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Talent Code Book Review – Daniel Coyle

Liz Masen
CEO of Athlete Assessments

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the_talent_codeIn this Talent Code book review, Daniel Coyle’s book is examined and its application identified for sport coaches. Even before you open the first page of this book, it is worthwhile taking a moment to read the cover.  The co-author of ‘In Search of Excellence’, Tom Peter is quoted as saying “I am willing to guarantee that you will not read a more important and useful book in this or any other year”. I agree with this rather large statement.  This is a must read for any coach, parent, athlete, sports administrator, manager and anyone in pursuit of not just doing well, but creating greatness.  I know I valued this book on so many levels myself. As someone who works in sport, someone who does sport and also as a parent.

In seven words the book is all about: “Greatness isn’t born.  It’s grown.  Here’s how.”  I’d suggest this book is similar to Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.  I’ve likely offended all three authors in saying that, as each does present their own contribution to the broader topic of top performers.

In this book review we will cover my opinion of the book, as well as:

  • Our Summary
  • What others have said
  • Other Recommended Books

The book focuses on what are termed “talent hot beds”.  Talent hot beds are tiny places that produce dis-proportionate ‘Everest-size amounts’ of talent, examples include Brazilian footballers or Korean women golfers and the book provides a wide variety of impressive examples.  The key theme of the book is these talent hot beds are not random occurrences but are places which share the same skill acquisition and success foundations.  Each hotbed has certain characteristics and patterns of targeted, deep practice which builds skill, the result of which is accelerated learning. Understanding how this happens and learning from what these hot beds have in common, means sports coaches can begin to create a similar environment based on the foundations of the hot beds.

The Talent Code effectively presents a methodology to ‘crack’ the code on talent by detailing what each of the talent hot beds have in common.  The book is divided into three basic elements of what talent is and also, is not.  According to the book, talent is a function of “deep practice”, “ignition” and “master coaching”.

I highly recommend this book as the most important tool for improving your sports program. To find out what other Top Books we recommend, see our new Recommended Reading List.

Read below for what others have personally shared with me after they read the book, or further down this page you can read my Talent Code Book Summary which is literally what I underlined in the book as I read it.

ENJOY!

Feedback from Others about the Book:

Below are some comments I’ve received from others who have read the book.  Feel free to contribute your comments through the form below too.

“I took a lot out of the book and still refer to my notes from the book but if I had to pick the essentials, and there are probably a handful, that I have found the most useful;
1) Struggle is required to learn – I find the need to reinforce this verbally with the players because they are not comfortable when something isn’t easy to get right away.
2) Have to ignite passion/spark an interest in either the sport and/or improving.
3) I’m more conscious of ‘chunking’ skills and tactics. Get 1 part of it understood, then ask them to do 1 & 2, then 1, 2, & 3.”

Coach Kerry Smith

“I read The Talent Code sometime ago and was also fortunate to chat with Dan via email. I found the principle that talent is not a God given gift but something that can be worked on and improved at any age, this I felt created hope for all my players and those that had the ability to play at County, still had the opportunity with ‘correct’ coaching to reach even higher standards. I loved the book and Dan couldn’t have been more helpful, allowing me to quote his work in some of my Blogs. Hope this helps.”
Geoff Frewin,  ‘Mental Coach’ Soccer

“I also enjoyed the book and have found his concepts consistent with what I know about brain research. Clients have found the concepts useful. It is especially helpful for people (athletes and musicians, for example) who are in the process of learning a skill and who might get frustrated with the pace of mastery. When they understand how the process of mylinization works, they ease up on themselves and their motivation is maintained.”
Pamela Enders, Principal, Winner’s Circle Coaching

I took away from it – Slow practice. Teach the perfect motion in ultra slow motion – to master the technique. I have applied this method in teaching myself to strike a soccer ball accurately with my left foot. I have used less reps and more “preparation” conscious teaching to myself. I use high preparation reps – and fewer strikes with the ball. Once you contact the ball and follow through everything is set in motion. I figured if I perfected my balance and pre-kick technique I would learn much faster. I now have better fundamentals with my left foot. I should retrain my right foot the same way.
Mark A. Keller

“My biggest take-way from the Talent Code will be in my recruiting.  I’ll now search for those that have it settled in their mind that “I’m a golfer.”  The correlation with how long one expects to compete and how they practice on a daily basis is fascinating.  I want golfers.”
Matt Thurmond, University of Washington

 “In the Talent Code Daniel Coyle explains that deliberate practice is built on a paradox: struggling at the edges of ability and having failure makes a person perform better. Effortless performance, which many people seem to strive for, is actually a terrible way to learn.

