Growing Talent: Interview with Daniel Coyle

IN THIS ISSUE SPRING 2010

Spring 2010 Issue

Myelin, Skill and the Brain
Author: Heidi Smith

What do a Russian tennis club, a legendary music academy in the Adirondacks, and the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil have in common? All of them produce world-class performers, a fact which led journalist and author Daniel Coyle (Lance Armstrong’s War) to study these talent “hotbeds.” Coyle, a contributing editor for Outside magazine, visited places that consistently create extraordinary results and published those findings in his 2009 book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown.

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Growing Talent

Although his research took him around the world, he discovered three crucial commonalities among all of the hotbeds he studied. First, the students were engaged in what he calls “deep practice.” In some cases, this meant slowing down their musical or athletic routines to the point where they were almost unrecognizable, so that mistakes became immediately apparent; in Brazil, this involved the popular game of futsal, a high speed indoor form of soccer with only five players per side in a compressed space, which allows much more ball contact than the full-field game. Such practice, he found, significantly increases the layering of a neurological protein known as myelin, which wraps around the neural circuits when they fire – and the more an activity is repeated, the more myelin develops in the brain. It increases electrical resistance across the cell membrane by a factor of 5,000 which helps to prevent the electrical current from leaving the axon. Coyle discovered that the layering of myelin exponentially increases the rate at which we learn.

Next, he noted that in every situation where multiple champions or brilliant musicians emerged, there was a model who had first broken through. For female Russian tennis players, it was Anna Kournikova; for young baseball players from the tiny island nation of Curacao, it was Andruw Jones, who became the youngest player ever to hit two home runs in his debut World Series game in 1996; for Korean women golfers, it was Se Ri Pak, who won the U.S. Women’s Open tournament in 1998. Coyle calls this process “ignition,” and the basic message of such modeling is, “If they can do it, so can you.”

Finally, he saw specific characteristics in what he calls “master coaches” in terms of how they assess, motivate and communicate with their young charges. Coyle talked with SuperConsciousness about The Talent Code, how this information has altered his thinking and how it can help to create a different approach to learning.


SC: Could you explain the components of deep practice?

DC: When you really look at what’s happening in these contests and what’s happening inside the competitors’ brains, there are very, very specific things.

Growing Talent

One element of it is chunking, when you’re breaking your practice down into the smallest component and working on one aspect at a time and then adding those chunks together. That pattern where you’re breaking it down, slowing it down, speeding it up, making a mistake and fixing that mistake, looks horrible and ineffective and slow, but in fact it’s not. This ugly piecemeal, broken up practice is calculated to produce ten times faster learning than normal practice. That doesn’t seem to make sense until we see it as an act of construction. You’re actually building this neural circuit.

To make it work well, then once you have whatever it is down accurately, whether it’s a piece of music or a move on the soccer field, you have to repeat, repeat, repeat, a process which literally is wrapping that circuit in myelin. Once that neural road is paved through repetition, the traffic on the road, i.e. the electrical signals, can go not just ten times faster but hundreds and thousands of times faster. It’s literally like installing broadband in your brain.

Then there is the emotional element. Operating right at the edge of your ability is this uniquely frustrating experience. It’s not the experience of thrashing around wildly; it’s the experience of reaching just one particular thing high on the shelf and that your fingers scrape against it and you can’t grab it. That is the feeling that they are having and that feeling is very connected to this active neural construction that they are doing. So if you don’t have that feeling of reaching that candy bar that your fingertip is almost brushing then you are not necessarily in that zone of deep practice and highvelocity learning.

If you don’t have that feeling of reaching that candy bar that your fingertip is almost brushing then you are not necessarily in that zone of deep practice and highvelocity learning.

Growing Talent

SC: Slowing things down to where they’re almost unrecognizable and also compressing the space in which you practice – your research indicates that these two factors really accelerate the buildup of myelin in the brain.

DC: Certainly when you compress, you get the ability to repeat more often. In futsal, this means touching the ball 600% more often than in the outdoor game and you get the opportunity to finally judge each of your actions. When you don’t have much space to pass, you know when you make a mistake. If I have a whole big field to pass in, I could be ten degrees off one way or the other and I would never know because it seems good enough but in futsal, I immediately get feedback. That type of compression is like a clarifying lens to put over your actions to better identify errors.

Slowing down in a curious way does the same thing. When you perform any action really slowly, you get the opportunity to also observe yourself performing that action. If you just swing a bat at full speed, everything goes into that swing, you’re just performing. You don’t know exactly where your hands are. You don’t know exactly what order in which the muscles are firing but if you slow way down or get a chance to see it in slow motion, you get a completely different picture. It compares to music, too; when you slow down your playing, you get an opportunity to not only make the motion but to realize you’re making mistakes and then fix those little mistakes as you go along. So it gives you a place to stand and do the kind of neural construction work that you don’t get to do if you just do everything full speed.

SC: How would you explain the relationship between ignition and having an infrastructure in place to support those who get ignited?

