How Important Are Coaches Really? – “The Talent Code” Reviewed

To prevent any excess of suspense, the answer is very – but maybe not in the way you think.

Challenges  to the traditional idea of talent and success are currently coming thick and fast.  Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” is not the only one, but is probably the most well known.  He was definitely not the first person to introduce the ‘10,000 Hour’ theory (that to reach the top in any field requires roughly 10,000 hours of practice) but he certainly did a lot to publicise / popularise it.  Another who has taken on this theory is Daniel Coyle in his book “The Talent Code”.  The premise of the book is that the idea of ‘talent’ as inherently intrinsic, is false.  In contrast, talent is an outcome of a series of events, not the least of which is 10,000 hours practice.  His angle is the physiological process of building skill; the laying of myelin along a nerve pathway.  Simply put, myelin is the insulation around nerve pathways and the more you use a particular nerve pathway, the more myelin is laid around that pathway and the better and faster it works.  This pretty obviously provides a physiological explanation of the ‘10,000 Hour’ rule and is the basis from which he then explores the development of ‘talent’.  Myelin is laid (and therefore skill is developed) through effective practice.  It is in his descriptions of practice that there are some maddening (for me) inconsistencies.  In his zeal to promote his premise he seems to lump together things that are not the same.  He also at one point goes to great length taking a fictional passage (from Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer”) and, using his theories, explain what happened in that passage.  His explanation fits perfectly, of course, but overlooks the simplest explanation for that series of events; the author wanted them to occur. I spent the last 100 pages with the nagging thought ‘How good would this book have been if Gladwell had written it’.  But I digress…

The most important and powerful part of the theory, for me, is not to do with myelin or practice, but ‘ignition’.  Gladwell touches this point every so lightly when he wrote that to go through the 10,000 hours of practice you have to love what you are doing (Andre Agassi may disagree, but that’s another story).  Coyle formalises the process of ‘ignition’ as the process where people develop the required interest to be motivated enough to go through the 10,000 hours. Ignition occurs or doesn’t occur at the moment someone is introduced to the activity.  In his research Coyle finds over and over again that it is this moment which decides whether someone will become an expert and not intrinsic talent.  One key to ignition is to make the activity seem special or exclusive.  If it is too easy interest will not be ‘ignited’.  This is where Tom Sawyer enters the story.  Coaches also play a major role in ignition.  Importantly, the technical knowledge of the first coach is much, much less important than their ability to interest the person in the activity.  A study of professional musicians, for example, found that they typically didn’t get high quality tuition until they had already been playing for several years.  The lack of ‘technical’ tuition at the beginning didn’t hurt them because they loved the instrument and wanted to practice.  In hindsight, it is obvious that people will spend much more time and energy doing things they love.  And why I would suggest that the very first coaching skill is to love the activity. And why the first coach is the most important.

Too many coaches prefer other types of motivation like invoking loyalty and responsibility.  That never works out.  I could probably also develop a theory that links ‘ignition’ with junior dropout.  If the ‘ignition’ is participation in an event, then logically that player will drop out after the event.  If the ‘ignition’ is a love of the game, then that player will always be involved and has the best chance to become an expert.

Read the book.

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14 thoughts on “How Important Are Coaches Really? – “The Talent Code” Reviewed

  1. Hugh Nguyen

    to be honest, i find some of the jumps gladwell and levitt make in their books to be bit of a stretch sometimes. big fan still.

    That love of the game is an essence i’ve been trying to find for some time, and more and more, it becomes simple things: teaching kids how to play a ball above their head; on their platform; and just letting them play so they can wok out how to be in the right place at the right time to do both.

    When I was 19, I coached an “epic” mini-volleyball game. Of the 8 players in that game: 1 is in the AIS beach programme; 1 is in the AIS indoor programme; 2 are still playing reserves; 1 assistant coached a women’s AVL team this year; 2 are still playing reserves; 1 is helping to organise the State Schools Cup tournament. There was something these kids experienced at that young age that gave them that “ignition”.

    I went to the 21st of one of these players on the weekend and we laughed at the old photos. 10 years on and he still has enough of that spark to get up everyday and go through the monotonous routine of an elite athlete while his peers enjoy being 21-year-olds.

    I totally agree about that value of the first coach, and one of my preoccupations next year is to get involved in minivolleyball and learn what it takes to make it a really good experience that gives kids that “spark”; i’m looking for the primordial soup that tragics crawl out of.

    If my job as a grass roots level coach is to not screw up someone’s first volleyball experience, then i could live with that.

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    1. markleb Post author

      I’ve never noticed it in the other books. Perhaps because I know this subject a little better, or because they are better writers. I suspect 50/50. Coyle seems to run out a steam a few times, although in fairness the others are writing essays along a similar theme rather than a fully fledged book with a single topic.
      Still, I’d love to read the book Gladwell would write from the same notes.

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  2. Alexis

    I like the ‘ignition’ idea a lot. In fact I love it. One of the things that I always struggle with is that when we talk about ‘talent’, we almost always think about physical things, or the ability to do physical things. However we all know that the ability to apply this talent over time (10,000 of deliberate practice) is at least as important as having it to start with. The argument then moves on to: ‘well, if we pick the really physically talented ones and they have that ‘ignition’ then they will end up being great.’ You certainly can’t argue with this. The only problem is when you don’t don’t have room to select the ones who are quite physically talented but, with the right ‘ignition’ would end up being much better than those initially more talented but who never develop the ability to apply this talent.

    What’s the answer? I wish I knew.

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