I’ve used Coyle’s definition of deliberate practice as a guide not only to stretch the ability of my players but also mine as a coach.”
Bob Skura

 “Talent Code was incredibly enlightening. It was fascinating that the key factors of ‘world class’ performances could be identified and were common across a multitude of disciplines. The concepts of ignition and deliberate practice were two of a number of concepts that provided me with much food for thought in my role as a coach. Talent code has made me reflect on the effectiveness of my coaching practice and inspired me to find a way to create a pathway that allows my athletes to become world class”
Greg Smith, Rugby Coach, New Zealand

“I also liked the book very much. It complimented and reinforced something that I have found works very well with young athletes and that has to do with start slow emphasizing accuracy and slowly increase the speed or difficulty of the drill, exercise or challenge. Error on the side of being correct 95% of the time. One cannot unlearn the Myelin, we can only bypass bad habits by building Myelin pathways that are bigger and more ‘noise’ immune that the ole pathways. This is why is seems so important to teach the young correctly. Love to see your book review.”
Vic Borgogno, Teaching Pro and Engineer at Sports Split Step

“I think the book is great and the way it exlains Myelin and what it does is helpful. It also gives idea to “deep practice” and how mastery is aquired. I think it is an excellent and easy read and a book that is similar to it and also very good is talent is overrated.”
Bruce Gullikson, Tennis Pro

Please share your comments on this article or the book:

We would love to receive your feedback on the Talent Code. Send us an email with your name, organization, role, and comment to have your feedback featured on this page. Contact: Coach[at]athleteassessments.com  (replace the [at] with an @ – we write it like this to avoid spam!)

What I underlined as I read “The Talent Code”

I highly recommend that you buy or borrow The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.  It is an excellent read, easy to follow, has enormous value to sports coaches and parents, and is very applicable.  I’d class it as one of a handful of must reads.

I do appreciate how busy coaches are and that time is extremely limited.  So, below are the sections of the book that I underlined… It is completely biased by what I was most interested in, but does capture most of the vital points.  Effectively, if your time is limited, here are my cheat notes (book summary)!

Introduction

Talent Hotbeds are mysterious places, and the most mysterious thing about them is that they bloom without warning. (Page 1)

…..trends to treat each hotbed as a singular phenomenon, but in truth they are all part of a larger, older pattern. (Page 2)

This book is about a simple idea…..hotbeds are doing the same thing…..certain patterns of targeted practice build skill….a zone of accelerated learning that…..can be accessed by those who knew how. In short, they’ve cracked the talent code.

The talent code is built on revolutionary scientific discovery involving a neural insulator called myelin, which some neurologists now consider to be the holy grail of acquiring skill…..every human, whether they are playing baseball or playing Bach, is created by chains of nerve fibres carrying a tiny electrical impulse – basically, a signal travelling through a circuit. Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibres the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out. When we fire our circuits the right way – when we practice swinging that bat or playing that note – our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding more skill and speed. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become. (Page 5)

Myelin is important for several reasons….everyone can grow it…..its growth enables all manner of skills, mental and physical….we can’t see it or feel it…..myelin is important because it provides us with a vivid new model for understanding skill. Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals. (Page 6)

This book is divided into three parts – deep practice, ignition, and master coaching – which correspond to the three basic elements of the talent code. (Page 7)

Chapter 1 – The Sweet Spot

I began visiting tiny places that produce Everest-size amounts of talent. (Page 11)

The nine hotbeds I visited shared almost nothing except the happy unlikeliness of their existence. (Page 12)

Making progress became a matter of small failures, a rhythmic pattern of blotches, as well as something else: a shared facial expression. Their taut, intense squint caused them to take on. (Page 13)

When we see people practice effectively, we usually describe it with words like willpower or concentration or focus. But those words don’t quite fit, because they don’t capture the ice-climbing particularity of the event…..they are purposely operating at the edges of their ability, so they will screw up. And somehow screwing up is making them better. How? (Page 13 and 14)

The conventional way to explain this kind of concentrated talent is to attribute it to the combination of genes and environment a.k.a nature and nurture. (Page 14)

But there’s a slight problem with this explanation: Brazil wasn’t always a great producer of soccer players. (Page 15)

The surprise answer is that Brazil produces great players because since the 1950s Brazilian players have trained in a particular way, with a particular tool that improves ball-handling skill faster than anywhere else in the world. …..they have found a way to increase their learning…..I call this kind of training deep practice. (Page 15-16)

Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edge of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter…..experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them. (Page 18)

Washington University of St Louis….Group A studied the paper for four sessions. Group B only studied once but was tested three times. A week later both groups were tested, and Group B scored 50 per cent higher than Group A. (Page 19)

