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The best books on Champions

recommended by Matthew Syed

Table tennis champion and author of Bounce: How Champions are Made, Matthew Syed believes that winning is partly the placebo effect of confidence.

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Your first choice, Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance by Neil Charness, Paul J Feltovich and Robert R Hoffman, is seen by many as the definitive tome in what expertise is.

Yes, it’s a remarkable compendium of essays by the leading academics in the field, explaining how excellence is constructed in each of those areas. It is remarkably extensive, authoritative but also deeply entertaining. It covers everything from expertise in chess to expertise in psychology and computer science and mathematics. There is sexual expertise and medicine as well. Throughout all these different fields the consensus is the excellence is constructed on hard work but it nuances that explanation all the way through. For me it is a wonderful set of essays and required reading for anyone interested in the subject.

Aside from hard work leading to expertise, what else is required?

On each occasion if you look at chess or sports or maths different compelling stories are told about how the hard work transforms the software that we use to process the information that comes towards us from around the world. It is often very specific so if you build up an expertise as a taxi-driver it is not transferable to being an expert as a mathematician. It is all very narrow and that is why it is really specialisation in the modern world that has permitted us to attain excellence in these various fields. In the old days when we were jack-of-all-trades we really were master of none.

From your experience what would you say makes a champion?

It really is hard work extending over very many years. I think the mistake people often make is to think that experts get to the top rather quickly and to think we wouldn’t be able to get that good in a short time frame. But I think if people were to watch the whole process it wouldn’t be quite so mystical – it would just seem the product of hard work.

Your next book is a controversial one. John Harris is making the ethical case for using biotechnology to improve human life in Enhancing Evolution.

Harris is a brilliant essayist and the book explores and explodes a great deal of conservatism in bioethics. His arguments are compelling. He is sort of a radical utilitarian. He thinks that we should embrace any technologies that make life go better for humanity and not to turn these things down because either we feel squeamish or it sounds too radical. He says the basic test is: does it make life better? And if that is stem cell research or intervening in evolution to make humans longer-lived or more intelligent we should go and do it.

Do you agree with him?

Yes, I do by and large. I think his arguments are sound and that ethical conservatism hinges on a number of different fallacies, all of which he persuasively deals with.

But what about looking at this idea in terms of sport?

Well he makes a very interesting distinction. In sports drug-taking, or what we can call enhancement, is a very different thing from enhancement in life. If, for example, I take an enhancement that helps me to run faster, and that enhancement is denied to others, then I win at their expense. If, on the other hand, we all take a drug or enhancement that improves our times by ten per cent the relative performance is exactly the same.

But you may as well not give anyone the drug in the first place because you will all be in the same position.

Yes, enhancing in any zero sum game can only help somebody at the expense of somebody else and so there is a valid case for making certain types of enhancements illegal in certain sports. But in life if you could enhance humanity so that you could engineer, for example, immunity from the common cold I would be happy to have that even if it meant interfering with the fabric of my DNA.

If somebody said to me, ‘Do you want someone else to have that?’, I would say yes I do, because I want it for its own sake, not just so that I can improve my relative position.

But critics would talk about the unfairness of the situation where you have the haves and the have-nots.

Yes and Harris deals with that. He talks about the dubious ethics involved in withholding enhancements for some until they are available to all. Because, if we did that historically, there would have been no education for anybody until it was universally available. If you delay enhancing and helping a group of people until you can help absolutely everybody, equally there would be no innovation at all. I suppose it hinges on the idea that if some people get that advantage eventually it will trickle down to others. And I think it is dubious ethics to withhold a really powerful benefit for humanity on the basis that not everyone can have it simultaneously. But sport is different. If you introduce enhancements which are not available for everyone, of course that would undermine its appeal.

Next up is Carol Dweck looking at how people develop their beliefs about themselves in her book Self-Theories.

This is an absolutely revolutionary book because it reflects Dweck’s research over many years as a professor of psychology at Stanford University where she argues that the pattern of success and failure in the world are very much to do not with our talent but our mind sets or our beliefs. Essentially, what she means by that is that if you believe that success hinges on talent, it follows that any time you fail you are likely to interpret that as meaning that you have insufficient talent and you are likely to give up, which is a perfectly rational thing to do if your premise is correct.

