also mentioned in the Talent Code. Ronaldinho, Pelé and Ronaldo, 3 of the greatest football players to have existed, speak about how they started in futsal and then coming from there, football was easy.

Such is the importance of the way of practicing that there are sports where people don’t share the methods they use to practice.

To sum up: 10k hours may not be enough. It is necessary that those hours are of deliberate practice, that is, with the purpose of improving, a good training method, and also sometimes having the right conditions going on for you, such as living in a good place and knowing the right people.

He explains how his mother took a course on dactylography for a typing machine, reached the 70 words per minute necessary to get in a job, and then plateaued because when she typed she had other things on her mind. Just like it happens when we learn to drive and then it becomes automatic, and basically we don’t ever again improve our driving.

Sam snead, a legendary golfer: “It is only human nature to want to practice what you can already do well, since it’s a hell of a lot less work and a a hell of a lot more fun. (…) but it all comes back to the question of how much you’re willign to pay for success.” Deliberate practice transforms us.

Be Confident in Your Ability

The author then goes on to talk about the placebo effect and the fact the irrational optimism increases performance, at least in sport. “Doubt is the fundamental cause of error in sports.” (cf. Timothy Gallwey – The Inner Game of Golf) “The power of doubt lies in its self fulfilling nature. When we entertain a lack of faith that we can sink a short putt (to put a ball in a golf hole), for example, we usually tighten, increasing the likelihood of missing the putt. When we fail, our self-doubt is confirmed… Next time the doubt is stronger and its inhibiting influence on our true capabilities more pronounced.”

There’s a technique to increase confidence which is to associate the hard task we are unsure we can do with the feeling of certainty we have with another task we are very confident we can do (e.g. writing our name). The point is to feel the same confidence about the hard task as we have on the easy task.

Another technique for the same purpose is to first get ourselves relaxed and then to imagine ourselves doing the task perfectly, with no mistakes, with certainty. To feel all the uncertainty to disappear. To say to yourself that you can win repeatedly. Then that you will win. When you’re going to do the task you go with an indestructible mindset that you will win [Michael Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman has mentioned on several occasions that he trained Phelps to use a very similar technique].

This type of techniques of filtering reality and only letting through the good or mold the reality to conform to what we want in critical moments where performance needs to be at its best are very used by sports psychologists and is performance psychology.

Choking When Learning is Normal

Then the topic of “chokes” is dealt with. Chokes are moments when performers feel stuck and that everything they do goes wrong. He talks about his experience and how it happened to him, and how it is normal. He gives examples of other athletes to whom it happens the same.

This is because at the start when we learn a skill, we need to be conscious of all the details that at the time are new and trying to execute them well and simultaneously. Slowly but surely those bits of information, get automated and start being used unconsciously. They go from what the author calls the explicit system to the implicit. For example, when players start learning to combine the hand technique with foot technique, it is initially done with great effort and consciously trying to do each little movement. As they practice they improve, though they still do the movements consciously, and with further practice they don’t need to actually think about it. Another example is driving a car.

Test: 2 groups of kids. One was learning to do a hand technique the other already knew it and could do it automatically. Then it was asked to both to do the technique and count how many times someone beat with their foot on the floor. The 1st group couldn’t, the 2nd could. A similar test was performed for baseball players. It was asked of them to explain their automatized swings by directing their attention to the mechanics of the swing while they did it. Not only they couldn’t but their performance got catastrophically worse as they tried to consciously replicate them. So the issue is when we know something automatically and suddenly try to use the explicit system to do it. The problem is that the explicit system can’t control so many things at the same time, so quickly and so well as the implicit system. So our body traded consciousness for performance.

So the author theorizes that when we are under pressure we unconsciously try to monitor what we’re doing to make sure we do it well and then what was described above happens. This seems to be something that is widespread. An ice skater that used to have problems under pressure started to say to herself that it was just skating. The 6 time snooker champion Steve Davis is know for saying that he played as if it meant nothing when it meant everything. This is a form of relieving pressure so that we can keep on doing the good things that we do in practice automatically.

In the beginning of the book we saw that for complex tasks success is primarily determined by practice rather than genes. Running is not exactly a complex task. It is a simple sport testing a varying mix of endurance and speed. This still doesn’t mean that practice is irrelevant but that the differences found in individuals are at least partly genetically determined.

The author proceeds in explaining part of the success of Kenyans in long distance running. The vast majority of them come from the highest region in west Africa. They run to school because there are no means of transportation. Since they’re kids they run hours/week, at high altitude, and they are too poor to practice other sports. Their diet is also great for runners. Then Jamaican’s and their success in sprint. Part of the explanation is related to how sprinting is seen as a sport with great national pride and their ticket out of misery, and therefore there is great encouragement in doing so.

Believe to Accomplish

To explain once again how our beliefs impact our performance the author gives another example. Many people believe that dark-skinned people are physically stronger but less smart than white-skinned people. It was tested if that belief would have any impact in the performance of physical and mental activities. They put people of both skin colors doing tests. When a group was told that the test was to evaluate their capacity at which people with their skin are seen as weaker, their results got worse compared to those who didn’t tell them what the test was for, for example white-skinned people got worse results if they were told that the test was to evaluate physical performance, compared with dark-skinned people.

Do you know people that at first sight have magical powers but after some digging you discover the hard work they’ve been putting in their craft? What made you realize that?

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