We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder, but that’s wrong. It’s a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size. The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn. (Page 19)

It’s all about finding the sweet spot. There’s an optimal gap between what you know and what you’re trying to do. When you find the sweet spot, learning takes off. (Page 19)

From Pele onward virtually every great Brazilian player played futsal as a kid……a top Brazilian player spends thousands of hours at the game. The great Juninho, for instance, said he never kicked a full size ball on grass until he was fourteen. (Page 26-27)

Futsal players touch the ball far more than soccer players – six times more often per minute, according to Liverpool University Study. The smaller, heavier ball demands and rewards more precise handling….the game is all about looking for angles and spaces and working quick combinations with other players. Ball control and vision are crucial, so that when futsal players play the full size game, they feel as if they have acres of free space in which to operate…no time plus no space equals better skills. Futsal is our national laboratory of improvisation……Futsal compresses soccer’s essential skills into a smaller box; it places players inside the deep practice zone, making and correcting errors, constantly generating solutions to vivid problems. Players touching the ball 600 per cent more often learn faster, without realising it. To be clear, futsal is not the only reason. (Page 27–28)

Chapter 2 – The deep Practice Cell

The revolution is built on three simple facts.

(1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal travelling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of nerve fibres.

(2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibres and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.

(3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become. (Page 32)

“What do good athletes do when they train?”  Bartzokis said. “They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelinate that wire. They end up, after all the training, with a super-duper wire – lots of bandwidth, a higher speed T-3 line. That’s what makes them different from the rest of us”. (Page 33)

When she was deep practicing… she was firing and optimizing a neural circuit – and growing myelin. (Page 33)

Q: Why is targeted, mistake-focused practice so effective?

A: Because the best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, the fire it again, over and over. Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement.

Q: Why are passion and persistence key ingredients of talent?

A: Because wrapping myelin around a big circuit requires immense energy and time. If you don’t love it, you’ll never work hard enough to be great. (Page 34)

For starters, there’s a Useful Brain Science Insight Number 1: All actions are really the result of electrical impulses sent along chains of nerve fibres. Basically, our brains are bundles of wires – 100 billion wires called neurons, connected to each other by synapse. Whenever you do something, your brain sends a signal through those chains of nerve fibres to your muscles. Each time you practice anything – sing a tune, swing a club, ready this sentence – a different highly specific circuit lights up in your mind, sort of a string of Christmas lights. The simplest skill – say, a tennis backhand – involves a circuit made up of hundreds of thousands of fibres and synapses. (Page 36)

In a profound way the circuit is the movement: it dictates the precise strength and timing of each muscle contraction, the shape and content of each thought…..When a coach uses the phrase “muscle memory”, he is actually talking about circuits: by themselves, our muscles are as useful as a puppet without strings. As Dr. Fields puts it, our skills are all in our wire. (Page 37)

Then there’s Useful Brain Science Insight Number 2: The more we develop a skill circuit, the less we’re aware that we’re using it. We’re built to make skills automatic, to stash them in our unconscious mind…exists for powerful evolutionary reasons……a skill once gained, feels utterly natural, as if it’s something we’ve always possessed. (Page 37)

As Field puts it, “Signals have to travel at the right speed, arrive at the right time, and myelination is the brain’s way of controlling that speed.” (Page 42)

So there’s the picture in a nutshell: each time we deeply practice a nine-iron swing or a guitar chord or a chess opening, we are slowly installing broadband in our circuitry….They build a little more insulation along the wire, which adds a bit more bandwidth and precision to the skill circuit, which translates into an infinitesimal bit more skill and speed. Struggle is not optional – it’s neurologically required: in order to get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit sub-optimally; you must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes; you must slowly teach your circuit. You must also keep firing that circuit – ie, practicing  – in order to keep myelin functioning properly, After all, myelin is living tissue…..myelin operates by a few fundamental principals.

1 – The firing of the circuit is paramount…..deep practice is assisted…..attentive, hungry, and focused, even desperate.

2 – Myelin is universal…..One size fits all skills…..myelin doesn’t care who you are – it cares what you do.

3 – Myelin wraps – it doesn’t unwrap…Like a highway paving machine, myelination happens in one direction. Once a skill circuit is insulated, you can’t un-insulate it (except through age or disease). That’s why habits are hard to break. The only way to change them is to build new habits by repeating new behaviors –by myelinating new circuits.

