Book Review: Bounce

Bounce by Matthew Syed
Book Review by Bob Schoultz
All American Leadership

To Read More Book Reviews by Bob Schoultz, click here.

Why this bookBounce was selected by my All American Leadership reading group as a good follow up to our last book, Mindset by Carol Dweck. Many of us felt that Dweck’s book needed more depth and we decided that Bounce might provide it.

My Impressions: Similar to MindsetBounce focuses on extreme high performance -especially in sports and athletics, but sports is a metaphor for high performance in any endeavor. In sports, quality of performance, results, and success are often easier to measure than in other fields. Syed breaks his book into three sections: The Talent Myth, Paradoxes of the Mind, and Deep Reflections. For me the most valuable was Paradoxes of the Mind.

The first section, The Talent Myth, was an effective repackaging of the ideas of Carol Dweck’s Mindset, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code (which I haven’t read, but I think I’m familiar with the message.) Syed was at one point a world class table tennis player, having been a record 3 time British Commonwealth champion and two time Olympian, so he knows first hand the world of extreme high performance athletics. Syed brings his personal experience and vignettes into the discussion, reinforcing the point that great performance is the result of mental and acquired abilities, not physical and natural talent. He also echoes Gladwell in pointing out how extraordinary opportunities provide a trajectory for success – but that those who succeed are those who take advantage of those opportunities with unusual focus, motivation, and dedication to “Purposeful Practice.” He has a whole section that reinforces the point that QUALITY of practice – what he calls deliberate or purposeful practice, is what counts, not quantity. It’s not 10,000 hours of practice, but 10,000 hours of purposeful practice that is transformative. I recall a sign in my high school wrestling room: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. ”

The most interesting section of this book to me was Paradoxes of the Mind, which included three chapters: The Placebo Effect, The Curse of Choking and How to Avoid it, and finally a chapter on the power of rituals and superstitions.

In The Placebo Effect, he gives examples that reinforce what most of us already know – that belief in one’s self, believing that you can win is fundamental to success. He writes that “…the thing that often separates the best from the rest is a capacity to believe things that are not true but which are incredibly effective.” (italics Syed’s). I include a few more reinforcing quotes from this section below, but he reinforces the belief in the power of the mind to drive success, or at least to perform way above what we and others might expect. At the highest levels, where the margins of victory can be razor thin, this is the real difference-maker.

The chapter on Choking had the one really new insight for me in this book: That we seem to perform with two minds – an automatic mind and a deliberate mind – a reacting and a thinking mind. True champions give themselves, after incredible amounts of practice, over to the automatic mind. Hundreds and thousands of hours of practice are designed to develop the automatic mind. Choking can occur when an expert performer loses confidence and tries to revert to the deliberate mind, which s/he is not used to using. The deliberate mind is not instinctual and performs more slowly. This reminds me of the story of the centipede who was asked how he walks with all those legs moving at the same time, and when he tried to figure it out, he fell over on his side and couldn’t get up. It also is reminiscent of “the Zone” made famous by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and now part of our everyday sports vocabulary. We perform best, we get into “flow” by getting to where we perform without thinking about what we’re doing, but simply doing it. (The Rise of Superman, by Steven Kotler is a recent excellent update on Mihaly Cs…’s work) BUT it takes thousands of hours of practice to get to where one can truly find flow. Amateurs have to be deliberate, to think about what they’re doing.

High performers can choke when they switch from mindless automatic performance, to deliberate performance, thinking about the pieces of what they do, rather than letting it all “flow.” This too-much focus kills flow and performance. He spoke of the need to develop a form of “doublethink”: The extreme high performer must train and prepare believing that great performance is extremely, extremely important, but when it counts, and comes time to perform, to be great, the performer must relax and perform as if it doesn’t mean anything. He concludes this chapter with the easy-to-say-hard-to-do advice: To try to develop the art of “playing as if it means nothing when it means everything.”

The chapter on rituals and superstition reinforced the concepts in Placebo effect – it is more important that you believe that your rituals or superstitions work, than that they have some independent impact on how you perform. That rabbit’s foot, that little ritual done before every game reinforces patterns of success in one’s mind that can truly have a performance enhancing impact, and thus effectively lead to greater success.

The final section entitled “Deep Reflections” is a little different. The first chapter fits with the rest of the book, addressing how 10,000 hours of practice changes the way one perceives one’s environment, creating the capacity for great subliminal or intuitive decision making, which distinguishes great performers from the rest of us amateurs. He references the classic book on decision making in crises, Sources of Power by Klein. The final two chapters, while interesting, don’t seem to fit. His chapter on performance-enhancing drugs in sports makes some very interesting points – Syed does not support a zero-tolerance approach to performance-enhancing drugs and makes a good case for performance-enhancing drugs and procedures which can ALSO help us lead better and fuller lives. The final chapter “Are Blacks Superior Runners?” debunks the myth that racial genetics play a role in performance. He is not trying to be politically correct, but makes some scientifically based points to show that factors other than race are really at play where it might appear that racial or genetic factors are a key determinant of success. He says current research in genetics is showing that the whole idea of race and ethnicity is outmoded. It is interesting stuff, but only marginally related to the theme of his book.

My Reservation: While Paradoxes of the Mind did truly open my eyes, if you have read and absorbed other recent works that make the point that practice and hard work rather than “talent” drive great performance, you will find this book somewhat redundant -though with great anecdotes and arguments.

I have never been, and never will be, a top-level high-performer in anything. And indeed, I guess I never REALLY aspired to be. I never wanted to make the sacrifices and pay the opportunity costs that 10,000 hours of purposeful practice demand. And that is why I continue to describe myself as the Prince of Mediocrity (see post.) This book does not, nor do the others I refer to, address the many sacrifices and opportunity costs that come with the many, many advantages of being a top level performer, in any discipline, from table tennis, to golf, to football, to business.

A few of my favorite quotes from Bounce (numbers refer to pages in the Harper Perennial paper back edition):

The thing that often separates the best from the rest is a capacity to believe things that are not true but which are incredibly effective.(italics Syed’s) 154

The key point in all this is that the power of the mind is exercised through the medium of belief, and it doesn’t matter whether the belief is true or false or how the delusion is created – so long as it is created successfully. 158

The scientific community was forced to accept the rather astonishing fact that religious belief, in and of itself, confers real and tangible health benefits. (italics Syed’s) 159

What the scriptures seem to be saying is that God does not act in proportion to the worthiness of the intercessor, but in proportion to the intercessor’s belief that God will so act. (italics Syed’s) 160

..articulating the placebo effect: …saying that it is belief itself, not its content, that matters.

(quoting Anne Harrington) “There is an innate capacity for our bodies to bring into being, to the best of their ability, the optimistic scenarios in which we fervently believe.” 165

Note the difference between a scientist and an athlete. Doubt is a scientist’s stock in trade….But doubt, to an athlete, is poison. 168-9

..to win, one must proportion one’s belief, not to the evidence, but to whatever the mind can usefully get away with. To win, one must surgically remove doubt – rational and irrational -from the mind. that is how the placebo effect operates. 169

This ability to instill belief in others is a vital facet of leadership -whether in politics or the military – but it can also create a huge advantage in sport through its impact on competitors. 171

You can find 

Bounce available on Amazon.com.

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