Saturday, May 31, 2014

"The Talent Code"- Book Review

“Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.” – Bruce Lee

“The Talent Code”, by Daniel Coyle, has been on my wishlist for a while, and I finally got a chance to get a copy when a local Chapters (bookstore) was closing and offered 50% off all books! Out of the 17 books I bought, I started with this one and I finished it in a day. It was a simple read, with quite a few stories to explain the concepts, so for me it worked out because they repeated a few key points over and over and I simply glossed over the stories. My goal is to give a recap of the book and try to take some points that I can take over to badminton.

One of the main concepts of the book was “deep practice”. This kind of practice, also known as “deliberate practice” by others, is the type of practice that is not fun. You are really grinding out the details and making a large effort to take a concept, analyze and break it down into pieces, then putting it back together. Mistakes are expected, and many of them as well. A reference to ‘futsal’ was made, in which Brazilian football (soccer) players used this game to develop their actual football game. With the higher restrictions and difficulty of the game, they had to find new ways of adapting to the game and hence, improving their overall technical skills.

This would be a strong reason for playing modified games, such as “Box Game”, or even 2 vs 1 Singles, or 3 vs 2 Doubles. Any type of modified game which restricts boundaries or certain shots (i.e. doubles with no lifting) should enhance technical skills based on those restrictions. However, from a coaching perspective, it may be helpful to inform players what their focus should be, or at least have the players discuss the best way to approach the modified game. I have often seen players seem confused and frustrated over a modified game because they cannot do what they can do typically (I’ve been here many times), and there is a lack of effort towards the game.

“Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals” (Coyle, 2009). This is the science behind deep practice, in that you are essentially adding myelin in your brain to optimize neural circuits, without getting too technical into neuroscience (out of my scope of practice, although motor learning does interest me). The ’10 000 hour’ rule is addressed here, but it is expanded to ‘10 000 hours of deep practice’, which gives world-class skill.

From a badminton standpoint, it would be interesting to see how much we overestimate our abilities because 10 000 hours of badminton does not equal 10 000 hours of deep practice, at least in Canada. I can only wonder if I have reached 10 000 hours of deep practice in badminton myself…

Coyle gives the 3 rules of deep practice: 1) Chunk up, 2) Repeat it, and 3) Learn to feel it. The first rule looks at taking the process as a whole, and dividing it up into its smallest possible parts. An example would be to look at an overhand stroke, but start out extremely slowly, as to ensure perfect technique before speeding it up. One of the quotes from the book was: “It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly.” The second rule involves repetition of the task (obviously!) but he talks about limits of practice. While he says that 3-5 hours/day is recommended, it may be best to stop once you get out of the ‘deep practice zone’. The final rule involves making mistakes, and that they should bother you; hence, you learn to “feel it”. As he discusses practice and not performance, corrections should be addressed immediately.

There are many takeaways from these 3 simple rules. I have already addressed slowing a stroke down to ensure perfect technique, but I’m not sure how often this strategy is used. I typically break down the stroke into parts, but I try to minimize the amount of steps for ease of memory. I typically would like to have students trying to hit a shuttle as soon as possible, as most of them feel the same way about it. However, this strategy would likely involve slowing down the stroke to perfection, then gradually building up speed until it reaches normal speed with perfect technique. I suppose this is like trying to improve your badminton game by playing more games, vs. breaking the game into smaller parts, practicing and perfecting each part, then putting it back together into a complete game.

The second rule makes a lot of sense, because I have come across research about motor learning where it is best not to practice fine motor skills under fatigue. However, it is definitely up to debate. I would say a complex skill like a jump smash would be better with perfect technique and execution, and by practicing jump smashes when you are tired will affect your overall technique because of small tweaks in posture or force development. The quality of smash is affected, and constantly practicing tired jump smashes may make small adjustments in the overall quality of your jump smash. However, I would say it is context dependent, because some will argue that you need to jump smash when you are tired, but I will ask if a jump smash is the right shot selection at that point (i.e. why not a regular smash)?

The final rule is essential for practice, and I think it’s important (in practice only) to understand whether shots you hit are good or bad, or whether the shot is going as you intended. Sometimes we hit drives or smashes too high, and they magically float and land on the back line. Often times I see players celebrating or assuming they did well because they won the rally, but the execution was not correct. Personally, I’m the opposite and I’m overly critical when that happens, even in matches (where it is good to note for later, but not dwell on the fact. Next rally, go!). Shot quality is quite important and I feel that we neglect it as long as the shot goes over the net (e.g. during multi-shuttle drills). Or, we take the opposite approach and only focus on shot quality and neglect proper movement to the shuttle. In the concept of deep practice, both are necessary in optimizing neural circuits.

Coyle’s next major insight in “The Talent Code” is the concept of ‘ignition’, which is really just his word for passion, drive, motivation or will to succeed. He talks about having a sustained motivation, which is an important concept because many of us can be motivated, but only a few of us STAY motivated. In his research, he found that people who have a high commitment will tend to stay motivated and practice more than those with lower commitment.