4 – Age matter. (Page 43-45)

But the myelin model shows that certain hotbeds succeed not only because people there are trying harder but also because they are trying harder in the right way – practicing more deeply and earning more skill….myelin science is still in its early days. (Page 46-47)

Characteristically, Ericsson’s first project was to explore one of psychology’s most sacred tenets: the belief that short-term memory is an innate, fixed quality.  A framed 1956 paper by psychologist George Miller, called “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”……Ericsson showed that the existing model of short-tern memory was wrong.  Memory wasn’t like shoe size – it could be improved through training. (Page 50)

Instead he studied the talent process from an equally vital angle: he measured practice. Specifically, he measured the time and characteristics of practice… every expert in every field is the result of around ten thousand hours of committed practice. Ericsson called this process “deliberate practice”, and defined it as working on technique, seeking constant critical feedback, and focusing ruthlessly on shoring up weaknesses. (Page 51)

Chapter 3 – The Brontes, the Z boys, and the Renaissance

George Bartzokis is a professor of neurology at UCLA… “Mr Myelin”… “Why do teenagers make bad decisions?”…..”Because all neurons are there, but they are not fully insulated. Until the whole circuit is insulated, that circuit, although capable, will not be instantly available to alter impulse behaviour as it’s happening. Teens understand right and wrong, but it taken them longer to figure it out”…. “Why is wisdom most often found in older people? Because their circuits are fully insulated and instantly available to them; they can do very complicated processing on many levels, which is really what wisdom is. The volume of myelin in the brain continues to increase until around fifty. (Page 67)

Why do breast-fed babies have higher IQ’s? Because the fatty acids in breast milk are the building blocks of myelin.

Why did Michael Jordan retire? His muscles didn’t change, but as with every other human being, his myelin started to break down with age – not much, but enough to prevent him from firing impulses at the speeds and frequencies required for Michael Jordanesque explosive movement. (Page 68)

Since Darwin, the traditional way of thinking about talent has gone something like this: genes (nature) and environment (nurture) combine to make us who we are…….Nature/nurture has been terrifically popular model because it’s clear and dramatic, and it speaks to a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But when it comes to explaining natural talent =, it has a slight problem: it’s vague to the point of meaninglessness….When it comes to behaviour, however, genes are forced to deal with a unique design challenge. Human beings move around through a big, varied world. They encounter all sorts of dangers, opportunities, and novel experiences. The challenge is, how do you write an instruction book for behaviour?… our genes have evolved to do a sensible thing: they contain instructions to build our circuitry with pre-set urges, proclivities, instincts.(Pages 68-70)

Now let’s consider a different design strategy. Instead of rewiring for specific skills, what if the genes dealt with the skill issue by building millions of tiny broadband installers and distributing them throughout the circuit of the brain?… whatever circuits are fired most, and most urgently, are the ones where the installers will go. Skill circuits that are fired often will receive more broadband; skills that are fired less often, with less urgency, will receive less broadband. (Pages 71-72)

Chapter 4 – The three rules of deep practice

HSE – The observer is dumbstruck, amazed, and bewildered, while the talents owner is unsurprised, even blasé. (Page 75)

Skill consists of identifying important elements and grouping them into a meaningful framework… chunking. (Page 77)

What separates these two levels is not innate superpower but a slowly accrued act of construction and organisation: the building of a scaffolding, bolt by bolt and circuit by circuit – or as Mr Myelin might say, wrap by wrap. (Page 79)

Rule One – Chunk it up

Deep practice feels a bit like exploring a dark and unfamiliar room. You start slowly, you bump into furniture, stop, think, and start again. Slowly, and a little painfully, you explore the space over and over, attending to errors, extending your reach into the room a bit farther each time, building a mental map until you can move through it quickly and intuitively… The instinct to slow down and break skills into their components is universal… In the talent hotbeds I visited, the chunking takes place in three dimensions. First, the participants look at the task as a whole-as one big chunk, the mega-circuit. Second, they divide it into its smallest possible chunks. Third, they play with time, slowing the action down, then speeding it up, to learn its inner architecture. (Page 79-80)

Absorb the whole thing.

This means spending time staring at or listening to the desired skill-the song, the move, the swing-as a single coherent entity. People in the hotbeds stare and listen in this way quite a lot… “We’re prewired to imitate,” Anders Ericsson says. “When you put yourself in the same situation as an outstanding person and attack a task that they took on, it has a big effect on your skill.” (Page 80)

Break it into chunks.

The goal is always the same: to break a skill into its component pieces (circuits), memorise those pieces individually, then link them together I progressively larger groupings (new, interconnected circuits). (Page 84)

Slow it down.

Why does slowing down work so well? The myelin model offers two reasons. First, going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing-and when it comes to growing myelin, precision is everything… Seconds, going slow helps the practiser to develop something even more important: a working perception of the skills internal blueprints-the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits. (Page 85)

Rule two: Repeat it.

