“He has talent that comes up from up above,” is an oft repeated phrase when it comes to explaining the success of Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar .
This tendency to attribute success and failure to natural talent is accepted without demur these days. What it does not take into account are the unusual circumstances that go into the making of every champion.
As Matthew Syed is a three-time Commonwealth table tennis champion, a two-time Olympian and most recently, the author of the bestselling book Bounce – How Champions Are Made, explains, “Circumstance and opportunity are vital. To be a great golfer, you need access to a golf club. To be a great tennis player you need to be able to afford a tennis racket. Had I been born one house further down my road, I would not have been in the catchment area for a particular school, would never have met my coach, and would never have become a professional table tennis player”.
Syed feels circumstances were very important in his becoming the number one British table tennis player. “What is certain is that if a big enough group of youngsters had been given a table at eight, had a brilliant older brother to practice with, had been trained by one of the top coaches in the country, had joined the only twenty-four-hour club in the county, and had practised for thousands of hours by their early teens, I would not have been number one in England .”
Also what gets attributed as in born talent that comes from up above is almost always accomplished by years and years of practice. As Syed says “Talent, defined as inborn skill, is a flawed concept. In any complex task, it takes many years to become accomplished, years of painstaking work and dedication. Of course, some people start out better than others, but the strongest predictor of high performance is simply the quality and quantity of practice.”
If that is the case, how does one explain child prodigies like Tiger Woods, Mozart and the great man Tendulkar himself who showed great success very early in life? “Child prodigies do not exist. Nobody bypasses the many years of dedicated practice that is required for excellence,” says Syed.
He takes the example of Tiger Woods, who was considered a miracle golfer when he became the youngest ever winner of the US Masters in 1997. “The most talented player of all time,” was the assessment of one pundit. But now consider that Woods was given a golf club five days before his first birthday; that by the age of two he played his first round of golf around a pitch and putt course; that by five he had accumulated more hours of practice than most of us achieve in a lifetime.”
The same stands true for the wonder musician to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who saw success very early in life and was wowing the aristocracy with his piano skills as a six year old. “At the time, it seemed like paradigm case of extraordinary talent, of mystical ability, but the real story is quite different. Mozart’s father was an eminent music teacher who schooled his son in the piano from the age of two. According to Mozart’s most eminent biography, he had already accumulated an eye-watering 3,500 hours of practice by the age of 6,” explains Syed. Look at the life of Tendulkar and you will find the same story, he feels.
Child prodigies do well in early life not because of talent they have from up above, but because their fairly unusual upbringings.
So as the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. It can certainly make you far, far better, if not perfect feels Syed. “Indeed you will improve to levels that may astonish you. The reason, as stated earlier, is that as you practice, you build new and faster connections in the brain. The region of the brain responsible for controlling fingers in young musicians, for example, is far larger than for the rest of us. But they were not born with this; it grew in direct proportion to the number of years of training.”
And it is worth noting that the scope for brain transformation is not limited to youth, but continues right through into adulthood. “As Nicole Hill, neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh, has put it: ‘It is a misconception that brain plasticity is limited in adulthood. There is substantial evidence of changes in connection strength and neuron size for adult subjects,'” says Syed.
In fact, there is a very interesting example to show that champions can even be made. A Hungarian named Lazlo Polgar married his girlfriend Klara on April 19, 1967. Polgar firmly believed that children have extraordinary potential and it is up to the society to unlock it. He decided to apply this on his own children.
On April 19, 1969, their first daughter Susan was born. Polgar decided to train Susan in chess from a very early age and by her fifth birthday she had accumulated hundreds of hours of dedicated practice. Susan participated in a chess tournament after turning five. Most of her competitors were double her age. Her final score in the tournament was 10-0.
In August 1981, Susan became the under-16 world champion at the age of twelve. In July 1984, she became the top-rated female player in the world.
Her other two sisters Sofia and Judit were also trained in chess from a very early age. Sofia went on to beat many great male chess grandmasters. Judit, in 1991, became the youngest ever grandmaster – male or female and is acknowledged as the greatest female player of all time, beating top grandmasters like Garry Kasparov , Anatoly Karpov and Vishwanathan Anand.
Given this, why does the illusion of talent arise? It arises because we only see a tiny proportion of the work that goes into the construction of virtuosity, feels Syed. “If we were to examine the incalculable hours of practice, the many years ingraining excellence, the thousands of baby steps taken by world-class performers to get to the top, the skills would not seem quite so mystical, or so inborn.”
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– GM Susan Polgar