The Talent Code – Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.
by Daniel Coyle
Review by Doug Hensch
I grew up absolutely loving sports and I was lucky enough to have two parents that helped foster this love by carting me to and from practices, sending me to camps and encouraging me every step of the way. One thing always stuck out for me – when I would play catch with my dad and I made a good throw or a nice catch, I would hear, “Thaaaaaat’s it!” His praise and approval meant everything. With some luck, a couple of great coaches along the way and (of course) my wonderful parents, I had the opportunity to play football in college and I enjoyed every minute of it. What I didn’t realize, however, was that the seeds of excellence were being sewn in all aspects of my life, not just sports.
Daniel Coyle has identified three elements that lead to high levels of competence across many disciplines in his impressive book The Talent Code. According to Coyle’s research, excellence is achieved when the following elements are present: Deep Practice, Ignition and Master Coaching. His anecdotes demonstrate how a penniless Russian tennis club creates more top twenty women tennis players than the entire United States or how a humble storefront music school in Dallas, TX, can produce a handful of pop stars.
Malcolm Gladwell first popularized the idea in his 2008 book Outliers that practicing a craft for 10,000 hours would lead to one being an expert. Coyle takes this to another level in that it’s not necessarily the amount of practice but how one practices and the amount that lead to excellence. He refers to this as Deep Practice and describes it as seeking out the “slippery hills” in one’s capabilities and purposely operating at the edge of one’s ability where mistakes are not just common but useful. He also cites three rules for Deep Practice:
- Chunk it Up – This could be practicing in slow motion, breaking your craft into smaller parts, watching endless hours of video and recognizing that technique is everything. This attention to detail allows the individual to start coaching herself.
- Repeat It – Coyle suggests engaging “attentive repetition” on a regular basis. The greatest will practice 3-5 hours per day but no more than an hour at a time. (NOTE: Please send this nugget of wisdom to your child’s little league coaches!)
- Learn to Feel It – The best tend to be very mindful of their performance by picking a target, reaching for the target and evaluating the space between the target and their performance. Then, they pick a new target and start all over…
As you can imagine, Deep Practice takes a lot of energy and discipline. To keep this up for an extended period of time (in many cases, years upon years), Coyle says that the most talented have a passion that can last a lifetime. And, in fact, it can start with something outside themselves. Many times it is a mentor or a top performer.
Coyle refers to this lifelong passion as Ignition. He cites Carol Dweck’s research on mindset where those with a growth mindset truly believe more in their ability to improve through effort. He also talks about how those who achieve excellence have a vision of themselves where they say, “I AM a musician…an athlete…a performer…a mathematician.” It runs deep and it can last a lifetime.
Finally, Coyle writes that Master Coaching pulls all of this together. The four “virtues” of master coaches include:
- Recognizing Differences – Master coaches treat people differently based on their current skills, personality and context.
- Constant Feedback – John Wooden, arguably one of the best college basketball coaches of all time, would give feedback in 3-second bursts. If talking about setting picks, he might say (and demonstrate), “Here’s how you do it. Here’s how you did. Now, here’s how you do it.”
- Experiment – The best coaches keep trying new things to see what works with any given student.
- Layered Difficulty – They know how and when to ratchet up the difficulty of the task when it’s appropriate.
Great theories are just that…theories. And, even though Coyle presents plenty of scientific evidence and anecdotes to color the theory, it is the personal application that draws me to theory. I recently found a little pocket of budding greatness in Leesburg, VA, in Marco Moreno and The Basics Gracie Jiu-Jitsu school.
Marco is a very humble, yet accomplished, brown belt who demonstrates Deep Practice, Ignition and Master Coaching all in one. His passion for jiu-jitsu started with his very first session 10 years ago. He fell in love with the technical details and was amazed at how you could defend yourself from a much larger opponent by practicing these techniques, regularly. As one of his students, I can attest to his focus on Deep Practice as our hour-long classes produce only one move. He can spend several minutes talking about moving your thumb just an inch, or two, to keep a secure grip on the “bad guy.”
Marco personifies Ignition. When I asked what started him on jiu-jitsu, he says he was “hooked on the first day.” He says it was like “magic,” that he was “hungry” for more knowledge and that it was like hitting the “jackpot” when he got to study under jiu-jitsu great Relson Gracie. This passion continues as his purpose is to live and spread the “jiu-jitsu way of life.” It’s not about the money or winning competitions for Marco. His face lights up when he talks about the little boy who cried at his first class but is now much more outgoing, confident and is now a top student. Then there are the kids who stand up to bullies and those that lose weight and adopt a healthier lifestyle, overall. For Marco, it’s about helping others defend themselves.
And, Marco is adept at Master Coaching and is very quick to credit Ryron and Rener Gracie from the Gracie Academy for his teaching techniques. (One more example of his humility!) He loves keeping it playful with the kids. He is quick to praise even the smallest improvement or effort of his students. Marco is constantly telling his students about the history of jiu-jitsu, great jiu-jitsu matches and additional resources for our learning. It doesn’t stop – it is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – Marco IS a jiu-jitsu instructor and practitioner. And, I was hooked at my very first class when I executed a “shrimp” properly and I heard Marco yell out, “Thaaaaaat’s it, Doug!”