There is, biologically speaking, no substitute for attentive repetition. Nothing you can do-talking, thinking, reading, imagining-is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impulse down the nerve fibre, fixing errors, honing the circuit… What’s the simplest way to diminish the skills of a superstar talent (short of inflicting an injury)?… The answer: don’t let them practice for a month… It only requires that you stop a skilled person from systematically firing his or her circuit for a mere thirty days… Myelin is living tissue. Like everything else in the body, it’s in a constant cycle of breakdown and repair. That’s why daily practice matters, particularly as we get older… Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable… Deep practice… spending more time is effective-but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits. There seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice human beings can do in a day… between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue. People at most of the hotbeds I visited practiced less than three hours a day. (Page 87-89)

Rule Three: Learn to feel it.

The point is to get a balance point where you can sense the errors when they come. To avoid the mistakes, first you have to feel them immediately… (Page 90)
Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking out a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.

1. Pick a target
2. Reach for it
3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
4. Return to step one  (Page 92)

Chapter 5 – Primal Cues

Growing skill, as we’ve seen, requires deep practice. But deep practice isn’t a piece of cake: it requires energy, passion, and commitment. In a word, it requires motivational fuel, the second element of the talent code. Ignition and deep practice work together to produce skill in exactly the same way that a gas tank combines with an engine to produce a velocity in an automobile… When I asked people in the hotbeds about the source of their passion for violin/ singing/ soccer/ math, the question struck most of them as fairly ridiculous, as if I were inquiring when they first learned to enjoy oxygen. The universal response was to shrug and say something like “I dunno, I’ve just always felt this way.”  (Page 97, 98)

Hotbeds follow the same pattern: a breakthrough success is followed by a massive bloom of talent. Note that in each case the bloom grew relatively slow at first, requiring five or six years to reach a dozen players. This is not because the inspiration was weaker at the start and got progressively stronger, but for a more fundamental reason: deep practice taken time (ten thousand hours, as the refrain goes).  (Page 99)

Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act, ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening. (Page 101)

The tiny, powerful idea.

In 1997 Gary McPherson set out to investigate a mystery: why certain children progress quickly at music lessons and others don’t… McPherson tested a new factor: the children’s answers to a simple question that he’s asked them before they had even started their first lesson. The question was, how long do you think you’ll play your new instrument?… Progress was determined not by any measureable aptitude or trait… with the same amount of practice, the long-term commitment group out performed the short-term commitment group by 400 per cent… When long-term commitment combined with high levels of practice, skills skyrocketed. (Page 103,104)

What ignited the progress wasn’t any innate skill or gene. It was a small, ephemeral, yet powerful idea: a vision of their ideal future selves, a vision that oriented, energised, and accelerated progress, and that originated in the outside world. (Page 105)

Three examples of ignition: South Korean/Russian athletes, mile runners, and beginner musicians… what do these signals have in common? The answer is, each has to do with identity and groups, and the links that form between them. Each signal is the motivational equivalent of a flashing red light: those people over there are doing something terrifically worthwhile. Each signal, in short, is about future belonging… Future belonging is a primal cue: a simple, direct signal that activates our built-in motivational triggers, funnelling our energy and attention towards a goal. (Page 108)

I asked Bargh about a curious pattern I’d observed at the talent hotbeds: they tended to be junky, unattractive places… so many hotbeds shared this dishevelled ambience that I began to sense a link between the dented, beat up state of the incubators and the sleek talent they produced… “If we’re in a nice, easy, pleasant environment, we naturally shut off effort,” Bargh said. “Why work? But if people get the signal that it’s rough, they get motivated now. A nice, well-kept tennis academy gives them the luxury future right now – of course they’d be demotivated. They can’t help it.”…  Bargh and his colleagues dubbed the Scrooge Principle. (Pages 109, 110).

Martin Eisenstadt tracked the parental histories of every person who was eminent enough to have earned a half-page-long entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica… on average the eminent group lost their first parent at an average age of 13.9, compared with 19.6 for a control group. (Page 112,113)

When we look at parental loss as a signal hitting a motivational trigger, the connection becomes clearer. Losing a parent is a primal cue: you are not safe… Losing a parent at a young age was not what gave them talent; rather, it was the primal cue – you are not safe – that, by tripping the ancient self-preserving evolutionary switch, provided energy for their efforts, so that they build their various talents over the course of years, step by step, wrap by wrap. (Page 114)

Fastest runners were born, on average, fourth in families of 4.6 children. We find a similar result with the top-ten all-time NFL running backs in rushing yardage, why score an average birth rank of 3.2 out of families of 4.4 kids… speed is not purely a gift but a skill that grows through deep practice, and that is ignited by primal cues. In this case the cue is: you’re behind – keep up. (Page 116)

Chapter 6 – The Curacao Experiment

Talent hotbeds possess more than a single primal cue. They contain complex collections of signals – people, images, and ideas – they keep ignition going for the weeks, months, and years that skill-growing requires. Talent hotbeds are to primal cues what Las Vegas is to neon signs, flashing with the kind of signals that keep motivation burning. (Page 126)

The Language of Ignition

Thus far we’ve learned a few things about the nature of our ignition switch.

