Sunday, 8 May 2011

Bounce - dragging out an inspirational premise

Bounce by Matthew Syed (Fourth Estate: 2010, paperback edition published April 2011) Table tennis great turned journalist Matthew Syed explores the existence of talent in sports and other walks of life. He blends the research of others, his own experiences, high profile anecdotes, and interviews with a range of professionals to make the case that extraordinary amounts of the right types of practice are what builds sporting legends, not natural talent.
We’ve spoken before, you and me, about why I don’t ordinarily read books like this. It’s one of those where the whole thing is put out there on the front cover. “The myth of talent and the power of practice,” it says, underneath the author’s name. An interesting premise, but a fairly thin one. I always worry that a book like this is just too straight forward. There’s no such thing as talent. Greatness is the result of the right amount (and the right type) of practice.  That’s what Syed thinks, and that’s what he spends the majority of the book explaining.
Except, of course, it doesn’t take that much explaining. I just did it there using about half a paragraph.
Of course, it is a little more complex than that. Syed uses an impressive array of evidence to back up his premise. He weaves some interesting, high profile anecdotes to give the point a lot of colour. And he addresses most of the obvious objections, working hard to explain them away.
The biggest challenge for any book like this is to make it readable. It’s non- fiction. It cites a lot of research. It dwells on a single theory for most of the book. So can Syed ensure it remains enjoyable to read, unrepetative and interesting from page 1 to page 267?
Well, kind of.
It helps that the premise is inspirational - the notion that anyone can achieve greatness, as long as they put in an ungodly amount of practice and direct it properly. Syed explains how that practice fundamentally changes an individual, makes them able to see and do things that others can’t. It ends up looking like talent, but instead is the result of practice (albeit a mind blowing amount of it).
The premise is interesting enough to keep you hooked for a while, and Syed does a good job of carrying on the conversation in a lively way. The whole idea that talent is nothing and practice is everything is immediately uncomfortable, rendered so by the impossible feats we see sportsmen and women achieve almost every week. Surely natural talent exists? Well, by the end of the book, Syed had done enough to make me doubt it.
And that’s probably the biggest mark of approval I can give this book. I got to the end without being bored, and my mind had been (if not entirely) at least a little changed by the power of the arguments.
But that’s where the positivity has to end, I’m afraid. Getting to the end of a book without getting bored isn’t enough. There are millions of books out there that do so much more than not bore me. Indeed, there are unread books on my own book shelf that I’m sure I’ll enjoy more. So I couldn’t help but think that, once I’d understood Syed’s central argument, the rest of the book was just wasted time for me.
And changing my mind about a long held belief isn’t enough either. To be honest, my mind had been changed after the first few chapters. I got it. Syed had a powerful argument, and he made it well. But then he had another 200-odd pages to fill. He filled them with some fairly interesting material, but none of it really made me sit up straight in my seat.
So, an above average sports science book. More entertaining than I’d thought it was going to be, and more enlightening too. But not enough of either to overshadow too much else that’s on my bookshelf.
The eagle eyed amongst you will notice that 6 GBR is more than the 5 GBR I gave to Moneyball, probably my favourite sports science book. That's because Moneyball is about baseball and nothing else. Great for baseball fans, rubbish for everyone else. Bounce is more accessible and wide ranging, so I think it's more likely to be worth your time.
Thought that one was worth an explanation.  
After a couple of non-fiction books, I’m going to give the real world a rest next week.

Keep your comments coming in folks, and if there’s a book you’d like reviewed, just let me know and I’ll add it to the (ever growing) list!


Anonymous said...

I'm interested in the concept of this book and on the basis of your review, I am going to buy it - Practice doesn't make perfect, practice only makes permanent as they say and as you say the key is the right type of practice. As an amatuer sportsman, perhaps there are some things to be learnt from this book?
You also may enjoy Clive Woodward's semi-biographical book ' Winning' about the 2003 world cup and the events leading up to it. It has similarities to Bounce and Moneyball in that it is a part business part sport book with very clear and candid discussion of Woodwards theories on practice, sports science, technology in sport as well as psychology and team building.

David Tate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
davidjamestate said...

Seems similar to the concept explored in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. He had a theory that one of the major keys to success was around 10,000 hours of practice, regardless of natural talent or skill.

I quite like Syed's journalism actually, although the paywall on The Times has put paid to me reading anything he has written recently...

Gav Collins said...

Thanks both. Yeah, that's actually one of the weaknesses I didn't mention. He references Outliers and a few others quite a bit. After a while, it feels like he's basically restating a lot of what other people have already written.

That said, he does build on a lot of it too.