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.