First, it’s either on or off. Second, it can be triggered by certain signals, or primal cues. Now we’ll look more deeply into how it can be triggered by the signals we use most: words. (Page 132)

Dweck is a social psychologist at Stanford who has spent the last thirty years studying motivation… Some of her eye opening research involves the relationship between motivation and language. “Left to our own devices, we go along in a pretty stable mindset,” she says.  “But when we get a clear cue, a message that sends a spark, then boing, we respond.” …The boing phenomenon can be seen most vividly in a series of experiments Dweck did with four hundred New York fifth grades… First, Dweck gave every child a test that consisted of fairly easy puzzles. Afterward the researcher informed all the children of their scores, adding a single six-word sentence of praise. Half of the kids were praised for their intelligence (“you must be smart at this”), and half were praised for their effort (“you must have worked really hard”)… The kids were tested a second time, but this time they were offered a choice between a harder test and an easier test. Ninety per cent of the kids who’d been praised for their effort chose the harder test. A majority of the kids who’d been praised for their intelligence, on the other hand, chose the easier test. Why? “When we prise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote, “we tell them that’s the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” …The third level of tests were uniformly harder; none of the kids did well. However, the two groups of kids – the praised-for-effort group and the praised-for-intelligence group – responded very differently to the situation. “(The effort group) dug in and grew very involved with the test, trying solutions, testing strategies,” Dweck said. “They later said they liked it. But the group praised for intelligence hated the harder test. They took it as proof they weren’t smart.” …The experiment then came full circle, returning to a test of the same difficulty as the initial test. The praised-for-effort group improved their initial score by 30 per cent, while the praised-for-intelligence group’s score declined by 20 per cent. All because of six short words. Dweck was so surprised at the result that she reran the study five times. Each time the result was the same… True to the findings of Dweck’s study, each of the hotbeds I visited used language that affirmed the value of effort and slow progress rather than innate talent or intelligence.  (Pages 135,136)

When we use the term motivational language, we are generally referring to language that speaks of hopes, dreams, and affirmations (“You are the best!”). This kind of language – let’s call it high motivation – has its role. But the language from Dweck and the hotbeds is clear: high motivation is not the kind of language that ignites people. What works is precisely the opposite: not reaching up but reaching down, speaking to the ground level effort, affirming the struggle. (Page 137)

Chapter 8 – The Talent Whisperers

So far in this book we’ve talked about skill as a cellular process that grows through deep practice. We’ve seen how ignition supplies the unconscious energy for that growth. Now it’s time to meet the rare people who have the uncanny knack for combining those forces to grow talent in others… When most of us think of a master coach, we think of a Great Leader, a person of steadfast vision, battle-tested savvy, and commanding eloquence. (Page 161)

But when I visited the talent hotbeds, I didn’t find many Lombardis or Pattons, or Queen Elizabeths for that matter. Instead, the teachers and coaches I met were quiet, even reserved. They were mostly older; many had been teaching thirty or forty years. They possessed the same sort of gaze: steady, deep, unblinking. They listened far more than they talked. They seemed allergic to giving pep talks or inspiring speeches; they spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments. They had an extraordinary sensitivity to the person they were teaching, customising each message to each student’s personality. After meeting a dozen of these people, I started to suspect that they were all secretly related. They were talent whisperers. (Page 162)

This sentiment – even-keeled, prudent, unromantic – had a familiar ring. Many of the talent whisperers reminded me of my relatives in Illinois farming towns, who were tough, unsurprisable, and circumspect. They could talk for hours about the tiniest details of seeds or fertilizers, but when it came to the larger questions – the quality of the upcoming harvest, the playoff chances of their beloved St Louis Cardinals Baseball team – they shrugged. Who can know?