DC: Building neural circuitry is hard. You have to have an irrational, obsessive, emotional engine that is funneling all your energies into doing it. If you’re not burning to do it, you won’t and that process of motivation, which I called ignition, is not just a one time thing. It’s something that has to be supported in a community and interwoven in the human relationships around which this kind of circuitry can be built. When I visited the hotbeds, they weren’t just these stand alone, one coach making all the difference places. The parent had an important role. The kid has an important role. The grandparents had an important role. In Curacao, the scouts were there. There were the people doing the radio broadcast over there. It was almost like the whole field was constantly broadcasting these signals and all the signals boil down to one thing: If they can do it, so can you. Look at all these people who are doing it and you’re just like them. So ignition needs to happen every day in some ways, in the same way that you have to get up and decide what you want to be every day. If you’re part of a community that’s constantly reinforcing those ideas and putting models out in front of you for you to copy and communicating in such a way that those things are possibilities, little matches are constantly lighting you over and over again. That’s the kind of communities that we see making up these hotbeds.

When you perform any action really slowly, you get the opportunity to also observe yourself performing that action. If you just swing a bat at full speed, everything goes into that swing, you’re just performing.

SC: Could you explain the teaching characteristics that seem to help when the students are younger versus the kinds of master coaches or teachers that you saw at a later stage in development?

Growing Talent

DC: When you see great talent, a surprising fact is that a lot of these people do not have the world’s best coaches when they’re younger. They just kind of grew up with the neighborhood coach. There was a great study by Benjamin Bloom where he looked at this in detail and this would seem to indicate that their talent must be genetic. But when you look closer, you have the engine which is the practice – the deep training you have to do to build those neural circuits. Then you have the motivational part which is all about identity and it’s all about the passion. It turned out according to Bloom’s study that these early coaches were incredibly good at igniting passion. That part of coaching I think is overlooked a lot. There are these coaches who can ignite our love in things that are difficult to love, like Math.

SC: Was the ability to very quickly assess their students and what would motivate them pretty consistent within all of the master coaches and teachers that you saw?

DC: It really was. I started to think of them as emotional athletes. They have the sensors and the reflexes to adapt and connect. One of the coaches talked about it being almost like being on a date in the same sort of search for shared vibrations, the same sort of connection.

SC: You describe a man with cerebral palsy who read your book and took this whole concept of the talent code and applied it to his disease. How do these ideas apply to health?

It turned out that these early coaches were incredibly good at igniting passion. That part of coaching I think is overlooked a lot. There are these coaches who can ignite our love in things that are difficult to love.

DC: I have e-mails from parents from the autistic community. If we are indeed learning machines then we all learn in the same ways. We all build our circuits, whatever we may use those circuits for, in the same way and there is a tremendous amount to learn and share. I’ve also heard a lot from physical therapists who are constantly trying to get people to recover from severe injury and re-grow neural pathways that for one reason or another did not work. They have found it to be very helpful because it’s one thing to say, “This is what you can do. This will help you to do it,” and another thing to offer someone a model. Let’s say, “While you’re practicing, this is what’s happening in your brain when you are frustrated and going slow and repeating, and rather than experiencing it as frustration and dull repetition, experience it as a construction project.” You can point to a picture of a neuron being covered in myelin and say, “Listen, every day you grow another layer. Every day you can make your broadband work a little better.” That goes back to what our focus is: the notion that there’s hope.

You can grow these fast fluid circuits to do anything because human beings are learning machines. It’s born out not just in young people but in some interesting studies about how as we get older, people who were willing to try new things and to learn new things do much, much better throughout their lives.

SC: The neurologist George Bartzokis actually said that myelin is hope. In light of your research, what does that mean?

Growing Talent

DC: If you look at the world from the divine spark point of view, the idea that talent is genetic is really kind of magical and interesting but it stops being magical the second you suspect you don’t have it. It says your genes are your destiny. It’s just not an accurate message. How many more stories do we need to hear like this Stand and Deliver teacher [Jaime Escalante] who teaches a group of ne’er do well kids in the inner city to become Math champions? Now if you say that, “Well, it was just their genes and they always had that ability,” then it is one explanation for the story but you could say, “You know what, they’re actually building these highways in their brains.” You can grow these fast fluid circuits to do anything because human beings are learning machines. It’s born out not just in young people but in some interesting studies about how as we get older, people who were willing to try new things and to learn new things do much, much better throughout their lives. It’s not that we all can grow up to be Michelangelo or Mozart. It’s not that I can grow up to be Michael Jordan. It’s that if we go forward, we all have sort of the same path and that path is literally paved with stuff called myelin.

SC: How can the educational system adapt to include this information in the future?

DC: Well, I’m having some conversations with some educators now and one of them put it really clearly. She said there need to be teaching hospitals for education. Medicine had evolved and it had this notion of teaching hospitals, right? We go and we watch and the masters do it and you learn the best practices. Right now, for whatever reason, educational schools are not preparing teachers to do a good job and to actually take the best practices and to have the kinds of facilities and institutions that can replicate those best practices. There’s a great article by this guy named Tony Burke that basically says, “We have to start from zero and build the institutions that can figure out what’s the best way to teach it and replicate that because right now, everything is decentralized and dysfunctional when it comes to specifically our public education system.”

Human beings really are learning machines and there are certain levers and pedals on those learning machines that you absolutely have to hit in order for them to work. Some of those levers and pedals have to do with passion and some of them have to do with repetition. I read recently, every person has 100,000 miles of axons between their ears, enough to go around the earth four times. That’s a good definition of potential for the educational institutions to work on. Not this idea of the divine spark but that everybody has got that capacity and everybody’s got a fast-forward and the teachers can use that to their advantage.

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For more information, visit www.thetalentcode.com

Have you ever tried “deep practice” and did it accelerate your learning?

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