But if, on the other hand, you believe that excellence hinges on effort you don’t take failure as an indictment but as an opportunity to grow. If it is true that excellence hinges on effort you will eventually excel. Dweck has lots of research to show that we can inculcate the growth mind set – the mind set that believes that excellence hinges on effort by praising effort rather than talent.

But I do think that you have to have some kind of aptitude in the first place. For example, some people aren’t that good at ball games and really are never going to become a champion or get that good at them.

But how do you know that they wouldn’t get good or excellent if they try? They might not be a world champion but they could certainly become very good. A better example than sport, which is a zero sum game, is mathematics. A lot of people think, well I am never going to get any better at that, and they give up. But why? The evidence often is that they have only tried it for a few hours. But the point about Dweck’s book is that you have to keep going for a long time before you see your true potential.

And you have to want it as well because with all the effort you need to put in it’s got to be something you really want to get better at.

That’s spot on and I think Dweck deals with this, although I deal with it more in my own book. I think you really must care about the destination. You really need that passion and it needs to come from the inside rather than be externally thrust upon you by pushy parents or teachers.

Tell me about your next book Heuristics and Biases by Thomas Gilovich, Dale Griffin, Daniel Kahneman.

This is another really good set of essays in a rapidly growing branch of intellectual enquiry called behavioural economics where they look at the irrationalities in the way that humans behave. I thought this was brilliant. One essay in particular on irrational optimism caught my eye. It’s the idea that individuals who have slightly inflated expectations of their own abilities tend to persevere longer and perform better.

These top sportsmen when they perform under pressure – if they believe they are going to win they often will. This belief makes them more efficacious and the book is a really interesting look at that whole idea of positive thinking.

So why do you think English football players in big competitions like the World Cup are so bad at self-belief compared to sides like Spain or Italy where players seem much more confident in their own abilities?

If you have self-doubt and you doubt your ability to do something it really can inhibit your performance. Whereas if you believe you are going to do something it can really bolster your performance. It is kind of like the placebo effect: if you believe that a particular drug is going to work with certain types of ailments it is far more likely that it will work.

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It may well be the case that when it comes to England playing football in the World Cup there is an insufficient level of collective belief in the team. That has been our problem. I have thought long and hard about this and it is tough to know why that should be because obviously English football is very successful and we have got the Champion’s League. I was out there in South Africa and we played appallingly and it is not just this team but previous English teams as well. I don’t have an answer but it does seem to be a phenomenon that needs explaining.

This is also true for how we are taught sports in Britain. We are taught it is all about the taking part rather than the winning – surely this is no way to create champions.

I think you are right about that. The thing about sport is that it just reflects human psychology. We are Darwinian – we do like to have hierarchies and we do like to win, whether it is in sport or at work or at life – so removing competition from school is very self-defeating.

Your final book, The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson, is about a subject close to your heart.

Up until recently those of us who admired his work were very much like a sort of cult following. He hadn’t had much serious recognition but now he has won the Booker prize for another book, The Finkler Question, he has suddenly become mainstream which has led to a bit of a crisis of identity for those of us who love his books!

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The Mighty Walzer is certainly one of his best three. It’s a novel about table tennis in the 1950s and is very autobiographical. What I love so much about it is that Jacobson has an eye for the folly of the sport but also for its grandeur. He has an ability to articulate the psychology of sport even at an amateur level. Even when it is being played at the local Allied Jam and Marmalade factory on a table in the basement where the ball keeps going behind stacked-up chairs or falling behind the stage. It was very evocative of my learning to play table tennis, and Jacobson has a rare genius for encapsulating the sociology of the thing.

What made you want to start playing ping pong?

I fell in love with it because it had this very alluring combination of speed and strategy. The speed is obviously very visible. It is also very tactical so it felt to me like I was involved in a physical pursuit as well as an intellectual one. It felt cerebral but also dynamic. I love lots of different sports but with table tennis my love affair hasn’t ended even though I don’t play it professionally any more. I know everyone says it about their own sport but I really do think it is unique.

December 18, 2010

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Matthew Syed

Matthew Syed