Master coaches aren’t like heads of state. They aren’t like captains who steer us across the unmarked sea, or preachers on a pulpit, ringing out the good news. Their personality – their core skill circuit – is to be more like farmers: careful, deliberate cultivators of myelin, like Hans Jensen. His mysterious ESP-specifically, his skill at sensing the student’s needs and instantly producing the right signal to meet those needs. (Pages 164, 165)

To describe John Wooden as a good basketball coach is like describing Abraham Lincoln as a solid congressman. Wizard of Westwood, as Wooden was known, was a former English teacher from small-town Indiana who quoted Wordsworth and lived Christian values of discipline, morality, and teamwork. He had let UCLA the nine national championships in the previous ten years. His team had recently concluded an eighty-eight-game undefeated stretch that had lasted for nearly three years, one of the many historic feats that would later lead ESPN to name Wooden the greatest coach of all time in any sport. As Gallimore and Tharp were well aware, Wooden had no earthy reason to submit himself to the prying of a couple of nosy scientists. So they were more than a little surprised when Wooden’s answer arrived: Yes.

A few weeks later Gallimore and Tharp settled eagerly into courtside seats at Pauley Pavilion to watch Wooden coach the season’s first practice. As fans of the team as well as former athletes themselves, they knew what to expect: chalk talks, inspiring speeches, punishment laps for slackers, praise for hard workers.

The practice began.

Wooden didn’t give speeches. He didn’t do chalk talks. He didn’t dole out punishment laps or praise. In all, he didn’t sound or act like any coach they’d ever encountered.  …Wooden ran an intense whirligig of five- to fifteen- minute drills, issuing a rapid fore stream of words all the while. The interesting part was the content of those words. As their subsequent article, “Basketball’s John Wooden: What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher”, put it, Wooden’s “teaching utterances or comments were short, punctuated, and numerous. There were no lectures, no extended harangues… he rarely spoke longer than twenty seconds… Gallimore and Tharp recorded and coded 2,326 discrete acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9% were expressions of displeasure. But 75% were pure information: what to do, how to do it, when to intensify an activity. One of Wooden’s most frequent forms of teaching were a three part instruction where he modelled the right way to do something, showed the incorrect way, and then remodelled the right way… The information didn’t slow down the practice; to the contrary, Wooden combined it with something he called “mental and emotional conditioning,” which basically amounted to everyone running harder than they did in games, all the time… Wooden’s practices looked natural and unplanned, in fact they were anything but.  The coach would spend two hours each morning with his assistants planning that days practice, the write out the minute-by-minute schedule on three-by-five cards. He kept cards from year to year, so he could compare and adjust. No detail was too small to be considered.  (Pages 167, 168, 169)

Gradually a picture came into focus: what made Wooden a great coach wasn’t praise, wasn’t denunciation, and certainly wasn’t pep talks. His skill resided in the Gatling-gun rattle of Targeted information he fired at his players. This, not that. Here, not there …using what he called the whole-part method – he would teach players an entire move, then break it down to work on it’s elemental actions. He formulated laws of learning (which might be retitled laws of myelin): explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction, and repetition. “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”  (Page 170)

Coaching love

It’s the most basic common sense: if you want to start a child in a new skill, you should search out the best-trained, most John Wooden-like teacher possible. Right?

Not necessarily. In the early 1980’s a University of Chicago team of researchers led by Dr. Benjamin Bloom undertook a study of 120 world-class pianists, swimmers, tennis champions, mathematicians, neurologists, and sculptors… They discovered a surprising fact: many world-class talents, particularly in piano, swimming, and tennis, start out with seemingly average teachers. (Page 172)

These people are not average teachers… they are merely disguised as average because their crucial skill does not show up conventional measures of teaching ability. They succeed because they are tapping into a second element of talent code: ignition. They are creating and sustaining motivation; they are teaching love. As Bloom’s study summed up, “The effect of this first phase of learning seemed to be to get the learner involved, captivated, hooked, and to get the learner to need and want more information and expertise.” (Page 175)

Chapter 9 – The Teaching Circuit: A Blueprint

The four virtues of master coaches

Great teaching is like a skill like any other… Ron Gallimore, who is now a distinguished professor emeritus at UCLA, has a good way of describing the skill. “Great teachers focus on what the student is saying or doing,” he says, “and are able, by being so focused and by their deep knowledge of the subject matter, to see and recognise the inarticulate stumbling, fumbling effort of the student who’s reaching toward mastery, and then connect them with a targeted message.”

