Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

I'm an accidental coach. I thought I would sign up to assistant coach my son's 4th grade soccer team but with limited parent volunteers, I got "promoted" to head coach of the Bears. As it turned out, some other parents stepped in to help out and I'm enjoying it.

One of the other father's even gave me a half-dozen books to read on soccer and coaching. The one he recommended most highly was The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. Coyle's book is fairly short (not much more than 200 pages) and focuses on a fairly basic concept. That said, it is full of information that I want to review so herewith is a summary or synopsis of the book.

I should first note that Coyle did a lot of reporting and research, meeting with master coaches in music, sports, elementary schooling and more. The anecdotes that draw from those meetings are the best way to remember these concepts and for that reason I recommend reading the actual book. That said, here's my takeaway.

The first point is that talent is not innate; it develops from practice and motivation. The Beatles had their ten thousand hours of practice playing in German rock clubs, Mozart probably had his ten thousand hours before most because his father was a musician and teacher. Similarly, seeming "prodigies" like 17 year old Pele or Jessica Simpson or many others were simply people who worked really hard at developing a skill. They practiced.

More importantly, they "deep practiced." Deep Practice is so effective that researchers suggest that in 6 minutes of good deep practice, a musician could improve the same as a month's worth of regular practice.

Deep Practice

Chapter 1: Sweet Spot
Deep Practice involves constantly setting the bar slightly higher than your reach. If you have to work at something, you remember it better. Small example: "ocean/breeze" is harder to remember than "bread/b_tter" because you spend time thinking about the second pair, and you've practiced deeper. The sweet spot of practice is finding the "optimal gap between what you know and what you're trying to do," says Rober Bjork, psychology professor. This involves making lots of little mistakes and then making lots of minor adjustments to fix those mistakes. Another example here was a Brazilian game called Futsal, soccer using a small court and a small and heavy ball; these circumstances force players to be quicker, more controlled and more creative. Ultimately, players on a regular field with a regular ball feel like they have a lot more space and time to make their plays.

Chapter 2: The Deep Practice Cell
Turns out that there are physical manifestations of skill building in the form of myelin, a substance that wraps and insulates neurons, making them fire more efficiently. When you practice a golf swing, you are building myelin around the particular neurons that make up a golf swing -- that's why practice works. Some points about myelin: it does not unwrap -- that's why it is hard to break habits, and it comes and goes with age -- that's why kids learn more and that's why it's harder to develop new skills after age 50. Also, omega-3 fatty acids are the building blocks of myelin and are found in breast milk.

Chapter 3:Brontes, Z-Boys, Renaissance
Here, Coyle takes some time to use the example of novelists, skateboarders and artists to explain this theory of deep practice.

Chapter 4: 3 Rules of Deep Practice
Rule One: Chunk it up: look at the whole task (i.e. a piece of music), then break it up into its smallest component parts (tricky measures or rhythms), finally play with time (play things very slowly, then speed up). Slowing down helps find and correct those little mistakes; good players know what they did wrong and know what they need to do to fix it.

Rule Two: Repeat
Practice always help, but deep practice turns out to have a limit. It's hard to maintain that sweet spot; most world class musicians, chess players, athletes, practice between 3-5 hours a day; the myelin is there already.

Rule Three: Learn to Feel It
You need to recall the feeling of the sweet spot, of reaching just beyond. It should require focus and attention and is not easy.

Another way to summarize Deep Practice:
1. Pick a target
2. Reach for it
3. Evaluate the gap between target and reach
4. Repeat

Ignition: ie. motivation

Chapter 5: Primal Cues
Along with practice, you need motivation. Coyle calls this ignition and describes it as a hot, mysterious awakening.
Great study: how long did students intend to play their instrument? How long did they practice a week?
More practice helped, but the commitment made more of a difference: longer commitment - least practice kids did better than short commitment - most practice kids. Of course, longer commitment plus more practice was the best, but the curve of that graph is also much steeper than either short or medium commitment.
Another way to express ignition is a desire to belong to a group (elite athletes, life-long musicians, etc.). There is also motivation is improving life conditions -- thus great talents rising from poor conditions, or the number of great artists who lost a parent early in life. Fun example of belonging: great sprinters tended to be among the youngest in their families (they were running to catch up to their brothers and sisters).

Chapter 6: Curacao
Example of an island that was inspired to get better at baseball. More interesting, studies on praise -- praise for intelligence is a hindrance, but praise for effort actually helps. Also, big praise is hollow, but clear, small comments are more motivational.