The simplest way to look at this in badminton are those who are looking to pursue the Olympics for Canada. Who took a 4 year commitment to train and compete? Who took less (i.e.2 or 3 years)? Perhaps I should look to extend my commitment to the 2016 Olympics, instead of the 2015 Pan Am Games.

Coyle also describes what he calls “Primal Cues” which may drive us to pursue our tasks. Two primal cues include ‘You Are Not Safe’, which speaks about the will and drive to succeed for children who have lost a parent (although possibly debilitating for some), and ‘You’re Behind – Keep Up’ which gives success to younger children in the family. However, Coyle acknowledges that the concept of ‘ignition’ doesn’t necessarily follow normal rules, which means that motivation can sometimes come from the most unlikely of sources.

Upon reflection, perhaps my ‘ignition’ came from wanting to win a junior national title so badly, until I found international badminton, and realized that there was so much more than a Canadian Junior National Title (not to take that away from anyone, because I never won one :P ). My new ignition came from a hope for future success, owing to the opportunity of a lifetime to train with Kim Dong Moon in Canada, and now, the new ignition is a new approach to training and competition, a new partnership, and a new start. Challenges do exist and I’m still at the beginning of an uphill battle, but finding new ways to overcome hurdles may be my own ignition. Find what motivates you and achieve your personal best!

Additional pointers from the book that I found useful include having a continued ignition as the key to success, praise efforts over intelligence, and pay attention to details. As these pointers are quite self-explanatory, I will address the final key to success according to Coyle, after deep practice and ignition: master coaching. Coyle talks about master coaches having “extraordinary sensitivity to the person they’re teaching, customizing each message to each student’s personality” (2009). Although coaching may be more art than science, he also addressed that average-skilled teachers or coaches may offer continuous ignition for those and help them to progress.

This concept hit hard, because it differed from Geoff Colvin’s definition of an expert. Colvin speaks of deliberate practice, but includes world-class coaching. Looking back at my career, I would think I was fortunate to have both at some point. To prevent this discussion from going too long, I think both players and coaches need to work together in addressing individual needs. I think the player should learn to make the most with their coach and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, but the coach should also treat each player individually, instead of the typical group mentality that most players get. All we would need is a little effort, trust, and lots more deep practice! We can learn from everyone… but first, we need to be open-minded.

Post Game Re-Cap with Coach Darryl Yung:
DY: "Why do you still play singles?"
TN: "... Good point."
(Photo Credit: Joseph Yeung)
Coyle speaks about the 4 Virtues of a Master Coach: 1) The Matrix, 2) Perceptiveness, 3) GPS Reflex, and 4) Theatrical Honesty. The first virtue speaks about a master coach being able to take it to a deeper level (hence, ‘The Matrix’, i.e. red pill or blue pill?). Master coaches may have been former talents who may not have reached their potential success, but tried to figure out where they went wrong. They can offer genuine information because there is no survivorship bias, because they will tell you what went wrong, and at least how to avoid making their mistake. The second virtue is the ability of the coach to gather information about individual players and treat them individually. Knowing when athletes are tired is important to prevent overtraining and also to optimize an individual’s performance. For example, some players need a pep talk, some need time alone, while some may just need a simple nod or pat on the back to encourage them to perform. The ‘GPS Reflex’ refers to how direct and simple GPS commands are (i.e. turn left, you have arrived at your destination, etc.). Coaching should be simple and direct, so information is given and understood with as little ambiguity or filler as necessary (e.g. “I think you should maybe try hitting a bit harder next time”). The final virtue, ‘theatrical honesty’ is a means of keeping your athletes guessing; have a different personality for a different player. For example, a coach to be enthusiastic and cheerful to players who also exert that same energy, or being quiet and patient for different player, is part of being a master coach. In conclusion, athlete should not be looking to do things by themselves: find a master coach!

I think we have many great coaches, but perhaps there are a few virtues that each coach may be missing. In our system, coaches simply continue to coach, but most do not have any way of continuing their education. How can we expect anyone to make a change if they are not aware of it? Perhaps feedback and trust should go both ways: a player cannot develop as well if they do not get feedback from the coach, but can this go the other way? A coach will likely not be as good of a coach if they have no students, but we never give coaches feedback like we give our teachers a student evaluation. Coaches can practice these virtues as well, and in the end, everybody will benefit, because they will understand how to develop their players, and their players will perform better.

Celebrating a win with Coach Ronne Runtulalao at the 2013 Canada Open
(Photo Credit: Joseph Yeung)
Overall, I highly recommend the book and to give it a read. It’s only about 200 pages and it’s not too long. The stories are enriching and there are some other good points that I have not shared. I think the book is great for both players and coaches, and I think it will definitely give some new ‘ignition’ for both, as well as the ability to take practice to a ‘deeper’ level!

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