The key words of this sentence are knowledge, recognise, and connect… Coaching is a long, intimate conversation, a series of signals and responses that move toward a shared goal. A coach’s true skill consists not in some universally applicable wisdom that he can communicate to all, but rather in the supple ability to locate the sweet spot on the edge of each individual student’s ability, and to send the right signals to help the student reach toward the right goal, over and over. (Pages 177,178)

The matrix: The first Virtue

The coaches and teachers I met at the talent hotbeds were mostly older. More than half were in their sixties or seventies… Matrix is Gallimore’s word for the vast grid of task specific knowledge and distinguishes the best teachers and allows them to creatively and effectively respond to a student’s efforts… People are not born with this depth of knowledge. It’s something they grow, over time, through the same combination of ignition and deep practice as any other skill. (Pages 178, 179)

What I do for myself as a teacher is no different from what I ask my students to do. I know what I’m doing because I put a lot of work into it. I’m no different from them. If you spend years and years trying hard to do something, you’d better get better at it. (Page 184)

Perceptiveness: The second Virtue

The eyes are the giveaway. They are usually sharp and warm and are deployed in long, unblinking gazes. Several master coaches told me that they trained their eyes to be like cameras, and they share the same Panavision Quality. Though the gaze can be friendly, it’s not chiefly about friendship. It’s about information. It’s about figuring you out. When Gallimore and Tharp studies John Wooden in 1974, they were surprised to find that he distributed praise and criticism unevenly. Which is to say, certain players got a lot of praise; others got a lot of criticism. During the team’s preseason meeting each year, Wooden would say, “I’m not going to treat you players all the same. Giving you the same treatment doesn’t make sense, because your all different”…  “For that reason, each one of you deserves individual treatment that’s it’s best for you. I will decide what that treatment will be.” Almost all the master coaches I met followed Wooden’s rule. They wanted to know about each student so they could customise their communications to fit the larger patterns in a student’s life. (Pages 184, 185)

On the macro level, the coaches I met approached new students with a curiosity of an investigative reporter. They sought out details of their personal lives, finding out about family, income, relationships, motivation. And on the micro level, they constantly monitored the student’s reaction to their coaching, checking whether their message was being absorbed. (Page 185)

The GPS Reflex: The third Virtue

Most master coaches delivered their information to their students in a series of short, vivid, high-definition bursts… The directions weren’t dictatorial in tone (usually) but were delivered in a way that sounded clinical and urgent, as if they were being emitted by a particular GPS unit navigating through a maze of city streets: turn left, turn right, go straight, arrival complete. (Page 186)

Patience is a word we use a lot to describe great teachers at work. But what I saw was not patience, exactly. It was more like probing, strategic impatience. The master coaches I met were constantly changing their input. If A didn’t work, they tried B and C; if they failed, the rest of the alphabet was holstered and ready… Of the many phrases I heard echoing around the talent hotbeds, one stood out to common to all of them. It was: “Good. Okay, now do…” As soon as the student could accomplish the feat, the coach would quickly layer in an added difficulty. Small successes were not stopping points but steeping-stones. (Page 188)

Theatrical Honesty: The fourth Virtue

Many of the coaches I met radiated a subtly theatrical air… It would be easy to conclude, from this pattern, that master coached traffic in hokum. But the longer I saw them work, the more I saw that drama and character are the tools master-coaches use to reach the student with the truth about their performance. (Page 189)

Circuit Growing: Why teaching soccer is different from teaching violin.

Given the coaches we’ve met so far, it’s tempting to conceptualize a master coach as a busy electrician, always zapping the student with helpful signals, soldering the myelin connections. That is often the case. But many other times the most masterful coaches are completely silent. (Page 191)

Skills like soccer, writing, and comedy are flexible-circuit skills, meaning that they require us to grow vast ivy-vine circuits that we can flick through to navigate an ever changing set of obstacles. Playing violin, golf, gymnastics, and figure skating, on the other hand, are consistent circuit skills, depending utterly on a solid foundation of technique that enables us to reliably re-create the fundamentals of an ideal focus. (This is why self taught violinist, skaters, and gymnasts rarely reach world class level and why self-taught novelists, comedians, and soccer players do all the time.) The universal rule remains the same: good coaching supports the desired circuit… that their goals is the same… master coach: to get inside the deep-practice zone, to maximise the firings that grow the right myelin for the task, and ultimately to move closer toward the day that ever coach desires, when the students become their own teachers. “If it’s a choice between me telling them to do it, or them figuring it out, I’ll take the second option every time,” Lansdorp said. “You’ve got to make the kid an independent thinker, a problem solver. I don’t need to see them every day, for chrissake. You can’t keep breast-feeding them all the time. The point is, they’ve got to figure things out for themselves.” (Pages 194,195)

Epilogue: The Myelin World

Carol Dweck, the psychologist who studies motivation, likes to say that all the world’s parenting advice can be distilled to two simple rules: pay attention to what your children are fascinated by, and praise them for their effort. (Page 217)the_talent_code

Well, if you’ve read this far, you’ve done extremely well!  You might also be interested in Buying the Talent Code on Amazon now. We hope you found this Summary of the Talent Code valuable. You may also enjoy our other Book Reviews and Recommended Reading List including:

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