Chapter 7: Igniting a hotbed
Story of KIPP charter schools. Very detail oriented, fixing every small thing, making kids alert to details and feel like part of a new group. Set up long term expectation: College. Make mistakes, but earn privileges (like chairs and desks).

Master Coaching

Chapter 8: Talent Whisperers
Most master coaches are quiet, older, and were attentive. They didn't give pep talks, but instead gave small, targeted adjustments. They adjust their teaching style to individual students. This is what was found when researchers had a chance to watch UCLA basketball coach John Wooden at work: his utterances consisted of 7 percent compliments, 7 percent displeasure but 75 percent pure information.
Small bursts of information: This, not that. Lesson plans that emphasized constant learning.

Master coaches are also often very encouraging, helping ignite passion in their students.

Chapter 9: The Teaching Circuit: A Blueprint
4 Virtues of Master Coaches:
Matrix: task-specific knowledge that lets teachers respond to student effort
Perceptiveness: understand your student so that you know how they can be taught
GPS Reflex: Instruct like a GPS: Do this, now that. No "please" or "What about?" Push them to the next level
Theatrical Honesty: sometimes overreact to make a point and gain empathy

Chapter 10: Tom Martinez
About Tom Brady's quarterback coach (who died recently) and his help in getting the Oakland Raiders to draft Jamarcus Russell (who turned out to be a bit of a bust).

Main takeaway for parents: You don't need to push your kids into multiple activities on the off chance that they are an innate genius in that field. There is no such thing as innate genius, so just pay attention to what your kids show and interest in and praise them for effort. Also, tell them that the brain grows with practice.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Green Decade

I've been accepted as a member of the Board of Directors of Green Decade, an environmental group in the city of Newton. Looking forward to learning more about how to behave responsibly, save some money and keep this planet and community safe and clean for my kids and future generations.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Commission on the Humanities

Updated Sept 4:

Earlier this summer, I got an e-mail about a regional forum. From the e-mail:

At the request of several members of the U.S. Congress, the American Academy for the Arts and Sciences (AAAS) in Cambridge has formed a Commission to collect testimony and prepare a set of recommendations for improving the study of the humanities and strengthening their role in all aspects of American public life (see attached description).  In support of this effort, the six New England statehumanities councils have responded to an invitation from the AAAS to assist in planning and implementing a regional forum that will bring the important work that we are doing in the public humanities to the attention of the Commission

I was invited to talk about the Clemente Course in the Humanities for the commission and was honored and pleased to do so. Among the commission members I spoke to were the former Governor of Tennessee Phil Bredesen and former Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

An article in the Providence Journal reported on the forum (albeit with some errors, especially in regards to my position and a statement I made, so be sure to read my correction at bottom), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has posted video of the testimony; mine is here:

The text of my prepared talk is now up on the Public Humanist blog.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Nova Labs

I've had the pleasure recently of playing around with a new PBS Nova initiative called Nova Labs. Using online tools anyone can do actual science that will advance human knowledge. The first lab uses a helioviewer to study the sun.

Check it out!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Irene Winter's Festschrift now online

Ancient Near Eastern Art in Context: Studies in Honor of Irene J. Winter By Her Students, eds. Jack Cheng & Marian Feldman, (Leiden: Brill), 2007 is now accessible online for reading or download. You can find it on Scribd here:

Ancient Near Eastern Art in Context: Studies in Honor of Irene J. Winter By Her Students

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Here and Now

Just for the record, I wanted to link to the pieces I produced for WBUR's Here and Now last fall, a public radio newsmagazine that airs midday and is syndicated nationally by PRI. Links and airdates below:

How to Survive Disasters 9/27/2011

Eradicating Guinea Worm 10/12/2011

How to choose a Secure Password 10/17/2011

Long Bike Trails 11/17/2011

Lipitor off patent 12/2/2011

WWII Archaeology 12/7/2011

Food Trucks 12/16/2011

Pheromones 12/23/2011

Rwanda Public Health 1/2/2012

Also recorded the voices of people in front of the Boylston Street Apple Store at the top of our Steve Jobs obituary show 10/6/2011

As a bonus, I shot and edited a little video feature on a visit from Santa 12/23/2011

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Pete Seeger

I wrote an article for the Newton Tab about Pete Seeger:
Pete Seeger turns 93 on May 3. He is known as a songwriter for writing songs as well-known as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” as an advocate of folk music for popularizing and adapting the songs of others, like “Oh, When the Saints” and “Hine Ma Tov,” as a performer with The Weavers and in numerous solo recordings, and as the author of a number of books of songs and musical instruction. 
He is surely all of those things, but I think his primary influence has been as a music enthusiast, encouraging all of us to pick up an instrument, open our mouths and singRead more